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

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Reconsidering the "palette" analogy

Guitarists are fond of justifying their collections of guitars, amplifiers and effects with the argument that the collecion offers them a broad tonal "palette". If one guitar is good, three must offer more variety. Two different amps must cover more ground than one. And having a variety of pedals offers myriad ways to add "spice" to one's basic guitar sounds.

All of these arguments have merit, up to a point. But the analogy to a painter's palette is overworked and not at all faithful to the actual role of the palette.

A palette is nothing more than a substrate upon which a painter will mix the colors to be applied to the canvas. A painter proceeds with intent to create a particular scene. Colors are applied to the palette as dictated by the needs of the painting in progress. The artist chooses these colors according to his vision of the work-in-progress.

This is where the "palette" analogy breaks down for some guitarists. The visual artist works with a small number of colors at any given moment, combining colors as needed to create nuances of shading and blending. But some guitarists create rigs that give them the option to quickly switch to any color available on their "tonal palette". You see this in rehearsal rooms where a guitarist sets up multiple guitars, multiple amps and cabs and a pedalboard or rack combined using complex and "flexible" switching systems. Or consider the "digital" approach: a Line6 Variax guitar and Vetta amplifier and floorboard provide potentially thousands of distinct combinations of guitar, amp, effect and speaker models at the tap of a toe. You might argue that the rehearsal room is the right place to have such extreme flexibility, since that's where the creative process happens. But it's a slippery slope: once you start writing music which depends upon having all those options on your tonal palette, you then have to bring that same tonal flexibility to the stage. It's not at all uncommon to see complex guitar rigs on stage, even in small clubs.

I tend to be a "minimalist" when it comes to applying technology to making music: use as little technology as possible, but no less than is required. I'm not about to give up electricity altogether and switch to playing acoustic guitar; my instrument -- like yours, I suspect -- is the electric guitar. To me, the issue is whether the technology helps or hinders the creative process. And that brings us back to the "palette" analogy...

To me, a guitarist who builds a rig with a broad palette of tonal flexibility is somewhat akin to a painter who fills his palette with all the colors of the rainbow before deciding what it is he's going to paint. If the guitarist's rig can cover three hundred different sounds for which the guitarist doesn't have a specific application, then what's the point? It's like the grade-school kid who hasn't yet learned to shade a curved figure, but has to have the box of 128 different-colored crayons; the choice of colors is a distraction, not an asset.

But what about cover tunes? Don't you need a lot of different sounds to be able to play cover tunes? Well, you could take that approach... After all, pop music (and I use that term very broadly) is as much about the sound as it is about the music. But does it really make sense to try to copy the sound on the record? How much time do you want to spend on that, and how close do you want to get? Keep in mind that you're waging an uphill battle just trying to decode everything that happened in the studio. On top of that, if you're going for any kind of accuracy at all you have to deal not only with the sound of the guitar, but also with the sound of the rest of the band: how each instrument fits in the mix (EQ, ambience, level, effects), ... Do your bandmates have the same committment to capturing the sound of the cover tune, or do they just play the notes and have a good time?

So let's say that you really do need to cover a lot of sonic territory. Let's say that your music does demand several different clean and distorted guitar tones and various combinations of a half-dozen or so effects, plus a couple of different guitars for good measure. And let's say that you do it in a way that serves the song, which means that you play not only for the tone you hear in your head but also for how it fits in the mix so the entire band sounds right. OK, then... I believe that you can do that. Just because that sort of thing doesn't work for me doesn't mean that it can't work for you, right?

So you start assembling your rig out of hand-picked components, each one the best you can find (or afford) at what it does. As you put things together, you find out that imperfections get magnified. One pedal simply does what it's supposed to do: click it on and you hear the effect, click it off and you hear your guitar. Start chaining them together, though, and you find out that your guitar tone takes a beating. So you add a buffer, and you spring for more "transparent" interconnects. Then once you get the sound nailed down to your satisfaction you decide that you need a better way of controlling all those pedals, so you add loopers or other customized switching systems. You may develop a sense that you're following a downward spiral of complexity. At some point you run out of money or patience or decide that what you've finished so far is "good enough". So you just play...

Yah, I've been there. Several times. And each time I come around to the realization that I don't really need all those options. All I really need to make music is a guitar, an amp and an idea. Maybe a pedal to give a specific sound. But I really like to take a sound and make it mine. I want a sound that people can, when they hear my playing, identify as my sound. I want a sound that inspires me to wring every last ounce of potential out of my rig; a sound that inspires me to play my best and inspires me to explore new musical territory.

Over the years I've come to recognize how easily I'm distracted by having too many options. My playing and my music suffer when I play a complex rig. I become like the kid with 128 Crayola colors and no clue as to what to draw. So what works for me is not the "palette" of sounds, but rather a toolbox. I have a few well-chosen pedals covering effects that I find neither annoying nor clichéd. I keep them handy for the occasions when I really want to work with a different sound; I'll plug in one or two pedals in various combinations to get the sound I'm seeking, then I'll stick with that sound for long enough to wring out everything that I can. Same drill with the guitar and the amp: pick one, stick with it for quite a while. All of this limits my tonal choices, gives the listener a sense of continuity, and inspires me to focus on the notes rather than the gear.

September 15 2006 03:22:44 GMT