October 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VIII

Welcome to what is, for now at least, the final part in this series of articles on the history of the world’s most popular musical instrument.

If you wish to recap on any or all of the previous seven posts before starting with this one, the whole ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

Having pretty much reached the present day, all that remains is to summarise where we are now and to take a somewhat flippant and imaginative look ahead. The ‘current day’ is a tricky subject, as ‘now’ is at best ephemeral. The future, on the other hand, can only ever be guesswork, even if it can be informed by the past. Perhaps the best way to predict the future is to help to create it, so that means that what happens to the next chapter of the guitar is in our hands. Can we be trusted to behave as responsible guardians of the guitar’s destiny? As Mahatma Gandhi (1869‑1948) said, “The future depends on what we do in the present”. This suggests that what will happen is not predetermined and individually or collectively, we can take action to shape the future.

There are not many images again supporting this article so, apologies to those who like pictures to speak a thousand words. Anyway, without further ado, on with the last part of the chronicle…

The guitar has come a very long way in the last 3,500 years or a road slightly less travelled in the preceding 350 years depending on whose version of the facts you want to believe. The story has finally reached that pivotal moment that lies between the past, which is, on the whole, pretty well documented and the future, which of course isn’t. There is much to be played for and the stakes are certainly high.

It is hopefully of little surprise that the future of the acoustic and electric guitar, as well as all its derivatives and distant relations, is probably well‑assured, at least for the foreseeable future. Whether it survives in the (very) long term or not, the world’s favourite musical instrument is undeniably going to be a hard act to follow, let alone surpass.

As with many industrial and technological revolutions, predictions have proved variable in terms of accuracy. As time passes, change tends to accelerate in both pace and scope. While progress may be inexorable, there is an unseen ‘force’ that tends to counteract unbridled advances and which acts as a bit of a restraint. That set of reins is the very human tendency to hold onto what is familiar while resisting change until it is either inescapable or desirable. This natural ‘drag’ effect has laid waste to many grand ideas and great inventions. Numerous well‑marketed ‘next big things’ have fallen at the hurdle of persuading the general public to take up something new or unfamiliar, especially if one’s respected peers haven’t bitten the bullet of early adoption either. Mankind’s flawed history is littered with countless failed marvels. This phenomenon isn’t, I hasten to add, just a trait of idiosyncratic musicians; it appears to be a fundamental characteristic of the human condition.

Anyway, as usual, I digress. It is time to get back to the point which is basically that whatever you read from here on has absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact and is highly likely to be extremely wrong! My consolation is that few people will regard it as portent or look back to judge its accuracy in a century’s time. There is nothing genuinely prescient here in the vein of Da Vinci or Nostradamus. Apologies if you were hoping for more in the way of a profound visionary insight. Unfortunately, my stock of that ran out last week.

General indicators of change

It is fair to suggest that popular music is often representative of, and in turn is dependent on, broader social, cultural and political movements, and guitars follow in their footsteps. Whether we like it or not, music is integral to our everyday lives, so it is not surprising that it is also inherently powerfully evocative. As a result, it can dramatically affect the way we identify with past events.

One of the key factors that drove guitar evolution has been the trends in popular music, so perhaps musical trends may provide a much generalised hint at parallel guitar developments. Let’s start by considering the (very simplistic) genre movements and the types of instrument used over the last century.  Starting with the post‑classical era, there was jazz (Gibson archtops) and blues (National & Dobro resonators) in the 1930s and 1940s, country and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s (Gretsch & Gibson hollowbodies), pop and rock in the 1960s (Fenders and Rickenbackers), progressive and heavy metal (Gibson solid bodies) and then punk (pawn shop guitars) and hair metal (pointy super Strats) in the 1970s. Then we get to the guitar doldrums of electronica, new age and rap in the 1980s, followed by revitalised guitar music of alternative, grunge in the 1990s, and indie (retro guitars) nu‑metal (PRS) and dance in the 2000s, etc. I struggle to think of a musical genre that so far defines the 2010s or perhaps many distinctive guitars to go with them. So there is some kind of link going on here. Google has attempted to map the progression of musical genres from 1950 to the current day (take from it what you will).

The type of guitars de jour used by famous musicians, including artist associations, during these epochs often reflected the style of contemporary music they played and these have largely been well covered in previous parts of the story. Just think of Chet Atkins with his Gretsch 6120, Buddy Holly with his Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster, The Beatles with their Rickenbacker 300s, or Jimmy Page with his Gibson Les Paul Standard and EDS-1275 double neck. The various interconnections are manifold and too many to mention here, and many have been captured in photographs to become iconic in the annals of rock history.

Cinema and television music regularly use key songs to catapult us back in space and time without the need for narrative exposition to describe what’s happening. Just think about classic movies such as American Graffiti, Stand By Me, Almost Famous, Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club or 8 Mile among many, many others. Those random examples don’t include the numerous biopics (e.g. Sid & Nancy, Walk The Line, The Doors) and musicals (e.g. West Side Story, Grease) or original scores (e.g. Paris Texas) that use familiar, memorable and/or popular music to transport us to another ‘reality’. Then there are the one‑offs like the mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. TV programmes also picked up the strategy for domestic viewing since the 1960s and often featured manufactured artists such as The Monkees or The Archies. The lists of relevant examples are endless. Music is used to draw the viewer into the director’s vision of a certain bygone era. Many of the sound tracks of our lives rely heavily on evocative (guitar) music to manipulate us emotionally and, more importantly, intentionally.

The way that environmental factors affect local communities may spark a genre direction that is then promulgated more widely. For example, one could point to the rise of electric blues in Chicago, soul in Detroit, Mersey beat in Liverpool, punk in New York and London, rap in Los Angeles/Philadelphia, or grunge in Seattle, etc. What we cannot predict is what or where any future musical revolutions (if any) may emerge, from where, and what step‑change responses guitar builders may then make.

