One of the best guitar sounds ever recorded is Pete Townshend’s
rhythm work on Who’s Next. But when you listen to it broken down,
track by track, you’re surprised at how unremarkable it sounds by itself.
Walter was a dyed-in-the-wool
blues and R&B fan, and his
memory was seemingly photographic.
Maybe I should say audiographic.
His recollection of sounds and song
structures was a constant source of
amazement to those around him.
One time, I was messing around with
a Keith Richards-inspired rhythm
part in the key of B as Walter passed
through the room. He paused for a
moment, screwed his face up into a
questioning look and then declared
in a droll growl, “‘Lickin’ Stick’ by
George Torrance and the Naturals.”
I’d never heard the 1968 regional hit
by the Pittsburgh-based group, but
when I looked it up, of course he was
correct. It was even in the same key.
It’s a great groove song, and thanks
to Walter, it’s now in my repertoire.
Another time he was buried in a
magazine but suddenly looked up
over his reading glasses and corrected
my E7 to the proper Em7 in a Robin
Trower song I was attempting.
As a machinist and toolmaker,
Walter was a master, but his avocation
was tracking down intangible
things, and he was seemingly less
successful at that. When he wasn’t
creeping through the woods looking
for Bigfoot, Walter’s main object of
obsession was a very particular guitar
tone. Being a Howlin’ Wolf devotee,
Walter was captivated by the
sound achieved by Wolf ’s guitarist,
Willie Johnson, and he was on a
crusade to emulate it. As you might
suspect, this involved studying photos
to try to determine Johnson’s
guitar and amp setup, as well as
interviewing people who witnessed
live shows for clues. Walter’s quest
even drove him to try numerous
period-correct cheapo guitars on
the chance that the photos were
red herrings. Still, Johnson’s tone
remained elusive to Walter.
Surely, I thought, if Johnson’s
sound was to be recreated, the entire
signal chain would have to be duplicated.
This would entail guitar, cord,
amp, microphone, preamp, recording
medium, mastering, and pressing—
not to mention the listener’s sound
system. It seemed that knowing what
the instrument sounded like in the
room at the time had little to do with
what Walter was searching for. It all
reminded me of the endless chat about
which pickup delivers “the Peter Green
sound.” But even there, one question
should probably be: Am I interested in
sounding like Green or like my stereo
system’s rendition of him?
One of my first backstage experiences
was during one of the Jeff Beck
Group’s early tours. While showing
vintage guitars to Beck, I listened to
him demo a goldtop Les Paul with
P-90 pickups. He sounded pretty
much exactly like Jeff Beck. Smiling,
he handed me the guitar to play,
which I did (nervously) and it sounded
. . . exactly like me. The same
guitar, the same amp, the same settings.
Magic quotient? Zero. This has
happened repeatedly over the years.
Edward Van Halen’s former tech
Zeke Clark once handed me Eddie’s
guitar on the VH stage to play—it
sounded like me. Standing onstage at
the LA Forum, my fingers on Andy
Summer’s fretboard with his vast Pete
Cornish pedalboard at my disposal—
no dice, I couldn’t conjure the Police.
This has played out dozens of times
with the same result. By now, we’re
all tired of hearing the “head, heart,
and hands” cliché, but in the end it
applies to a very large degree.
Still, there is a component of our
gear’s signature that allows our hands
to follow the head and heart. In my
estimation, it has more to do with a
combination of factors, not the least
of which is a guitar’s ability to transmit
a player’s dynamics to a willing
amplifier partner. I’ve had guitars that
deliver a singular “tone” that kills, but
their ability to let me bend this sound
into a dynamic performance is lacking.
It’s the give and take, the yin and
yang of an instrument’s personality
that makes it a “go-to” guitar. Once
again, I’ll go out on a limb and say
this trait starts with the guitar, and if
the guitar ain’t got it, you can’t make
a sow’s ear fly. I’m not talking about
“good” tone (that’s the subject for
a another column). I’m referring to
one that lets you enjoy yourself while
interacting with the music and other
players. Which brings us to another
dimension of Walter’s quest for tone.
One of the most distinctive and
powerful guitar sounds on record is
Pete Townshend’s rhythm work on
. I was able to listen to
a recording of that album that was
broken down instrument by instrument,
track by track. I was floored
by the naked sound of Townshend’s
guitar. It was thin, relatively clean,
and not particularly breathtaking.
I thought that if I was playing in a
tribute band with this tone, I would
be disappointed. As I listened, I
wondered where the magic had
gone. Then, as the track progressed,
the magic appeared in the form of a
grand piano playing behind the guitar’s
changes. Bingo. I experienced the
same phenomenon listening to Rocco
Prestia in the studio. When his bass
part was soloed, I thought, “What’s
the big deal?” When I heard it with
the drums, I recognized genius.
This lesson tells us that what we
perceive to be on a recording sometimes
can fool us. When I talk to
pro players, we often discuss “finding
the slot,” both stylistically and
sonically. It’s better to find a sound
that makes you comfortable and able
to play with your bandmates while
taking up only the bandwidth allotted
to the guitar’s part of the puzzle.
If a guitar’s sound is big enough to
stand on its own, there won’t be
much room for the song. That’s why
it’s important to have an instrument
that responds to my musicality as
opposed to simply nailing a “tone,”
even if it sounds a little thin or
weak on its own. It’s the sum of the
parts that counts, which is hard to
remember when picking out a guitar.
I suspect if Walter heard Willie
Johnson playing alone in a room, he
might suggest a different chord and
then continue walking.
noted designer, builder,
and player who co-founded
Hamer Guitars, one of
the first boutique guitar
brands, in 1973. Since
then, he has worked or
recorded with many of the most talented
names in music. Today, as the director
of Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar.