Guitars Are Tools

2014-12-14 12.12.22

Pictured: a mighty fine tool for music making.

I’ve spoken a ton about guitars and guitarists. I type with my tongue in cheek because the tonewood voodoo, dumbfuckery, and other moronic things guitarists say and do are also things I have said or believed at some point. I’ve played guitar for 20 years, I’m bound to go through these phases.

So that’s what leads me to my contemporary perspective. I love the guitar. To me it’s the most beautiful instrument ever invented. Grand pianos are majestic, a vintage Slingerland drum kit is cool, and saxophones are abstract and sexy – but a guitar has them beat. I’ve bought cheap ones and expensive ones. I’ve played dozens and dozens of them. I tweet about them, share them on Instagram, pin them, you name it. While I adore craftsmanship and inventiveness, at the end of they day owning a guitar is about one thing and one only: playing it. Guitar collectors are just hoarders if they aren’t playing their instruments. Sure guitars can be art. Some are art. But more than this they’re tools.

Always remember this. Guitars are tools. They’re for making music. The rest is fluff.

Guitarist Dumbfuckery

Guitarists are the dumbfucks of the music world. They pay the most attention to the things which matter the least, most can’t read music or keep proper rhythm or time, some don’t even know basic scales or chords, and they feel entitled to be the leading composers in their bands, because some musical genres are guitar-driven. Because of this guitarists pass down many traditions which are whole-cloth, rancid, horseshit. I’ve spilled too many words on guitarists’ favorite form of dumbfuckery, so let’s diverge into other forms where idiocy reigns.

1. Tubes. Tubes are great, vintage gear is great. I love tube amps, but they are also a pain in the ass to haul to rehearsals and gigs. Bassists have long since adopted DI boxes and direct-out amps, why are guitarists chain to tube amps? Because dumbfuckery. Get a tube amp and enjoy it, but consider something else for your live rig. Portability, performance, and function matter more over your obsession for tone, something that’s much less important than your ability to play.

2. Country of Origin. American-made is still the gold standard for guitar making, but once upon a time Japanese-made guitars were considered 2nd rate – except now people think the Japanese have magic guitar-building powers. Hence today Japanese Fenders, ESPs, etc. are fetishized on the secondhand market. Then the goalposts slid and Korean-made guitars were “garbage.” Guess what happened to that perception? Where it was built doesn’t matter. How well it was built counts.

3. Modding. Modding is a hobby which sprung up slowly after companies like Allparts, Mighty Mite, Seymour Duncan, etc. made it easier to affix replacement parts on your guitar. Some guitarists just like to tinker and that’s great. Other guitarists though have again turned this into a bullshit quest for magic tone. If they just get that one, $400 pickup set, that $100 bumblebee capacitor, or another overpriced aftermarket part that’s trading on name value over actual utility, they’ll nail godly Hendrixvaughn toanage. Even though Jimi Hendrix used stock, straight out the box guitars, but whatever.

The Arguments Against Tonewoods

A handy, quick-look resource.

1. The arguments for them are horrible, and guitar manufacturer propaganda is the worst resource to consult besides guitar forums.

2. Electric guitar pickups are not microphonic. They are similar to microphones, but do NOT record acoustic waves.

3. Transverse waves are not acoustic waves. The information coming from your electric guitar is a different kind of data from an acoustic one.

4. Because resonant frequencies don’t work that way. A guitar doesn’t just have one resonant frequency. It has several.

5. Because potentiometers and their variances matter a lot to your guitar’s timbre or tone.

6. Because knocking wooden planks together, citing resin crystals, and debating finish thickness is bullshit.

7. Because hollowbody electric guitars are still electric guitars, and construction counts more than wood species.

8. Because in acoustic guitars, hardness and construction are what count most for tone. Cheap, shoddy construction will ruin tone every time, regardless of wood species. Wood species doesn’t matter. Craftsmanship does.

