August 2017 – A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Over the last 30 months or so, I’ve been going on and on about the mainstay of CRAVE Guitars ‘work’, which is to share with you not only stuff about music and stuff about guitars generally but also specifically stuff about Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. If you’ve taken a look at the web site, you’ll know that the focus tends to be on mainstream U.S. brands and, within that, if possible, some cool variations of well-established guitar models. However, perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, the guitar world is much bigger than that.

 

This month I’m dipping a toe in the water of some of the other guitar treasures out there. When one looks across the whole guitar landscape, antique, vintage, old, used, new, American, European, Eastern bloc, Asian, mass manufacture, boutique makers, unique luthiers, home‑made, traditional, basic, hi-tech, innovative and whacky, there is infinite variety and a veritable cornucopia of interesting and wonderful instruments to appreciate. The same goes for amps and effects of course (as colleagues into those things keep reminding me) but there’s not enough room in a single article for those as well. Besides, although I don’t claim to be an expert on guitars, I’m even less well‑acquainted the minutiae of amps and effects – that’s another ballgame altogether. The focus of this article is essentially on electric instruments.

 

When researching this article, it became ridiculously clear that I simply can’t do justice to every aspect of this enormous topic. I can only mention a figurative iceberg’s tip of what’s out there and I apologise in advance for the probable monumental omissions herein. Before we get going, none of the guitars covered in this article are part of the CRAVE Guitars’ family. In order to illustrate the diversity, I’ve resorted to using pictures sourced from Google Images – I acknowledge all guitar owners and photographers.

 

Let’s face it, love them or loathe them, the centre of the guitar universe remains occupied by the American ‘Big Two’, Fender and Gibson, along with their subsidiary companies including, respectively, Epiphone and Squier that concentrate on the budget end of the market. Incidentally, Fender and Gibson also own a number of other iconic brands that come under their wing. For instance, did you know that Fender own Gretsch, Jackson, Charvel, DeArmond and Tacoma, and Gibson own Baldwin, Kramer, Steinberger, Tobias and Wurlitzer? Until the mid-2010s, Fender also owned Guild and Ovation guitar brands.

 

 

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Fender and Gibson are massive multinational industrial giants, but in actuality, they are pretty modest business concerns compared to the sheer scale and scope of some truly global companies. Fender and Gibson are, above all, very successful brands with a strong identity, whose reach extends well beyond the music industry. This general public awareness helps to shield them from some of the economic, social and technological pressures facing them. Business fortunes, however, go in cycles and the ‘Big Two’ have had their ups and downs. Both companies, along with many others, were taken over in the 1960s, leading to a period of corporate complacency and weakness that opportunistic competitors were able to exploit. While they have been able to rejuvenate their image, they are now dealing with a radically different global context.

 

While the ‘Big Two’ are fortunate to have genuinely iconic products including Fender’s Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass, and Gibson’s Les Paul, SG and ES-335 (among others), this otherwise enviable position can also constrain them operationally. It has proved very difficult for them to innovate and stretch too far from the proverbial straightjacket imposed by their core instruments. Existing models are scrutinised minutely and often face intense criticism if they move away from the accepted recipe. At the same time, it is difficult for them to introduce all-new models, as they are often compared unfavourably with the classic mould. Without sustainable growth in a finite market, these companies are commercially vulnerable and their potential success is increasingly limited by their past. This strategic conundrum for Fender and Gibson actually creates fertile ground for other smaller firms to grasp opportunity to enter the market through differentiation, diversification and innovation, as well as imitation.

 

Fender and Gibson Guitars

 

Circling around the ‘star’ of the Big Two, there are the other recognisable brands such as Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Guild, Ovation, Music Man (now part of the Ernie Ball corporation), G&L, and, as well as the aforementioned Gretsch (the Gretsch family retains major influence as part of Fender) and relative newcomers such as PRS. There are other companies that don’t immediately spring to mind but which have enormous presence in the industry. I include Peavey here, as one of the world’s largest musical manufacturing company. Then there are the other recognisable ‘independent’ American manufacturers that tend to focus on niche markets, such as BC Rich, Dean, Jackson, Alembic, Carvin, Schecter, Steinberger, Suhr, Parker, Heritage, etc. At the same time, some major US guitar companies focus predominantly on acoustic guitars, such as Martin and Taylor.

 

American Guitars

 

There is an incredible history surrounding brands that have either disappeared completely or those that have gone, some of which have now been resurrected, e.g. Supro, Airline, National, Dobro (acoustic, now part of Epiphone), Bigsby, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Silvertone, Kalamazoo, etc. American guitar manufacturers suffered particularly badly in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of multiple pressures including falling production quality, increasing manufacturing costs (including union labour), and hostile competition from high quality cheap imports from the Far East.

 

American Guitars

 

As you might expect, the history of many of the brands already mentioned goes back to the early-mid 1900s (or even further), which means that there are plenty of very cool vintage guitars floating around. In the guitar world, age doesn’t mean valuable – it is the combination of age, rarity, quality originality and current condition that matter for those with an eye on the dollar value. While the Big Two tend to command the premium prices, pretty much across the board, there are plenty of bargains to be had by looking more broadly at these, sometimes ephemeral makes. I recently come across an early 1960s U.S. Airline in all‑original clean condition that went for a little over £300GBP. These never were top‑of‑the‑range instruments back in the day, and they can be picked up as bargain vintage instruments now. Some of these leftfield guitars present low-risk options for entry into the vintage market if you research carefully and don’t expect too much. History suggests that, in all likelihood, they won’t accumulate vintage value very quickly without major artist association. Look around and there are gems to be found from under-the-radar guitar makers. Some are very nice, including Washburn, Hondo (mainly copies), Mosrite, Harmony, Kay, Valco (maker of a number of other brands), etc.

