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.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: guitars, motivation, set-up, strings, @musings info

Comfort above all else

One bit of advice that you'll hear repeated without thought is that "tone is the most important thing".

Is it really? Why? This slogan surely sells a lot of gear, which is comforting not only for the manufacturers but also for the gear-obsessed advocates of finding the holy grail of tone in some combination of equipment. After all, a quest without some kind of recognition - or at least the company of fellow seekers - doesn't really have much to sustain it.

I've come to believe that "tone", particularly as enabled only by some "magical" combination of gear, is not at all important. Proponents of the "tone is everything" viewpoint frequently cite an ability to play at their full capacity when inspired by a great-sounding guitar rig. Another justification invokes the mythical audience member who can't enjoy a beer or hook up with a potential partner if your tone isn't up to their high standards. Man, that's a lot of responsibilty for one guitarist to carry. No wonder they play so loudly...

Of course the notion that there's such a thing as a great guitar tone is a crock. The history of popular music should bear this out: various forms of guitar music and many different songs featuring a guitar have become wildly popular despite the use of a broad range of guitar tones, many of them in fact quite annoying if played in isolation. It's the song - the arrangement, tempo, lyrics, ambience, balance, composition, etc. - that makes the guitar part sound good, not vice versa.

Let's forget about recorded music and live ensemble performances for a moment. Isn't it OK to obsess about "tone" if you're playing by yourself? Sure it is, in the sense that you can focus on whatever you like. But that's not why I've written this article...

My argument, which I hope you'll give at least brief consideration regardless of your "tone" obsession, is that comfort is far more important than tone. Guitarists seem to make a lot of sub-optimal choices in the name of the tone quest. For example:

If you consider the downside of each of the above items you'll notice that certain choices can lead to an inability to play music at your full potential. Even if the result falls short of a debilitating injury, you'll still have to deal with pain while playing, ringing ears and a muffled perception of sounds, and a recurring struggle every time you move your gear from one place to another. Why? Oh, right: tone...

But what if we consider the premise that people respond to the music, and that they're more interested in a balanced, appropriate mix of the instruments than they are in nuances of tone that only you can hear? What changes?

In other words: if it's the music that matters most, how do you make music that matters? The answer is always the same: study and practice. Anything that takes away from your time to study (and by that I mean any activity in which you're engaged in creating or analyzing music without your instrument) or practice becomes a detriment. The more time you can spend playing comfortably, the better your music will become. (I'm assuming that you have set musical goals for yourself. You need to want to improve and have a way to monitor and measure your progress. The simple act of playing doesn't lead very far without intent to improve.)

If you have a guitar that you don't have to fight, you'll be more comfortable playing for longer periods of time.

If you play at a safe and sane volume, your ears won't fatigue and your instrument won't inexplicably start to sound "wrong".

If carrying your amp is not a challenge, you'll be more likely to go out and perform or jam with other musicians; this is the only way you'll improve your ensemble playing.

Most importantly, if you don't abuse your body by opting for tone over comfort, you'll be able to enjoy making music for far longer than if you have to stop due to injuries that you've inflicted upon yourself in the service of "tone".

September 19 2008 21:12:23 GMT