Poster: Hank @ Thu May 15, 2008 4:16 pm
It's time for me to come clean. I'm a guitar player. I'm also a Mac user. Based on these factors, you'd think that my cerebrum would have about 16 neural pathways and that I should probably be crawling around on my belly looking for insects to munch on. However, G_d cruelly saw fit to endow me with the ability to type, so you'll be subjected to a continued flow of verbal drool. Let's start, 'Boondock Saints'-style, with a joke.
Q : How do you get a guitar player off your front porch?
A : Pay for th' pizza.
This wire is about guitars, the people who manufacture them, and the idiots who play them.
As a guitar player, I'm more or less a rhythm monkey. For over a decade, I've played a guitar made by Rickenbacker (the 360V model), that sounds fantastic and works just dandy for playing the big barre chords and simple twangs that have generally characterized my swing-based style. However, over th past few years, I've begun to incorporate elements of what is generally called "modern" (that is, post-Van Halen) technique into my playing.
Common elements of "modern" guitar playing include rapidly and cleanly played arpeggiated chord patterns ("sweep picking"), playing melodies using wide intervals ("string-skipping"), and modulating between related scales when playing modally over chords. Taken together with several other techniques, these are known collectively as "shredding" or "getting radical." [For further instruction, see "Point Break."] Most of these techniques are rooted in jazz theory and practice, particularly in the work of math-intensive folks like John "Sheets of Sound" Coltrane (sax) and Dave "Clinical Precision" Brubeck (piano). Most people don't look to other guitar players for inspiration when they're trying to get really radical. While they'd like to think otherwise, th majority of jazz guitar players are just that -- guitar players. And you know what that means. So, with the exception of a couple guys like Tal Farlow, Sonny Sharrock, and Les Paul, few traditional jazz guitar players have really been sources for inspiration of the modern advanced guitar style.
When I started to ladle some of this grease into my technical stew, I realized that my instrument was designed in a way that hindered easy execution of many of these techniques. For one thing, the neck of the instrument is very narrow -- maybe 1.6-some-odd inches wide. That's fine for chording, but it's a pretty small space to cram six strings onto when you're trying to move cleanly between them. Similarly, the fingerboard is fairly curved, which is supposed to increase "comfort" while playing chords but plays merry hell with finger memory for complex passages. The next big problem, and maybe the most vexing in terms of speed, is that the frets are very low and flat, meaning that you have to press down fairly hard to fret a note and you get a lot of fingerboard contact. A fourth, less major problem is that the fingerboard is finished in a high gloss, which makes string-bending difficult due to the friction created on the fingertip.
Now, as I said, I love th' sound of this guitar. Rickenbacker guitars have many adherents due to their unique, singing tone. Though it has a "short" 24.75" scale length (the vibrating lingth of the strings) that often causes other guitars to sounds mushy, it rings out with crispness and chime. Now, of course, a really good guitar player can play fine on any instrument, but I'm just a hack trying to learn some new styles and needed an instrument that would help, not hinder, me in this. So what I wanted, I figured, was another similar Rickenbacker with a neck suitable for modern playing.
I checked online at Rickenbacker's available range, but even the most shred-worthy candidate was all vintaged out with the same curved fretboard radius as mine, and on top of that, it only had 22 frets where mine has 24. More frets = better for high-register wheedling. So that kind of put me out. I emailed Rickenbacker's customer service -- three times -- to see if they had plans to release a model suitable for my needs or if they would make me a 360 to modern specifications. I got no reply.
Now, at this point, th' intelligent (read : non-guitar-player) reader will probably be asking "why then don't you just get a guitar that is designed for your shredding needs, as they are surely widely available?" Well, folks, th' reason is that 95% of guitars designed for th' type of playing I want to do look like bad dreams from th' 80s and are endowed with particularly useless and troublesome little gadgets called "locking vibrato systems" that wankers use to go "WHEEEE" and "SCRRREEEOOOW" when they can't think of a decent note to hit -- which is often. Th' other 5% of such guitars look cool but cost more than my car.
