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Walking the Wires: Getting Electrified

February 4, 2011
The acoustic guitar is now and will ever be my truest musical love, but I’ve always had a secret hankerin’ to turn it up and rock it like my back ain’t got no bone. I’ve toyed with electric guitars over the years, even had a few wild and passionate affairs with hollow-bodies, Parker Flys, and even a stray Strat or two, but they never lasted more than a few months, or in one case, past one record.

So troubling was this that I finally consulted an expert, my buddy Dean Farley (PG's Signal Chain columnist) who advised me almost instantaneously that what I really wanted was a Telecaster. “Huh? Why would I want one of those?” Dean went on to extol the virtues and the vibe of the oft-overlooked Tele, and after much shaking of my head, I said, “Alright, I’ll give it a shot, but I don’t know...”

I actually owned a Telecaster copy for about six months back in the early ‘80s, and I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Part of the reason could have been that I was playing for a very short time (very, very short) in a country-rock cover band, and I really, truly hated every single song on our setlist.

But off I went to my local guitar shop, dubious but intrigued. There were literally dozens of Telecasters to choose from, and I probably played most of them. Being primarily a fingerstylist, I just dug right in and quickly got a cool Jerry Reed-ish vibe goin’, which I liked a lot. Then I started messing with more of a blues thing. Then I switched to the neck pickup, dialed in a sweet creamy clean tone and started getting my schmaltz on. Bringing in a little dirt got me to funky town. Switching to the bridge pickup gave me a hot-buttered popcorn sound that was hugely entertaining. I ended up playing long enough for the kids in the guitar store to start looking at their watches and getting snarky.

Later I called Dean back. “Is there anything you can’t do on a Telecaster?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, I’m in.”

(Confession, our conversations have never been so concise.)

I was still dubious enough about my own history of commitment issues to not buy the $1500 American Standard, which I really loved. I chose a really great playing MIM Tele for around $500.

“So what’s the point of all this?” you may be asking with some impatience. Here’s the candy center: It took my songwriting to places I never imagined myself going. I, believe it or not, rock. And I rock pretty garsh darn hard, to be honest. The new songs that this guitar brought out of me have influences I didn’t know I had, from Motown to The Stones to just a hint of Nirvana. And lucky for me, I am surrounded by some incredibly capable musicians who cut their teeth on classic rock, blues, and funk, so my musical vision (is there a word for “the music I hear in my head that doesn’t exist yet”?) carried over into musical reality perfectly.

I like to joke that guitars come loaded with songs, and it’s just a matter of couch time and letting your fingers do the walkin’ before they come flooding out. But they’re not really loaded with songs. Here’s the secret behind that mojo: You can count on the quality makers to have a sound. Martins are going to have “that Martin sound,” Taylors sound like Taylors, Gallaghers sound like Gallaghers, and so on. Each guitar, however, sounds unique within that context. One of ‘em shimmers a little bit more above the fifth fret than another one. One has a sweet spot in the bass that makes your whole body vibrate just the way you like it. One has so much definition in the mids that you can’t wait to hear it against your bass player. Every time I sign my name, it looks a little different, too, but my half-assed scrawl is immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever seen it. So the unfamiliar parts of the guitar’s signature tone get highlighted, and it makes us hear possibilities that hadn’t occurred to us before, and that’s where the songs come from.

Think of guitars sort of like... the nibs for icing a cake that fit on the end of the bag you put the frosting in. One nib makes a ribbon of frosting come out that you can wrap around the cake or lay on top. One nib makes little flowers. One nib lets you write stuff like “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations,” and another lets you do old English lettering. So, for me, the Telecaster is the nib that lets me write stuff I never could have written with an acoustic guitar. Don’t get me wrong, I still love acoustic guitars so much it’s dangerous. But dang, it sure is fun to rock.

And yes, shameless plug time, you can hear ten of these new songs on my new record, The Luckiest Woman