October 1, 2015
The emotional wallop of the acoustic guitar sometimes flies under the radar. Even if you mostly play electric, here are some things to consider about unplugging.
I have a love-hate relationship with acoustic guitars. My infatuation with the 6-string really blasted off with the Ventures. That’s the sound I wanted, and the way to get it was powered by electricity. Before I’d even held a guitar, I knew I wanted a Mosrite, which I was sure was made of fiberglass like the surfboards the Beach Boys, Surfaris, and the Challengers rode in their off time. Bristling with space-age switchgear and chrome-plated hardware, those solidbody hotrod guitars were the fighter jets of my musical dreams. I didn’t even know what those old-timey round-hole guitars were called. As the singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey strummed off into the sunset, the pace of technology pushed the look and sound of the electric guitar (and bass) into the limelight and into my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I had to begin my guitar tutelage on a rented Gibson “student” acoustic. At least it sort of looked like the ones the Beatles occasionally played. Even so, I couldn’t wait to trade it in.
By the late 1960s, everybody had to have an acoustic guitar. America's youth had gone through the Greenwich Village folk boom and entered the West Coast Laurel Canyon scene. Young women who wanted to be Joni Mitchell and Neil Young-inspired men floated on down to local musical instrument emporiums to pick out their badge of artistry. In Europe, folkies blended traditional troubadour tunes with blues and rock, creating a genre that survives to this day. The most fuzzed-out psychedelic combos proudly displayed their introspective acoustic side. Everybody had an acoustic guitar. Of course, country music never forgot. Except for a short interlude of microphone-hugging country crooners, Nashville kept the strum going.
So, what makes the acoustic guitar so indefatigable? First and foremost is the beauty of its sound. Like the violin or the piano, the unadorned guitar has a purity of sound and purpose that is moving in a way electronic instruments are not. In concert, the connection between the musician and the sound the audience hears is undeniable. It’s a tightrope walk, where technology cannot fool the listener. The fewer links in the chain, the closer the bond between performer and patron—and that’s the experience people crave.d
Before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied cowpoke guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again.
Another more practical aspect is portability. Although buskers have more recently turned to elaborate amplifier and looper setups for street concerts, not much beats a great singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Certainly, I can’t imagine dragging an amp and a synthesizer down to the beach to jam some Bill Evans while friends roast s’mores. Okay, maybe. But the simplicity of a naked guitar in a dorm hallway or in a coffee shop can be a refreshing break from the relentless attack of electronic pop culture. In a world of autotune, backing tracks, and the layered-to-death ambush of modern music, a fingerpicked guitar is like a walk in the woods on a spring day. The fact that it can be easily taken anywhere makes it the instrument of choice for so many.
Another strong argument for the acoustic axe is its supremacy as an accompanist. Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t leave a lot of viable options. Although Chet Baker managed a career as a crooning trumpeter, playing a horn while vocalizing requires additional backup. Singing while playing the violin isn’t much easier. The piano is probably the most versatile sounding accompanist, but as much as I like Diana Krall, Ray Charles, and Elton John, their instrument of choice forces them to bring the party to the piano, not the other way around. You can argue that the electric guitar is a contender. Unfortunately, the slight portability downside of needing an amp and its tendency to drown out vocals makes it the second choice, whereas the acoustic guitar checks all the right boxes.
This all isn’t to say that an acoustic guitar lacks the ability to deliver impressive soloing performance. Some of the most inspiring and emotionally vibrant instrumental music is delivered on acoustics. The roster of players currently burning up the fretboard in every genre is immense—possibly the most in history. The acoustic guitar’s forte is to bring passionate and thoughtful melody to any song. This secret weapon has been applied to recordings from artists as diverse as the Beatles, Kiss, and Dream Theater. In the rhythm department, the acoustic steel string has been responsible for the foundational power of the Who, Alice in Chains, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, and countless other “heavy” bands.
So before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied, cowpoke acoustic guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again. They might not be as loud, or as flashy, but they pack an emotional wallop that often flies under the radar. Many decades down the line, I wish I’d paid more attention to what that first student guitar had to offer me. Maybe I’d have kept it, too
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An overachieving overdrive that gets way bigger than its name suggests.