As with many other aspects of our 21st Century lives, the nature of music, how it is made, distributed and accessed suggests that anything genuinely ‘new’ will find it much harder to stand out from the mainstream. What is already there will continue in some form and anything new will simply be added to it, often at the margins of existing genres, hence the proliferation of sub‑genres, e.g. thrash or nu-metal in rock; house and techno in dance; raga and dancehall in reggae; dubstep and grime in urban music, etc. One only has to compare and contrast the mind boggling varieties of heavy metal music and then consider how they continuously diverge, converge and cross‑fertilise in order to keep it fresh and vibrant.

While some technological change may be more predictable, social change and the music that characterises it is certainly more unpredictable. When one looks at something as specific and tangible as the guitar, it becomes increasingly risky to anticipate with any certainty what change may occur over an extended period of time, say the next century or so.

One view is that we are powerless and don’t need to think about it, as what will be, will be. Another is that we wait passively and be subject to what transpires with little or no influence over it. A third way may be not to accept the status quo and take positive action to stimulate change, which can happen in oddly random ways. Being of an opinionated sort, I tend to fall into the latter camp. Apologies, that probably actually doesn’t help much!

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the guitar’s supremacy is likely to lie in the digital revolution that really started to make an impression in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the reason for the guitar’s seemingly unassailable success has been that it is a hugely expressive and flexible instrument, which actually makes its nuances extremely difficult to replicate in a world constructed entirely of binary 0s and 1s. We shall see whether digital advances can fully overcome the difficulties in recreating the subtleties provided by a very analogue instrument in the hands of discriminating (and generally quite conservative) musicians.

The evidence so far suggests that digital is making ever increasing inroads into the analogue guitar’s dominance and the discernible gap between analogue and digital output is decreasing all the time. How long will it be before even the most ardent luddites finally admit that they can’t really tell the difference (despite what they may say outwardly)? However, it isn’t just the sound of guitars that appeals to guitarists; it is also the feel and the look of them that matters, as well as how they allow musicians to communicate with each other in unspoken ways.

New generations of guitarists, however, may be looking for something very different from their predecessors.  What form will ‘the shape of things to come’ take? Will it be all hyper‑modernistic and crammed with tech and flashing lights and built from materials we cannot yet imagine, or will it be the same old bits of tree wood crafted into the familiar shapes of Telecasters, Stratocasters, Precisions, Les Pauls, ES‑335s and SGs that we covet today? Only time will tell how things pan out and it will be for future authors to use the convenient assistance of hindsight to determine and document what path the history of the guitar takes from here on.

Looking and learning from the past, one might simply extrapolate forward. Future guitarists may well be like their ancestors and pragmatically seek to mix the best of the past with the best of what’s to come, regardless of whether it is analogue or digital. My personal prediction is a typically ambiguous ‘sit on the fence’ one, in that guitars will probably become increasingly hybrid if they are to keep ahead of other comparable instruments. Let’s face it, there are not really any threats` to the guitar’s dominant popularity at the time of writing and it has always been a continuously evolving instrument, so it would be of little surprise if this were to continue. While the 1980’s temporary trend for synth and electronica attempted to eradicate guitar music in the minds of popular listeners, the guitar has proved very resilient and difficult to displace.

Since the 1970s, the guitar has been used to trigger digital electronics. However, while both signal tracking and polyphony still present problems, these barriers are gradually being overcome. There have been several attempts to introduce effective guitar synths over the years but they have really been analogue or digital filters activated by either an ordinary guitar pickup or by discrete signals from a hexaphonic pickup. Hex pickups, which output a separate signal for each string, were often added to an existing guitar and used to transform it into a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller while still able to be used as an ordinary guitar. MIDI was a standard specification published in August 1983 by Japanese electronics giant Roland and American synthesizer company Sequential Circuits, and is commonly used to control electronic audio equipment. While attempting to revolutionise guitar music, Roland’s excursions into guitar synths since the 1980s have still relied on a standard guitar as its starting point.

Other Japanese companies specialising in electronics have also experimented with MIDI control of external synthesis engines, for instance guitars from Casio (DG20) and Yamaha (EZ-EG). It seems incredible to think that these early electronic instruments are now being considered as ‘vintage’. Today, there are now plenty of guitars on the market with MIDI capability built in. Technology has moved on and the fundamental concepts of a digital source are now ripe for being reinvestigation and improvement.

Other pioneering companies such as Line 6, now owned by another Japanese giant Yamaha, introduced their ground breaking digital modelling preamp (the Pod) and digital modelling guitar (the Variax) to indicate the direction in which development might go. Line 6’s philosophy inspired and influenced subsequent successful products such as the Kemper Profiler and the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX. Computer control of complex parameters, presets, firmware and downloads are commonplace for amps and effects in the 2010s and we can certainly expect this trend not only to become de facto but also to become a requirement in the near future, so a laptop at live gigs is already almost a necessity to keep your rig running smoothly – not a comfort zone for many analogue technophobe musos.

Guitar making cannot stand still and neither should it. Even the companies with a century or more of history, such as Gibson, Gretsch and Martin, have to keep moving forward or risk being overtaken. However, the tightrope of appealing to customers who appreciate the heritage is also key to the future success of long‑established manufacturers. Newer, smaller companies, though, are not constrained by the time capsule factor.

It is probably safe to say that the future is likely to be a practical symbiosis of both the familiar to satisfy the conservative traditionalists and the whizzy new gizmos to appeal to the technologically savvy experimentalists and neophytes… just as it always has been if fact. Even Gibson has been toying with the addition of digital features into its guitars, including the Les Paul HD.6X Pro and the Firebird X models. Intriguingly, Fender and other major brands have yet to declare their hands. It will be the fine balance between the opposing forces that will enable lasting incremental change, via ‘chimera’ guitars, rather than a number of fundamental radical shifts. That eventuality could prove a bit boring though, don’t you think? However, sadly, it also seems to mirror the way that modern popular music is going as well?

