David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: amplifiers, distortion, philosophy, reverb, sound engineering, style, @musings info

Simpler, ever simpler

In my quest for a lighter, easier-to-use rig I've taken another step toward simplification. It was nearly two years ago that I ditched my tube amp and pedalboard in favor of a rig based around a digital modeler and a full-range amplification system.

Eliminating the iron (good tube amps carry some pretty heft transformers) and switching to solid-state amplification eliminated a lot of weight from my rig. I programmed the digital modeler to sound the way I wanted when played through a full-range amplifier (e.g. a PA or a keyboard amp) and was able to use virtually any full-range amp. That allowed me to carry just my guitar and modeler to any venue that has a house PA system.

Over time my playing style has changed to where I don't expect the amplifier (virtual or otherwise) to provide a degree of distortion corresponding to my picking-hand attack. I've been playing fingerstyle for a while now, and am learning to provide musical interest more through musical devices than through sonic coloration provided by electronic devices. Specifically, I use a lot of voice-leading in a way which creates musical intervals that don't mix well with distortion.

I've also shifted away from a traditional electric-guitar EQ (mid-scooped somewhere in the 200 to 800 Hz range with almost no response above 5 to 7 KHz) toward a flatter EQ across the entire audible spectrum. This approach would probably sound terrible with a solid-body guitar and plectrum-style playing. However, it works well with my Koll guitars (which have a hybrid hollowbody/semi-hollow design for a less "stringy" more "woody" sound.

Conventional wisdom holds that there's no useful energy above 5 KHz or so in an electric guitar. As always, you have to interpret conventional wisdom in the proper context. When you add distortion to multiple tones you get a bunch of sum and difference tones that don't fit the harmonic structure of the original tones. At higher frequencies these sum and difference tones get closer and closer together - more so, the more distortion you use. It is these high-frequency components that sound unpleasant. Fortunately this malady is partly rectified by guitar speakers which have little discernable response above 5 to 7 KHz. As gain increases even the natural speaker rolloff isn't sufficient. One of the challenges facing designers of high-gain amps is to eliminate the unpleasant high-frequency components without making the amp sound dull.

Musically, the more you deviate from playing distortion-friendly intervals (fifths and octaves) the worse the distortion sounds. This is particularly true of the multiple close intervals found in many "jazz" chords. This is because the close intervals generate even more high-frequency hash due to closely-spaced sum and difference tones. The interesting thing is that even very small amounts of distortion can result in harshness given certain combinations of tones.

I'm not talking about edge-of-distortion clean or even "Fender-clean", but rather degrees of clean clean. For example, the Fender Jazz King - nominally designed for nothing but clean sound reproduction - still has a bit of "warmth" that comes from a very small amount of residual distortion. It sounds great for less complex chord voicings, but certain intervals clash in a way that has much more to do with the amplifier than with the interval. The same intervals played through my AER Compact 60 or through a Countryman 85 DI into my Yamaha STAGEPAS 300 sound the way they're supposed to sound.

To recap, I've developed a personal musical aesthetic in which distortion has no place in my guitar sound. I play through clean - really clean - amps. My AER Compact 60 is designed for use with acoustic instruments. My STAGEPAS 300 is a portable PA. Both of these are designed to have extremely low levels of distortion - typically a hundred times less than a "clean" guitar amp.

If you've ever tried to plug your electric guitar directly into a PA, you've probably been underwhelmed. First of all, you have to use an active DI to match the pickups to the PA's low input impedance. Even if you do that, most electric guitars aren't designed to sound good through a clean amp. The working assumption is that you will add character to the guitar's sound using some degree of distortion.

To be honest, great clean sound was not a design goal for my Koll guitars. But the combination of the solid carved top and the free-floating solid carved back, originally designed by Saul Koll to meet my goals of getting controlled feedback at moderate volumes, really brings out the sound of the "wood" in the guitar. The design is acoustically livelier than a semi-hollow yet far less prone than a full-sized hollowbody electric to howling from body resonance. More importantly, there's a lot of complexity in the tone thanks to the contribution of the wood, the articulation of the vintage-output pickups, and the acoustic interaction of the guitar with the amplified sound field.

What this means from a practical standpoint is that I can bring just my guitar to a venue. (I'd also bring the Countryman DI just in case the venue doesn't have a good active DI of their own.) I can usually depend upon the the house to provide a hint of reverb from the board.

In the past two years I've gone from carrying over a hundred pounds of gear to carrying only my guitar and a small bag containing DI, cables, tuner and gig essentials (spare strings, tools, fuses, batteries, flashlight, tape, etc.) My playing hasn't changed dramatically. (If anything my playing has improved through practice and through work upon compositional elements of my improvisational style.) I now have pretty much the same stage profile as an acoustic guitarist.

You may ask, "why not play an acoustic guitar, then?" Good question. There are three reasons for preferring my Koll electric guitars over some acoustic guitar:

  1. I don't get the same feel from acoustic guitar. I'm not talking about that vague undefined notion of "something extra" to which guitarists frequently resort to rationalize extravagant purchases. I'm talking about the ergonomics and playability of an electric guitar. I like an instrument that yields to my touch. I want to make music, not prove my manliness by wrestling an unweildy instrument into submission.
  2. I don't get the same range of sounds from an acoustic guitar. A pair of magnetic pickups sounds very different from a piezo element in the bridge or an electret mic inside a hollow body.
  3. I don't want to fight feedback. An acoustic guitar and a full hollowbody electric have similar problems with feedback at moderate stage volumes.

Finally, this refinement in instrumentation and equipment - and especially the change to playing with a completely clean sound - has led to a revival of interest in ensemble playing. Playing clean all the time means that I can choose how loud to play without undue concern for the thing that electric guitarists worry about the most: finding that magical "sweet spot" where the volume is high enough to get the desired degree of tonal complexity yet low enough to keep the venue operator (and sound tech) happy. Being able to play in an ensemble at conversational volumes has been like a revelation to me. We can convey cues verbally while working out arrangements, and don't suffer from hearing fatigue at the end of a rehearsal.

September 02 2008 04:58:07 GMT