Hello Troubadourians! Last month, we started this column by celebrating the sheer joy of plugging an electric guitar into an amplifier and turning it up. Then, about halfway through the celebration we came face to face with the reality that if we were going to actually play music with other musicians we had to turn our guitars down in order to hear what they were playing. That moment changed everything. How we chose to deal with that change would influence everything else we would ever do, think, and especially feel about the electric guitar.
I’ve said it before and it’s still true; when you play loud there is an interaction between the guitar, the amplifier, and the player that you can feel. The guitar seems to take on a life of its own and everything you do seems to require no effort at all, like the music is playing itself and you’re just there watching and listening all of the mojo flowing in, around, and through you. It can be intense and easy to lose yourself in the vibe. Does this sound like I’m describing a drug high? Well, it kinda is. I don’t know the exact chemistry, but I’m sure that being in “that place” with your music will certainly stimulate your endorphin production, which in turn can trigger some of us to experience what might be called addiction to playing loud. And, as with an addiction, there are some powerful feelings that are generated when we’re called out on it. How many of us have felt one or more of the following emotions when confronted with a “turn it down” demand. Angry, defensive, frustrated, disappointed, jealous, threatened, sad, discouraged, desperate? Or perhaps something more sinister? Certainly you’re angry, if for no other reason that it’s happening again, and it’s almost instinctive to react defensively because surely everyone knows that the drummer is louder than you. Frustrated because you just can’t play if you can’t get your tone, and disappointed that this is going to be yet another one of those gigs where you spend the entire time fighting with your gear, the soundman, the rest of the band, and your own ego. You’re jealous of all of the other guys who get to play as loud as they want to, and threatened with losing your place in the band or the band’s gig with the venue. You’re sad that nobody gets that you need to turn up to get your rig to sound right and you’re discouraged that your bandmates won’t back you up in your assertion that if you sound good, the band sounds good. And mostly you’re desperate because you don’t really want to play loud and piss everyone off but you don’t know of any useful alternative and you want to dig playing too.
I have a good friend who is a professional guitarist and he is definitely there. We talk frequently about our gigs and in his stories there is almost always a complaint about some overbearing (and musically unqualified) sound engineer telling him to turn down. It seems like any suggestion I (or anyone) make to him about what steps he can take or things that he can do to keep his tone and mitigate the effects of the overall loudness is met with the same resistance you might expect to encounter when confronting an addict about their favorite addiction. Not hostile – at least not to me – but there is always an undercurrent of “leave me the hell alone” when our conversation turns to tone, touch, and feel, and whether you have to play loud to achieve them. I see essentially three choices for those of us that have been branded with the Scarlet Letter “L” (Loud). One: Cold Turkey, where we choose to stop playing electric guitar altogether; A Draconian but valid choice as long as we keep our stake in the game by devoting our time and talents to excelling at playing the acoustic guitar. Perhaps we could also call this Transference or Avoidance. Two: Geographic, where we choose to move things around in the hope that our loudness can find a place to exist without shame. This choice seems to work best if you are playing in a large (I mean arena-sized) venue where there are lots of controlled spaces a loud amplifier can be stashed and won’t bother anyone. I have seen guitarists use off-stage speaker cabinets, amps or speakers in isolation boxes, speaker cabinets under the stage, speaker cabinets outside in the equipment van, or face-down on the stage with a microphone slipped underneath it. Just as common is taking a cue from the drummer and placing barriers in front of the amp or cabinet so that they can still be seen and admired (and fiddled with if needed) but the loud stays somewhat contained. This is the choice of the rich and famous who can headline anywhere in the world and usually get away with playing as loud as they want to – they are stars after all – but instead they choose to display their “sonic environmental consciousness” by moving the loud to where it is perceived that it can do no harm. Sort of like rehab for Marshall Stacks but without the talk therapy.
The third thing we can do is to change our fundamental perception of what it takes to achieve our ideal touch, tone, and feel experience. I have learned that playing loud is not the only way of getting a fix of guitar sugar, it just happens to be the easiest way. And it will get you in the most trouble. My friend that I spoke of earlier is nearly deaf from years of exposure to loud amps (and drums), and it may be too late for him to do anything other than a geographic and wear in-ear monitors. But for those of us who are willing to change and put in the work required to adapt our gear and our ear to hearing and experiencing loud differently, then there is a path to fulfillment without bombast. Loud is a function of physics, but rather than a static function, it is in fact scalable. Your hands have as much power to shape your loudness as any device powered by Reddy Kilowatt, and your ears can perceive tonal differences at a much finer granularity and with more dynamic detail than you even know. It just takes a lot of practice on your instrument and a deep dive into your gear to yield the results you seek.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)