Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of Tone Woods and the Electric Guitar

Every electric guitar maker and player has their preferred kind of wood, but how much contribution does the wood makes in making the electric guitar sound greater than the sum of its parts?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since Les Paul made his original solid body guitar out of a wooden railroad tie which he then called “The Log”, wood – or more specifically the type of wood – had become the be all and end all of luthiers the world over. Especially those luthiers whose reputation rests on making the ultimate electric guitar – i.e. the kind that produces the most soulful and wicked tone. But before we proceed, let’s trace back the historic origins of the luthier’s obsession of the perfect tone wood.

During the past few centuries, tone woods priced by luthiers and other musical instrument makers like the spruce used in Stradivarius and Guarneri violins grows indigenously in a few mountainous in Europe. Tone woods grow slowly and steadily – especially in a cold, stable climate. And preferably from a time before global warming started to affect tone wood growth physiology. As a result of this slow and steady growth, tone woods acquire a dense grain structure.

Scientific research conducted during the past few years had found out that various species of fungi is the secret behind the wonderful musical sound of these tone woods as evident in Stradivarius and Guarneri violins. So the “secret lacquer” formula’s contribution to the musicality of these violins may had been purely “cosmetic”(?). These fungi make the tone woods acquire a more musical sound by strategically loosening the woods’ grain density enough to create a desirably sweet tone. Although most luthiers still swear by their various proprietary secret lacquer concoctions because to their ears – and to the ears of their musically inclined clients – these lacquers do contribute significantly to the musicality of the finished musical instrument may it be a lute, guitar, harp or violin.

Fast forward to post WWII America where even though various types of woods – each type with their own devotees – now constitute the starting material in the construction of electric guitar bodies. Though most contemporary luthiers still swear by (reached a consensus?) the inherently flammable nitrocellulose lacquer – to the dismay of the US Environmental Protection Agency - as the ideal finishing material for their electric guitars. Which could explain the dramatic result when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his Strat during a stage performance using just a lighter and a can of lighter fluid during the Monterey concert. Although there seems to be a choice of wood that will match every electric guitar’s intended function.

Solid-body Gibson Les Paul’s tend to be constructed out of lightweight Honduran mahogany with a nitrocellulose lacquer finish allowing the wood to breathe, thus preserving the wood’s resonance. The practice started back in 1949 with their Gibson Super 400 a semi-hollow guitar equipped with f-holes. While the Fender Stratocaster tend to be constructed with a well-chosen maple using the same nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Although those American worker-made Fenders that allow their makers to have a “decent” 401-K tend to take on average 3 years to build and tend to cost above US$1,000.

Probably the latest type of wood to become in fashion in electric guitar building is the relatively rare Hawaiian koa wood. First started to appear during the early 1990s and tend to be priced higher than US$2,500, luthiers don’t apply lacquer to these guitars since application of any type of finish tend to ruin these kind of guitars “sweet spot”. Joining in the ranks of exotic woods that gained preference by luthiers during the 1990s are various basswoods used in guitars that are endorsed, played and ultimately made famous by famed guitar god Joe Satriani. Although very beautiful, electric guitars made out of koa wood are now viewed by many as so 1990s. Especially by those who were never fortunate enough to afford one during that time.

Given that most buyers of these guitars tend to play them on amplifiers with chock full of effects like distortion and what have you, I have since wondered if the very expensive and environmentally sensitive woods used in modern electric guitars mattered at all. Although most “very good electric guitars” being used by a new generation of semi-pro and amateur guitar players are more than likely family heirlooms from their dads and granddads (sadly, guitar playing back then is a mostly “he” endeavor). Though these guitars are even more likely made during the golden age of electric guitar making – i.e. the late 1950s and early 1960s before Beatlemania spurred every guitar company to mass-produce substandard guitars. Thus insuring the fortunate few amateurs a good start.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who or What is Trying to Kill Rock Guitar?

As we enter into another decade in the 21st Century, will there always be a threat to rock guitar – perennial or otherwise?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though I’m old enough to have experienced the “Hair Metal” phenomena of the 1980s and alternative rock becoming “mainstream” during the 1990s, reading the September 1997 issue of Guitar Player magazine whose headline reads “Who Killed Rock Guitar?” no longer fazed me. After all - or in spite of the story being 99.9999% right - rock guitar had faced worse threats than techno / electronic music. And the advent of illegal peer to peer filesharing of copyrighted digital music is only one of them.

