Poster: Hank @ Sun Nov 16, 2008 2:30 pm
[ed. note : the preferred pronunciation of the word "guitar" is as "git-are," with emphasis on the first syllable]
Those who have loved ones afflicted with the disease called 'guitar-playing' will know that it's an ailment comparable in social acceptability to leprosy. Guitar-players are universally shunned by healthy folks for many reasons : some hygienic, some economic, but most often because guitar-players are unable to shut up for even a second once they start yammering about pickups, fingerboard radii, and fret gauges.
For this reason, guitar-players are outcast from polite society and are ghettoized in appalling hovels known as 'guitar stores.' In reality, as can be easily ascertained by stopping by one of these establishments (bring your respirator!) and observing the conduct therein, virtually no transactions take place there, so the extent to which they can truly be called 'stores' is very limited. They are really akin to halfway houses, refugee camps, and alleys. In these benighted places, they guitar-players are free to jabber at each other with baseless opinion, half-cloaked lies, pathetic boasting, and meaningless parroting of guitar-industry propaganda. Like within the criminal flophouse, there is constant internecine struggle, secret hatred, and barely concealed malice amongst the denizens of guitar stores – each of the afflicted secretly wishes to demonstrate his own guitaristic superiority to the other. This bizarre competition to covertly determine who ‘sucks’ the least, while maintaining the pseudo-easygoing atmosphere that guitar-players habitually and hypocritically create, has earned guitar-playing the sobriquet of ‘finger-sports’ amongst the British cognoscenti.
Guitar-players are notable for their crypto-religious adherence to lore and myth – especially as pertains to their equipment. Since they, as a group, have no grasp whatsoever of physics and engineering, the fields of study that actually produce and govern the performance of their equipment, they rely instead on received knowledge that inevitably originates from old dope-addled hacks who look at guitar sound as a kind of voodoo magic. I encountered a fine example of this on a recent venture into the belly of the beast. I was with some aspiring victims of the guitar-playing plague, perusing the walls of a local ‘guitar store,’ and selected a contagion (this is the proper term for a guitar) for one of my buddies to try out.
The balding shill whose job it was to attempt to sell guitars to the penniless informed us that the construction method used to build this particular contagion, ‘the glue-in neck method,’ was vastly and inherently superior to all other construction methods (such as the ‘bolt-on’ and ‘neck-through’ methods, for those keeping score!) , particularly with regard to the guitar’s ability to sustain notes. Now, ignoring the actual acoustic science that exists on the subject, there remains a truly deep rift of opinion on this issue. For example, those guitar-players who favor the Fender style of guitar, such as James Burton, Brent Mason, and Richie Sambora, are wont to say that the ‘bolt-on’ technique employed by their preferred instruments is superior. As far as this clown’s statement is concerned, a casual listen to the performances of deceased ‘bolt-on’ adherents such as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Vaughan will demonstrate that note sustain is just fine on instruments of this construction. How about the chubby whiner Billy Corgan, whose sustain is so lengthy that he probably leaves the studio between notes to shop for more Tim Burton-inspired apparel? This whole tiresome debate serves mainly to save guitar-players from having to think or talk about the actual notes they choose to play. Of course, most guitar-players have no idea what notes they’re playing, anyway, so that point is largely moot.
Wait, you say! Why is this author saying that he accompanied his buddy into the den of filth, rather than trying to steer the poor guy clear? The plain answer is that this author is one of the afflicted. Bear this in mind as you continue through this brief piece; imagine that you’re watching ’28 Days Later’ as narrated by one of the zombies.
Let’s look at another aspect of guitar construction that is the subject of wide an uninformed debate : weight. There is an army of guitar-players, particularly those with slavish devotion to the model of instrument named after genius player Les Paul, which avers that increased weight – even in excess of ten pounds – has a positive influence on guitar tone and also increases ‘sustain.’ This is stupid. When weights start to get in double-digit territory, that’s a serious burden to shoulder for any length of time – you might as well be carrying around a fully-loaded Squad Automatic Weapon or similar equipment. Imagine shouldering a gallon and a half of Sunny Delight for a three-hour set.
The ergonomics debate aside, preference for heavy guitars ignores the physical mechanisms by which guitars operate. A guitar, even an electric guitar, is an acoustic instrument that produces sound by amplifying the vibrations of a string that is held at a certain tension; this amplification is achieved when the neck and body of the guitar resonate with the vibration of the string. The string is at a fixed tension for a given pitch – that is, the string is only exerting so much force on the guitar when it vibrates, and this is the force that causes the sympathetic amplifying vibrations to occur. The more mass the string has to move (induce resonance in), the less resonance will be produced and fed back into the string for electronic amplification. Therefore, if increased resonance is desired – and it is – we should be looking to reduce mass, as this will allow the string to accomplish more work with the force it is able to exert. It has been argued that since the electric guitar’s amplification process essentially only amplifies string vibration and not acoustic body vibration, the object of guitar construction should be not to make the instrument resonate as a whole, but rather to reflect vibration directly back into the string from its anchor points at the nut and bridge by means of making the neck and body reflective but acoustically damped, as we see in heavy guitars that have a lot of finish and glue in them. This viewpoint is misguided, however – the string in fact re-uptakes the acoustic motion from the entire body.
