Strumming chords slowly will let you discover a guitar’s distinctive voice.
The guitar is about many things: craftsmanship,
commerce, history, tradition,
artistry in design and ornamentation,
entertainment, physics, wood, gut, magic,
and a few other things. Mostly, the guitar is
supposed to be about sound. But that’s the
hardest of all of these to pin down.
Sound results from air molecules hitting
and exciting our eardrums, pure and
simple. But there’s no magic at all in this
objective description. The magic in musical
sound all happens subjectively—in the
brain and in how it processes the neural
impulses arriving from the ear. Sound is
very much like food and wine, in fact.
The magic happens in your own mouth,
your tongue, your palate, your nose, your
eyes, as well as in your ears and brain. I
point this out because it is equally true
that many of us “like” this or that wine
or food or sound, because we’ve been told
it’s good and we believe that we should
like it—without ever knowing whether we
genuinely do or not.
As far as guitars go, sound is complex.
Good sound is, by definition, sound that
pleases listeners, whether they understand
anything about the sound or not. However,
a guitar can have any combination or quality
of bass, treble, midrange, resonance,
definition, sustain, projection, dynamic
range, warmth, volume, percussiveness,
tonal bloom, note shape, harmonics,
sweetness, clarity (or lack of it), tonal rise
and decay time, cutting power, spareness,
evenness of response, brittleness, dryness
of tone, and tonal darkness or lightness.
So, unless you have a really sophisticated
and practiced ear, it won’t work to evaluate
a guitar by listening to someone play a
piece on it. That amount of information
overwhelms the average ear within the first
eight or 10 bars of the song.
There is a way of coming to grips with
sound that’s so simple, almost no one ever
thinks of it: really listening. In a quiet place.
It’s very much like eating food or sipping a
wine slowly—without distractions—to get
a sense of the flavors, textures, sweetness,
spiciness, and overall pleasingness. Let me
explain what I mean. It will help you next
time you’re shopping for a guitar.
What I do (among other things) is sit
down, tune the guitar, and just play a
chord. I play it slowly, so I can hear each
note separately. And then I listen. One
chord can provide a lot of information,
so I take my time. And it’s useful to also
listen to another guitar and compare it to
the one you’re evaluating. The voice of the
guitar is the voice of the guitar. Playing a
chord will give you all the sonic information
a full song can provide—without your
auditory senses being clouded by a player’s
Here’s a checklist for what you can usefully
listen for in a six-note chord. If you
can’t discriminate between some of these
criteria, the solution is to learn how to
listen. Like playing, this takes practice.
A session includes listening for:
• Dynamics: Does the guitar have a
wide dynamic range? Will it produce
different sounds when you play very
softly, softly, medium, and hard?
• Duration: Most chords will last six
to 12 seconds. This gives you a sense
of systemic sustain and also of the
sound’s quality—whether it’s warm,
sweet, tinny, rich, lively, fundamental,
shallow, breathy, open, held back, or
is rich in overtones. You’ll discover
whether you have to push the guitar
or if it speaks easily.
• Separation: Are you able to hear each
note? Or is the sound fuzzy or cloudy
and lacking focus?
• Velocity: Does the chord emerge from
the guitar quickly or slowly?
• Timbral balance: Is the guitar bass
heavy, treble heavy, or well balanced?
And regardless of the balance, does the
treble or bass die down first, leaving
the other to carry on by itself?
• String-to-string response: Is the
strength and presence of each
• Projection: Does the guitar sound
best when close up or from across the
room? (You’ll need a playing/listening
partner to explore this.) Also, does it
sound different depending on whether
you’re listening from in front or from
• Intonation: Does the guitar really play
If you repeat this listening exercise while
playing different chords up and down the
neck, you’ll get a sense of how evenly (or
not) the guitar plays along the whole fretboard.
Remember, you get to decide whether
and how much you like or dislike any of
these qualities of a guitar’s tonal response.
All the information is in the soundbox. You
just need to know how to listen without
overwhelming your ear.
A professional luthier
since the early 1970s,
Ervin Somogyi is one
of the world’s most
rosette designers. To learn more about
Somogyi, his instruments, or his rosette
and inlay artwork, visit esomogyi.com