Every detail that makes up a guitar contributes to its unique personality. Just like your friends.
One of the best things about being a guitarist is the people you meet and the friends you make along the way. Whether you’re a pro or a weekender, making music attracts a wide variety of people who share your passion for guitar and aren’t afraid to tell you about it. I’ve always been a fan of the swath of characters that wash up on the shores of guitardom, and to say that they can be interesting and entertaining is putting it mildly. It’s pretty certain that when you stop to think of the people you call friends, you’ll find that many are in your orbit because of the guitar. Maybe it’s because the guitar has so many facets and can slot into so many genres of music. It’s a bond that can last a lifetime.
Oddly enough, the instrument itself is a lot like your friends—they all have a personality, and probably no two are exactly the same. Some are old friends that are always there for you. They’re comfortable to be around, and the conversation can make any number of turns without judgment. Those are the ones who will catch you when you fall, as well as bring out the best in you. Other guitars piss you off, but you love them just the same. Sometimes, I wonder why I hold on to certain guitars that I’ve had for a long, long time. Maybe it’s a weird kind of loyalty, or hanging on to memories of good times gone by—like your high-school-locker neighbor.
We all know that a guitar is a pretty simple piece of kit made of wood with steel strings on it. So, what makes them all so different? You can point to the pickups on an electric, but in the scheme of things I contend that’s way down the list. I’d compare pickup choice to choosing the right microphone for a vocalist. In that case, you’d go for the one that brings out the personality of the singer. It’s that very personality that I bond with in any guitar. But where does that personality, or character, come from?
Oddly enough, the instrument itself is a lot like your friends—they all have a personality, and probably no two are exactly the same.
When you break down the guitar form, it actually becomes more complex than you might imagine. Builders juggle a huge number of elements that go beyond the shape of the body or the feel of the neck, although those are important. In some ways, it’s like being a chef with a long list of ingredients and 10 thousand ways to combine and cook them. How thick is the body? What is it made of? Is it hollow or solid? Even how the mass of the instrument is distributed can make a difference—especially when the volume goes up. The surface area of the neck joint and if it is glued, screwed, sloppy, or tight all make a small difference. The truss rod can be a factor by weight and placement. Is it pre-loaded, and by how much? Believe it or not, the volume of space around and under the pickups can affect the sound.
Hardware choice is also a major ingredient, but not in a vacuum, which is how these things are often discussed. The weight of a particular bridge, for instance, might be an improvement on one instrument, but a tone-suck on another. I’ve found that there is a difference between tuning machines that utilize a push-in bushing and an identical tuner that has a screw-down bushing. Headstock angle and size is an influence on resonance, especially when loaded up with weighty tuners. Fret material and dimension can change not only the feel, but the sound of an instrument. Different bridge and tailpiece combinations may require changes in neck-pitch angles, which in turn affects the physics of the string-pull direction and forces on the neck joint and bridge. The list goes on and on.
As much as I’d like to think I understand a lot of what goes on in the construction of my guitars, I also realize that I’m creating an instrument that will be born with an intrinsic amount of variation in character. When viewed as a mechanical ecosystem, it becomes clear that there are an almost endless number of facets that make up the personality of a guitar. Each change may be almost imperceptible on its own, but small changes have a way of adding up to big results. No wonder the aftermarket is thriving, as DIY guitar owners mix and match ingredients to fine-tune their guitar gumbo. It’s gratifying when a brand-new guitar leaves the nest and the new owner doesn’t want to change a thing, but I also understand that sometimes people try to change their friends. My advice is to bring out their best, try not to piss them off, and they’ll be your friends for life.
The stereotype of the messy artist is a tired old meme. Get it together and get organized.
It’s hard to admit that you’re a slob. Lack of organization is pretty much looked down upon in most professional arenas. It’s also hard to imagine successful people waking up on stained futons and stumbling through a minefield of snack wrappers while looking for their cleanest dirty shirt. That is unless that wealthy schlump is a famous rock star. Is it the artist’s way, or letting go of the illusion of control? Either way I think it’s a stereotype—and one that cuts both ways.
Like a child who is repeatedly told they’re not good enough, sometimes we talk ourselves into playing a part that doesn’t let us spread our wings. Maybe you think that cleanliness and order get in the way of creativity and performance. I used to think that, too. Then I read an article about Roger Penske, one of the most successful racing team owners of all time. Even from the time he was a rookie driver he was known in the paddocks for having immaculately prepared cars. Other drivers and teams were amused by Penske’s mechanics, who kept his cars sparkling clean top and bottom, inside and out, for each and every run on the track. They thought it was some kind of show or blamed it on his ego. But that fastidiousness meant that Penske’s team could spot a tiny leak or potential part failure that might have otherwise been hidden by grime. A well-maintained machine allows the driver to do what they do best—drive. You can roll your eyes, but it’s hard to argue with 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, and 16 season championships.
If you imagine that keeping a race car clean is different from organizing the wiring on your pedalboard or keeping your workbench tidy, you’re running uphill in lead boots. Concise and well-ordered workspaces allow problems to stand out and are therefore easier to diagnose. Reduction of clutter allows you to attend to the creative stuff, which is the whole point. For those who say that friction is fodder for the creative endeavor, I challenge you to write a song about hunting for a screwdriver in a cluttered drawer. On second thought, that’s something that people can relate to. Another thing we can all relate to is having our guitar cut out in the middle of a gig. It’s easier to fix quickly when the signal chain is clearly routed and marked. I know a guitarist who has an emergency bypass pedal that circumvents his entire board directly to the amp via a redundant cable for just this purpose. Maybe that’s a little over the top, but the show must go on, right?