Alarmist warning us that the end of guitar-based rock music is nigh probably started to became widespread around 1989 to 1991 during the advent of Tipper Gore’s PMRC-era rock music censorship crusade. Though most of us in this business has since forgiven her due to her husband Al Gore’s passionate concern for our environment, the guitar maker Ibanez was nonetheless quick to gain inspiration from then seem so insurmountable problem of media censorship. Remember their Metal Musician / melodius volumeus maximus advert when then guitarist of the band Testament Alex Skolnick becomes a museum piece because US government / PMRC censorship killed rock guitar? Back then, I thought this could probably how rock guitar would die. Though it was just a one-off apocalypse averted, some perennial threats to the continued existence of guitar-based rock music are discussed below.

The “Fickle Fan” Phenomena – This probably gained worldwide press attention during the end of World War II when popular music sales revenue became significant enough to gain the notice of Wall Street. Most casual record buyers that make the fortunate few talented rock-oriented guitar players into overnight multi-millionaires usually have an over-actively expressed novelty-seeking gene. They tend to bore easily and are in eternal search for the next best thing. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of them don’t give a rat’s ass about what they are buying in the first place. For every music buyer who can tell the difference between the sound quality between the US and EU pressing – may it be CD or vinyl LP - of Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms To Hold You album, 10,000 or 20,000 probably can’t tell or won’t give a rat’s ass anyway. I just hope that a growing trend that started in 2008 of 13 to 14-year olds who are fascinated by 1980’s bands like Diamond Head, Ron Reyes and Henry Rollins-era Black Flag or Girlschool is not just a passing trend.

Style-Over-Substance – Even though the band Kiss are more well-known for their on-stage make-up, costumes, and stage theatrics than their great contribution to the history of guitar-based rock. Having a unique look – and I do mean look as in what sells according to Madison Avenue insiders – is unfortunately what primarily allows a particular artist or group to sell records. Like the recent “Teen Guitar Virtuoso” phenomenon of recent years. Though Bonnie Rait did deserve being on the cover of Guitar Player back in the 1970s when she was still 15 and this maybe what started the phenomenon in the first place that made Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne a runaway success during the past few years. Though some would point out the “revealing” attire of Lita Ford and Joan Jett when they fronted The Runaways as 17-year-old guitar virtuosos during the late 1970s.

Over Exploiting a “Trend Du Jour” – Nothing expresses the greed of the music industry than this practice. It diluted the impact of alternative rock as it gained mainstream popularity during the middle of the 1990s because record executive kept on signing “second-generation” alternative bands that are nothing more than pitiful clones of established bands who were already hard at work since the end of the 1970’s. Or the proliferation of Metallica-like bands during the late 1980’s because many record label execs say that this is the next best moneymaker.

Saving the greatest threat to guitar-based rock music for last is the now widespread perception held by most kids today is that guitar-based rock music is their father’s music. Some kids even extend that point in saying that rock is their grandparents music. Though this threat can’t be overlooked, you can’t also overlook the current fascination of some kids on the “older stuff” – i.e. the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or make that the British Invasion circa 1980. Especially to bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head and surprisingly Girlschool. Newbies who want me to teach them guitar fundamentals / Mel Bay chord introductions say that someday they want to be as good in guitar playing as the musical virtuosity featured in rock bands previously mentioned – especially Iron Maiden.

Given the current heavy rotation of the latest Coldplay music video on MTV which is an homage to a rather rigid format of guitar-based rock – i.e. the kind of music written and performed by Elvis Costello and U2 – only reminds everyone that rock guitar is far from dead. Majority of Chechen and Ukrainian teen girl émigrés in our neighborhood are currently busy perfecting their rendition of the guitar solo on Megadeth’s Tornado of Souls using fairly high end equipment – i.e. Fender Blackface-era Champ replicas equipped with boutique tubes like Electro-Harmonix 6V6s and authentic vintage Gibson SG. Which is quite a far cry from the typical Guitar Hero-addled delusions of grandeur if you consider the Gibson SG and boutique amp set-up probably cost at least 3,000 US dollars. Is guitar-based rock going to die someday? Not by a long shot judging by what’s currently going on in my neck of the woods. So rest assured the guitar makers and luthiers - i.e. guitar making industry and repair - of the world will still be gainly employed for years to come. The question now is whether guitar-based rock will be seen by the new generation more as a 21st Century incarnation of Western European Classical Music than a well-crafted contemporary musical composition like it was when Elvis started the Rock N’ Roll craze over 50 years ago.