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I Sing the Body Acoustic

Hello Troubadourians! I’m sure that the majority of the performing musicians in San Diego are guitarists who play acoustic guitars. Likely, the vast majority are singer-songwriters who almost exclusively strum or fingerpick first-position chord accompaniment for their voices and most of my columns address the technical or performance issues these performers are likely to have to deal with. However, there are some of you who, like me, venture into more complex musical excursions with your guitars. Yes, you can play lead lines on your acoustic guitar.

Most listeners of acoustic music are aware that the guitar has rightfully been established as a “lead instrument” in bluegrass music, right up front with banjos, fiddles, and mandolins. I celebrate the “ascension” of my favorite instrument to solo-worthy status but the idiosyncratic style demands of bluegrass often limit the amount of leeway that guitarists have with creating solos. The acoustic guitar is also a primary lead instrument in Gypsy jazz (jazz manouche) but, and unfortunately so, this music genre is even more idiosyncratic and less mainstream than is bluegrass. Many of these restrictions are self-imposed by both the players and fans of these genres, mostly in the name of stylistic purity. I take no issue with this attitude but I chose to respect the “acoustic-ness” of my music without imposing any intentional restrictions on my self-expression.

Unlike bluegrass and Gypsy jazz, which are almost exclusively drumless, I choose to play acoustic lead guitar in a band with a drummer. I have always enjoyed “locking in” with the drummer when playing electric guitar – even while soloing – and I didn’t want to give that up just because I was playing a dreadnaught instead of a solid body. While the primary challenge was of course to be heard above the drums, it was essential that my guitar would actually sound like my guitar. That requirement is difficult enough when all you want to do is strum chords behind your vocals. Add to that the need to be heard above drums and maintain articulation for lead lines and fills and the challenge seems monumental. And, indeed there was a lot of trial and error over nearly a year’s time before arriving at the combination that gave me everything I wanted; including maintaining the unique tonality of my instrument.

I found that achieving my goal of “singing the body acoustic” involved a three-fold process that required the application of technology, discipline, and practice. I like to do things with a linear methodology – start at point A and proceed to points B, C, and D in sequence until I’m done. But actually getting where I wanted turned out to be a mostly parallel process. Since my Collings didn’t have a factory-installed pickup system, and I have a thing for technology, that was the logical place for me to begin my process. I used an older model Fishman under-saddle pickup with a Fishman Powerjack preamp (it was free!). On its own, this pickup’s basic tonality was generically typical of piezo-type pickups so the next thing for me was to start harnessing the technology that would allow me to consistently dial in and reproduce my guitar’s unique acoustic tonality. While I was chasing the “tone dragon,” I also realized that I needed my guitar to be set-up to play the very best that it could. A guitar’s setup can be a touchy and very personal thing. Too high and you’ll be fighting the guitar for every note, especially when you’re playing lines higher on the neck. Too low and you lose volume, tone, projection, and probably introduce string-buzz when you pick or strum hard. Every guitar has a sweet spot where the setup – the action – just works. Find an experienced luthier and work with him or her closely to get your guitar set-up to where you need it to be. When you have your tone dialed-in and your setup is working, the next step is to get loud. You need to be able to hear yourself, but regular guitar amps usually overemphasize midrange frequencies, so a quality amplifier that is specifically designed for an acoustic guitar is a must. You can’t rely on the monitor system to hear what you’re playing. That said, no matter how elaborate or powerful an amp you select, you really should consider it primarily a personal monitor and not expect it to project your sound into the venue. For that you should utilize the main PA system with either a direct box (DI) or a direct output from your amp.

The discipline part was relatively easy for me because I had committed to an “acoustic only” approach with my band, Folding Mr. Lincoln. (And, I was tired of hauling two complete guitar rigs to every rehearsal and show.) But for most electric guitar players it’s really hard to give up the easy action and nearly unlimited dynamic range of their favorite electric rig. You have to commit fully or you won’t get the results you want. The real work though, is that you have to practice playing electric lines on your acoustic. At first, it will be tough. But as your hands get stronger and your ears get used to hearing the nuance in what you play, you’ll eventually forget about the differences between the electric and acoustic guitar and start focusing on the similarities. You’ll learn how to bend strings in tune and how to compensate for the difference in available sustain such that you can make your lines on your acoustic guitar flow like you’re used doing on your electric guitar.

Wherever you start – with the technology, with the discipline, with the practice, it’s not really that important. If you want to play lead on an acoustic guitar, you can jump into the process at any point described above and catch up with the other points as you need to. I can define the process now because I know how it all works. But the thing is that as I said, it isn’t a linear process. If you’re serious about it, you can do it. You can find detailed information on all of the technology I’ve described above in my August-October 2012 and August 2013 columns (archived on the Troubadour website).

Next month we’ll change gears and talk about the basics of getting the most out of an electric guitar. Acoustic guitars are beautiful but it’s time we talked a little bit about electric guitars. Coda: My thanks – and apologies – to Walt Whitman for the paraphrase of his work. It won’t be the last time… -CL

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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