 

American Guitars

 

Moving away from the American continent, Europe also has a long tradition of great musical instrument manufacture, with brands such as Vox, Höfner, Baldwin, Burns, Watkins, Framus, Hagstrom, Hohner, Shergold, Hoyer, Wandre, Bartolini, Levin, Goya, Welson, along with newer entrants such as Warwick, Duesenberg and Vigier, Some of these were prolific during the ‘golden years’, capitalising on the rapidly moving musical paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s. A post-war embargo on American guitar imports certainly helped European brands (and bands) get a foothold and to prosper up to the early-mid 1960s. While, as in other markets, the quality of European guitars varied considerably, many models have become synonymous with the period and, as a result, highly collectable, for instance, the teardrop Vox guitar used by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones or the Höfner violin bass used by Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

 

European Guitars

 

Even further away from America, the Japanese companies competed head on with the American brands in the 1970s. Plenty of the budget guitars were blatant copies of American guitars, which resulted in protracted litigation to protect U.S. patents and trademarks. Many ‘older’ guitarists may remember copies from the likes of CSL and Columbus, as well as Ibanez. Japanese firms didn’t just replicate American designs; some also produced original designs and have retained a credible reputation over time for quality and consistency, including their dominant brands – Yamaha and Ibanez. Takamine, which focuses predominantly on acoustic guitars, is also Japanese. There have been plenty of Japanese names that are or have been familiar, including ESP (and subsidiary LTD), Roland, Italia, Aria, Tokai, Teisco, Greco, Guyatone, Apollo, Kawai, Kent, Westone, etc. Many of the instruments made by Japanese companies in the 1960s and 1970s (including some copies) are now becoming very collectable in the off‑the‑beaten‑track vintage niches. If you want some truly whacky vintage designs at reasonable prices, take a look at Japanese guitars. Plenty of people now specialise in conserving these vintage Japanese/Asian instruments.

 

Far Eastern Guitars

 

The old Eastern Bloc countries have also produced a wide range of brands catering for home-grown musicians. The strategy of government-owned manufacture was partly nationalistic, in that they were required to protect their home market from capitalist imports from both the west and east. Many of these guitars were typically utilitarian with little in the way of flamboyance. Many of these brands will be little known in the western world, even now. As you might expect, there are experts who concentrate on collecting these communist bloc guitars for posterity. The ones that have penetrated the western markets offer something different from, and cheaper than, the mainstream names. Look out for names like Aelita, Elgava, Formanta, Migma, Musima, Odessa, Stella, Tonika, Marma (East Germany), Jolana (Czechoslovakia), etc.

 

Eastern Bloc Guitars

 

There are a few other territories that have developed their own guitar manufacturing, including Godin and Eastwood in Canada and Maton in Australia. In addition, there are a large number of unmarked guitars out there with no means of identifying age or source. Some can be traced back to similar designs by known manufacturers while the creators of others are lost in the mists of time and geography. These ‘pawn shop’ guitars are often poorly made and may be considered curios, although, there are aficionados looking to conserve the more vernacular heritage.

 

Canadian and Australian Guitars
No-Name Pawn Shop Guitars

 

The modern-world picture is far more complicated and can’t be talked about in terms of familiar regional territories. Some multi-national companies, including Fender and Both Fender and Gibson have their headquarters in the US and produce large numbers of their subsidiary ranges in other countries. Some brands are designed in the US and constructed offshore. Some are assembled and quality checked in the US from parts made elsewhere. Larger companies have international distribution operations that channel product to dealership networks within economic regions, e.g. Fender UK servicing the European Union (at the moment!). Others have to manage distribution through networks of independent dealers. Some smaller companies have to rely either on local markets or alternative methods of distribution, direct or indirect. Some companies make instruments that are branded by one or more retail chains. A classic example is Silvertone whose instruments were made by Danelectro, Kay and others, sold through Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order (remember that?). Similarly, many of the diverse Japanese brand names were actually made by a relatively small number of manufacturers, e.g. Kawai and Teisco.

 

Another feature of new millennium guitar building is the explosion in bespoke guitar building, either by small specialist companies or individual luthiers. Low volumes, creative designs, alternative materials, custom features, and high quality tend to characterise the sub-industry but there are always exceptions to the rule. There have, pretty obviously, always been bespoke builders catering for the well‑heeled or professional musicians’ need and this has led to further opportunities that are difficult for the mass manufacturers to match. In response, the larger manufacturers, including Fender and Gibson, created custom shop operations to provide tailored services for individual clients. Custom shops also heralded the explosion in vintage-styled recreations and the more recent craze for relic finishes, both building on the growth of interest in vintage guitars.

 

Remember, even the (now) big companies had to start somewhere, usually with an inspirational leader, visionary pioneer or commercial entrepreneur at the helm, often working on their own or in a small workshop. Many of today’s big brands started out with some names you might just recognise, including Friedrich Gretsch and son, Fred Gretsch Jr, Orville H. Gibson, Christian Frederick Martin, Adolph Rickenbacker, Nathan Daniel (Danelectro), Epaminondas Stathopoulo (Epiphone), and one Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender. More recently, Paul Reed Smith has earned a place amongst this exlusive group. Even these industry giants relied on other key individuals and their skills including John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Lloyd Loar, F.C. Hall, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, George Fullerton, Ray Dietrich, Roger Rossmeisl, etc.

