Suggestions for guitarists
I was originally going to title this "Rules for Guitarists", but I don't particularly care for rules unless there's a compelling reason; playing guitar should be fun and guitarists shouldn't be subjected to a bunch of unnecessary and unwanted rules. I know that I wouldn't like someone else telling me what I should do, and I suspect that you wouldn't either.
On the other hand, guitarists do a lot of things that are self-defeating. Most significantly, we chase "tone" to the detriment of music. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that this is a fairly recent affliction among the guitarist population.
I started playing guitar in the mid-`60s when there was precious little information published about which recording artist played what gear and how they got some particularly interesting sound. Even if we could find out that kind of information, we were more likely to make do with the gear we already had on hand. Good gear was expensive, inexpensive gear was generally awful, and all gear was pretty difficult to come by unless you lived in a major metropolitan area. By way of contrast, today we have internet guitarist discussion forums with thousands of members, a dozen or more guitar-oriented magazines each targeted to a rather narrow demographic, big-box retailers selling a wide-variety of commodity gear of quite acceptable quality, hundreds of smaller "boutique" vendors plying their wares via web sites to customers who catch the "buzz" via the discussion forums, and way more guitar players in any given town or city than there were forty years ago.
The point is this: there's a lot more information, a lot more product variety, and a lot more advertising targeted to guitarists. All of which means that guitarists have an embarassment of choices. I've heard the present time referred to as the "golden age of guitar gear", which is probably true. We can buy vintage gear at prices ranging from premium to outrageous, quality reproductions of vintage gear at prices that are in line with the original prices adjusted for inflation, custom-built gear at a wide range of prices, dozens of variations upon classic designs, new designs based upon classic technology, and brand-new categories of gear based upon technologies that have been developed over the past decade or two. On top of all that, we can also set up a quality recording studio in any available corner, making us not only guitarists but also composers, recording engineers, and producers. Choice upon choice upon choice...
When you have that many choices to make, it's easy to lose track of your goals. Instead of a simple choice: "I want a good-sounding guitar rig for a certain amount of money", where you'd go to the local shop and pick out an amp, a guitar and a couple of pedals, now you get to worry about the "best" combination of amp voicing (or multiple voices in a channel-switching amp), number and type of speakers (or combinations of speakers), cabinet, tubes (in each of several critical positions), bias setting, attenuator, cables, pedals, pedalboard, power supply, guitar body and neck woods, pickups, tone capacitors, bridge and nut materials, tuner types, ... and of course where to buy each item for the best combination of value and customer service. The list is nearly endless. When you're presented with that many variables to juggle, it's easy to lose track of the fact that this should be about the music.
The point I'm trying to make is that we may in fact be living in the golden age of guitar gear, but the sheer magnitude of available choices can be a major distraction from the process of creating music. This shift in emphasis from making music to optimizing gear didn't take place all at once, but it's definitely with us in this century. Perhaps I noticed it because I got back into music after a twenty-year hiatus; things got complicated between the time I stopped playing and the time I started again.
I spent, literally, a few years and a lot of money flipping gear trying to find the "best" combination of tools with which to make music. Eventually I came upon two important realizations:
- there's such a thing as "good enough", and
- there's such a thing as having too many options.
Over the years I've kept this web site up to date with my observations; this has helped me to collect my thoughts about what's important and, to a lesser extent, to help me focus on making better choices. I think I can distill a lot of what I've learned along the way as a short list of suggestions. Take them all with a grain of salt. They've helped me. Perhaps you'll find something in this list will help you to improve your rig and focus on your music.
- Trust your senses
- There's a lot of free advice available; plenty of folks are more than willing to tell you what you need to complete or improve your guitar rig. Go ahead and ask another guitarist for an opinion about gear; he's likely to tell you all about the gear he's using. That kind of advice is what I call "popularity advice". But you don't want to base your decisions upon how many people recommend a piece of gear, do you?
- You're much better off trusting your own senses. Pick up a guitar, plug it in and play. If the guitar (or amp, or pedals) work for you, that bit of knowledge is much more valuable than a hundred recommendations. Restricting your choices in this manner is going to put a crimp in your jumping on the flavor-of-the month bandwagon; you'll only buy gear that you actually get to play before you lay out your hard-earned cash.
- Don't make decisions out of context
- If you're going to buy gear to play in a band, try to evaluate it -- and this should seem obvious -- while playing in that band. The volume at which you play and the tonality of the other instruments will make a big difference in how you perceive your own gear. Don't play quietly in the shop to be polite if you're going to play your new gear loudly after you buy it. Make arrangements with the shop owner to crank up the gear, and play it the way you'll be using it before you spend your money.
- Another thing to be careful of is "A/B" comparison tests. Put two pieces of gear side-by-side, play one, play the other, and pick the best. This can be a useful technique when used in moderation, but make your decisions quickly and move on. If you try to compare tiny differences, differences that would be insignificant in the context of a band or a recorded track, you can end up optimizing your choice based upon some minor, unimportant detail.
- Finally, don't try to extrapolate. Everything matters in a guitar rig. As much as possible, try to evaluate new gear in your own rig.
- Take care of yourself
- If you're going to trust your senses, your senses need to be healthy. Don't abuse your ears. When you listen at high volumes you hear things differently; your ears have to "rest" for a while before your hearing goes back to normal. I said above that you really should make your gear decisions in context; if you're going to be playing loudly, make sure that you hear the gear played that way. But make your decisions while your ears are still fresh. Also, be sure that you protect your ears against prolonged exposure to loud sound; hearing loss is cumulative and permanent.
- Don't try to leapfrog
- A lot of players sell gear they already have, gear that already works well for them, to buy something that they think might be better. This is a bad idea. Unless you can try the new gear in context you won't know for sure whether it actually is better than what you already have; the new gear could turn out to be a worse choice than the gear you had at the start.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify
- Options are inexpensive and seductive. A multi-channel amp gives you more flexibility than a single channel amp and is much less expensive (not to mention compact) than multiple single-channel amps. A typical multi-effects unit gives you the ability to choose from among a vast array of effects while offering programming and switching capabilities superior to many large-scale rack systems for a tiny fraction of the rack system cost.
- Flexibility, however, brings compromise. Multi-channel amps are designed such that all channels sound acceptable. But it's not possible to make every channel sound as good as a comparable single-channel amp. Multi-effects units typically emulate analog effects units using digital signal processing. But the emulations fall apart if you push them too hard; this is unfortunate since it's often that part of a pedal's behavior that's responsible for its sonic "signature". And all of the configuration and programming not only complicates the process of making music, but also reduces the likelihood that your sound will fit in context. When a band has multiple guitarists each playing a complex rig, the chances of reaching "sonic compatibility" fade quickly.
- To the extent that your musical style permits, I think you're better off trying to squeeze as much as you can out of as little gear as possible. Distortion- and effect-heavy musical genres need a bit of technological assistance, but guitarists who play "cleaner" styles can get tons of tonal variation via playing technique and settings of their amplifier and guitar. In either case, it makes sense to simplify your task as a musician by attempting to minimize your non-musical distractions.
- You know you're done when you can't take anything away from your rig and still have "your sound".