Jol Dantzig's Esoterica Electrica: Perfect Intonation and Other Myths
Jol Dantzig channels his inner Andy Rooney to set the record straight on a handful of guitar-related folklores.
The only thing more annoying than hearing that the secret to guitar is “in your hands” is being told that it can be proven to you in less than 30 seconds. (I’ll save that for later.) Often, a guitar builder’s job is talking a client off the ledge created by mythology and misinformation. Mastering this skill can be more difficult than making instruments. The guitar community uses a lot of buzzwords and phrases as shorthand for complicated concepts, so some straight talk is in order. Following are a few examples, and I’ll try not to make it sound too much like a pet-peeves list.
Tone. This term is one that bends, shifts, and morphs more fluidly that an Allan Holdsworth solo. Is tone the attack—or, as virtuoso Steve Kimock puts it, the “nose”—of the note? Is it timbre, resonance, color, or frequency signature? Is it the way different parts of the note decay? Or is it all of these things? There is even a hand-soap brand called Tone, which is good for those who believe great clean tone is in your hands. The only certain thing is that Peter Green had excellent tone on his solos—even the ones actually played by Danny Kirwan.
Tonewood. Just mentioning this word is a losing battle. I once made the mistake of using it in a social-media post, and the response was spectacular. I was informed that wood has nothing to do with the way a guitar sounds, and that it’s all in the pickups. Even so, I also learned that an ebony fretboard has more treble than one made of rosewood. It used to be that tonewoods were the ones that luthiers employed to make acoustic guitars, but now it seems to be some kind of grading system. Still, I use the term myself, because it’s code for “nice wood I pay a lot of money for.” I imagine if I just said that, it would cause a firestorm too.
Sustain. If there’s a word in the guitarist’s lexicon that rivals “tone,” this is it. In the 1980s, Hamer built guitars with a device called the Sustainiac built right in. You could hold any note indefinitely, and it worked great. When it was revealed at the NAMM show, however, a funny thing happened. Nothing. Shredders played blinding fast, never-ending arpeggios and never stopped on any note long enough to experience the sustain, let alone go out for a bite. Famous guitarists tried it and shrugged, and said they would never use it.
Curious, I started listening for sustain in recorded music, but I seldom heard any. Guitarists seemed to linger on notes occasionally, but rarely longer than a few beats (Carlos Santana being the exception). This set me to wondering why every guitar or amp advertisement was required to use the word “sustain” as a feature. It still puzzles me 30 years later. If you can explain it, please do so in the comments section below.
Fret jobs. Everyone dreads these. The promise is that a fret job can resurrect your axe, or even make it better than new. But there are also many stories about fret jobs gone wrong. Will a fret job ruin your guitar? Actually, many brand-new guitars have endured a fret job already. Most likely the frets were slammed into the fretboard with a hammer or pneumatic press, and a fret job was required to undo the damage. The practice is so common that there is now a computerized machine to fix frets. Why bother to make precision fretwire in the first place? When your frets wear out, go to one of those computerized guitar techs.
Fret buzz. Every guitar buzzes, and it doesn’t matter. Well, sometimes it matters. But for the most part, a small amount of fret buzz is hidden in the music. It’s camouflaged with gain, fuzz, 60-cycle hum, and the roar of the paying audience. Have you ever wondered why Carlos Santana always plays that signature note? It’s the one that doesn’t buzz. It’s the one that sustains. If a fret buzzes so much that the note is dead, that’s another problem altogether. Then you get a fret job.
Perfect intonation. Before I wear out my welcome, I’ll circle back to the concept of perfect intonation. It doesn’t exist. Even the tuning of a piano—which uses a separate string (or strings) for each note—must be compromise-tuned to play an even-tempered chord. The constraint of fixed-position frets that are shared by all six strings on a guitar means that some notes must be a trade-off. As guitarists progress in learning their instrument, fingering pressure comes into play. A proficient player learns to micro-bend notes instinctively on the fly to intonate chords and runs. Plug your guitar into a digital tuner and play every note on the fretboard. You will find that some notes are in tune and some are not. This is something that guitar players have struggled with and will struggle with forever.
So, in effect, the secret is in your hands after all.