Friday, July 14, 2006

Because I’m All About the Guitar: A Quality Note

If the devil's in the details, Gibson's in Hell.I have been told that anyone can play the guitar. I have known musicians who play 12 different instruments say that they could teach a monkey to play the guitar.

I have heard musicians that only play the guitar – masters of the craft – say they learn new things every day.

There was a time I wasn’t too bad at playing the guitar. But something happened. Something made me put the instrument down. Something …

… Well, me I guess. I started over-thinking the thing. How close to the fret is close enough? When are strings too old? What thickness pick is right? How hard do I hit the strings? How light is too light? And what about the whole finger-picking thing – how the hell do I do that?

It got frustrating.

But now I approach things from a far different perspective. I just play. There’s a lot of my old skill that’s missing, but I just play.

However, there’s something about getting that elusive, quality note. The one that sings, ring-a-ding ding. You can find it.

The first thing you gotta do, is get yourself into a music store. Musician’s Friend and Music 1-2-3 are great, but caveat emptor man. You’re not going to know what you’re getting unless you play it. And you’re not going to get that until you put the six-string in your own hands.

Once you’re at the store, find your beast. It really doesn’t matter what kind of shape you like. Just pick one. Every kind of body shape out there has quality instruments. Pick and play. And, even though they may be the same model, one guitar will sound different from another. One Fender Strat doesn’t necessarily equal the other.

Get your hands on the thing and play it. Don’t plug it in, just play. See, that’s where music stores play you. You pick up that shiny $800-$1,000 guitar and you plug it into that Randall half stack they have warmed up and ready. And you hit the chord and start ripping everything you got. And you will rip everything you got because there’s other people in the store and you have to show yourself as alpha as possible. Even if it sucks. Doesn’t matter. Smash through it. Be butch. Fuck posers. Hector stomp!

Oh … anyway, play acoustic. Preferably somewhere quiet. A quiet place, playing your pick o’ guitar quietly, is the only way you’re really going to tell if that thing can sing. Pluck note individually. Play chords. Let them resonate. Play slow. Listen close. Don’t hurry … you’re just getting to know the thing, you gotta get some of the basics out of the way first. You’re putting your hands all over it for the first time. Show due respect.

Now you can tell. Does it sing on every fret? Are there any dead spots? How does it sound when you chord it? If something’s wrong, is it due to the setup? Answer these questions and you’ll narrow down your choices for your guitar (next or new).

But there’s something beyond this you have to realize. Beyond your choice of your guitar – and that has a lot to do with who you are as a guitarist – much of what will characterize you as a player is where you choose to play your notes and chords.

That is, on any guitar, with the exception of the first five notes on the lowest string and the top five notes on the highest (low E and high E on a normally tuned, six-string guitar), there are multiple places to play any note. Your A string is the same as the fifth fret on your low E. Even though they’re the same note, you’ll notice that the two don’t sound the same. That’s because of the tone.

Stringed instruments that you fret are fairly unique in that you have multiple choices about where to fret a note or a chord. Where you decide to fret it makes a world of difference in your sound. It’ll color your repertoire.

I could talk about this difference on and on, but I can think of no better object lesson than from the Stevie Ray Vaughan video below:

At around 1 minute into the video, he describes the difference between Freddie King and Eric Clapton’s versions of Hideaway. You can tell the difference in tone. Vaughan calls it a small difference, but I maintain that it’s larger than that. That’s one of the ways you tell the difference between guitarists – their choice of fretting. You also tell by where they chord and if they place their notes closer to the top or bottom of the beat.

It’s easy to over-think something you’re interested in being good at. But, with guitar, there’s no such thing as perfect. But there’s plenty of quality. Just play, man.

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