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Part 1: Getting Started
Part 2: Strings
Part 3: Compression
Part 4: Pickups
Part 5: EQing, at last!
We’ve talked about what you play, how you play, who you play with, small body vs. big body guitars, different woods, flatpickin’ and fingerstyle, flesh and nails, and strings, wow, did we talk about strings! Last month we visited with String King Dean Farley, and that visit will continue for part of this column as well.
The next layer of the onion is balance, not just your guitar against the rest of the band or against your own vocals, but the balance across the guitar. That leads us naturally into a discussion about compression, which can be your best friend or worst enemy.
“Did you know,” Farley quizzed me during our conversation, “back in the ‘20s and '30s jazz guitar gurus, particularly Eddy Lang, were using wound B-strings?”
“Really? I did not know that.” I considered for a moment. “That would really fix that G-string to B-string hump, but wouldn’t that make the high E-string stick out like a sore thumb?”
We want our guitars to sound very balanced, but at the same time we want a shimmering high end, and we want an oceanic low end, too. And in the middle is where some of the most difficult frequencies are, because those are the ones that our ears are designed to hear best, and they’re also the most likely to turn ugly when you put them through a PA system or guitar amp. So balance is incredibly important in a guitar.
“I’m a nitpicker with balance,” Farley states. “We want the sonority to be rich, full, pleasing in whatever way we think pleasing is, but that’s why I brought up the analogy with the jazz players in the ‘20s and ‘30s using wound B-strings. Why did they do it? It’s obvious. When the Strat was invented, the gauge that was used on the Stratocaster was 12-52, .012, .016, .024-wound, .032, .042, .052, and if you look at a Strat you notice that the biggest pole piece is on the G. That’s a function of a pickup, and that’s why some people to this day like to use wound G-strings on their Strat, because of that pole piece. And then people went, ‘Oh, gee, I can’t bend this,’ and all of a sudden that’s when the plain strings started coming.”
That hump from the G-string to the B-string is troublesome. Some pickups, especially magnetic soundhole type pickups, accentuate it (you can read PG’s roundup of seven soundhole pickups in the July 2009 issue). Compression can help to smooth that hump out a bit if it’s really distracting. A little bit of compression can be a wonderful thing, even in well-balanced guitars. The right kind of compression can give a guitar that little extra oomph; it smooths out the dynamics so you can bring the whole thing up in the mix. But too much compression can make your guitar sound like it’s having a heart attack.
“So compression is a tricky thing,” Farley says, “the right amount is the right amount; it’s like the old story about the three bears and the porridge, just right. You know when it’s wrong. Good sound is good sound, and questionable sound is questionable sound, and usually if you follow your muse you will bump into a sound you like.”
There is a ridiculous number of compressors on the market, and some are more appropriate for acoustic guitars than others. I like Aphex Systems Punch Factory because it doesn’t alter your tone at all, gives you an incredible amount of control over your dynamic range, and really lets you punch through a mix. I’ve used both electric and acoustic guitars with it, and have never had it pump or break up on me. And who doesn’t love a bright orange stomp box? The Fishman Aura Spectrum DI (see our review in the November issue of PG) has a compressor built into it which is really easy to use and extremely transparent as well. There are other pedals and multi-effects processors that offer compressors as part of their array, and there are loads of expensive rack-mountable compressors if you want to go nuts. However, it has to be said that if you’re finding an imbalance between strings that your pickup turns into a major speed bump, you might want to 1) try some different strings, 2) adjust your pickup, or 3) try a different pickup.
Farley explains a little further: “Now if you take the flip side of that, some people like the sound of compression and that’s alright, if they like it and it works for them. Compression reacts to the way you strike the strings, and that is a major factor in coming up with your own type of sound. It all depends on what you’re trying to do, it all depends on what you have in your mind’s ear.”
But what about pickups?
The very best advice I can give you is to listen to a lot of guitar players live, and when you hear something you like, ask about it. When you hear something you don’t like, ask about that, too. Pick some guitar players you really like, and see if they have their gear posted online. If three or four or six or eight of the people you like and feel good about trusting use the same things, it’s probably good stuff.
If you’re interested in a magnetic soundhole pickup, you can try it in your guitar before you buy it. Put on some fresh strings and see what you think of it. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what an under-saddle transducer or any other internally mounted permanent installation is going to sound like in a guitar until it’s in there, so do your research. As Farley says, “Don’t believe everything you hear, but if the information comes from trusted sources then you can bet that you can use it. But if it just comes from hype it really isn’t all that useful. Sound is sound, and sound will win over hype every day of the week.”
Even ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of acoustic guitar pickups sounded like crap. Sorry guys, but they did. Harsh and brittle, piezo quackery, distortion when you played too hard; or there’d be one string that was obnoxiously loud that generated the most horrifying feedback imaginable. Fortunately in the last decade or so the explosion in acoustic guitar boutiquery has caused a similar ramping up of the technology used to amplify them. There are more natural, “guitary” sounding pickups on the market than ever before, and new ones are being introduced with great regularity.
Next month we’ll talk more about pickups and preamps and start getting into the nitty gritty of how to EQ your acoustic guitar for stage.