Even the most advanced technology cannot replicate the organic, physical connection you feel
when you have your hands on strings and wood.
Make no mistake. The title of this column
is “Esoterica Electrica,” which
by some inference refers to guitar technology.
Right now, I’m sitting in a café typing
on my MacBook, which is connected to the
cloud via Wi-Fi, fiber optics, and satellite
links. When I’m finished, I’ll fire this piece
off in an email along with some images I
made with my digital camera and edited in
Photoshop. You’re probably reading all this
on a computer, iPad, or cell phone.
Digital technology is now a part of
almost every step in the music-making
process too. So what does this have to do
with guitars? Analog instruments are links
to our most basic and real selves. When
the pace of technology saps our strength
and leaves us overwhelmed, closely holding
some wood and wire and banging out
some guttural tones is more than just a
Technology isn’t new to musical instruments.
As quaint as it seems today, the
European-style violin was super high-tech
when it was developed in the 15th century.
The modern piano came of age in the 18th
century when the dynamic keyboard was
perfected. It too was cutting-edge stuff at
the time. Of course, the electric guitar was a
variation on its acoustic predecessor—developed
to take advantage of 1930s amplification
devices. And around the same time,
the electromechanical Hammond organ led
the way for the synthesizers of the 1960s to
be adopted into modern music.
In some ways it seems that technology
in music has been on a steady march, and
quite possibly at the leading edge of change.
But at some level, musical instrument technology
is different from, say, communications
equipment. There are objective goals
in many arenas that can be measured by
speed and efficiency. No one denies that
the first car across the finish line is the winner.
But much like figure skating or dance,
music isn’t just about how high you jump.
And although developments in gear may
make it easier to achieve a desired result,
that result can’t always be measured with a
stopwatch or seen on a spreadsheet.
Consequently, the electric guitar has
reached a point similar to the “classical”
instruments that preceded it, locked in
time and subject to only minor variations.
The use of 7-, 8-, and even 10-string guitars
is merely a throwback to 16th-century
lutes, which sported at least eight courses
of strings. In one of the biggest changes in
decades, the 1980s saw the development of
the locking tremolo, which did broaden the
range of techniques a player could employ,
but didn’t really change the form. Switching
systems, external tone-modification devices
(stompboxes), and even digital modeling
have been added as peripheral gear, but
have not really altered the instrument itself.
Throughout all of these changes, the basic
format of the instrument has remained constant.
What’s up with that?
When you strap on a guitar and strum it,
you are transported to a place that even the
most modern technology cannot take you.
It’s a direct link to all that has come before
you. A few minutes of playing guitar is like
visiting with your heroes and paying homage
to the human experience all at once. Chasing
the sounds that captured your imagination
as a kid, and making noises that bring those
memories into the present and beyond,
places us firmly into a continuum that
underscores what it is to be alive. Having
your hands on strings and wood that vibrate
against your body is a primal conversation
between you and the universe. It’s the direct,
physical connection that computer-driven
touch screens don’t provide.
The interest in vintage instruments
underscores this belief. Guitars with history
have experience that technology cannot
replicate. When I build an instrument, I’m
thinking about all of this, and I know a few
builders who do the same sort of thing. I’m
not making a toaster. I’m crafting a tool for
communicating with your imagination, and
every choice I make is aligned on that goal.
Because playing a guitar is so personal, its
creation has to be personal too. If technology
is a part of that, fine. But I usually find that
the more sweat I use, the better the result.
I suppose someone will make the argument
that even we are ones and zeroes at the atomic
level, but for me, the buck stops here.
This isn’t intended to be a concise history
of musical instruments. I’m merely
pointing out that every era produces
hallmark gear. Those that survive seem
to become frozen in amber, only open to
small refinements in design. Meanwhile,
there is no shortage of modern technology
surrounding the cast of musical characters.
Despite the onslaught of digital technology
in recording, mixing, and distribution of
music, the instruments we hold to our bodies
and strum seem resistant to it. It’s a way
of getting off the fast track and holding on
to what’s real.
noted designer, builder,
and player who co-founded
one of the first boutique
guitar brands, in 1973.
Today, as the director of
Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar. To
learn more, visit guitardesigner.com