For those who say that friction is fodder for the creative endeavor, I challenge you to write a song about hunting for a screwdriver in a cluttered drawer.
In the workshop, it’s much the same. You don’t need the headache of searching for something in a disorganized bin when you’re in the flow. Concentration is doing one thing at a time, so endlessly looking for tools or parts in a place that resembles a war zone breaks your attention. Preventative protocols can keep things on track. When I visit or see photos of workshops with piles of parts and tools everywhere, I feel sorry for the employees and the customers.
Visual systems are priceless. Whether it’s your workbench or your signal chain, it’s helpful to color code stuff. It makes things easier when you’re in a hurry, or just trying to finish on time. Wire ties come in a rainbow of colors and, aside from anchoring cables down, can serve as guides. Determine a code and start with simple things like white means in, red means out. This makes it simple to troubleshoot a problem. If you have multiple systems or paths, use more colors. Laminate a legend on the gear reminding you or a tech what’s what. In the workshop, tools and jigs can be color coded. I have small sanding block racks that have different grades of abrasives loaded on each block. The slots on the racks are colored to each grit, which is also marked on the blocks. I know which grit goes with each color, so I never reach for the wrong block. It takes a little time to get the hang of it without resorting to looking at the numbers (also stamped on each block), but guitarists are good at remembering sequences.
Musicians have often been pictured as shambolic, but the vision of a painter’s studio piled high with half-squeezed tubes of paint and rags soaked with mineral spirits is a tired old meme. The truth is that buying into the myth of creative disarray is not helping any cause. Instead, a dose of tidiness can really work to your advantage. So, stop painting yourself into a false narrative and revel in the freedom that neatness neurosis provides. Now, where did I leave my label maker?
All artists copy, but reinterpretation is where the magic lies.
While I have a special place in my heart for the classics, I yearn for reinterpretation that wears its reverence for the past on its sleeve but doesn’t just feel like an imposter. In my own instruments, I try to pay homage to the vintage guitars that inspired me to play, design, and build. That will never change. But it also doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and even adore new things. This sentiment is true for both guitars and the music they make. Hybrid mashups have existed forever, and a lot of what people think of as original musical examples are in fact reinterpretations of something they just didn’t know previously existed.
One famous example is the saga of Led Zeppelin. I sincerely doubt that when they first “borrowed” musical themes from their heroes they imagined that they’d soon be the biggest act on the world stage. They were just doing what blues and rock musicians had done for ages—played the sounds that they loved, regardless of where they came from. Under the critical microscope of copyright law (magnified by the huge sums of money involved), these reinterpretations were deemed unsavory and even illegal. I don’t think most fans saw it that way. I feel the same way about guitars.
At some point, we all take a stand regarding the derivative nature of new things. Some of us revel in the discovery of an artist or band that seemingly breaks free of any recognizable influence, while others may feel more comfortable with an obvious nod to what has come before. I’ve endured arguments about both camps and have found it curious why it even matters. Certainly, as musicians, we all had to start somewhere.
A lot of what people think of as original musical examples are in fact reinterpretations of something they just didn’t know previously existed.
Usually, it begins with a sound that catches your young ear: a song in a TV show, on the internet, or played to you by a friend. Maybe it was your uncle’s record collection. Music is so ubiquitous it can almost disappear into the background like the hum of passing traffic, so it takes something special to get your attention. It might have even been a photograph of a band—one that piques your curiosity as to what they’re all about and what their music sounds like. No matter what draws you in, if the music delivers, you’re hooked. That sound is catalogued in your gray matter and becomes a touchstone for future encounters. It’s up to you to decide if you just want more of the same or the taste of a different flavor.
I think it’s the same with instruments. Perhaps your head exploded when you heard Van Halen for the first time, and that wacky red, white, and black striped guitar made an indelible impression that was forever linked to the sound and feeling that intoxicated you. This permanent scar in your brain fused those two elements until they were the same, and you’ll forever know it’s your benchmark for everything that came after. This is why guitar companies seek artist endorsers—influential musicians who can vouch for the virtue of their products. Like signing a check, popular guitarists put their stink on products, and, in return, the gear puts its sweet smell on them. In turn, we are attracted to the fragrance like bees to a pretty flower.
We’ve all seen guitar collectors whose interests revolve around one model or one manufacturer. Others may run the gamut of “blue chip” legendary instruments—the foundations of electric music from the last half of the 20th century. I’m always surprised when guitarists cut off their willingness to look at newer takes on the instrument—or music for that matter. People can’t help but compare new things to what has come before because that’s how the human brain works. We see something new and the mind searches for a reference to make sense of it. It’s natural.
What comes next is purely up to you. You can deride something for being a copy of a copy, or you can accept that art, in all its forms, stands on the shoulders of what has come before. Sometimes it’s a tribute, sometimes a rip-off, and, occasionally, it’s a tasteful homage to its influences. As time passes, it becomes difficult to create something totally new. I consider all these things before I sit in judgement, but, in the end, it’s the reinterpretation, not the copying, that counts.