Leaps of unadulterated conjecture:

This next section is pure fantasy and should not be relied on as authentic in any way. It came from an idea that it can sometimes be fun to imagine what things might be like in some near or distant future. One hopes, though, that what follows doesn’t come to represent some form of self‑fulfilling prophecy.

It may be that the guitar itself could become superseded by something completely different from what musicians (rather than video game players) use today. Could it be possible that something along the lines of the PlayStation ‘Guitar Hero’ controller may someday make inroads into real instruments to create real music? I would anticipate that the majority of guitarists would sincerely hope not.

There are already some very modernistic looking instruments out there, such as the HTG Hyper Touch and the Misa Kitara (note the use of the Greek name kitara from Part I of this long story). Are these all‑electronic ‘guitars’ the sorts of instruments that will replace our beloved classic designs and become de rigeur in the near future? Alternatively, perhaps the electric guitar could somehow morph into some form of fully digital instrument via the route of hybridisation. As a logical conclusion, is the ‘Digital Guitar’ with analogue playability a holy grail and, if so, for whom? Here are some current digital guitar innovations from the 2010s…

So… suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and take a tentative look ahead to the scary world of AIs, AAs, AVs and AM (spoiler alert – these acronyms may seem familiar but in this context, they don’t mean what you think they mean today). You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Read on…

10 years’ hence (c.2028):

Analogue vs digital – Digital technologies will be used increasingly to enhance the analogue signal chain rather than usurp it completely. We have already seen many examples of this appearing in effects and amps, so there isn’t really any clever insight in mentioning it. Digital control of analogue signals is already becoming commonplace especially in delay and modulation effects where digital manipulation gives much more precise control over what happens in the analogue domain.

It remains unpopular to sample the original signal through an analogue to digital converter (ADC), mess around with it and then put it back through a digital to analogue converter (DAC) to turn it back into a signal for further processing. Many purists say that the act of conversion using today’s chips taints the original signal. It will be a while longer before we make that bold step of a fully digital signal chain from fingers to ears but it is getting ever closer. It will happen but possibly not by 2028, mainly because of the difficulty in engineering effective fully digital instruments and loudspeakers.

Research will continue to develop a truly digital guitar ‘pickup’ that could compare to current electromagnetic pickups and provide the first step to more complex processing in the future. Digital modelling using DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chips will continue to improve and will become almost indistinguishable from analogue electronics in effects, amps and digital audio workstations (DAWs). There will be a hardcore fan base that remains wedded to the old school stuff for many, many years to come. The guitar itself is highly unlikely to become fully digital in the next 10 years, if only because there are far too many dogmatic people invested in preserving the status quo. Auto‑Tune for the guitar anyone?

Guitar Making – In the near future, it is highly unlikely that wood will be superseded by any other material as the primary input for the majority of guitars. Wood has proved over millennia to be a very flexible, durable renewable material. Let’s face it, it can also look wonderful. One major advantage of wood is that it contributes towards the organic tone and touch of an individual musical instrument. Many alternative materials have been used in the construction of guitars since at least the 1920s, including plastics, metals, carbon fibre and a wide variety of composites. To‑date, though, wood has prevailed in terms of structural integrity allied to inherent musicality. What will change, though, is the shift away from the use of endangered exotic hardwood species such as rosewood, ebony and even mahogany to more sustainable species. For instance Pau Ferro (Libidibia Ferrea, a.k.a Bolivian rosewood) is rapidly replacing the CITES‑restricted rosewood (varieties of the genus Dalbergia) as a popular fingerboard material. Quite how fussy musicians will accept unfamiliar wood substitutes, will be determined in due course. What is clear is that guitarists really have no choice but to go with the ecologically acceptable flow in the long‑term.

Like their classical musical counterparts, the guitar itself (whether acoustic or electric) will remain very much a natural instrument for a good few years yet. The guitar will still be supremely popular and will be making great music all over the world. Guitars will be made by a broad range of entities from one man band local custom luthiers up to multinational mass manufacturers. Competition, particularly from China, will be a threat to many established western companies until their economic bubble bursts, which it eventually will at some point.

Recorded music – The vast majority of recorded guitar music will be produced on digital equipment with a few retro studios still using analogue equipment including valve preamps and tape machines. The relative accessibility of convenient digital recording equipment will continue to provide openings for all sorts of artists from the home musician to the professional mega bands using famous dedicated studio facilities such as the famous Abbey Road Studio in London. Recorded music will be increasingly distributed and accessed online, although legacy formats will maintain a solid niche popularity.

Live music – Live music will continue to grow in popularity to become the cornerstone for many successful artists, provided that they do not price themselves out of live appearances and that over‑zealous regulations don’t stop large live events from taking place. PA and monitoring systems will continue to improve significantly and sound pressure levels at venues will be severely restricted, removing some of the visceral excitement of the live music experience.

30 years’ hence (c.2048):

Analogue vs digital – Digital will be the primary domain in which music will be made, recorded, distributed and accessed. The guitar will remain analogue, although it is likely that the entire chain from the pickup onwards will be predominantly digital. However, as with current classical instruments and music, there will still be an important place for traditional analogue guitars. Amps and effects are likely to be almost totally digital. Successors to the analogue electromagnetic pickup and the loudspeaker will be introduced to a point that digital sound will be common if not universal. ‘Old fashioned’ guitars will remain very popular and will experience regular revivals and rejuvenations, even if the overall battle will be won by the digital technologies of the 2040s. New digital connectors will proliferate, as the currently ubiquitous USB port will long since have been superseded, and the jack pug/socket will be purely of vintage interest.

Guitar making – Most of the large manufacturers will be producing some sort of digital instrument as the norm, even if the vital interaction between fingers and strings will remain as it is now. All guitar tone woods will be derived from sustainable sources by strict regulation and use of rare species tightly controlled (outside the unavoidable black market). The use of alternative materials will be in full swing, reducing the reliance on today’s natural materials. New guitars will be built to be recyclable. Automated manufacturing will be the norm and the demand for traditionally made guitars will be catered for by numerous specialist guitar builders. Pure wooden analogue guitars will be vintage only and regarded with the same respect as classical instruments are now. Guitar development will be relegated to refinements around the margins, rather than core revolutions. Hybrid instruments will be fighting a rear‑guard action, with digital beginning to win the final battle. Competition to the guitar will continue but will not succeed… yet.

Recorded music – Digital will almost totally dominate recorded music production, distribution and access. Diehard analogue fans will be regarded as geeks and nerds. Vinyl albums will, however still persevere… just.

Live music – Like recorded music, live music will be, apart from the musicians themselves, almost universally digital. ‘Loud’ live music will be a thing of the distant past. Music venues will begin to disappear as discrete locations, with personalised performance content delivered direct to the individual.

50 years’ hence (c.2068):

Analogue vs digital – Analogue guitar music will be like classical music is today, a popular, niche and a largely historic pastime. All other aspects will be digital.

Guitar making – Standardisation and construction will be largely prescribed. Hybridisation will just about have peaked and on its way out. The majority of guitar production will move towards making AIs (Artificial Instruments). The focus will be on the technical facets of music making, rather than subjective, emotive ones. Guitars as we know them now will be of heritage interest.

Recorded music – Music will be manufactured in the digital domain with just a few maverick analogue‑obsessed musicians beavering away in the minority. The vast majority of contemporary recorded music will be created electronically, with few outmoded musical instruments as we know them now being used. Many artists will be AAs (Artificial Artists), rather than by artistically inclined human beings – the latter will concentrate on performing historic pieces from the golden heyday of guitar music.

Live music – There will no longer be a need to travel to a discrete venue where music is performed in person to a collective audience. ‘Live’ music will be created in computers, customised to an individual’s tastes and accessed in the home, in a domain known as an AV (Artificial Venue) giving the sight, sound and feel of a venue.

100+ years’ hence (c.2120):

Analogue vs digital – Analogue guitar music will be an historic vocation and largely a lifestyle pastime. All other aspects of ‘modern’ music will be entirely digital. Some authentic old‑style music will be recreated on historic instruments for research purposes, rather than as entertainment.

Guitar making – Even the last few old‑school luthiers will be migrating to alternative materials, automation and digital electronics. Hybrid instruments will be seen as a thing of the past. AIs will be commonplace and there won’t be a need for human musicians to learn the art or skills needed to make any type of contemporary music.

Recorded music – Popular music will be artificially created without the need for accomplished musicians. Music will be constantly morphing on a second‑by‑second basis, known as AM (Artificial Music).

Live music – Performance capture will be produced electronically and experienced direct by the listener’s visual and audio receptors, bypassing the unreliable eyes and ears altogether. Finally, the digital signal path from computerised source to the recipient’s brain will be complete and will require no human intervention whatsoever.

Alternative Reality

Or… in some alternative, perhaps more desirable dimension, the unwritten future could well be pretty much as it is today, with new generations doing just what we do now, rocking to good old electric guitar music. To many guitarists, the tactile and synergetic relationship between musician and his/her guitar in full flow with other musicians is unbreakable and simply cannot be usurped by some dystopian digital future scape.

One trusts that there will always be a place for creative artisans and a desire or the musically minded to enjoy the fruits of their vision for the guitar of the future. It is encouraging that many well‑known guitar makers are actually stepping back in time in order to move forward. This isn’t the paradox that it may first seem. Savvy guitar builders are investigating in great depth what made great guitars great in the first place and identifying what musicians actually want from their instruments today. Much of this current R&D is leading to a number of findings that indicate that what was important 100 and 200 years ago (and probably longer) is still important today but with modern consistency and reliability.

Perhaps the past masters did get it largely right in the first place and that is why their products, new or vintage, are still desirable artefacts today. While traditional manufacturers like C.F. Martin use modern production methods for some parts of the building process, they are also still using tools and equipment employed by successive cohorts of luthiers, as well as relying on many of the basic techniques and skills refined and passed down from one generation to the next. Most of the top flight guitar builders also work very hard to ensure long-term supplies of precious tone woods to make into future guitars. This focus on the best‑of‑the‑best perhaps suggests that guitars may well remain, for the large part, relatively familiar in 10, 30, 50 and 100 years from now but with improvements to the detail. Perhaps it takes that bold flight of fancy to realise that we already have what we and future generations of musicians actually need. Owning inspiring guitars inspires guitar playing and results in inspiring guitar music.

There really is no point in speculating any further ahead. The likelihood is that, even with advances in medical technology, most if not all of us reading this in 2018 will not be around to see anything beyond c.2020. The guitar is dead, long live the guitar. The passage of father time will inform just how accurate these flights of fantasy (or descents into nightmare) really are. Clearly, the further one looks into the future, the less precise any predictions become. Welcome to tomorrow’s very scary ‘brave new world’.

I, for one, am certainly not laying any bets. I’d like to think that there is something about our very personal instruments that will endure for many decades, if not centuries. If we lose that quintessential ‘something special’ about making guitars that make guitarists that make music, it will all have been for nothing. Watch this space.

Conclusion

So, that’s it. The long‑running and on‑going story of the guitar has finally reached a logical stopping off point, at least for now… However, it not the end of the story by any means. Somewhat disappointingly, the denouement to ‘A Potted History of the Guitar’ series seems to be a bit more of a whimper than some almighty bang. After so much history and so much personal investment in researching it, it seems a bit of a let‑down to leave the guitar’s evolution ‘hanging’ without some sort of definitive resolution to the script and with the various loose ends neatly tied up. Nevertheless, remember that this is not a fictional piece and let us not forget that this is definitely not the epilogue.

