Can one guitar really do it all?
“Despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, every generation thinks they invented sex.”—John Grail, philosopher, pickup designer.
I’m reminded of this quote every time I hear terms like “Business 2.0,” “The New Economy,” and especially “multitasking.” Spurred on by our love for ever-accelerating technology, it seems many folks believe that somehow our brains are keeping pace with the speed of semiconductors. If you’ve ever tried to talk to someone while they’re typing a document you already know how well this is working. Regardless, in almost every segment of society, multitasking is treated as some sort of new order. The truth is that multitasking isn’t just limited to computers—think of the Swiss Army Knife designed in the 1890s, or the venerable Shopsmith of the 1950s that could be converted into five different machines. For that matter, consider the guitar itself. Capable of single-note lines, chords either strummed or plucked, sound effects, volume swells—on and on it goes. Perhaps it’s this versatility that not only endears us to the electric guitar, but is also the catalyst for a desire to have even more choices. Certainly, salespeople believe that more bells and whistles give them greater ability to move product off the shelves, but let’s examine the potential and pitfalls of trying to cover all of the bases when designing a guitar.
Early electrics were simple affairs with one pickup and a volume control, but it wasn’t too long before the tone control made its debut. If one pickup was good, builders thought maybe two or even three would be better. But even at this point in the electric’s evolution, compromises were being made. Multiple pickups witness the string’s vibration at different or multiple points along its length, allowing for more tonal variations, but the added magnetic pull changes the fundamental way the string vibrates. The same basic guitar with one pickup sounds different than if it had two, which is easily demonstrated by the difference between a Telecaster and its single-pickup sibling, the Esquire. There is practically a cult of players who are devoted to the Les Paul Junior with a single P-90 because it rings out the way a twopickup Special rarely does. On the other side of the argument sits the Stratocaster, whose versatile three-pickup design delivers five variations with the flip of a switch, and can be easily modded to provide more. True to form, this sonic buffet comes with a price. The amount of magnetism focused on the strings by three sets of pole-piece magnets spikes the output and then puts the brakes on each note, giving the Strat its trademark percussive attack. In each of these cases the addition of features subtracts from something else.
Changing the scale length (the distance between bridge and nut) is another way to produce characteristic sounds. As scale length is increased, more tension is required to produce the same note. The higher tension creates a more harmonically rich tone that guitarists refer to as twangy, and is slightly harder to play. Shorter scales play more easily and place more emphasis on the fundamental of the note, producing a fat tone. It’s often this difference in tension that players respond to physically and aurally when choosing a guitar. The effect is noticeable enough that some builders have tried to split the difference between long and short in an attempt to provide the best of both worlds. Although some say this compromise is neither fish nor fowl, the results are certainly popular. The promise of doing two things at once is again at the heart of the marketing pitch.
Recently, the multitasking concept resurfaced in the form of the so-called “hybrid” guitars such as the Taylor T-5 and the Parkwood PW-H4, which attempt to deliver both electric and acoustic sounds in one instrument. By adding acoustic-type pickup saddles to an electric guitar, musicians are promised the ability to shift between both types of sounds. This is something I did in 1991 with the DuoTone model, so I can say firsthand it’s difficult to get each voice even close to perfect. Once again, it’s the balance of compromise that dictates the result. Even with onboard modeling, it seems that each builder has to decide where to split the hair. When an acoustic bridge is used, it may yield a good acoustic sound, but the electric tone will suffer accordingly. Use a metal bridge for rock tones and the acoustic side has an uphill climb. Any way you slice it, it doesn’t seem like you can get 100 percent of everything, but as a builder, it’s fun to try.
In all of these cases, the question ultimately comes down to whether “almost” is good enough. For a wedding group, getting 80% of the exact sound may be close enough. Modeling guitars (and amps) that can get very close to the “real” deal may be perfect when you have to cover everything from ABBA to ZZ Top and want to travel light. Purists, for whom only 100 percent will do, will travel with a big locker full of guitars and will play only one thing at a time.
In many ways, this whole multitasking thing reminds me of politics. Instead of focusing on doing a few things really well, builders sometimes try to design something for everyone in one instrument. There’s always a lot of promise up front, but when you get to the gig things may not go so smoothly. The designs I respect the most zero in on a particular concept and take it to an elegant conclusion. Because in life and in guitars, all things to all people may not get each individual task fully done.
Noted designer, builder, and player Jol Dantzig founded Hamer Guitars, the first boutique guitar brand, in 1973. Since then, he has worked or recorded with many of the most talented and famous names in music. Today, as the director of Dantzig Guitar Design he continues to help define the art of custom guitar.