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I Sing the (Solid) Body Electric

Hello Troubadourians! You didn’t think that I’d paraphrase Walt Whitman last month and then not do it again this month, did you? It was too easy of a setup not to go there. As promised, I’m going to begin the discussion of the fundamentals of getting the most out of an electric guitar. I have devoted several columns to getting a good tone from your acoustic guitar. And last month I wrote about playing lead lines in a band situation on acoustic guitar. Now, it’s time to acknowledge the electric guitar. After reading my columns on amplifying acoustic guitars and with all of the various pickups, preamps, and EQs that go into making your acoustic guitar sound like an acoustic guitar — especially at higher volume levels — the electric guitar would seem much simpler, at least on the surface. Just plug it into an amp, turn it up, and play. Truthfully, that’s exactly what some electric players do. But if you want to take the time to explore, there are plenty of nuances to be found in an electric guitar rig.

Let’s take the simplest example: a solid body guitar with one pickup, one volume control, one tone control, a cord, and an amp. Hundreds of guitarists have squeezed a multitude of music and tones from just such a simple rig. Famous players such as Charlie Christian, Leslie West, and Eddie Van Halen have taken this simplest of configurations and created ground-breaking music, each in a different genre. If you want to see this magic happen “up close and personal” just go listen to my friend Alex Watts play locally sometime. The secret that these players have figured out — and use to their musical advantage — is that with an electric guitar, the guitar and amplifier are a system that interacts and changes with subtle manipulations of the controls and the player’s touch on the guitar.

With the acoustic guitar, we strive to eliminate the things that influence, interfere, or react with, or otherwise color the inherent acoustic tone of our instruments. We remove the elements that don’t sound acoustic and we want the amplification system to be a transparent conduit for our guitar’s natural tone. With the electric guitar, we actively seek out amplifiers that will enhance, shape, color, or modify our guitar’s tone. Rather than expecting transparency, we rely on the amplifier to become an integral component of the creation of our unique tone and to bring out the best in our guitars and our playing. Yes, electric guitarists play their amplifier as much as they play their guitar. You could say that we want to isolate our acoustic guitars from the amplifier but we want our electric guitars to interact with the amplifier.

So how do we achieve and control this interaction? Well, we start by turning the knobs. The volume control on your guitar is a powerful tool for shaping tone as well as controlling volume. Unless you’re Nigel Tufnel, the controls on your guitar (and amplifier) are labeled 0-10 with 0 being all-the-way down (or off) and 10 being all-the-way up. With the volume control at 10, the maximum output of the guitar is sent to the input of the amplifier. As we turn the volume down — toward 0 — we find that while the overall volume is reduced, the tone changes as well. Why is that? As I said, everything about an electric guitar is interactive. The strings interact with the pickup, the pickup interacts with the volume control — and tone control — the output of the guitar interacts with the input of the amplifier, the input of the amplifier interacts with the volume control of the amplifier, the volume control of the amplifier interacts with the tone controls of the amplifier, which in turn interact with each other. Any change to one control in the system will interact with every other control in the system. Um, I thought I said this was simple… Okay, I guess simple isn’t the right word. Let’s call it a basic setup then. As we introduce another pickup (or two) into the system and probably additional volume and tone controls as well, the interaction and the possibilities become exponential. And that’s just in the guitar. Modern amplifiers often have multiple channels that are designed to produce different tones and offer different gain structures so one amplifier can produce multiple sounds, sometimes even within the same channel. So you can see that as the variables begin adding up between the pickups and controls on the guitar and the channels and controls on the amplifier, the possibilities for altering the tones approach the infinite.

Everything in the system has an effect on the tone — the type of pickups in the guitar, the configuration of the controls, the length and type of the cord, the type of amplifier, (and if it is a tube amp, what difference the types of tubes make), and, finally, how the type and quantity of speakers and the speaker enclosure influence the tone. What started out as a simple, or basic setup that seemed to be plug-and-play turned out to have a lot more complexity and potential for tone and musical expression than we might initially assume. This is mostly because we’re dealing with more than just the guitar. As we can see, the amplifier is as important to the system as the guitar.

While we have just barely scratched the surface of what is going on with electric guitars, we have identified the components that make electric guitars work and begun to explain how you can get the most out of your electric guitar. Explaining amplifiers is a far more complex subject but I’ll break them down too and make them understandable. I’ll start simply and introduce more complex concepts over time. In subsequent columns I’ll explain each element in the system — pickups, volume and tone controls, amplifier types, and controls — and give insights into the technical and musical applications of all of them. And while we’re there, we’ll examine the terminology, and the slang, that electric guitarists use to communicate so that you’ll have a better idea what we’re talking about and how you can use electric guitars in your music.

Coda: next month’s column, perhaps May as well, will focus on what I saw and experienced at this year’s NAMM show. There was a lot of really cool gear there this year and a new attitude in the industry that I found refreshing. We’ll return to our examination of electric guitars after that review.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (