Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Do Guitars Have Souls ?

"The Electric Guitar Sourcebook, by Dave Hunter [Backbeat books 2006] is a new book on what makes a guitar sound the way it sounds. Dave tells you that every part that goes into the making of a guitar contributes in some way to the total tone of the guitar. From all important factors like wood and design, to seemingly inconsequential factors like it's bridge, nut, scale length, and frets. The problem is that all these components inter-act in a non-linear way to give the total effect such that the whole tone is more than the sum of it's parts. This would seem to explain what many guitarists already know-that no two guitars will sound exactly the same. Or more importantly for them, why they must have a particular guitar.

In an interview with Fender Custom Shop Master Builder, Chris Fleming, Hunter's question was " How much difference is made by the mere fact of a guitar having been played or not played over the years?"

Chris Fleming: That makes a difference, probably more than anything given the guitar was made right in the first place. A bad guitar will probably never be a great guitar, but it night get better over the years if it's played regularly. ....... So it's a real individual thing. But generally speaking, a good guitar that's played a lot over a long period of time, it breaks down, it morphs, the cells break down in the wood. And I don't mean that they deconstruct but they alter, they change, they get drier and they open up. The resonance that's going through the guitar over a long period of time changes the molecular structure of the guitar. That's why for the most part real expressive musicians preferences tend towards older instruments, and if you look in the classical field, instruments that are made 200 or 300 years ago are the preferred instruments. A lot of it is the quality of the instrument but also just the fact that it's had a long and rich life. Musical instruments are unique objects in that because they get to express people's souls, they are altered.
I have played a lot of guitars. as you could imagine, and you can take two guitars made of wood from the same tree, and one will be better. You can take two guitars made on the same production line on one day, right next to each other and they are different. .... then when you get one into the hands of a guy who plays country, that guitar's going to change because that's the type of music that's played on it. and the one in the hands of a the guy who plays jazz is going to change a little differently.
What's so cool is that guitars like people are the sum of their experiences. And they are kind of more than that, just because of the nature of spirit or whatever you want to call it. I think guitars, and instruments in general are kind of metaphors for spiritual life. I don't mean to get heavy here, but when you come down to it, a scientist can cut something apart and analyze it and find out every single thing that he wants to know about it. He can run it through electronic tests and find out everything that a meter will tell about it, but it doesn't account for that spark of life or spirit or whatever that animates it.

Well I have reproduced that interview paragraph in it's entirety because no one could have said it better than him. And the fact that he's a Master Builder in Fender counts for a lot too. My personal experience puts me totally in agreement with him. I have owned many beautiful and expensive guitars of the finest workmanship that you expect to get a good sound from. But some were real disappointments and I could never pick them up to play seriously. It doesn't matter about the make, the country of origin, the year of manufacture, the type of pickups etc. Some guitars speak to you and some don't. In general it's the used older guitars that have a better tone. And it's true that they grow with you and become more of you, the longer you play them.

If you don't believe that there are spirits in guitars, let me tell you the story of my friend's 1946 D' Angelico Excel. My friend swears that when he plays this guitar, what happens is that this guitar actually to starts to play through him, if you know what I mean. The fingers seeem to move by themselves in time and note by note to the melody lines that streams through your head! I had a go at this guitar myself, and while not totally convinced that a spirit resides in it, found it to be an extremely playable instument, and notes and phrases and improvisation ideas seemed to flow effortlessly from my brain to be executed effortlessly through my fingers. According to my friend this guitar used to belong to a jazz guitarist in Chicago, who died in an accident.

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