 

Guitar Founders

 

Other well-known names span out of larger companies, for instance, Travis Bean, well known for metal-neck guitars, split from Kramer. Kiesel Custom Guitars is another example, producing some astounding instruments having been formed following the splitting up of American company Carvin in 2015. Perhaps the most successful modern entrepreneur is Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars, based in Maryland USA since 1985. While growing his reputation, Smith wisely sought advice from Gibson’s ex‑president Ted McCarty to mentor him, and several PRS models now proudly bear McCarty’s name. The tradition continues with renowned luthier Joe Knaggs setting up his own prestigious guitar company after leaving PRS, producing some wonderful instruments in relatively small numbers.

 

Spin-Off Brand Guitars

 

One of the most celebrated and influential craftsmen to exploit niche demand in the 1960s was Lithuanian immigrant to the UK, Tony Zemaitis who made some very remarkable guitars for some very remarkable guitarists. Zemaitis’ legacy can clearly be seen in other current models from the likes of Duesenberg and Teye, as well as the Japanese company that currently carries on Zematis’ illustrious name.

 

Zemaitis Guitars
Teye and Duesenberg Guitars

 

There have been many excursions into the application of alternative materials to wood. The use of metal in guitar production was pioneered by the likes of National and Dobro in their resonator guitars as a means of producing more volume from acoustic guitars in the pre‑electric era of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, Valco used fibreglass (coined Res‑o‑Glas) for futuristic designs in the 1960s, such as the stunning National Newport. More recently, acoustic maker, Ovation, used a variation of fibreglass (lyrachord) on its bowlback instruments. Zemaitis experimented with other materials in his guitar construction and many others have followed suit, including the aforementioned Kramer/Travis Bean. Around the same time, there was a ‘fad’ for acrylic guitar bodies, perhaps the most well-known proponent being Dan Armstrong who used acrylic for parent company Ampeg.

 

On this side of the Atlantic, another luthier has set the bar for innovative use of metal; French luthier, James Trussart, Italian company XoX Audio are making some nice instruments out of carbon fibre. 3D printing also presents opportunities for greater use of plastics and metals in guitar production. Some luthiers have experimented with stone as part of the construction but it is not common – or very practical. With ever increasingly stringent restrictions on sourcing, use, sale and movement of hardwoods commonly used in guitar production, expect wider use of alternative sustainable materials in the future.

 

Alternative Guitar Materials

 

There are hundreds if not thousands or even tens of thousands of guitar makers out there, all wanting a proportion of the overall demand for great guitars. Here are a very few notable names from all around the world to keep an eye on, including (in no particular order); Collings, Stone Wolf, Flaxwood, Palm Bay, Hutchinson, Emerald, Ed Roman, Suhr, Mayones, Nik Huber, Matt Artinger, Tom Anderson, Patrick James Eggle, Fano, Gus, Goulding, Prisma, Frank Hartung, Michael Spalt, Michihiro Matsuda, TK Smith, Rick Toone, Carillion, McSwain, John Backlund, Reverend, Ron Thorn, John Ambler, Mule, Tony Cochran, Walla Walla, Ezequiel Galasso, Langcaster… The list could be endless as there are just too many great guitar buillders out there to mention and apologies to those I’ve left out and, sorry, I can’t post pictures of every one – I wish I could. The point, I guess, is to broaden one’s perspective and perhaps open one’s mind to a wide range of other possibilities beyond the obvious in-your-face guitar shop fare. I don’t usually proffer advice but on this occasion, I would simply just say, take a look out there and you might just find something weird and wonderful that you probably didn’t know existed. I regularly feature some of this wonderland of goodies on Twitter for those that may want to take a look (@CRAVE_guitars).

 

Boutique Makers to Watch

 

For the amateur hobbyist or artisans with aspirations of becoming the next notable designer, there are now plenty of DIY kits for everything from generic product to some quite fancy customised guitar construction. Access to information the Internet provides plenty of plans and specifications for people to design and build almost any type of instrument without the need to track down books or luthiers willing to share their knowledge. Experimenting in this way can present all sorts of opportunities to be taken. What about you?

 

Renovation ‘husk’ projects are probably best avoided unless you really know what you’re doing, as there’s probably a reason why they are in that state to begin with. For some, though. a ‘bitsa’ guitar may make an ideal low cost player’s guitar. My lack of practical skills prevents me from trying out a DIY (re-)build beyond my limited capabilities. Besides, given CRAVE Guitars’ fundamental raison d’être, I simply can’t create an authentic American vintage guitar.

 

Guitar DIY Kit and Project Husk

 

I hope that this article has given a tiny indication of the beauty and multiplicity of guitars out there. That’s without going into oddities with unconventional string configurations, double (or more) necks, hybrid instruments, etc. It is this fascination with making things different while also keeping things the same that is quite inspirational and, I think, pretty unique to guitars, at least on this sort of scale. We are blessedly spoilt for choice and there are some ridiculously good guitars out there for very reasonable prices without experiencing the diminishing returns associated with esoteric exotica. Ultimately, this clearly indicates that there is something for everyone with an interest in the world’s favourite musical instrument.

