by Pete Prown
Does the guitar you have chosen help make you a better player? Is your technique, or even your songwriting, influenced by your gear?
We talk a lot about the bands, musicians or albums that have influenced us, but not so much about how the equipment inspires us. If you’ve been playing for a long time, you’ve probably had opportunities to try various instruments, amps, and outboard gear. Each one can potentially alter the way you conjure sounds and, in turn, how you approach music. Like painting with a wide brush instead of a narrow one, or programming drum sounds instead of pounding on skins, tools and technology can influence art.
Like you, I’m a guitarist and, looking back, there have been innumerable axes that have changed my fretboard sensibility. In 1980, I got an Ibanez Iceman IC200 — my first pro-grade guitar, replacing a simply dreadful Gibson Marauder. With its flat radius, ebony fingerboard and built-in neck, the Iceman allowed me to fly around the fretboard in homage to early heroes of mine like Michael Schenker, Carlos Santana, and Gary Moore. If fact, Ibanez’s simple act of planing the fingerboard into a flatter profile made me a better lead player almost overnight. Conversely, it may have also kept me from developing my rhythm chops, as this beast was meant for shredding and power-chording only. A few years later, a custom Charvel Strat-style got me and a few thousand other guitarists into the whammy game, and I tweaked, flipped and jammed its locking Kahler trem into new areas of elastic expression (big nods to Steve Vai and Allan Holdsworth). It was the gear that partially pushed me to try new techniques.
In the ’90s I landed a Telecaster Deluxe Nashville, which coincided with my discovery of surf rock and the twangin’ electrics of the Hellecasters. Soon afterwards, my fast, shreddy licks got a little funkier and bluesier and, thanks to this “mexi” Fender plank, my lead playing finally started to grow up. The Tele also was ideal for R&B comping, and my rhythm playing finally began to take shape. In hindsight, it’s the guitar that carved me into a decent rhythm guitarist.
The Whole Rig
It’s not just guitars that can bring out new ideas and talents, of course. When I bought a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe combo, I was blown away at the fat tones I was able to produce from this mass-produced tube amp. Paired with the Telecaster, I began to morph from an ’80s speedster into a ’90s blues twanger. The amp’s clean tones and unique overdrive also helped wean me off űber-saturated crunch and explore some more interesting clean and low-gain sounds. I’ve used good tube amps ever since (my latest is a terrific Mack 18-watt head — definitely worth a test drive).
In the years to follow I had greater epiphanies as I learned to record digital audio using Cakewalk’s Sonar digital-recording sequencer, a simple, yet powerful program. More importantly, my vague musical ideas came to life as fleshed-out compositions in this digital universe. I could argue that no piece of technology has changed my approach to music more than this software has, and I bet many music makers would agree (whether they’re using Sonar, Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, or other DAW software).
Recording good-quality guitar sounds is easier now than ever before. An army of DI amp simulators, whether hardware (such as the ubiquitous Pod) or software (Amp Farm) now allow us record our guitar ideas with speed, spontaneity, and fairly impressive tone. Granted, we may revert to mics and tube amps when we want to nail down that keeper track, but for demos and recording on the fly, digital simulators rule.
Many guitarists have further broadened the palate of available tones through synthesis. In my case, a host of fast-tracking guitar synthesizers and pitch-to-MIDI pickups from Roland made my Proggy instrumentals soar like nothing else imaginable. From flutes to strings to brass to fat, Moog-like sounds, no conventional or acoustic guitar can lead you where a guitar synth can travel.
Pick of the Litter
Granted, I’ve been at this a while and by now am truly spoiled. The guitars in my project studio — from a 2001 Jeff Beck Stratocaster (my favorite guitar ever) to my latest purchase, a superlative Seagull Coastline S12 acoustic 12-string — all inspire my playing differently. Even among the more humble, mid-priced of my guitars, each seems to ask something unique of my playing. As a sidenote, it’s a myth that great gear costs a lot of money. There are smoking Asian and Mexican guitars that cost only a few hundred bucks, as well as junkers with quilted-maple tops that cost several thousand.
A friend of mine who plays fingerstyle almost exclusively told me recently that he never would have explored the style if he hadn’t lucked into a Taylor acoustic with a fast, comfortable neck. In the same breath he mentioned that he had just picked up his old PRS and felt about as competent on that solid-body as he would be on a tuba (he doesn’t play tuba). Whether it was a matter of string tension, nut width, action, or just luthier mojo, each guitar evoked specific playing styles from him.
By picking up any guitar, we’re agreeing to play within its margins. Sometimes the margins are narrow but focused, a “best tool for the job.” Sometimes they put us in a box, making it difficult for ideas to flow out as we hear them in our head. And sometimes a guitar’s margins are so outside the bounds of what you’ve found available on other guitars, that the instrument helps expand your creativity.
So how about you and your guitars? Have they directed your musical journey onto certain paths — and is that where you intended to go?
Pete Prown records with Guitar Garden (www.guitargarden.net) and is a contributing editor for Vintage Guitar magazine (www.vguitar.com).