‘They’ say that a picture speaks a thousand words. So, to sum up the 3,500‑year, 8‑part journey in a single image that tells the story of the guitar from its origins to the possible near future, here is a fitting 27‑picture montage that possibly speaks approximately 50,000 words. Basically, I could have saved 9 months of my life and just posted this one composite picture. That, I guess, is one of the benefits of hindsight. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the expedition with me and that, like me, you have learned a little something about the guitar along the way. You wanted a potted history of the guitar? Well, how about…

From this point in time onwards is the start of the future and, whatever happens next. It will be fascinating to experience the on‑going next instalment of the long story and to observe with trepidation and excitement what is to unfold. Let us try to make it a bright and positive outcome for everyone who loves The Guitar and Great Guitar Music. Thank you for reading. Enjoy the future, whatever it holds for us guitar aficionados.

End of Part VIII and the end of this series

Now… I need a break from the relentless rigmarole of the research and write routine, which has, for the best part of a year (or more), been on top of everything else. As mentioned previously, at some point, I might adapt the eight separate ‘Guitar History’ parts into a more coherent and accessible feature set on the CRAVE Guitars’ web site.

Very shortly, I will try and start to prepare for 2019’s (hopefully slightly less) epic partner piece to this year’s gargantuan opener. For the rest of this year, it is back to opinionated hum‑drum ‘normality’ with stand‑alone observations of a more topical and transient nature.

One thing I have noticed is that I haven’t been playing enough guitar in recent months, hardly any at all in fact, which is deplorable. So perhaps now that this particular endeavour is over for now, it’s time to practice what I preach, pick up a lovely vintage guitar and plink away for a bit of cathartic enjoyment. At least, in doing so within the context of the past, I now have an enhanced appreciation of the history that led to it coming into my hands and why it is so important to conserve the heritage for that future. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Let’s be honest, the future is all we really have and it is the only thing we can do anything about”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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June 2016 – What Does the (Digital) Future Hold?

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

CRAVE Guitars is returning to pretentious opinionated pontification (POP for short) for June 2016. The starting point for this month’s article is to have a bit of fun speculating about the future, especially given that musicians by and large tend to be a pretty ‘old‑school’ bunch. We tend to resist change and frequently pay considerable homage to the past as a reason to maintain the apparent status quo (not the band). The cause and effect fallacy that is past=good therefore future=not-so-good may be enhanced by selective rose-tinted specs, confusing perceptions about what was actually good with what wasn’t.

Whether you like it or not, we’ve already been experiencing the digital revolution for at least 30 years now. While previous paradigm shifts may have been triggered at a point in time, it often takes a very long period for society to move to a new zeitgeist. The industrial revolution didn’t happen overnight after all; it took decades for the benefits of modernisation to be fully realised as the norm and to become accessible to most.

I recall seeing recently that BOSS released the first digital delay stomp box in c.1984! Line 6 really turned things upside down by bringing acceptable digital modelling to the masses with its iconic POD. Digital recording now provides the mainstay of modern music production and it is generally regarded as a very good thing because it brings massive potential to musicians on a shoestring budget. We’ve also had digital music reproduction and distribution for longer than some probably care to remember. Listening to digital music wherever we are and whatever we’re doing is now the custom for the vast majority of ordinary people.

This fundamental shift raises a question about whether old and new can really co-exist in the long-term? Other than perhaps vinyl, analogue storage has now all but disappeared and unlikely to undergo a popular Renaissance. So, digital is here to stay. Get over it. It’s not clear from here on what music technologies will survive and which will be cast aside as minor entries in the history books. That natural filtering process will be down to us and whether the timing is right for a particular product.

Our obsession with musical history, whether conscious or subconscious, is likely to endure and may well influence our purchasing decisions for a very long time yet. Despite digital’s best attempts, we remain stubbornly wedded to certain bits of obsolete technology – the vacuum valves and moving magnet speakers in our amps for example. So what does digital do to capture our interest? It tries to sound just like the old stuff we had to put up with all those years ago – go figure! There is no doubt that digital provides quality, economy, reliability, consistency and convenience, as well as releasing a massive amount of dynamics, power and storage that was previously seen as unattainable. The benefits of digital music-making enable considerable freedom and choice, as well as providing new opportunities to experiment that would have been seen as ‘magic’ just 100 years’ ago.

There is no point in fighting advancement per se; the organised luddites didn’t succeed against the industrial revolution, so you won’t hold back the digital one. Individual resistance in the face of a mass movement will prove utterly futile. My supposition is sort of symbiotic relationship, with both old and new technologies relying on each other for their existence and with neither eradicating the other, i.e. we are likely to embrace the best of both worlds.

Technology isn’t what makes real music, it is musicians. We should not forget that unpredictable artistic creativity adds a crucial spark into the mix and it’s that which ultimately drives technological change (along with a sprinkling of economics). You can’t buy or make talent but you can make it easier for talent to thrive. To quote Keith Richards, “To make a rock ‘n’ roll record, technology is the least important thing”.

Neither can we ignore the benefits of innovation. The best of digital modelling allows most of us to get pretty close to experiencing rare and/or vintage equipment that we would otherwise have no hope of ever playing, let alone owning. Unless you’re a multi-millionaire, where on earth would you put all that gear even if you could afford it? Technology recreates great gear spookily well, all in a tiny box that doesn’t need much in the way of maintenance either. The rest is up to you.

However, where will it all end? Manufacturers in the digital world are continually trying to compete by leapfrogging in terms of functionality and features. Jump forward 20, 50, 100 or more years and try to think about it. A digital audio workstation of the 22nd century may well be connected directly into your brain, providing an infinite array of variables and you will adjust the tone for the minutest variation in pseudo-relic condition. No doubt, we will have digitally sampled ‘pops’, ‘crackle’ and ‘hum’ added back to a pure binary signal, just so that it sounds ‘authentic’. I would, however, assert that such a bewildering range of options can actually begin to act as a barrier to adoption, rather than an enabler. Being overwhelmed by complexity may not be good for the simpletons among us (like me).