9. Because woods are used for aesthetics, price, availability, consumer demand, sturdiness, and pliability in construction – not magical, tonal properties.

10. Because human ears are complex and we don’t hear every thing the exact same way. This causes problems for some who can’t accept conventional wisdom about tone.

 

How to NOT Suck at Playing in a Band

Playing in a band is an essential experience towards becoming a better musician. When you find like-minded individuals to form a group with you, each member should approach the endeavor with the same mindset: to get gigs, and have fun. This often doesn’t happen though, because so many musicians a shit-eating puke-pots. So here is what you need to know if you don’t want to suck at playing in a band.

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1. Band practice is for rehearsal, not music lessons.

It is your job to know the set before you show up to practice. It is not the band’s job to teach you the set. The point of band practice is to rehearse the set. You rehearse so you can play a gig. That’s why everybody is there. If you don’t learn the set beforehand, then you slow everyone else down, and your band is less ready to play the gig. The gig is why you’re here! Don’t screw off!

2. Know you to play your goddamned instrument.

This especially applies to singers, drummers, and bass players. It also ties into number one somewhat, but in this case it’s about your skill. If you can’t tune your instrument or sing in key, or know chords and scales, or how to play in time, then why the fuck are you in a band?! Go learn your fucking instrument, then join a band. It’s not your band’s job to be your music teacher. KNOW YOUR SHIT.

3. Buy your own fucking gear.

Sometimes a musician is in a jam. They had to pawn their instrument to pay the rent, child support, electricity bill, or whatever. Musicians are often poor, so it’s a way of life. Also sometimes instruments break. It happens. In those cases it makes sense to borrow an instrument, but it’s with the understanding that you will do what it takes to obtain a new one, even if it’s not so shiny and pretty like your last one. Leave it to musicians though to think they can get buy without a PA (Hi, singers), a fucking amplifier, or their own drum set (This has happened to me personally.). If you refuse to buy your own shit, don’t mooch off every other broke motherfucker. Buy your own gear, you lazy fuck.

4. BE. ON. TIME.

Putting aside emergencies, we live in an age where people are no longer prompt. Texting, emailing, and cellphones have made punctuality a relic. “Sorry bro, running late,” is not a fucking excuse, fuck you and your fucking iphone. The club owner doesn’t care if you slept in or are hungover. Your band is pissed because you’re late, and you weren’t there to sound check or set up the gear. You are literally the worst kind of musician if you are chronically late. You’re good to exactly no one. Get the fuck out of music altogether if you can’t be bothered to make your appointments.

5. Be a helping hand, or go jack off with it.

For our last point, punctuality and helpfulness are intertwined. You should show up to rehearsal ready and on time, be at the gig on time, for the recording session, and so on, plus you should be able and willing to help out. Gear is heavy, bulky, and it always always ALWAYS has to be lugged up a set of stairs. SINGERS, THIS ESPECIALLY APPLIES TO YOU, PUT THE FUCKING MIRROR DOWN AND PAY ATTENTION. You are not famous, nobody cares about you, and you can’t afford a road crew. You are the road crew. Help move the gear, help set up, help tear down, and help put it all back in the van once you’re done.

Controversial Guitar Opinions

I ran across a thread on Reddit asking about controversial opinions regarding the guitar. I posted, then deleted it because seriously, screw Guitarrit or whatever it’s called. The place has become so terrible I unsubscribed and it’s not worth anybody’s time posting there – unless you want to constantly explain to newbies how a Telecaster works, what a tube amp is, that solid state amps aren’t the devil, and answer yet another question that always boils down to, “Practice more, you dumbshit.”

So anyway, here are my controversial opinions about the guitar.

1. Tonewood is bullshit. A giant ball of horseshit, in fact. Guitarists and luthiers have passed this crap around for generations. Those who accuse you of not knowing physics and accepting they myth do not know physics themselves. They don’t back their arguments with facts, they back them with fallacies and personal attacks. Tonewood is bullshit, end of story.