 

So… you may ask… what’s my favourite out of everything covered here? Truthfully, I can’t say; I find guitars endlessly beguiling and preferences vary continuously. It would be unfair to single any one brand or model from the others. As my obsessive quest for ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ continues, the CRAVE name gives a hint of bias but that is not so dogmatic that I can’t appreciate all aspects of the luthier’s art and craftsmanship. MY position is firmly ‘on the fence’. If any of the names mentioned wish to persuade me off the fence with a prime example of their product(s), I am more than happy to accommodate them (f.o.c. of course!). I optimistically await a swathe of e-mails to that effect (hint, hint).

 

Me? I’m off to plink a new CRAVE Guitars’ plank. The new addition to the family is something both very recognisable and very unusual at the same time. All being well, I’ll try to cover it in next month’s article. All I’ll say at this juncture is that it is definitely one that fits the Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitar bill very aptly while also strongly dividing opinion. Intrigued? The lengths we go to, to bring you guitar ‘stuff’. Watch this space…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “There is a finite limit to the amount you can know, there is no limit to the amount you can imagine.”

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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June 2017 – At Last… New in at CRAVE Guitars

posted in: News, Observations, Opinion | 0

Finally, the much-heralded and eagerly(!)-awaited relocation (see March 2017 article → click to read) has taken place and the work really starts on making the new crib habitable first, and then liveable in. This has to be completed before CRAVE Guitars can be properly resurrected, so it is still some way off before ‘normality’ returns.

 

More importantly within this context, CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’ of vintage instruments is in temporary storage until I can create safe, secure and environmentally appropriate musical equipment space. Providing them all with a home will take both time and significant funds. In the meantime, the availability of vintage instruments, effects and amps to hand is limited, as only 4 made the initial expedition. Eek!

 

The recent thinning out of the guitar herd means that CRAVE Guitars is now substantially smaller (by about 15%) than before the move. In addition, a load of studio gear, modern amps and a plethora of modern, far eastern effects pedals, have now found new homes.

 

The advantage of marginal rationalisation is that CRAVE Guitars’ operating model has become better focused. For instance, after the cull, the only instruments and amps remaining are American-made, of which only two that are newer than 1989 (mainly for reference comparisons). In comparison, vintage effects are a bit more diverse. While the most modern was in 1988, the pedals come from America, Japan and Europe. Stomp boxes are, and always have been, a justifiable exception to the ‘made in USA’ rule simply because they are so integrated into our musical culture.

 

Another advantage of the pre-relocation clear out is that it released some limited funds for reinvestment. A modest injection of cash enabled the acquisition of a few interesting vintage bits and pieces, including:

 

Guitars:

 

1977 Gibson L6-S Deluxe
1970s Ovation Breadwinner 1251

 

Amp:

1979 Fender Musicmaster Bass

 

Effect Pedals:

 

1981 BOSS PH-1r Phaser
1981 Ibanez CS-505 Chorus
1985 BOSS TW-1 T Wah
1978 Ibanez PT-909 Phase Tone
1976 Electro-Harmonix Octave Multiplexer
1978 MXR Envelope Filter

 

Features and galleries on all these items can be found on the web site, so I won’t repeat the content here. Both of the ‘new’ guitars, the amp and two of the pedals were made in the USA, with the remainder of the effects coming from Japan. I think that they are all great additions to the CRAVE Guitars fold.

 

While keeping the core spotlight on Gibson and Fender guitars, the diversification into other brands is intended to broaden interest and appeal, recognising that there is more to musical heritage than the mainstream. Economics also plays a part, with vintage values rapidly increasing for the big brand’s desirable models. There are some fascinating cool and rare vintage instruments to explore.

 

It seems opportune to make no apology for the emphasis on 1970s and 1980s gear. Primarily, it was during these decades when my youthful obsession with music and, specifically, guitars began and probably peaked. Those new or second-hand guitars of that period are now becoming sought-after collectables, so I have a soft spot for them.

 

There are plenty of well-moneyed collectors scavenging 1950’s and 1960’s vintage pieces, hiking up the prices to ridiculous levels (again) while at the same time vociferously criticising some very credible 1970’s equipment in the process. The result is that many of us ordinary, enthusiastic mortals are increasingly becoming excluded (again) from instruments made in the ‘golden years’ by greedy investors and speculators.

 

I agree that there was some poor quality manufacturing from large conglomerates in the 1970s and 1980s, often caused by commercial pressures, manufacturing techniques and essential cost-cutting. However, progress needed to be made, especially in the face of far eastern competition. We shouldn’t forget that, during and the 1970s in particular, a swathe of innovation and experimentation took place that enabled the brands to sustain and rejuvenate. These strategic business factors are often overlooked or downplayed. The thing about innovation is that only some of it becomes successful, whenever it takes place. Let’s be honest, there has been plenty of dire output at other times too.  We do need to take care that we don’t fall into the trap that old is automatically good. So… my point is that the situation isn’t clear cut and, with careful selection, there is some really fine stuff out there, whatever the period.

 

Furthermore, and being a tad heretical, if it wasn’t for those major corporations rescuing and then keeping the failing brands going through lean years, they might have been lost to us altogether. Had they totally disappeared, we wouldn’t have the modern classics being made now by companies that care about the heritage. It is too easy to jump on the bandwagon and criticise the ‘70s and ‘80s without a thought for the practical. Wait a few years, see what happens and you decide whether my appraisal has some merit. It will be interesting to see what the long-term effect will be as a result of the exemplary output produced by the ‘boutique boom’ of the current decade.

