Guitar Players and The Sound

The “right” guitar sound was always the thing. Hell, it still is! There’s a look, maybe even a vibe or an ethos about which guitar, amp, pedal, strings, etc. a player uses. And different people like the way some instruments feel in their hands, around their neck, against their body, etc. And there has been endless fiddling with digitizing the guitar, even taking the strings off, but really! the whole thing comes down to the sound.

guitar players and the sound
Guitar players and the sound

I remember growing up in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era, when the guitar was the most important instrument in that part of the world. Not just any guitar, but the right guitar. Actually, it wasn’t about the guitar, as much as the sound, which many people equated with the guitar.

The player was the key, of course, and the skills were everything. Well, almost anything, but depending on the mix of players in a band, the differently skilled players could make each either sound brilliant, or completely clueless. Then there were the amplifiers – sometimes nearly billboard-sized walls of speakers and electronics behind and to the sides of the band. And this doesn’t even get to the stuff on the ground, which seemed to fascinate some players who poked endlessly with their toes at this and that on the floor, sometimes to great effect, sometimes seemingly for nought.

I’ve taken to putting some songs I’ve written, to the strings, in a most enjoyable way that I can find. I’m teaching myself to play my daughter’s Fender Squier Strat, white, like Jimi’s and Jeff Beck’s, (and in a vintage-style tan tweed case, to boot)! It’s early days, but I’m working on some tunings, scales & modes, chords and progressions, melodies and harmonies, riff lines and intervals, and all manner of circles of musical theory. I don’t even plug into the 10W practice amp that’s sitting around, but I have nothing really to play yet, so it’s not needed. I’m not yet about getting “my sound”, I’m just trying to get with the instrument. One of these days I’ll dig out my genuine vintage Vox WahWah pedal, and really rock (ha ha!). Well, maybe I’ll need a fuzz tone, too! But then, I’d really want to know my way around the fretboard better than I do at present, to it’s a ways off.

I have been digging about the internet, checking on the equipment of the stars, and have been impressed how some of the most famous guys out there, well, they kept it simple from an equipment standpoint, because they knew how to get the most from their instrument. They also played some very lowly guit-fiddles, into some simple boxes, and to enviable results.

One of my favorite guitarists is an often-overlooked guy who was a hero to many, including the great Jimi Hendrix: Frank Zappa. He had a number of instruments, including one that Jimi gave him after the Miami Pop Festival, when he’d trashed it. That axe eventually got rebuilt, and FZ made it famous, partly by letting Joe Satriani play on it when they were working together. However, Frank had a particular piece which looked like a Gibson SG, but was really a totally custom made thing that he called “Baby Snakes”, gotten from some anonymous Arizonian. It had lots of extra knobs and switches, and special stuff inside, and he had something similar made up later, as well. These instruments were so tunable and controllable that he could play into whatever he wanted, and still get “his sound”. Whether it was just a joke, or his serious approach to sound is unclear, but he was reputed to have once used a Pignose amp on the Dick Cavett Show! See, there’s minimalism and maximalism, and he got what he wanted by working things out in that sort of way.

Back to Jimi, he seems to have gravitated to regulation Strats all his headlining career. He liked the right-handers flipped over, because that left the knobs and whammy bar were on the upper-side, where they were under his forearm, and he could control them really easily as he moved his pick-hand around the strings. For amps he used commercially available Marshalls, and on the floor seemed to have only had a wah, a fuzz and an echoplex button. He got his overdrive the normal Marshall way, by turning the preamp gains up loud, and then also going loud on the stacks. Come to think of it, maybe it was my ears that were overdriven, because the two times I saw him at Winterland I was pretty close to the stage.

The third amazing player was one that I never got to see – George Harrison. If he hadn’t been overshadowed by those other two amazing guys, he might have been more famous in his own right. He had a large collection of guitars, including a severely down-market Sears Silvertone! However, he had Epiphones, Gretsches, Rickenbackers, Guilds, Gibsons and Fenders, as well as Hofners and lesser-known makes. They were each and all just stock items, as far as I’ve been able to find out. He played them into amps by Gibson, Vox (and yeah, the Super Beatle), and Fender (Reverb, Twin, and Bassman). Classic low-power tube gear, again, reputedly unmodified. On the floor he seems to have had – the floor. When he wanted chorus, he played a Rick 12 string. When he wanted tremelo, he played with the whammy bar, when he wanted vibrato, he bent a string. Harrison played the guitar, not the electronics. Do we remember George? Yeah (Ya Ya Ya!), he was a progenitor of much of what went on at the time, and ever since.