2. Tube amps are bullshit. They are clunky, heavy, overpriced pieces of shit. You pay more for the logo than what’s in it. Amp clones are bountiful. Modeling technology has caught up. Furthermore, so have sound systems in many (though not all) public venues. Also solid state isn’t the devil. If you want a tube amp, fine, but don’t expect a gold star for paying too much for one.

3. Wood is bullshit. Guitars don’t need to be made of wood to sound great. They just need to be built well. Wood is used because it’s renewable, dependable, and pretty. It has no magic, tonal properties and your Youtube/Deeprak Chopra understanding of physics doesn’t disprove that.

4. Fender and Gibson are bullshit. There are more guitars available for great quality and prices than ever. You are paying for a headstock, and the logo on that headstock. Buy it if you want, but again don’t expect your taint licked because of it.

5. Guitarists are myopic, dumb motherfuckers, the embarrassments of the musicians’ world. Most guitarists can’t a) read music; b) tune their guitars for crap; c) know what key is or how to be in it; d) write songs, only solos or riffs but rarely both; e) and they think equipment choices and soloing, the least important parts of playing an instrument, are the most important. If you want to be in a band, learn something else. There are plenty of worthless guitarists wasting people’s time.

6. Last but not least, guitar-oriented music, namely rock music, is irrelevant. It’s time has passed. It’s a niche interest. Nobody cares about it anymore. Sorry guys, but drum machines, auto-tune, and programmed beats have won. So acting like your favorite genre is great and mighty, then wondering why only 12 people turn up to see your band, should be a fucking clue by now. You don’t have to quit, but don’t think you’re hot shit. You’re cold, frozen shit. A poopsicle.

RIP Jack Bruce

Big news in the music world today, as Jack Bruce has passed away at 71 years old. He lived a long, full and natural life. Of course it’s always sad to know one more piece of rock’s golden era has shuffled on to oblivion. He’s survived by children and grandchildren, and naturally his most famous music, that of the golden rock power trio Cream, lives forever.

Personally I loved Jack’s singing abilities the best. He’s known as a pioneer rock bassist. I’d go so far as to say he’s known as the rock bassist, or ranked up there with titans like John Paul Jones, Paul McCartney, and Geezer Butler. Bruce filled the big gap between Eric Clapton’s guitar and Ginger Baker’s drums, leaving him free to treat the bass as a kind of rhythm guitar.

If you’re not familiar with Cream, “I Feel Free” is a great starting point because it showcases Bruce’s gold-coated throat along with rich, vocal harmonies. Many would recommend “Sunshine of Your Love,” or “Crossroads,” but I think this tune simply soars and celebrates its singer’s spirit.

The Difference Between Expensive and Cheaper Guitars

From G&L's Instagram

From G&L’s Instagram

Once again it’s time to address common, beginner questions that often come up on guitar forums. What are the differences between a high end guitar and a cheap one?

This question used to be much easier to answer until about twenty years ago. When I was 15 I wanted to buy my own guitar. I began learning at age 14, but I used my uncle’s Fender Mustang. So with my savings I purchased a Washburn Mercury which was designed by Grover Jackson, so it shared many qualities with a Jackson Dinky. The differences between my Korean-built, mid-90s Washburn and that old, American-made Fender were stark, and that’s ignoring obvious differences like pickup type. My Washburn had a plywood body, plastic nut, veneer top, plastic dot inlays, pot metal tremolo block, and whatever potentiometers were in the parts bin that day. The Fender, albeit a CBS era model, had solid wood construction, a sturdy maple neck, and was built in the Fullerton, California factory. This was 1995 so telling these guitars apart was much simpler.

From ESP's Instagram

From ESP’s Instagram

Today it’s gotten harder to tell, because features which used to be walled off for American-built or even custom shop level guitars are available for 500 USD or less. If you want a flame or quilt top – as in a real one and not a veneer – Schecter has made them for years. Budget priced guitars can feature actual, Seymour Duncan pickups from the factory. Some have locking tuners, a feature Fender charges a premium to have on your American Standard guitar (Gibson of course has G-Force on its new lines.).

