No, this is not a post about tinnitus. It’s about why guitar players sound so different to each other. Is it the amplifier or the choice of effects pedals? Is it the strings, or the plectrum, or the pickups? Is it because the particular make of studio microphone is placed just off centre from the axis of a pair of vintage greenback speakers? Is it the shape of the neck, the exact magnetic alloy used in the pickups, the weight of the body, or the colour? Maybe it’s because the fretboard is rosewood, or ebony, or maple. Could it be the contours of the body, or its density? Maybe it’s the wax the pickups were dipped in or the brand of capacitor in the tone control circuit. Could it be the guitar cable? Every musical instrument and accessory manufacturer will tell you, “of course it is” and they spend millions of dollars marketing their products this way.
Steve Vai, himself no slouch on the old guitar, said this about one of my guitar heroes, (Dr) Brian May:
“I remember working with Frank Zappa for the first time. I had just moved out to Los Angeles, and nobody knew me. I was 21. I went out to the Rainbow Bar and Grill, and Brian May was there. I couldn’t believe it. I mustered up every little bit of courage and went up to him and said, ‘Thank you so much for everything you’ve done. I play guitar. I’m here in town with Frank Zappa.’ He said ‘Oh really? Why don’t you come down to our rehearsal?’
“I went down and he brought me up on the stage, and he let me play the guitar-the guitar that he built with his dad [the “Red Special”]. I couldn’t even believe that I was touching this instrument! He was so kind and so warm, and for who? This kid, you know? And I played his guitar, and it sounded like Steve Vai. Then when he played it, it sounded just like Brian May. It was very apparent to me that his tone is in his fingers and his head.”
If you’re a guitar player, mark these words well. Everybody will try to sell you a signature model guitar (even Steve and Brian), or the very same effects box that your guitar heroes use. Some inexperienced players truly believe that buying these replica instruments and signal processors will give you the magic mojo to make you play just like your idol. It doesn’t work that way.
Here’s my take on the myriad endorsed musical products: in some circumstances, like with a guitar, for example, the fact that you have the same equipment (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) opens up the potential of sounding like your idol, to a degree. But it is not a sufficient condition, or even a necessary condition. Sure, if you buy a Les Paul, you are going to struggle to reproduce the tones of your favourite Telecaster playing hero. The design of the two instruments is just too far apart. But if you are David Gilmour, you are going to sound like David Gilmour, whether you’re playing a Stratocaster, a Telecaster or a vintage Les Paul. The sound is in the fingers and the head. It’s more about imagination and muscle memory, or biological constraints and abilities, than it is about having the right strings and amplifier.
Over the years and without realising it had happened, on any particular, noteworthy day, I have become aware that when I play guitar, I sound like…well…me. That doesn’t mean good or bad, it just means individual. I can hand my guitar to my guitar playing friends, same amp, same settings and they will make a sound completely dissimilar to the ones I make. When they hand me their guitar in exchange, I don’t sound like them, either. I still sound like me. This is true for all instrument players, I’m sure.
Playing a guitar is a nuanced exercise in striking the strings with the right velocity and force, your own individual vibrato, with its distinctive speed, contour and depth, how you sustain a note, where you strike the note, how you glide between notes, and so on. There are so many variables to play with. Add a tremolo and some pickup combinations and it’s easy to understand why so many people play similar instruments, yet sound completely different. Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler both played Stratocasters on their biggest hits, but I defy anybody to claim that “Little Wing” and “Sultans of Swing” sound the same because they were both played on the same design of guitar.
I think that’s wonderful. It’s something that synthesiser players struggle to enjoy, since the sound making engine usually overwhelms the subtleties of their touch and technique. Not so with acoustic piano, however, which says quite a lot about how far the design of the synthesiser still has to go, as a musical instrument.
Touch is such a beautiful word. It implies feeling, sensitivity, almost like a caress. Every guitar player has their own touch. We all engage physically, emotionally and spiritually with our instruments through our hands, letting our inner selves describe their most intimate features through the sounds we make. Music, as Claude Debussy is quoted as saying, is the space between the notes.
So buy the gear that makes the technique you want to pursue possible, or even easier to do, but always remember that the sound comes from your heart, soul and imagination. Every lasting note.