Cool guitars are exemplified by the timeless, hip, and highly functional designs by Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Gretsch. All those designs are still available. But here's th' problem : all those manucaturers are so into being "true to their vintage roots" that they build th' damn things exactly like they did back in th' 50s, complete with dumb fretboard radii, few frets, and narrow necks. On top of that, th' latter 3 are vastly overpriced (and Gretsches are made in th' same factory as numerous Japanese knockoffs). Fender, whose modular construction methods are ideal for offering a wide range of neck choices, offers shreddable necks on only a very few of their guitars, all of which are 'signature models' of idiot heavy metal players and look mad ugly as a result. ("OK, guys, you can get this in black or...black!" What is this, Ford Motor Co.? Next up, we'll see pro-Nazi propaganda... oh wait, Rickenbacker already released a bass with SS-inspired decorative patterns! Ja.)
Why do manufacturers think that everybody who wants to use modern techniques also wants to look like Steve Vai onstage (or, more likely, in th' bedroom mirror)? Granted, th' pointy "super-Strats," as these shred sleds are known, offered by th' likes of Jackson and Ibanez have a certain "Wayne's World" appeal. But after a decade of playing th' coolest-looking guitar ever, I'm not trying to step on th' bandstand holding something that looks like a prop from a Skid Row video.
Th' next question is always "Well, why don't you shut your face and get a guitar custom-made to your specs, muso?" Th' answer is threefold :
1) I don't have custom money to throw around
2) Even if I do, I don't want to buy something that will essentially have no value after I buy it (as is th' general case with custom guitars)
3) Th' whole point is that I shouldn't !@#$% have to. I'm sure there's an army of players just like me. Why th' *&^% are we being shafted by th' manufacturers? We need real specification choice at reasonable price points, not a zillion iterations of th' same damn specs in different colors and faux-vintage wear 'n' tear levels.
Of course, I know th' real reason why th' market isn't responding to my desires. It's because guitar players are stupid. See, th' guys who have enough money to buy new guitars and aren't emo kids with big allowances (who generally like th' pointy shred-sled look) are old stupid white guys who have more money than brains and know only that they want a really cool guitar just like (insert name of washed-up and / or dead guitar hero here). They don't give a hoot about fretboard radius. They give a hoot about whether or not it's exactly like th' one they remember drooling over when they were 12 and reading "Creem" magazine. These guys spend most of their evenings clipping stock coupons and maybe get together with their lawyer buddies once a week to crank out blustery versions of “Purple Haze” and, if they’re really crazy and they just got back from their weekend Harley ride, “Highway to Hell.” They’re not sitting on th’ edge of their beds trying to figure out new chord formations and doing string-skipping exercises. Playability means something totally different to these guys. To them it means “will my buddies know this axe cost $2300 and be envious when I’m ripping out th’ lead to ‘Cocaine?’”
At this point in th’ invective, haters will generally say “What is your problem? If those guys are making music and being happy and th’ guitars fit their needs then why are you being such a meanie, etc, etc.” To them I say CHUT UP and suggest that they eat a decroted piece of crap. Th’ weekend warriors’ merrymaking becomes my business when it starts messing with my choices. If these guys could escape th’ tar-pit of guitar player stupidity, Fender would be putting less effort into making th’ guitar equivalent of ‘destroyed jeans’ (“’62 Telecaster Custom Heavy Relic! $3850!”) and more into making some instruments that people can actually use. If these BMW-driving sports fans actually put some thought into their ease of playing, it’d be a whole different availability scene.
For their next act, th’ haters retort, “Why do you even care about your so-called advanced techniques, wanker? Aren’t you just a pretentious goon? Don’t you know that Kurt Cobain revitalized rock music with licks a 6-year-old could play? Is your mastery of new techniques going to result in actual listenable and memorable music, or is it just to stoke your ego?” To which I reply CHUT UP! As examples, Charles Mingus and Prince have plentifully demonstrated that ‘advanced’ techniques are readily employed to enhance good compositional ideas. So just CHUT UP
So what does this all mean? For starters, if you’re a member of th’ benighted race of guitar players, do like this : if you’re just burning for a new axe (and all guitar players are), go find one that looks like you want it to. If you don’t like something about its playability, ask if there’s a version with the specs you want. If not, DON’T BUY IT. Instead, go home and write an email to th’ manufacturer about why you didn’t buy it. Don’t get it just because you’re hot for a new guit. That’s how they guit you. To paraphrase ‘Ratatouille,’ if you don’t love it, don’t eat it. Maybe then th’ corporations that flog these planks will take notice and respond with some product that actually meets functional needs.
This thinking applies to any purchase, come to think of it. Don’t be a slave. Unless you get it together, you might find that th’ choice between oysters and snails has already been made for you.