Ask Charlie...

A New Guitar?

Hello Troubadourians! The other day, someone asked me if I thought they needed a better guitar. I answered by asking two questions of my own: “Why do you think you need a better guitar?” and “Would you know that a guitar was ‘better’ than the one you have if you couldn’t see it first?” Obviously, the first question has many more follow-up questions than the one I asked. Such as, “What doesn’t your current guitar do that you want it to do?” Or, “Is there something wrong with your guitar that can’t be adjusted/repaired inexpensively?” There are a lot of things that add into whether a player perceives a guitar as a good guitar or not. So, let’s look at my second question first. If you were to do a blind A/B test of guitars—yours vs. an acknowledged “better” guitar—could you tell the difference? I would imagine that you would be able to recognize a radical difference such as 12-string vs. six-string, but let’s take that out of your hands, so to speak, and have another competent player at or near your level, play your guitar, then the other guitar back and forth and see if you can tell the difference without looking. (Who you choose to play the guitars is important as we’ll see later). If your present guitar is reasonably good, you may have a difficult time telling the difference. Often the difference in sound between a good guitar and a really good guitar is subtle and not everyone can hear the difference. In a quiet room with no background noise the differences between guitars becomes more pronounced and hearing those differences becomes easier. However, add a little background noise or other instruments and it can be easy to lose those differences in the wash of sound.

And what about playability? Everyone assumes that better guitars just play better. The answer to that is that more attention is usually applied to the setup and playability of better guitars and so they often do play better. But that isn’t a given… As I’ve written in past columns, I’ve played some very expensive guitars at the NAMM Show that really played poorly. They were right on the edge, where a good player could make them sound good while an average player might not have been able to get the guitar to sound as good as it should and likely would walk away thinking, “That’s a lot of money for that guitar…” Not having your guitars set-up the best that they can be isn’t exactly a good marketing strategy but helps make my point that there are many things that add into whether a guitar is perceived as being a good guitar. Let’s break this down.

Tone. Tone should be the primary measure of “goodness” where guitars are concerned. High-quality guitars are made from high quality materials and made by the highest skilled builders. When you hear one of these guitars played, there should be no doubt that that guitar sounds good. In that case, if you can’t hear the goodness, then maybe you aren’t ready for a good guitar. But what if the difference is a little more subtle? As above, the sonic difference between a good guitar and a really good guitar can be masked by the environment, a poor setup, or even just the skill level of the individual player.

Playability. Almost any guitar can be adjusted to play well and that can make all the difference in our perception of whether a guitar is good or not. I have witnessed a situation where a player chose a less expensive guitar over a more expensive guitar simply because it played better and, as a result, sounded better with him playing it. This player could have easily afforded the more expensive guitar—and in fact came into the store looking for the expensive guitar—but chose the lesser guitar because the combination of the build quality, playability, and his ability to play came together on that guitar.

Looks/Brand. Looks are a distant third in ranking criteria—unless you understand that bling doesn’t add anything to the sound or playability of the instrument and you simply want a particular look. For some brands, the more decorated guitars are often made from the highest-grade materials but that isn’t always the case. For many brands, Collings, for example, every guitar is made from the best materials and any decoration or inlay is extra. No need to pay for things that don’t add to the sound. Every guitar company has a reputation for their products and how well an individual guitar measures up to that reputation is often subjective, usually a result of the number of instruments that a particular manufacturer produces in a year. The more instruments per year, the more difference there will be between individual instruments of the same model. That doesn’t mean that they make some instruments better than others; it simply means that choosing one over another where the differences are more subtle are in the hands and ears of the player.

This is where situations such as when the player above chose the less expensive guitar over the one he came in to buy come into focus. That customer almost bought the expensive guitar when he asked me to play it for him so he could hear it from a listener’s perspective. He could really hear the difference between that guitar and the one he ultimately bought when I played them. (I could hear the difference, too). However, when he played them, there was virtually no difference in the way they sounded. As I said, the expensive guitar had a different setup—one that was more difficult to play and required a different technique to get it to work—while the other guitar had a “softer” setup. My playing ability allowed me to get the expensive guitar to perform despite its “stiff” setup, while he wasn’t able to do that. For him, both guitars ended up sounding the same so he logically chose the less expensive instrument.

So, that’s the final criteria and question; If you bought a better (more expensive) instrument, would it sound better enough to be worth it? Now that you know that you are the most important variable in choosing a guitar, do you need a better guitar, or do you just want a better guitar? There’s nothing wrong with wanting, but remember, the guitar won’t make you a better player, but a better player can make the guitar sound better. Your choice.

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

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