 

Picking and choosing can lead to some fine vintage instruments being acquired at reasonable prices, if only because the avaricious vultures haven’t looked to make a big profit from them yet. Inevitably, it will happen and then, almost overnight, what these ‘experts’ call uncool now will suddenly become cool in order for them to make a buck. In the meantime, CRAVE Guitars is hopefully redressing the balance a bit and bringing some common sense to the debate. It is for these reasons that CRAVE Guitars is actively celebrating these guitars, amps and effects and stewarding as much as I can for future generations to enjoy.

 

Right… rant over (for now), so time to change the subject. While the ramifications of the relocation are working through, I am trying to keep CRAVE Guitars’ going as best as I can.

 

The CRAVE Guitars web site has been spruced-up. While on the surface, it doesn’t look very different, about a quarter of the site has been updated in one way or another. There is so much that I want to do with it. Hopefully, the opportunity will arise to improve it over coming months.

 

CRAVE Guitars Website
CRAVE Guitars

 

I am trying to sustain CRAVE Guitars social media output, as it is one area where one can’t take one’s eye off the ball. The platform is notoriously fickle and inactivity leads to being forgotten very quickly. During June 2017, CRAVE Guitars surpassed 2,000 Twitter followers (@CRAVE_Guitars). It took 2½ years of ceaseless hard work and over 11,000 Tweets to get there. I doubt that there is any tangible value other than global exposure for the brand (it is more a reputation than a business). One can only hope the investment in time and effort will be worth it in the end.

 

CRAVE Guitars – 2,000 Twitter Followers

 

Since the last article, Glastonbury Festival 2017 has come and gone. For the second year running, attendance wasn’t possible for family health reasons. It was very frustrating being relegated to an armchair/TV viewer. Nevertheless, this year’s festival which, even though I wasn’t there, got substantial CRAVE Guitars social media coverage. I have to say that the absence of the traditional festival quagmire was galling – mud-free Glastos are a rare thing and it would have been nice to experience a dry one. Even worse, there is no Glastonbury Festival in 2018, as it’s a fallow year to allow the dairy farm to recover. Furthermore, it isn’t clear whether the next one in 2019 will be held at Worthy Farm, Pilton, Somerset, UK. The farm is its spiritual, historical and, to me, only home. I hope that this year does not turn out be the last ever ‘real’ Glasto. If it moves away, it risks becoming just another bland event amongst a plethora of other generic music gatherings. I watch with interest and a touch of trepidation.

 

Glastonbury Festival 2017
Glastonbury Festival
Glastonbury Festival
Glastonbury Festival

 

To compensate (a little) for missing Glastonbury, I’m looking forward to the local Looe music festival taking place at the end of September, almost on the doorstep. The Jesus And Mary Chain, Lulu and Happy Mondays are headlining. Interesting variety for a small regional event held towards the end of the festival season.

 

Looe Music Festival
Looe Music Festival
Looe Music Festival

 

Note to self: Time to unpack and get back into plinking my planks. Until next time…

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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January 2017 – Why music affects us in the way it does

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Welcome to a brand new(-sh) and shiny(-ish) 2017. One hopes that humanity comes to its senses and delivers progress towards a better, fairer, more peaceful world in the year to come. Given indications so far, I doubt it but we shall see. I hope that I’m wrong.

 

What will be different for CRAVE Guitars in 2017? Other than the complete change of lifestyle to a more modest form of living and the absence of any funds to take forward the vintage guitar business, it will be a year of contemplation and formation of thoughts about the future. I have to remain optimistic that CRAVE Guitars will metamorphose (again) and will flourish in some splendid new form.

 

Anyway… back to the present and this month’s topic, in the absence of new gear. One of the things that has fascinated me over many years is why people choose, like, and are affected by, the music they listen to. My iTunes library runs into several tens of thousands of songs, predominantly but not exclusively from the last 5 decades, so the topic is pertinent. This article tries to understand why you might like one song while I might hate it and vice versa, or why we both might like or dislike the same one. While reading, please bear in mind that my roots are completely in modern music, which comprises a massively diverse smorgasbord of contemporary music from the 1960s onwards, right up to the latest releases. While I can appreciate (some) classical or traditional music, it doesn’t impact my life in the way that ‘modern popular’ music does.

 

The cultural revolution (no, not the Chinese uprising of 1966-1976) that began in the early 20th century led up to the seemingly sudden introduction of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s. However, ‘modern’ rock and pop music didn’t appear fully formed overnight and its roots in blues and jazz go much further back. What the explosion in supply and demand that has occurred over the last 6 decades has done is to open up range of musical types in such a way that defining current genres and sub-genres has become increasingly difficult. In addition, technology (for instance to facilitate composition, recording, production and distribution) provides us with convenient access to types of music that hitherto might have been difficult to reach, let alone appreciate.

 

When I was young, my parents listened predominantly to classical and traditional music. However, this background does not appear to have influenced my personal preferences. So what did shape my listening habits while growing up in a rapidly changing world? The ‘nature versus nurture’ dichotomy doesn’t appear to be a determinant of taste and passing years don’t appear to have modified my listening behaviour significantly. Certainly my musical choices have not been passed to the next generation either, which is more than capable of making up its own mind, helped no doubt by convenient availability of music like never before. Perhaps I am unusual, which may be why I posed the rhetorical question in the first place.