There are also constraints on progress. For example, we guitarists have a massive dependence on the humble and archaic analogue jack plug (and socket). I’m not sure when it was invented but it is a great example of standardisation that has endured essentially unchanged since at least the 1930s. This is astounding endurance for what is actually not a very good connector. The industry has tried to move on but I’ll wager that, if you go into your local guitar store tomorrow, you won’t find a single electric guitar or amp that doesn’t still require one. After nearly a century of use, it will be a difficult item to displace, if only because of global ubiquity. Even if a new industry-wide successor is introduced, there is no way that anyone in their right mind would retro-fit a MIDI or USB port to, say, a ‘59 Les Paul Standard. Will we even still have USBs in the 22nd century and, if we do, will they be backwards compatible? Firewire anyone?

We can influence what happens. We continually tinker with the ingredients. We alter many of the variables on our guitars, e.g. strings, tunings, scale, frets, pickups, materials, etc., all in a quest for something we often can’t clearly define or articulate. Ultimately though, we keep coming back to the core, familiar product while duly tolerating such variations on a theme. A guitar is still a guitar… for now. Currently, most future guitars are still trees today; at least it’s an environmentally sustainable product. In the (nearer than you think) future, guitars may just be synthetic digital controllers, a la PlayStation. A quick Google search can be quite revealing (see the ‘future guitar’ examples throughout this article). Fascinating stuff.

So… looking forward a century to the year 2116, just what will guitar playing be like? Will we still spend our lucre on current major brands? Will we need strings or magnetic pickups? Possibly not. Will guitars colour-change for mood? Maybe – we’ve had illuminated guitars for some time anyway. Will they shape-shift for musical genre or aesthetic taste? I doubt it, but you never know. We’ve actually had guitar synths/controllers/digital guitars (e.g. Roland GK, SynthAxe, Casio DG10/20, Ibanez X-Ing) since the 1980s as well as synth effect pedals from the likes of Electro-Harmonix. Sophisticated sampling has enabled digital guitar modelling to arrive with the Line 6 Variax. Modular instruments have also been attempted and these might finally find their time and become the vogue. No-one really knows the future for sure. I bet ‘we’ will still want but won’t be able to afford that real vintage ’59 Les Paul held in a wealthy collector’s secure vault somewhere, and we will still hanker to recreate the look, feel and sound of one, even though we may never get to see one for real. Not much different from now in fact, with faithful recreations of the past.

The journey isn’t clearly defined and the outcome will evolve through a fascinating mixture of the past, present and future. You, or actually your descendants, will be able to pick up a physical vaguely guitar-shaped instrument (just 3D print a new one?) and it will still be processed through something to affect the signal (probably a cool digital app) and we need some means of being able to ‘hear’ it (sensory implants?). Will we flock to online gigs using VR headsets rather than physically trek to a distant venue to watch a live band in a sweaty beer‑stained crush? No real Glastonbury mud in the future then. Whichever way you look at it, technology will deeply affect our musical experience.

What will our musical tastes be like? Very different I guarantee. Look back at various sci-fi films from the 1950s and ‘60s that depict the then future and see a) how ‘of their time’ the music actually was, and b) how wrong they were about what was yet to come. Look back through the last few centuries to assess the increasing pace of change. The science of music (rather than the style of it), however, remains fixed because we are bound by physical laws that we cannot change or overcome. There will be unwavering and unstoppable progress, and it will be informed by the past (including what we call ‘now’). Will progress render our ability to make real music redundant, to be replaced by computer-generated musical products controlled by technologists rather than artists? I sincerely hope not.

Personally, I look forward to seeing what unfolds. I will enthusiastically grasp those tools that make music creativity quicker/easier/better and I’ll simply avoid those things that make it too difficult to play and work. In the end, I suggest that a recipe comprising pragmatism and diversity will prevail. Advances will occur at a pace that musicians will accept – no faster or slower. We will continue to worship the best of the past (while conveniently disregarding the worst). We will also learn to venerate the best of the future (whatever it may be), maybe not when it first appears but probably with the benefit of hindsight. One thing’s for sure, ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ aren’t going to be consigned to a scrapheap anytime soon. Even CRAVE Guitar’s own 1981 Gibson RD Artist had Moog electronics back in the day.

Guitarists strive to be regarded as conservative traditionalists at one extreme while somewhat hypocritically we also desire (or feel obliged) to push the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable at the other. Putting my highly unreliable predictions aside, a Brave New World beckons. A combination of old and new technologies will enable us to create original music in surprising and exciting ways. Be inspired, not afraid. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Historians in the future will debate the contribution of Guitar Hero to the canon of 21st Century music. Discuss…”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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May 2016 – New Stuff At CRAVE Guitars

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It’s been a few months now since I covered any new CRAVE Guitars’ acquisitions and it suddenly occurred to me that quite a bit has happened since Christmas 2015. So, I’ve put arrogant, pretentious rhetoric on hold in order to get back to the core of what CRAVE Guitars is all about.

In March 2016, I mentioned that I am on a new mission, money permitting, to accumulate a range of classic vintage guitar effect pedals. Progress to-date has largely fallen into 3 categories:

  1. Purchasing a range of cool vintage effect pedals
  2. Recovering a number of older effects from storage that I bought new in the 1970s
  3. Getting out a horde of modern effects, some of which will probably have to go over coming weeks/months to fund further vintage purchases

Only some of the ‘new’ vintage pedals have made it to the web site at the time of writing – I am in the fortunate position of having a backlog of features and galleries to update, so keep an eye open to see newly published material. There is too much to cover in this article, so take a peek at the ‘Amps & Effects’ features pages (click here to see feature menu page…). These particular pedals have been selected because they were the tools of the trade in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so represent familiar territory for me.