Sweet balanced crunch tones. Dynamic. Sparkling, full, and clean at attenuated guitar volume. High-quality build.
Great Eastern FX Small Speaker Overdrive
Overdrive pedals don’t often set my world alight—even great ones. But I’ve spent a month with the England-built Great Eastern FX Small Speaker Overdrive, and it remains attached to the other end of my coil-y cable. Ostensibly, the Small Speaker is meant to be a variation on the tweed-Fender-Champ-in-a-box theme. However, both the pedal’s name and the Champ associations fail to do justice to how large and alive it sounds and feels tethered to a bigger amp.
For one thing, the Small Speaker has more headroom and low-end ballast than a hot, wide-open tweed Champ. You can certainly summon the focus and midrange-y punch that makes that amp a star in front of a microphone. But thanks to the Small Speaker’s excellent EQ, you can also conjure a substantial measure of tuneful low end that is a perfect counterweight to its open, aerated highs and mids, and makes this little pedal a wrecking ball.
The Small Speaker is also super dynamic. If you set the pedal up for a crunchy, high-gain setting, it gets much cleaner at attenuated guitar volumes—not sort of clean and thin, or slightly crunchy, but full-bodied and sparklingly clean. This characteristic, among many others, makes it a dream pairing for a black-panel Fender. I’ve had the black-panel Tremolux used for this review for decades. It’s flat-out my favorite amp. But in all that time, I don’t ever remember it sounding quite as sweetly crunchy as it does when hooked up to the Small Speaker Overdrive. What an impressive little pedal.
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Need an affordable distortion pedal? Look no further.
We live in the golden age of boutique pedals that are loaded with advanced features—many of which were nearly unthinkable a decade or so ago. But there’s something that will always be valuable about a rock-solid dirt box that won’t break your wallet. Here’s a collection of old classics and newly designed stomps that cost less than an average concert ticket.
JHS Series 3 Overdrive
This OD is part of the company’s Series 3 line which offers affordable stomps with simple control setups. Along with volume and drive controls, it offers a body knob that tweaks the EQ and a gain switch that moves between more saturated and crunchier sounds.
Thanks to an extremely dedicated following among Nashville session cats, the other green stomp is now offered in a downsized setup. It can run up to 18V for increased headroom and sports glow-in-the-dark knobs for those extremely dark stages.
TC Electronic MojoMojo
This all-analog distortion offers classic, vintage-inspired tones with a familiar control setup of volume, gain, bass, and treble. The real secret sauce is in the voice switch, which allows you to move between a more natural sound and a bass cut.
Since 1978, the DS-1 has been a go-to for generations of guitarists. It offers a scooped sound that can take you from grunge to shred and has been affordable for decades.
EarthQuaker Devices Plumes
Although loosely based on a classic circuit, EQD has replaced the 4558 IC with a JFET op-amp for a more mid-focused sound. In addition to the standard controls, the toggle switch moves between two different clipping options or no clipping at all for a wide-open clean boost.
Electro-Harmonix East River Drive
A JRC4558 IC-loaded circuit that creates the classic symmetrical overdrive sound, this is an all-analog affair that is true bypass, housed in a rock-solid chassis, and can run on a 9-volt battery—which is included.
Fender Hammerstone Overdrive
One of the newest entries on this list is a retro-looking stomp that offers some interesting features under the hood. The original circuit allows you to control the mids before the gain stage, plus there’s an internal trim pot to wrangle the high end.
Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini
One of the most popular stompboxes of all time has been shrunk down to a mini-sized wonder. With an oversized drive knob and two smaller tone and level controls, this green monster aims to cop all the classic midrange tones of the original.
Pro Co Rat 2
Is it a fuzz? Or a distortion? Or an overdrive? Well, thanks to the famous filter control, you can blur the lines between all the different flavors of dirt. It offers a totally analog signal path, glow-in-the-dark graphics, and the trademark heavy-duty enclosure.
There’s no mistaking that shade of yellow. This dead-simple setup offers output and distortion controls along with a vintage-sounding germanium clipping circuit that does everything in its power to blur the line between overdrive and fuzz.
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