Dude, what’s that thing for?
Hello Troubadourians! I wrote at the end of the December column that many of the topics I write about come from conversations with folks who come up to me after gigs and want to talk about “things” that are on their minds. Lately, a lot of those conversations have been from people asking me about the specifics of my performance rig, my guitar, controlling feedback, being heard, hearing yourself, etc. For those of you who have been following this column you know that I have written about most or all of those things in previous columns. I don’t want to bore you by repeating myself but neither do I want to offend those who ask me about that stuff in person by simply telling them, “Go read my Troubadour column from such-and-such month. It’s all in there.” No, I’m not going to do that… But the questions kept coming so I went back and re-read last year’s columns related to the subject of “acoustic guitars in a live performance environment” and I realized that there were a lot of things that while they were covered in a column — or series of columns — they weren’t necessarily connected to specific questions I have been asked most recently by you. So this month I’m going to begin to answer those specific questions and add some additional context to the answers by addressing the specific issues I’ve encountered performing in various environments.
Before I do that, I need to define some specific facts: sound is everything we hear. Sound begins with movement — either regular or random — which causes air molecules to move. Our ears capture that movement and transmit it to our brains, which translate it into what we recognize as sound. Music is a subset of sound — a very ordered and highly specific subset — that we associate rhythmic and melodic organization. Are you with me so far? Despite what we probably think, musical instruments — especially acoustic musical instruments — create sound, not music. That is both a curse and a blessing as it requires considerable skill to create music from a device that is equally adept at creating sound (noise?). Even the most rudimentary playing on the crudest of instruments can be considered a triumph of music over sound. With all that in mind, you can see how complex it can be for instrument builders, musicians, and listeners to create and enjoy music. I make these distinctions to add context to “why” I do what I do and choose what I choose regarding the instruments and devices I use to make the music I make.
Now, the question I get asked most often is, “What is that ‘thing’ in the soundhole of your guitar and what does it do?” It’s a soundhole cover that is used to control feedback. The one I use is made by the Lute Hole Company (http://lutehole.com/). There are several models that feature differing amounts of feedback reduction and are made of different materials that complement or contrast with your guitar. I use the model that is made of walnut and that has the heaviest feedback resistance. Walnut because it looks the best with my guitar’s sunburst finish, and heavy feedback control because I play loud — loud being relative as I play louder than you would normally want to if you were going to accompany yourself or a singer but not as loud as most electric guitarists. However, since I play acoustic guitar in a six-piece band with drums, and I regularly play solos and parts that need to stand out from the mix, my normal volume level is generally much higher than someone who is playing in a single or duo format. To further complicate things, I use a compressor — an MXR dyna-comp — to boost the signal for single-note playing and to add a small amount of extra sustain but it’s only on for solos. The soundhole cover alone isn’t really enough to combat all of the potential feedback I can encounter in live performance (I explained more about gain, EQ, and feedback control for guitars in my August column), but it does work really well to control body resonance without compromising the inherent tone of my guitar. There are several companies that manufacture similar soundhole covers — Planet Waves and Dunlop are two — and they work in similar fashion, all with the intent to reduce the potential for feedback caused by a guitar’s body resonance. But, even if you don’t play your acoustic guitar as loud as I do, you can still encounter performance situations where the environment — monitors, other instruments, background sounds, even the wind — can induce body resonance in your guitar. Large-body guitars such as Dreadnaughts and Jumbos are more susceptible than smaller-bodied guitars but I would recommend that every guitarist have one of these easy-to-install devices in their guitar case or bag, just in case…
This discussion re-introduces the term “resonance” and opens the door to further investigation into “how can I get my guitar to sound better?” Better usually means why can’t my guitar sound more like it does when I’m sitting in my room and playing by myself? or why did I spend several thousand dollars on a high-end guitar only have it sound like some generic model when I plug it in? I know I’ve asked myself those questions many times and have “chased the dragon” for years. I think I have a fairly good understanding of how all of the parts work together and I’ll continue to share what I’ve learned with all of you through this column. So, we’ll get into more specifics next month and I’ll figure out a way to explain “resonance” without your having to have a physics degree. And I’ll talk about what pedals I use — and why I use them — without getting too “guitar geek” on you, all in service to the desire of having your guitar sound like your guitar whether you’re playing for one or 1,000 people.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (email@example.com)