 

You may think that this may be a ‘heavy’ topic for the start of the year (no pics either for copyright reasons! Sorry). However, I am going to try and get inside your head a little bit, so bear with me. The focus is not only on the things we tend to like collectively but also why some of the differences in musical preference between individuals can be so profound. Exploring the foundations of musical preference a bit further provided few satisfying answers and a lot of frustrating dead ends along the way. Although he may have been biased, Beethoven said it more succinctly than I can, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”.

 

To try and get to the bottom of this particular theme and gain some greater insight, I decided to delve a bit deeper into the subject matter. There is an awful lot of pure science behind music, especially the physics and mathematics of music ‘law’. While the scientific aspects are interesting in their own right, it was the psychological impact of music that provoked my curiosity. Let’s begin by breaking it down a bit…

 

One arm of musical science is called musicology. The word stems from the Greek meaning the ‘study of music’, so this seemed like a sensible starting point. Musicology, as it turns out, is largely formed of three different areas of study:

  1. Historical musicology – which is often referred to as music history (in a similar way to art history) and looks at the way that music has developed over a significant period of time. However, while this may explain the main epochs of music, it does little to explain how we ‘feel’ about the music we listen to in the current era. However, it does tend to outline what musical styles were popular through the ages and the access that ordinary people had (or didn’t have) to experience performance music
  2. Ethnomusicology – this area of music study looks at music within a cultural and/or societal context. While this may explain a bit about musical expression described by the generally common behaviours of large groups, e.g. western or far eastern music, it is very broad and doesn’t really get to the basis of individual musical preference (except within the context of a large society)
  3. Systematic musicology – is a term that covers many aspects of music including general questions about the importance of music right through to the specifics of music theory, varying in discipline, ranging from qualitative to quantitative studies

 

There is also a branch of musicology called cognitive musicology, although this looks more at mathematical modelling to explain how the brain processes and interprets music in a similar way to how it might process language, including learning, attention, planning and memory. Empirical studies have shown that there is a correlation between musical training and intellectual growth and a whole branch of neuropsychology has developed around this area. Functional MRI scans have shown that the brain actively responds to musical stimulus – no surprise there. Neuroscience, though, focuses primarily on biological processes, rather than emotional, responses.

 

Music, like language, is an integral part of our cognitive development, which might explain why musical expression is just as important as linguistic expression to nearly everyone on the planet, and has done for thousands of years. However, examining intellectual development does not explain how we, as individuals, respond to music in such a fundamental way. It also doesn’t explain the unifying force of fandom and mass hysteria, i.e. why we congregate in large groups then react disproportionately and often very rapidly to a particular movement in taste (fads?) – anyone remember Beatlemania?

 

Our brains generally respond to sound in a similar way. The auditory cortex works in association with the cerebellum and frontal cortex, and is responsible for processing ‘organised sound’, including music and language. While music also affects many other parts of our brains, scientists have pinpointed the areas deep in our brains that are activated by and cause emotional responses to music, primarily the amygdala and nucleus accumbens. The amygdala determines whether our bodies need to take some form of conscious action according to the sounds we hear, while the latter regulates the release of the hormone dopamine as part of the brain’s ‘reward system’ and plays a part in rhythmic timing. Dopamine is important as it makes us feel arousal and pleasure so, perhaps, music is a drug after all. Medically, our wellbeing can benefit from using music to reduce anxiety or stress, as used, for instance, in music therapy. Our reaction to music may be divided into emotions that are ‘perceived’ or ‘felt’, which might explain why, for instance, why some people enjoy listening to sad music.

 

Conversely, whether consciously or unconsciously, music can also be intrusive and distracting, for instance in public places or call centre queues (e.g. ‘Muzak’), when forced to listen to music we don’t like, or exposed to music inappropriately out of context, it can be linked to production of the stress hormone cortisol within the adrenal gland. One example of cortisol production as a result of an auditory stimulus may be the brain’s reaction to fingernails scraping a blackboard causing a significant antipathetic response.

 

Our clever brains are constantly trying to predict what comes next (technically, the anticipatory response). Many musicians have exploited this characteristic over centuries to tease us and then maximise the ‘crescendo’ effect. Auditory and visual acuity is strongly linked, which perhaps partly explains why we like to go out and watch live music or are drawn to music videos. Closing our eyes while listening to music can suppress the visual stimulus and concentrate the auditory stimulus.

 

So… does a better understanding of musicology or neurology help with this particular conundrum? Unfortunately, no it doesn’t. However, it does provide a broader framework within which further questions can be asked. There are clearly links between the physical mechanics and the psyche of music, so some further delving was required. Where to look next?

 

Music psychology was my next point of call. Music psychology is a different approach that attempts to explain musical behaviour and experience, including how we perceive music (e.g. pitch, rhythm, harmony and melody) and our ability to learn, play and perform music. Why is it, for instance, that some people are content to listen to music (i.e. be affected by it), while others are driven to acquire the skills of musical technique and perform in front of audiences (i.e. to affect others through it)?

 

While the answer to the question above is beyond the scope of this article, emotion is as vital for those making music as it is to the majority of us who listen to what they create. March Bolan once said, “Emotion has to be foremost. When I feel emotional I’m equipped to express myself”, and Debbie Harry also commented, “I do know the effect that music still has on me – I’m completely vulnerable to it. I’m seduced by it”. Jimi Hendrix went a bit further by saying that,Music is my religion”. To many, musical appreciation is as strong as faith, if not synonymous with it. Suffice to say, music is a powerful medium. Keith Richards expressed music in more survivalist terms, “Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life”. How strongly do you feel about music’s professed omnipotence?