One has only to observe the difference between, say, a violin and a modern, slave-made gluebucket electric guitar to see where the manufacturing has gone a-gley. A violin weighs 15 ounces and will deafen you if you sit to close to it. A slave guitar weighs 11 pounds and you can’t hear the thing at all unplugged, and when plugged in, it sounds tinny and thin. Even the common slave-made acoustic guitar will generally weigh in at six pounds or more, and its voice will be dwarfed by properly-made acoustic instruments like violins and banjos. Why, we ask ourselves, are banjos so loud and annoying? It’s because their resonating surface – a skin or drum head – weighs very little and therefore transmits, rather than absorbs, most of the energy imparted to it by the string. The string can easily move it. Contrast this with the resonating surface of a crummy Les Paul : two inches of glue-soaked plywood covered in ten coats of paint goo.
Now, clearly, we don’t want a guitar to sound like a banjo, and we also don’t want the solid-body electric guitar to be so resonant that it feeds back uncontrollably. The point here is the trend toward heavier, more heavily finished, more veneered, and generally more damped guitar designs is folly and goes very far to explain why every single emo band on the radio today has an identical, mushy, dead guitar tone. Compare for example the muffled guitar tone of ‘Fall Out Boy’ or ’My Chemical Romance,’ whose guitarists favor heavy guitars, to the equally-distorted but much more detailed and lively sound of Frank Black or the guy from Blur, who prefer lightweight guitars.
Now, there may be some afflicted who will cry ‘Bias! Clearly this author is and advocate of Fender guitars and a detractor of The Gibson!” This is untrue. While Fender designs have the potential to be lighter and more resonant that, say, the Gibson Les Paul, this is far from consistently the case. For example, one of the contributors to this site possesses an excellent Gibson SG that weighs less than seven pounds and is notably unencumbered by a goopy finish, and sounds like a living thing. On the other hand, I personally hefted a Fender Telecaster at local ‘guitar shop’ that couldn’t have weighed less than twelve pounds – an utter brick. Correct – that is, light – guitar weight is possible only when the correct, properly-dried wood is chosen and then put together with as little heavy damping glue as possible, and finished with a minimum of synthetic goop. Guitars with shiny plastic finishes are going to sound dead, as are guitars that are made from many pieces of wood and glued together.
There are guitar makers out there who do their best to educate the public about the reality of what makes guitars sound like they do, and what techniques can be used to improve their sound. Two such makers are Ken Parker, who led the march toward lighter guitars in the 90s, and Robert Novak, who is able to convincingly articulate the effect of scale length (the string’s vibrational length) on guitar sound. (Pro tip : Scale length is the single biggest determinant of a guitar’s fundamental tone!)
Unfortunately for the public, who is forced to listen to the output of guitar players as they bash and mewl away on the radio, Internet and TV, guitar players are too stupid to read the treatises of these or other well-informed makers, and instead just want the same guitar that the guy from their favorite band plays. This perpetuates the cycle of poor design and guitars-as-furniture. Though, looking at the way my own furniture is constructed and finished, I’d rather that guitar makers did indeed take their cues from cabinetmakers, instead of General Motors, who seems to dictate the bulk of finishing and styling cues on modern instruments.
Again, we return to the violin as an example. Now, a fine violin looks very nice, but it doesn’t look like a poly-finished tiger maple-and-wenge armoire from the 80s boudoir of a cocaine boss, nor does it look like the impressive laminated shoulder stock of a presentation-grade target rifle. The armoire and the rifle are made to be eye-popping lifestyle accessories calculated to impress the observer, whereas the violin is made to produce a pleasing sound for those who can hardly see it, if they can see it at all. Sadly, most of today’s guitars that don’t look like cars tend to have more in common, appearance-wise, with gaudy accessories than with real instruments. They are made to impress the looker, rather than thrill the listener. This is wack.
To those poor souls afflicted with the disease of guitar-playing : stop buying guitars for their value as eye candy and start really listening to how instruments sound. If you wish to sound like something other than a bee soaked in turpentine, you need to seek out a guitar that is rich, lively, and responsive in tone. Do not audition guitars though digital effects or heavy distortion – you must consider the real, raw voice of the guitar. If it sounds good unadorned, it’ll sound good with whatever garbage sound processing your crummy style demands. But if it sounds wimpy and dead in its natural state, you can be assured that you’re going to sound like ‘Altar Bridge’ when you pile on the effects and saturation. Stop listening to baseless jabber talk and hoary myth, and start listening to the sound.
Once you’ve learned to choose an instrument that sounds good, I’ll publish my next column, which excoriates your technique and note choice. Happy recovery from your fellow ward inhabitants at Latewire!