Another guy who was massively influential in the 1960s was Michael Bloomfield. Mike played on Telecasters most of the time, through Fender amps like Deluxes and Twin Reverbs. Pretty straight setups, again, nothing much on the floor to get in his way. It was what he did with the strings that we paid attention to, and where he went with that. Although he got in his own way more than anything else, he could wrangle amazing sounds out of his guitar, and put some paradigm-shifting music together. Among then he opened Western popular music to Indian influences, like it hadn’t known before, and all in the context of the blues! Well, there’s a pentatonic story to be told there, but that’s for another day.

Carlos Santana usually plays a Strat, into either a Mesa Boogie or a Dumble. What’s a Dumble, isn’t he the chief wizard of Hogwort’s? No, he’s an amp builder in L.A., who only builds for the stars and celebrities, and has an ultra-premium market. Your house probably cost less than one of his amps. Don Felder also uses one, and the whole thing seems to have come out of a Robben Ford gig in San Jose, because Robben was getting a great tone and lots of sustain, and Dumble figured out how to get some and make a specialty of it. Good for him!

Pete Townsend seems to have broken up so much kit in his early days that customizing was out of the question. He still seems to play on standard gear, letting his guitar dictate the electronics (I read somewhere), with the watchword on high volume. He played on Marshalls for years, though he was an early adopter of HiWatt, even before they settled on that brand-name. He even played on Acoustic for a while, which was a “finesse” brand that I only saw H.P. Lovecraft and Robbie Krieger play on.

Then there was Jerry Garcia, king of the custom riggers. Dang, he (they: The Dead) even customized the microphones they used! His guitar had more electronics in it that some mixing boards of the day, and the Dead’s fascination with “sound” led to their nonpareil Wall Of Sound setup, which was extremely successful, however unwieldy it may have been. The Dead were closely identified with Alembic guitars, though they really were not the early adopters that it seemed, at the time. Jack Cassady had about the first instrument from them, a reworking of his Guild bass. Then came Townsend’s F-Clef counterpart; the inimitable John Entwhistle. Then Phil Lesh, and then Jerry. Alembics are not so fashionable these days, though they’ve earned their place in history.

I’ve left out the rolling stone himself: Chester “Muddy Waters” Burnett, who got his sound from his mojo. I’ve also got to apologize for leaving out both Les Paul, and the “ramblin’ man” with a Les Paul guitar usually in his hand: Duane Allman. How many of us consider Buddy Holley’s setup, or Eddie Cochran’s? EVH’s maybe, but Cochran’s? Nah! All these guys contributed to the sound by relying on what they did with their hands, on a pretty standard (or in Les’s case – bespoke) setup. I think that’s where I set my sights. Similarly, I’ve left out John Cippolina, as famous for his picking technique as he was for his innovative bi-amped electronics rig. If there’s a theme for this piece, it may be that San Francisco guys consistently push the envelope on “the sound”.

I know, I know, I’ve left off pickups, strings, tailpieces and even picks. They’re all in there, but my point is not to mention all of the things that each guy (it was always guys, except for Joni, Joan, Melissa and Tracy, Dolly… wasn’t it? Now there’s Nita, Lzzie, and a crowd of lady shredders) did. The point is: there is no single, absolute, single way to get that “great guitar sound”. It is about the player, whether he plays with the instrument high up across his chest, or down below his crotch, whether he plays a Strat, a Les Paul, a Tele, a Flying Vee, an Ibanez, or a 335, there is a supremely skilled player, who knows all his basics, and then lots more, and has lots of soul and inspiration to take that to some special place. Often, they write quite a catchy number or two, but even if their guitar skills are as mediocre as Marc Bolan’s (he’s gotta be in here!), we pay attention to that sound!

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