 

Perhaps a more relevant approach is to look at what psychologists refer to as ‘affective responses to music’. An ‘affect’ in basic psychological terms is how an organism interacts with stimuli including, amongst other things, the experience of feeling or emotion. Music is one such stimulus that leads to patterns of behaviour and regulation of our emotions. When looking a bit more deeply, even this area tends to break down into a number of factors that academics have attempted to measure. For instance, in relation to emotional music, the following formula has been postulated:

 

Experienced emotion = structural features x performance features x listener features x contextual features

 

While expressing emotion as an equation cannot hope to capture the nuances, it does indicate that the way we feel about music is actually a complex interrelationship between a number of human actions and situations. Studies have, unsurprisingly, repeatedly shown that music consistently elicits emotional responses in its listeners (duh!), so what is actually going on?

 

Why does some music make the hair on the back of our necks stand up? Psychologists refer to the ‘chill’ effect as ‘arousal’, which is a non-conscious physiological response to an environmental stimulus, caused by the hormone dopamine (again). How strong this reaction is depends on, as you might have guessed by now, a number of variables.

 

The psychology of music and the way it helps shape our genre preferences, again, tease us with answers. However, all it does is to identify that there are notable differences between us but not how or why these differences occur in the first place or why the emotional responses can be so varied and profound.

 

Perhaps delving into the characteristics of personality and self‑expression may provide some insight that has so far eluded my investigations? Some psychologists point to the ‘Big Five Personality Traits’ to explain and measure our ‘personality’. The ‘Big Five’ categories that shape our personality are:

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Agreeableness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Neuroticism
  5. Conscientiousness

 

The first two are called ‘plasticity’ traits (i.e. they tend to vary according to changes in context), while the latter three are called ‘stability’ traits (i.e. they tend to be relatively unchanging in adulthood). In relation to musical genre preferences, the plasticity traits are the ones that have greatest effect on our choice of musical gratification. In particular, researchers have found a link between openness, self‑assessed intelligence and preference for more complex music such as classical or jazz. I would argue, however, that this misrepresents the picture as there is a significant sociological and circumstantial connection going on here. Openness, however, does have an affinity for emotional response from music, as does agreeableness. Openness is also associated with ‘intense and rebellious’ music (including rock, rap, alternative and heavy metal). Extroverts also tend to prefer upbeat and energetic music (including dance, reggae and electronic music). Neuroticism is linked to the use of music for emotional regulation (including slow and sad or upbeat and happy ‘pop’ music, as well as indie music). Conscientiousness tends to be associated with an affinity for up-tempo, driving, powerful and defiant music.

 

Breaking things down into just five discrete factors has been criticised as simplistic, with other sub-traits tending to be incorporated within these five personality ‘dimensions’. There are also a number of other variables that co-exist interdependently of the ‘Big Five’. Psychologists have explored how individual musical preferences are affected by, for instance, age, gender, ethnicity, seasonality, familiarity, peer influence, and self‑perception. To me, location and mood are also key factors that motivate what music I listen to at any given time. What this area of study does is link personality, rather than emotions, to genre choices.

 

As with other studies mentioned above, investigations still focus on what the variances are but not how or why they drive our listening tastes. Clearly, all of these personality, demographic and contextual factors may help to influence genre preference but it is highly unlikely that any of them will ultimately determine it. In my opinion, the various hypotheses tend to generalise, rather than differentiate.

 

Personality studies get a bit closer to the core of the issue. However, it still doesn’t explain why two individuals with a similar personality and societal circumstances can still have completely opposing tastes or respond to the same piece of music in fundamentally diverse ways. Also, does our taste in music change as we age? When I was young, I assumed that I liked popular music because it was a given as part of the prevailing youth culture at the time. I also assumed that, as I got older, my musical tastes would mature into the ‘grown up’ genres such as classical or jazz. Nope. It didn’t happen and it probably won’t now. Neither do I listen predominantly to the soundtrack of my youth, although one cannot avoid the occasional reminiscence. I listen to a lot of new music as well and crave (sic!) emerging and fresh musical experiences. The same applies to guitar playing – perhaps there is a link there. As John Cage once pointed out, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones”.

 

In a previous article, I covered personal preference in relation to guitars. In that topic, I likened the emotional response to guitars as similar to the instinctive response that we have to attractiveness of the opposite sex. There is something about that unconscious, instantaneous and very strong, often compulsive, sensual appeal that exists but is very hard to define and articulate. To me, the same applies to music, as well as art, architecture and design. Some music has that ‘love at first sight’ written all over it and has a certain consistency of perceived aesthetic appeal, while others have a ‘grow to appreciate its deeper qualities that aren’t immediately apparent’ characteristic. Quite why some music requires multiple listens to in order to grow appreciation while other music immediately slaps you around the face is not clear. Both have their place; it isn’t a case of one is better than the other, it’s just different.

 

In addition, why does overfamiliarity sometimes reinforce affection in some situations while breeding contempt in others? Why do we sometimes just get bored by repeated exposure while there is some music we simply cannot tune into, no matter what? Why do we sometimes have extreme (positive and negative) reactions to what is, after all, just a piece of music? Why, also, do we adopt often very dogmatic defence of our personal preferences when challenged by others who feel equally strongly about theirs? I would also like to know why we have ‘guilty pleasures’, those potentially embarrassing tracks we really shouldn’t like but for some reason we do.