In summary, cool vintage stomp boxes that are ‘new in’ since March 2016 include:

  • 1981 BOSS DS-1 Distortion
  • 1985 BOSS OC-2 Octave
  • 1976 Electro-Harmonix Doctor Q (envelope follower)
  • 1982 Ibanez AD9 Analog Delay
  • 1984 Ibanez CS9 Stereo Chorus
  • 1981 Ibanez FL301-DX Flanger
  • 1982 Ibanez FL9 Flanger
  • 1981 Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (overdrive)
  • 1980 Jen Cry Baby Super (wah)
  • 1977 MXR Blue Box (octave/fuzz)
  • 1975 MXR Distortion +
  • 1977 MXR Phase 90
Vintage Effects x 8

My personal collection of cool vintage Electro-Harmonix effect pedals includes:

  • 1977 Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi (fuzz)
  • 1977 Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man (echo)
  • 1977 Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress (flanger)
  • 1976 Electro-Harmonix LPB-2 (clean boost)
  • 1977 Electro-Harmonix Small Stone (phase)
Vintage E-H Effects x 5
 

Now, if you know about or even have a passing interest in vintage effect pedals, that’s quite an impressive little haul for starters, albeit from the mainstream brands. Like all CRAVE Guitars items, they will be used (but not, I hasten to add, all at the same time!).

That’s not all folks… Despite my declared ‘temporary change of direction’ I haven’t completely been able to resist the temptation to purchase more vintage guitars. There have been 2 new purchases that are complete polar opposites in almost every respect. Both are great instruments; they are just very, very different from each other. Both guitars have features written on them, so I won’t repeat the detail here, other than to say that they are fabulous additions to the CRAVE Guitars stable. Go take a deeper look:

1962 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins
1981 Gibson RD Artist

The time is coming for a bit of rationalisation at CRAVE. If anyone out there is interested in purchasing any ‘modern’ (i.e. post-1990) guitars, amps and/or effects pedals, let me know and I’ll send a list. I’m not a dealer, so I’m not sure about how much they are worth, so I might just let eBay auctions determine the market value (time permitting). They deserve more use than they’re getting now.

While the stomp box mission is in full swing, I am also mildly interested in getting hold of another vintage valve amp. I’m thinking of one of the smaller ‘student’ models from Fender (black or silver face), probably from the late 1960s up to the mid‑1970s – perhaps an all-original Champ, Vibro Champ or a Princeton in good used condition (and UK 240V).

Guitar-wise, I am also browsing the Internet for some cost-effective vintage guitars to fill gaps, for instance a 1970s Fender Bronco, a 1960s Danelectro and a 3rd generation Melody Maker from the mid-1960s (these are the ‘ugly duckling’ ones with the amateur-looking pointy cutaways, i.e. not the pretty 2nd generation or the SG-like 4th generation ones). I am more pernickety about guitars and these have to be in good-to-excellent original condition (i.e. no refinishes, major modifications or breakages).

I simply can’t afford ambitious ‘retail’ vintage prices for guitars, amps and effects, but we may be able to find common ground around realistic values. What may come my way will be shared on the site.

That’s more than enough for now. Stay cool. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Music is not necessarily the only road to true enlightenment. According to many musicians that’s also what sex and drugs are for.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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March 2016 – A Temporary Change Of Direction

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A couple of months (and posts) ago, I mused on the other key elements of a guitarist’s arsenal, amplifiers and effects. While often regarded as 2nd class citizens of the vintage signal chain, they are, however, both essential items as well as intensely personal in terms of shaping musicians’ individual sound signatures. Being fortunate enough to have a number of Cool & Rare Vintage Electric Guitars, it made some sense to explore these other gems that contributed to modern music as we know it.

The first step was to ditch modern transistor amps and acquire a solid, reliable (but small) vintage amp. The early ’70s Music Man 210 ‘sixty five’ (click here to see the amp feature…) designed by Leo Fender was the first of these, and what a great addition this was.

Then, because of a recent change in personal circumstances, I took a strategic decision to stop looking at the pricier (for me) end of the market and start re-exploring the landscape of vintage effect pedals. I have a number of original ’70s Electro-Harmonix (EHX) American stomp boxes, although these are (sadly) in storage at the moment. I also have a range of modern BOSS and Line 6 pedals which, when I started thinking about it, just didn’t get me excited. Don’t get me wrong, they are great pieces of electronics. However, they didn’t inspire my playing in the way I thought they should. So… unless there isn’t a vintage equivalent, I think that they are now going to have to go the same way as modern amps. My first dalliance with vintage effects has resulted in a number of interesting little effect pedals. I have to say that this may be dangerous territory and I might be opening another Pandora’s Box of addiction for me.

The first area to explore was the sonic continuum from compression to add clean sustain at one end to absurdly dirty fuzz at the other extreme. As far as effect pedals are concerned, the top Japanese brands like BOSS and Ibanez deserve as much respect as their American counterparts like EHX and MXR. I therefore make little distinction, as long as they are both vintage and classic (and good!). Recent additions include (in order from serenely subtle, through sensuously sublime, to seriously psychotic):

  • 1980 MXR Dyna Comp Compressor
  • 1980 BOSS CS-1 Compression Sustainer
  • 1980 BOSS OD-1 Over Drive
  • 1988 Pro Co Rat Distortion
  • 1978 Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff π (fuzz)
Vintage Effects x 5

I won’t repeat myself here, other than to say these diminutive boxes provide an infinite range of tonal possibilities (Click here to see features on all these classic pedals…). This is just the start. Over the next few months, I will try to add to the above and also, hopefully, retrieve my original EHX pedals. I have also started looking at the other families of effects, the time delay-based warbles of phasers, choruses, flangers and echoes, as well as other oddball sound manglers such as envelope followers, ring modulators and pitch shifters. When I started looking, I couldn’t believe the prices of some vintage pedals, original Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamers for instance or Roland Space Echoes (OK, the latter is strictly not a pedal but you know what I mean). Even battered and beaten examples can go for eye-watering sums. I am just (re-)learning all about this stuff, so it will take a time to get re-acquainted with the nuances.

By the way, I haven’t completely resisted the temptation of vintage guitars. I have been ‘naughty’ and continued to dabble in my 6-string obsession with some diverse acquisitions. I hope to be reprising these in another ‘What’s New at CRAVE Gutiars’ post soon. Generally speaking though, guitars will have to take a back seat for a while, so I may go on about ‘Amplifiers and Effects’ for a while yet. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Music doesn’t provide answers to life’s complications but it does provide solace for the soul when the questions are asked.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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January 2016 – The Guitarist’s Friends: Amplifiers and Effects

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Most of my previous articles have focused on the venerable (electric) guitar – the source of the electrical signal that becomes music. This month, while there is probably a bit of ‘preaching to the converted’, it is perhaps worth reflecting for a moment and going back to basics.