This forces us to go by rules of thumb. Usually if you are guitar shopping and wondering the difference between a 900 USD or higher guitar and something lower, go by these:

Import/Budget-priced guitars

Multi-piece or plywood bodies

Woods usually limited to poplar, alder, mahogany, paulownia, or basswood

Polyurethane lacquer finish

Solid color coating or 2-tone sunburst

Limited finish colors and options (Red, black, and white are the most common)

Chrome or black hardware only

OEM electronics, including preamps (acoustics), pots, pickups, and switches

Plastic nut

Veneer top for see-through finishes

(For acoustics) Laminated tops

OEM tuning keys

Licensed Floyd Rose tremolos or copies

Generic tremolos or unbranded bridge and tail pieces

No binding or basic, one color/layer binding (Usually white)

Fretboards usually limited to maple or rosewood

Pickguards limited to black, white, or red tortoise shell

USA made, high end, or custom shop guitars

Solid wood bodies, swamp ash becomes more common

Chambered bodies for weight reduction, particularly in mahogany

(For acoustics) Solid wood tops

High grade (eg. AAA, AAAA) maple caps

More finish options, including color, opaque or translucent

Nitrocellulose or polyurethane finish

Binding is more common and comes in more colors/styles

Name brand tuning keys, pickups, and other parts.

Genuine Floyd Rose and other name brand tremolos

Inclusion of name brand parts (eg. Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio) as factory standard, depending on model

(Acoustics) Brand name preamps, on-board tuners, XLR outs built into the guitar

Signature models

Advertised as hand-crafted, or with hand-wound pickups

Gold hardware in addition to chrome and black

Bone or graphite nuts

Miscellaneous touches like Graph-Tech saddles, TUSQ nuts, roller nuts, locking tuners

Clay dot, mother of pearl, abalone, or custom fretboard inlays

Fretboard options including ebony, zebrawood, maple, birdseye maple, rosewood, and others

Pickguard options include the standard plus pearloid, mirror, cream, and other colors

Exotic body woods like black limba, walnut, koa, bubinga, and others

Advanced options like MIDI or stereo outs

Alternative materials like graphite, carbon fiber, and aluminum

NOTE: This is not comprehensive, and there are many exceptions.

Creation vs. Evolution: The Tonewood Controversy

I profess ignorance about how the tonewood controversy among guitarists began. My theory is because woods – due to variances in hardness and density – affect the timbre of acoustic instruments, people assumed this transferred over to electric guitars. Early ones which had microphonic, unpotted pickups, so if you stick what is basically a microphone on your guitar, it will pick up acoustic waves. There’s far more to pickup design though, especially potted pickups and what the solidbody was designed to do (Namely, inhibit resonance). Fortunately Youtube has people more knowledgeable about physics than I, and I can share their explanations here.

This is Will from WillsEasyGuitar. In several videos he goes in depth about harmonics, timbre, and wave propagation.

I recommend you check those out. He does a great job explaining how sound propagates, and uses clear terms used in the scientific and technical community. He also illustrates the point I’m about to make, which I’m getting to, but first here’s DKG Custom.

In one video, a “Tonewood Road Map,” Duncan of DKG lays out the tonewood debate as it’s progressed on Youtube. When guitarists argue on forums, they often videos like these. So the YT vids up above are quite significant here. I think Duncan’s point is prescient, and he makes my point for me. Nonetheless I’ll articulate in my own words.

When it comes to the tonewood controversy, there’s a huge gap in how each camp presents its arguments. The anti-tonewood proponents argue from science. They attempt experiments, albeit crude ones at times, but some of the vloggers are rather eloquent. They also focus on how sound works, how it travels, how pickups work, and they are educational in a way.

