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.
LCW on Bandcamp
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: comparison, evaluation, goals, @musings info

The Internet and the Quest for Perfection

There's a lot of information available online about guitar gear. Reviews are everywhere. Opinions are everywhere. Recommendations are everywhere. Discussion groups feature an inexhaustible series of little dramas consisting of discovery followed by extreme hype followed by abandonment of the hot "flavor of the month" product. And the language... Guitarists have their own language consisting of colorful adjectives like "smooth", "creamy", "buttery", "glassy", "grainy", and so forth. Good luck finding a lexicon, much less a lexicon that actually disambiguates all the terms that get tossed around. I swear we're becoming more and more like audiophools every day.

But the biggest problem is that we're all online; we can't interact directly. We have to read between the lines to try to figure out what the recommendations actually mean. Gear responds to the guitarist's touch. Sounds that are useful for your style of playing may be totally inappropriate for my style. But few reviewers give any thought to qualifying their statements.

All of which is exactly why I find so little useful information in online forums. There's simply not enough context attached to reviews, opinions, recommendations, etc. The vast majority of the discussions distill to "I liked this" or "I didn't like this". Of course, it's a lot easier to write about objects rather than process, state of mind, goals, etc.

To be fair, I have obsessed over the finer details of my own rig: picks to speakers and everything in between. It's an expensive obsession, and I'm glad that I've arrived at point where I'm comfortable with what I have. I got to this point by being analytical and always moving toward the goal of finding out what works for me and what doesn't. If I had to satisfy someone else's ideals (e.g. by trying to nail some famous guitarist's "tone" or in response to a client's requests), I'd be out of luck; I sound the way I want to sound.

I don't expect what works for me to work for someone else. Finding the right combination of pieces takes time, money, knowledge and focus. You can't find the perfect gear unless you have a way to recognize that perfection when you arrive. It's not enough to think that you'll know it when you hear it. You need to be able to recognize the difference between what you have and what you want. You also need to know enough about how your gear works to make an intelligent choice which will move your rig closer to what you want.

Beginners adopt the "obvious" solution of building a "flexible" rig. There's plenty of gear out there that features flexibility as its strongest selling point. If you really don't know what you want, having a rig with dozens of different sounds can help you to rule out the ones that don't work for you. But (and this assumes that you really do want to develop your own sound rather than having a need to cover all the bases equally) the do-it-all approach is deceptive. You can build a broad palette of tones, but that doesn't mean you can get the subtle yet important shadings that you'll find in gear that's dedicated to doing just one thing well.

I've tried to be careful in my writings to talk about why I find certain gear choices beneficial. That's the only way that you can tell whether my discoveries have any applicability to you. I don't seek typical electric guitar sounds. For one thing, I play fingerstyle on fairly light strings using a very dynamic touch. I like a fairly broad frequency response that brings out all the nuances of my picking style, from piano-like bass notes to shimmering harmonics with plenty of midrange body in-between. I expect my amp to clean up when I use a light touch and to get slightly distorted when I dig in. And I like to hear a really detailed sound which conveys the nuances of my playing; I want to really hear the differences that come from attacking the same note in different ways.

It's a not an open-ended choice, though. My choice of rig also has some influence on how I play, and that - to some degree - affects what I consider to be acceptable in terms of the gear. No rig can do everything well. My approach to the instrument was very different when I was playing channel-switching amps. Once I discovered the behavior of a good non-MV amp, everything changed. I've made a conscious decision to sacrifice high-gain sustained lead tones; my rig doesn't go there, and neither do I. I find that limitation to be not so much a handicap as it is a differentiator. There are plenty of guitarists who can crank out screaming blues riffs a la SRV, but not many at all who have a style similar to mine. I try to substitute evocative musical lines for manufactured tones.

There's another thing I learned about putting together a rig. I learned that rigs having more complex components were likely to be much more finicky than a simpler rig. When I was playing channel-switching amps with effects I found that certain combinations of guitars, amps, effects and cabinets worked together better than others. Now that I'm playing much simpler rigs I feel less constrained by the interactions of the components.

I consider myself not a purist, but rather a minimalist. I believe in having a very short path between what my fingers do and what my ears hear.

The guitar is the most important element. The timbre and sustain of the guitar come through the rest of the signal chain, which can't convincingly create something that's not there to start. Pickups play a huge role in determining the character of the guitar, and they have to be a good match for the amp. Beyond that, it's good to have a bit of variety: I have a humbucker guitar (Koll) and a strat-like guitar (Kritz), and am patiently awaiting delivery of a P-90 guitar (another Koll). Teles, Ricks and others are too far from my comfort zone, considering both feel and sound.

My amps have to be in keeping with the minimalist approach. I like amps that have low gain but can be pushed using playing dynamics. I'd have to say that I'm not as fussy about amps as I am about guitars; the exact sound is way less important to me than the feel of the instrument, although I tend to avoid certain amps because of the nature of their midrange response. At the moment I have four different amps ranging from a bargain-basement Univox to a Vibro-King and can get perfectly acceptable sounds out of all of them. I like the fact that they behave and sound different from one another, but could certainly live with just one if I really had to.

I'm not big on effects. I have four: a Leslie 147, a Boss EH-2 enhancer (kind of a combined expander/exciter), a Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive (essentially a tube screamer with an extra knob to mix in a portion of the clean guitar signal) and a volume pedal. I rarely use any of them. I will, however, take advantage of reverb and tremolo on the amps that have them. And I think I might like, at some point, to have a really good tape echo on hand, just in case.

December 19 2005 05:29:28 GMT