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: effects, opinion, performance, preferences, technique, technology, @musings info

Simple Gear, Complex Music

Over the decades since players started using electric guitars, guitar gear has become more complex and less expensive. Look at the progression from simple guitars and low-powered amps in the fifties, to the seminal early effects and stompboxes of the sixties (echo, fuzz, wah, compression, boosters), to the first guitar synths and high-gain amps in the seventies, to the overblown racks of the eighties, culminating in the introduction of modeling amps in the nineties. Each new technological introduction has provided guitarists with a broader palette from which to define sounds. Yet this is misleading, because the technology itself - more so than the musician in many cases - has come to provide the definitive elements of the musical performance. As listeners, we tend to dismiss that which is familiar and focus on that which is novel. As guitarists, we often want to recreate the novelty of others' performances. Reating a novel performance often involves the search to match or derive from another player's sound by selecting and programming appropriate components of the effects chain. That search leads to gear aquisition, programming, critical listening, technological research, and other activities that are, at best, only indirectly related to musical creativity.

The problem with a complex signal chain is that it provides its own sound. The guitar, and indeed the guitarist, is needed only to provide a stimulus for the complex processing that occurs in a long chain of pedals or in a digital effects processor. With more processing, fewer of the player's nuances are translated as sound. That's a critical point. If the player's expressiveness is limited by the signal chain, his playing will conform to the limitations of the chain. When the signal chain reduces or removes dynamics, the player's approach to dynamics suffers. When the signal chain radically alters the timbre of the instrument, the player's fretting and picking touch is affected. When the signal chain affects pitch and timing, the player's sense of both becomes distorted.

There's nothing inherently wrong with effects. The problem, as I see it, is that some guitarists come to depend upon their effects to produce a signature sound. Without a sufficiently distinctive playing style, a guitarist's dependence upon effects becomes a shortcut that can be easily duplicated by anyone who can reproduce the signal chain. As the signal chain grows in complexity, it takes less attention to instrumental technique to produce interesting sounds. What I'm saying is that if you're going to rely heavily on effects, you'd better dig deep in your playing to create a distinguishing trait, because the effects chain is a commodity item easily duplicated by anyone with a VISA card.

On the flip side, a simple signal chain exposes more of the player's technique. It's no coincidence that blues guitarists tend to favor an effect-free signal chain; they want every nuance of their technique to come out of the amp just the way they play it. They can't generate audible novely by stepping on a footswitch - they have to rely on dynamics, pick attack, timing, vibrato, and phrasing to hold the attention of their audience. Jazz players, who also tend to avoid effects, are (with a handful of notable exceptions) less tonally creative than blues playes. Instead, jazz musicians rely upon more complex harmonic, melodic and rhythmic techniques to engage their audience. Keep in mind that these techniques can stand on their own, without any signal processing.

I don't want to make a point that effects are bad. They're not. But effects often impart a life of their own to the music, reducing the guitarist in many cases into nothing more than a generator of notes to be processed. It's certainly possible to create music that can stand on its own and still enhance it with effects. However, the tendency among less-experienced guitarists is to deemphasize their own performance and push their effects chain into the limelight. That's the danger of using too much technology to create music.

If you really want to improve your guitar playing, do all of your practicing (and at least some of your performance) without effects.

December 06 2004 05:59:53 GMT