Even Scott Grove took the effort to make rudimentary demonstrations to support his point. He also explained his view in a cohesive sense: pickups are potted, they aren’t microphonic if they are, potentiometers have variances, solid bodies were intended to block resonance, and all that comes out of your electric guitar anyway is an electric signal or wave. A transverse wave, in fact.

As for the pro-tonewood arguers, Rob Chapman’s video is the most cited but it’s not a very good sample. Neither Captain Lee nor Rob used any scientific viewpoint. They play two very similar guitars through one amp, and insist what they heard was different. When I watched I found the more I listened, the more I thought I heard differences, but I couldn’t separate what I was hearing from confirmation bias. I just couldn’t, because in the next passage the guitars sounded the same to me. To me that’s unhelpful if you can’t separate the two.

It sums up my view about pro-tonewood arguments though. This side insists on arguments from tradition, appeals to authority, and many philosophical and anecdotal arguments, but none have used science. A guy beating on a guitar with a pencil isn’t helpful either, and trust me, I have seen those videos too. In my perspective, pro-tonewood folks seem to insist it’s there and want to reinforce their confirmation bias. Thus I’m not convinced that electric guitars are affected much, if at all, by their body wood. One side is demonstrating their point through experiments and science, while the other is arguing from confirmation bias and logical fallacies. So I think the onus falls on pro-tonewood believers to support their claims.

I know this one’s going to be a firestorm. I welcome your comments, but while I embedded Youtube videos, this isn’t Youtube. Be nice.

New Coke: Gibson’s Controversial 2015 Lineup

WildWoodGuitars.com

WildWoodGuitars.com

Weeks ago several, canny guitarists discovered Gibson Guitars’ upcoming 2015 line. Numerous changes were in store for the #1 guitar maker in the world, and the response has been excited, to understate things.

The first issue is cost. A Gibson Les Paul Standard today starts at 2,999 USD. The 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard will start at 3,879 USD. That’s a 23% increase according to Reverb. If Musicians Friend is any indication, Gibson has committed to making its guitars a high end brand again.

The changes don’t stop there, though. Gibson also discontinued its faded satin finish, and all Gibsons will be finished in nitrocellulose. This means no more 999 USD and below Gibsons. Gone is the old, bone nut and in its place, a brass “zero-fret” nut. The neck is wider, although string spacing is the same as previous years. The last change is the one which has received the most attention. The Min-etune machines which were installed on some 2014 Gibsons is now called the G-Force. It permits automatic tuning, push-button alternate tunings, and tuning adjustments on the fly. The Min-etune had mixed reception because it couldn’t be removed from the guitar without damaging it. The G-Force was improved to resolve this.

People’s complaints focus on the price increase and the G-Force. The first factor effectively walls off a Gibson-branded instrument from working class and budget-conscious guitarists. Secondhand Gibsons will be their first option for some of them, and the price increase also reinforces Gibson’s negative, “Doctor and Lawyer clientèle” image. As for the G-Force, it’s facing the guitar community’s traditionalist, conservative mindset – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Gibson is especially beholden to, even limited at times by, purists among the guitarist community. So these factors have really brought out the anti-Gibson knives.

Are these viable criticisms though? On one hand, these changes necessitated new suppliers, retooling and recalibrating CNC machines, more expensive paint, and the G-Force’s manufacturing costs. It’s natural to assume some increase would be involved. On the other did Gibson’s commitment to G-Force require forcing it onto their entire line? Personally I think limiting its roll-out might’ve soothed the shock. Gibson has run nontraditional lines before. A few models featuring the G-Force like the 2014’s, and some without, might’ve gradually won appeal. As of now though customers are skeptical, but in fairness what they know is Min-etune, and G-Force is supposed to be a step up from that version.

Regardless of the changes, which might go unappreciated at first, I think Gibson essentially rolled out New Coke Les Pauls. That means people will desire the old ones and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Coke Classic make a triumphant return in 2016.

What’s your thought on Gibson Guitars 2015 changes? Offer your thoughts in the comment section below.