As may be blindingly obvious, the instrument itself is only one part of the equation when making amplified music. On its own, unplugged, an electric guitar would be no good in front of a big audience. As we all know, electric guitars are dependent on some sort of amplification to convert the low-level signal from the guitar’s pickups to the speakers. Losing your amp mid-gig can be embarrassing and not great for your reputation. Even an acoustic guitar needs to be amplified in order to engage a modest sized audience and there is a whole industry now built around dedicated acoustic guitar amplifiers. This isn’t really my thang, so I won’t pontificate on what I don’t understand.

The oft-forgotten component in this signal chain after the instrument is the venerable lead. I express no opinion on this essential piece of kit other than to say that good quality interconnects are vital. If you use RF transceivers, the same principle applies. These items are integral to your overall sound and it is generally worth every penny to preserve your and your guitar’s inherent musical characteristics. They may not be shiny or ‘sexy’ but scrimp on them at your peril.

Then we get onto one’s amplifier of choice. These can be anything from a diminutive, battery powered box to an impressive backline of Marshall stacks turned up to 11. It’s amazing to think that the venerable Marshall stack was 50 years old in 2015. The advent of home recording has led to an explosion in digital modelling and even the use of the iPhone/iPad can bestow tone-enhancing functions beyond the dreams of many recording pioneers. The Line 6 Pod brought about a revolution in digital amp modelling, embraced by many musicians who could see the potential opportunities of technology. Interestingly, rather than create something unique and innovative all of its own, the digital world has gone to enormous lengths to simulate the soundscape of our favourite vintage valve amps and cabinets, perhaps suggesting that those pioneers got something right in the first place.

So… what’s your favourite sounding amp? And, before you start, yes they do have a sound of their own, irrespective of what’s played through them. Fundamentally, it’s down to individual taste. Personally, I tend to favour the ‘American sound’, such as the classic Fender amps, rather than the stalwarts from this side of the Atlantic, typified by Marshall, Vox and Orange. Gibson, surprisingly, has never been as commercially successful at making guitar amplifiers, leaving opportunities for other US makers such as Mesa/Boogie and Peavey. How about some other classic names from the past, such as WEM, H/H, Roland, Laney, Sound City and Hiwatt, amongst others – some still going while others are history. The differences between the various brands are, unsurprisingly, manifold. Nowadays there is a plethora of amps ranging from the far eastern mass-produced to the US and UK boutique builders. Ultimately, it is down to individual taste and, perhaps, what guitar you play. For info, I currently use a vintage Music Man (click here to see the amp feature…) and a modern Cornford Carrera combining the best of US and UK heritage. It is with much sadness that neither are still in production. I recently purchased the wonderful mid-70s vintage Music Man 210 ‘sixty-five’ amp to use as my main amp of choice. This means that some tranny practice and studio gear may have to become ex-loved CRAVE items soon.

Over time, there have evolved recognised and well-accepted guitar/amp pairings, such as the humbucker equipped Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amp, or the single coil loaded Fender Stratocaster through a Fender amp. However, there are now so many different permutations that provide limitless possibilities for creating one’s own personal signature sound. Why so many guitarists strive to recreate the sound (and style) of others rather than seek a unique, individual signature of their own is probably best left for another debate. For practicality, modern valve amps are safe, reliable and sound great, while digital alternatives give a very good impression of many classics that, let’s face it, most of us will never get to play (let alone own) for real, so let’s not get too snooty. Whether you go for a traditional approach or you adopt a mix-and-match attitude to differentiate your sound, you can experiment to your heart’s content. There is no right or wrong, just what inspires your creativity. That’s the joy of our beloved hobby.

Then, in addition to amplification, there is an abundance of effects units (a.k.a. FX, stompboxes, pedals, etc.) from the mass-manufactured giants to the tiny custom-built independents. The choice is plentiful. The history of stompboxes really started in the 1960s with the fuzz and wah-wah, and has flourished ever since. Now, you can create almost any live or studio sound that you want, from subtle enhancement to unrecognisable noise sculpting. Take your pick between analogue, digital or hybrid, whatever takes your fancy. Personally, I have a soft spot for 1970’s lush vintage analogue Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, such as the Big Muff Pi, Memory Man and Electric Mistress. For modern effects, I generally use Boss and Line 6 units. So much choice, so many opportunities, so little time to experiment. One could spend a lifetime exploring the creative tonal capabilities of effects alone without ever really listening to what the guitar itself can do. Again, it is worth investing in quality leads and power supplies to avoid degrading the magic of your performance.

One characteristic I’ve noticed is the traditionalism that extends from guitars to amps and effects. Many of today’s designs are either copies of, or are heavily influenced by, the past, for example emulating the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer, Dunlop Fuzz Face/Cry Baby or MXR Phase 90. Occasionally, there is genuine innovation; the Digitech Whammy pedal or Roland Loop Station spring to mind? I wait in anticipation for the ‘next big thing’ to challenge our usually conservative prejudices. In the meantime, there is a growing interest in acquiring vintage amps and effects to add to instruments and therefore (re)create the original setups heard on iconic stages and in countless studios for what seems a lifetime of great music, effectively reconstructing the soundtrack of our lives for new audiences. A subject for a future article.

CRAVE guitars are frequently played unamplified to get a feel for the way they resonate and respond to touch without any electronics. Other times, when the mood takes, it is fun just to pile on ridiculous amounts of modification and enjoy the sonic chaos created by rampant knob‑twiddling. Isn’t the electric guitar a wonderful thing, especially when allied to your favourite sound enhancing electronics? Where would we be without them all? Enjoy. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Learn from other musicians; don’t copy them or the best you’ll ever be is an average plagiarist”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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