 

So… after all that, none of the above really gets to the root of why music evokes a strong empathetic sense of deep emotion or nostalgia (as opposed to simple familiarity). What does it say, for instance, about my personal preferences? Not a lot, actually – it’s interesting but in relation to the question in hand, it’s also a bit ‘so what?’ Where do we go from here and what more can we do to understand what makes our preferences very much our own? None of the academic disciplines or studies that I’ve looked at seem to get to the fundamentals of individual predilection.

 

As mentioned at the beginning, my amateur research provided few answers and raised a lot of frustrating questions. I would have expected some sense of surety (and reassurance) about my emotional state of mind. I also expected to discover that millennia of human learning would lead to a more satisfactory (or at least adequate) conclusion.

 

In summary, I have no easy answer in response to the title of this article. Darn it! Academia may provide a lot of informed opinion and (in my view, some refutable) evidence but it does little to satisfy my ardent curiosity. Perhaps a glib qualitative ‘because I like it’ is sufficient after all, despite its crude ambiguity and subjectivity. I therefore challenge the learned professions to come up with something better. I defy anyone to predict my preferences on the basis of the academic studies covered here. Conversely, however, it is probably relatively easy to predict my personality based on my extensive iTunes library. Perhaps we are looking through the wrong end of the proverbial telescope?

 

So, in the absence of incontrovertible proof, I tried to identify 20 tunes that constitute the playlist of my emotional existence. At the time of writing, the list comprises (in no particular order and excluding multiple songs from a single artist):

  1. The song that makes me go all warm and fluffy inside: The Cure – ‘Love Song’ (1989)
  2. The song that makes me sob uncontrollably like a girl: Death Cab For Cutie – ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ (2005)
  3. The song that makes me want to scream with hatred: Buggles – ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ (1980)
  4. The protest song that makes me feel like an angry young man (again): Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’ (1992)
  5. The song that makes me grin like an idiot: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ (1996)
  6. The song that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end: Ben E. King – ‘Stand By Me’ (1961)
  7. The song that makes me think profoundly: The Clash – ‘London Calling’ (1979)
  8. The song that makes me want to hope: Johnny Nash – ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ (1972)
  9. The song that makes me head bang like in Wayne’s World: Blur – ‘Song 2’ (1997)
  10. The track to play air lead guitar to: Led Zeppelin – ‘Kashmir’ (1975)
  11. The groove that makes me want to get up and boogie: Chic – ‘Le Freak’ (1978)
  12. The song that I wish I could have written: Louis Armstrong – ‘What A Wonderful World’ (1967)
  13. The song that I’d like to cover live: Rolling Stones – ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)’ (1974)
  14. The best song to get stoned to: Pavement – ‘Range Life’ (1994)
  15. The song that I can chill out to: John Martyn – ‘Small Hours’ (1977)
  16. The song that makes me depressed: Sex Pistols – ‘Pretty Vacant’ (1977)
  17. The song that lifts me out of depression: The Beloved – ‘The Sun Rising’ (1990)
  18. The song that makes me long for a balmy summer’s day: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – ‘Summertime’ (1991)
  19. The chart single from my youth: T. Rex – ‘Metal Guru’ (1972)
  20. The album track from my youth: Pink Floyd – ‘One Of These Days’ (1971)

 

Like many of CRAVE’s topics, it seemed an easy task on the face of it, however, as usual it turned into anything but. While contemplating the mix, I kept changing my mind depending on how I felt, which just proves how impulsive, volatile and value‑laden the subject matter is. I am not going to divulge why these particular tracks stir my sentiments, suffice to say that they do. I must stress that these aren’t necessarily favourite songs (especially no. 3!), just ones that evoke some sort of emotive response. What would be your 20 lifestyle tunes? What about all those millions of tracks that one hasn’t even discovered yet? I am not a betting person but I would propose quite confidently that it is highly unlikely that many people would share exactly the same list, and thank heaven for that… but why?

 

In conclusion, and as a final parting shot, I will say that extensive diversity and continual evolution in music are inherently good things. Only through variety and innovation can we closely match the way we feel with the music we listen to. Frank Zappa once stated that, “Music is always a commentary on society”. Indeed, when considered in those terms, culturally, it is problematic to separate the two. While some people are happy caught in that time warp of a certain period or are captivated by a specific genre, others like me are inquisitive and intrigued by what has been as well as what is yet to come. I look forward to ‘the next big thing’. My quest for new musical experiences is prominent and my personal choice is strongly shaped by disposition and attitude at any one point in time.

 

Existentially, I believe that music is essential for the healthy sustenance of the human condition, while the music you or I like is a very, very personal thing that contributes to our overall wellbeing. Leonard Cohen observed, Music is the emotional life of most people, while Robert Plant asserted similarly, “Music is for every single person that walks the planet”. The compromise between global and individual musical engagement is relevant or we wouldn’t have anything to talk (and argue) about. The similarities and, perhaps more importantly, the differences between us continually drive musical development and invention. After all, that is what motivates us guitarists to come together and create our own interpretation of music after all.

 

Anyhoo… I’m off to plink my planks (again) as a cathartic exercise while leaving my subconscious to attempt to unravel the mysteries of personal preference (again). Yay for the former, Sigh for the latter.

 

This month, I’ll finish with a quote by the late, great Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, who said, “If you think you’re too old to rock ‘n’ roll then you are”. Until next time…

 

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