Even the finest instruments—from vintage Martin D-28s to 1959 Les Pauls—need to be paired with sympathetic and capable musicians to create rich and magical sounds.
Why are some vintage guitars so great? For that matter, why are some new guitars so good? As guitarists, we dream of 1959 Les Pauls, 1937 D-28s, 1953 Telecasters, and John D’Angelico-built New Yorkers. Considering how wildly different these guitars are, what is their shared, magical elixir that captivates musicians and listeners alike?
Having had the privilege of experiencing wonderful examples of all these instruments, I’m quite sure neither the year they’re made nor their model number is where the magic comes from—the same way a person’s exact birthday or name doesn’t determine their personality. A date of construction or a model name is a convenient identifier of an instrument with specific traits. I believe what makes these instruments desirable is how musically useful they are, even if only in certain contexts.
Consider, for a moment, where good guitar music comes from. It requires two components: a musician and an instrument. And the best music will come from a particular instrument with qualities that perfectly complement the musical direction of its player.
In terms of sound, there are four attributes that are universally useful to musicians: volume, projection, sustain, and balance. Volume is how loud the guitar is to the player, while projection is how loud the instrument is to the audience. Sustain is simply how long notes last before fading away into silence, and balance is how alike the individual notes of a guitar are to each other. These are the sonic boundaries a musician has available to express music on a guitar. The volume and projection of an instrument determine how dynamic a player can be, enabling him or her to alter loudness and softness by hand. The duration of notes influences a player’s ability to create long, lyrical melodic lines or abrupt, staccato bursts to capture the ears. And a good balance easily delivers consistency over the whole sonic range of an instrument. These characteristics separate good instruments from lesser guitars, simply because, at their best, they offer a greater range of expression.
Along with these measurable parameters comes a unique one: the individual sonority of an instrument. That’s the true sonic signature. In fact, sonority is the identifier of most types of sounds, be it differentiating a trumpet from a violin or a tuba from a banjo. It’s what makes a Telecaster identifiable from a Les Paul, or a dreadnought from an archtop. Technically speaking, we can look at a soundwave from one of these instruments and identify the wave’s height or amplitude as volume, and the length of time the soundwave continues as sustain, but we need to zoom in very close to see the exact shape of each wave as the sonority. The sonority is determined by a composite of all of an instrument’s overtones added with its fundamental vibration, making a signature shape. And this musical fingerprint reflects the whole picture—both the unique instrument and the touch of the player.
Along with the sonic aspects, there are tactile and aesthetic considerations. A great instrument needs to encourage a player to perform in a manner consistent with its sonority and musical context. The shape of the body and neck, the setup, the weight, and, yes, even the look, need to affirm and encourage the kinds of sounds a musician draws from the strings. If any aspect of the instrument conflicts with the musical direction of its player, the musicality of the whole musician/instrument organism is eroded.Some instruments are so highly regarded because they are entirely appropriate for the music a player can bring to life with them. They possess inherent qualities that offer musicians broad latitude for expression and encourage the very form of music the player is creating. They are enablers! Whether an instrument is young or old, a player young or old, or the music new or time-honed, music drawn from unimpeded creative expression is always fresh. To me, there is no magic in an instrument. Rather, there is creative joy when a musician is perfectly matched with an instrument that encourages incredible music. Those are the instruments we love—the tools that do their job effortlessly well.