Ask Charlie...

More of Me Please

Hello Troubadourians! Guitar players are notorious for being loud. Most of us are guilty at one time or another and some of us are always guilty. It happens so frequently that even when the guitar player isn’t too loud, it is assumed that we are. It has been my experience that in an electric ensemble, the drums—particularly the cymbals—are the loudest instrument on stage. That usually makes all of the other instruments play louder to hear themselves. That phenomenon then initiates a cycle of “turning up” and/or playing harder, which we’re all familiar with. Rehearsals, knowing the material inside and out, and listening to each other can, and does, mitigate this problem, but we aren’t always in a situation where we can rehearse enough to reach this level of musical communication. And yet, even with extensive rehearsal, sometimes the guitar player still gets called out for being too loud. Why is this? Well, it has to do with physics and frequencies. The frequencies in which the guitar generally operates are the same frequencies that voices operate. Humans are physiologically attuned to hear and respond to voices, an evolutionary necessity, but we aren’t all that able to discern between a voice at 500Hz and a guitar—or other sound—at the same frequency. As a result, an amplified guitar is capable of very quickly and efficiently occupying all of the available “space” in the frequency range where humans hear the best. So even when we’re not measurably as loud as the other instruments, people will “hear” the guitar as being louder because we can hear those frequencies more efficiently. But wait, we still need to hear ourselves in order to play well and to judge how well we’re blending with the other instruments and voices in the band, so what do we do? Let’s hold off on that answer for a moment…

We’ve just been talking about electric guitars, but what about acoustic guitars? I don’t recall acoustic guitars having the same reputation for loudness or competing with the vocals. The truth is, they don’t share that reputation. In fact, in most ensembles, the acoustic guitar is the instrument that most often gets buried by the other instruments and are exceedingly difficult to amplify in an ensemble, especially if they are competing for space as a soloist. Violins, banjos, mandolins, and practically any other acoustic instrument, can be more efficiently amplified than an acoustic guitar. (By efficiently, I mean maintaining a useable dynamic range that is comparable to what the instrument is capable of unamplified and retaining the most of the instrument’s native acoustic tone.) Sure, you can put a magnetic pickup on an acoustic guitar—as you would and electric guitar—and make it loud enough to compete, but does it still sound like itself? Most players I know, who spend several thousand dollars on a high-end acoustic, do so because they like the tone of that guitar. So why sacrifice the tone you love just to be heard? So, what do we do?

Ironic isn’t it that we’ve reached the same point from two different directions? After all, we’re talking about the same instrument, aren’t we? Don’t electric guitars and acoustic guitars cover the same frequency range? So, why do we have such vastly different experiences amplifying them? The truth is that while in raw mathematical terms, electric guitars and acoustic guitars—tuned to the same pitch reference—do indeed occupy the same basic frequency range. The difference lies in the efficiency of the instruments to deliver those basic frequencies—and all of the associated overtones. Electric guitars can produce a full-frequency assault with a full spectrum of overtones that diminish very little, and with the help of an amplifier, deliver all of them directly to our ears. It is the responsibility of the guitarist to filter those frequencies into an appropriate “tone” that is both pleasing and blends well with the other instruments and vocals. It is in this act of filtering that guitarists fall short. In an effort to either have an “awesome tone” or simply to be heard above the other instruments, many guitarists allow the frequencies that their instruments—and amps—are capable of go unchecked and unfiltered, which usually ends up in the perception that they are too loud.

Acoustic guitars are, by design, frequency filters so their tones are a product of subtracting frequencies and overtones from the very beginning. It’s this filtering that gives a fine acoustic it’s “voice” and is what we are drawn to. The downside is that is makes it very difficult to amplify this filtered sound without ruining the delicate balance created by its construction. To achieve an amplified version of an acoustic guitar’s natural voice requires capturing a full-frequency version of the acoustically generated voice and then with careful re-filtering and multi-stage amplifying, bring the output signal level up to a useable and controllable level that provides both dynamic range and tonal control. An entirely different approach than the basic “plug in and play” approach that electric guitarists are accustomed to.

But it’s this “plug in and play” ease that we all want whether we play electric or acoustic. And, it is in fact a myth, even for electric guitarists, at least for those who want to be heard without being hassled for being too loud. I think it should be clear by now that electric and acoustic guitars are very different beasts and require very different approaches to amplified ensemble playing. It’s up to you to know your guitar and all that it is capable of, as well as its limitations, and have the awareness of what you can do with the minimum gear; an amp or plugged into the PA, in order to present the best sound you can in any ensemble environment. Some situations require all of the best sound-sculpting gear and rehearsal you have and have time for to deliver the very best performance onstage with the band. Other times you just have to rely on your ears and your knowledge of your guitar and gear to get you through. Remember, that the best guitarists know their equipment inside and out and are prepared for any situation. That means that they practice the technical part of their gear as much as they practice their playing. Easier said than done for most of us but absolutely essential if you really want to be ‘professional’ in your approach to your playing. Experience counts so get as much of it as you possibly can.

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

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