Hello Troubadourians! I was first attracted to the guitar by listening to my uncle Bob play his classic 1959 Fender Telecaster Custom through a Fender Tweed Twin and an outboard reverb unit. Yeah, I went all “guitar geek” in the first sentence, but there’s a reason, which I’ll get to… Humans are visual creatures, so even though music is an auditory stimulus, sometimes we’re inspired to play because of what we see as much as by what we hear. Believe me, that guitar was gorgeous in both appearance and sound. Likewise, smell is also a powerful stimulus and the Tele smelled like every gig it had ever been on. As for that amp, it had the look of a well-traveled suitcase and the unmistakable aroma of hot vacuum tubes. Guitar players will know what I’m talking about… I had the privilege of playing that guitar many times before it was stolen from the trunk of my uncle’s ’61 Plymouth along with the amp and reverb unit. Car guys will understand why I mention the car… the very definition of “land yacht.” Cars and Guitars—is there a more classic combination?
While that Tele was the first guitar that I ever played, the first guitar I ever owned was a Yamaha FG-140 acoustic. It was a dreadnaught-sized, mahogany-ply beast. Big, loud, and toneless but virtually indestructible. But it played well and stayed in tune, perfect for an 11-year-old to get his act together. And get it together I did, enough that I decided that I needed an electric guitar. The siren song of my uncle’s Tele was seductive and in time I was able to beg, plead, and coerce my parents into getting me an electric guitar. That my uncle told them I was “good enough and ready” for an electric was all the justification they needed for buying me my first electric rig. And what a rig…
The student teacher in my grade school class had a ’64 Fender Stratocaster and a ’64 Fender Vibroverb amp for sale. The guitar was the classic three-color sunburst with a rosewood fretboard, and the amp was a “blackface” combo with the now legendary AA763 circuit and the upgraded 15-inch JBL D-130 speaker. This is the amplifier model later made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughn (SRV). As I recall, my parents paid $300 for the entire rig. I’ll let all of you vintage gear geeks think about that for a while… I, of course, had no idea what I had. And truthfully, the vintage market for guitars and amps was in its infancy back then. But none of that mattered really, because now I was officially able to play both acoustic and electric guitar, a “double” in the parlance of the day. As I grew as a player, I found I was near equally interested in both acoustic and electric guitar and as I got to the point of starting to play in bands, I wanted to do both. Why do I mention all of the preceding story? Well, because the gear is cool and this is primarily a gear-centric column, and it sets up the dilemma I was soon to face in trying to play both acoustic and electric guitars in the same band on the same stage.
So, for a while at least, the acoustic and electric guitars existed in different universes. Bluegrass, folk, and church music on the acoustic; rock, country, and blues on the electric. My palette was selective and limited—as was my playing—so I had no problem with the separation. But as my musical horizons broadened, the guitars started to occupy the same spaces. I found that it didn’t matter which guitar I was playing, I would play—or make the attempt to play—anything on either. By the time I was in my early teens, I had become highly influenced by the country rock of the Eagles and other West Coast bands who, at least on their records, melded acoustic and electric guitars as a defining element of their sound. Most of the music that I listened to for inspiration and enjoyment featured both instruments in near equal measure. So, when I started to play in bands, and especially when I formed my own, my attitude was ¿Por qué no los dos? And I tried to find a place for both instruments. It seemed like the natural the natural choice. If the original recording had one or the other guitar—or both—that’s what I wanted to do.
For many reasons, the two biggest being technical limitations and my own naivete, I eventually defaulted to the electric guitar for band gigs and the left the acoustic guitar for accompanying the church choir and bluegrass jam sessions. And that was okay for a long time… about 30 years or so. In the early 2000s the technology for amplifying acoustic guitars started to improve exponentially, especially in the arena of accurately reproducing an authentic acoustic tone. Once it was possible for me to amplify my guitar and have it sound like itself, I became very interested in amplified acoustic music. Why pay several thousand dollars for a high-end acoustic guitar only to have it sound completely generic when amplified? Soon, I had I pickup system installed into my Collings D2, and it actually sounded like the $4000 guitar that it was! Awesome! But despite the technology catching up with my expectations, my performing scenarios were still separated between electric and acoustic guitar, and I had no real desire to combine them. The music I was playing didn’t require both guitars on the same stage.
As my musical journey moved from the loud rock of the Wild Truth to the Americana of Folding Mr. Lincoln, it became clear to me that things had changed. My electric guitar wasn’t working within the context of the new music. So, I made the decision to convert to an exclusively acoustic guitar format. I had that option, because now I had the ability to amplify my acoustic guitar above a six-piece band with drums or percussion and still be heard for my leads. However, I continued to be of a divided mindset. After FML recorded our second CD, which included both acoustic and electric guitars, I thought I’d finally be where I had expected to be many years ago—playing both guitars on the same stage. What really happened was that we did that only once – when we played the entire record at the release concert. After that, our setlist included maybe two electric-based songs in a 20+ song set, and I could easily play those songs on acoustic if necessary (and I often did). For a while I brought both rigs to shows but the return on the investment for the electric guitar was low and I eventually stopped bringing it. Nobody really noticed that anything was lacking. Hmmm…
Here’s what I learned: Even when the music supports both electric and acoustic guitars, it is usually impractical to bring both unless the split is close to 50/50. If the music strongly favors one guitar over the other, it usually isn’t worth having both rigs and switching guitars. When the band’s music is primarily electric with drums and other loud instruments, it can limit the effectiveness of the acoustic guitar, often reducing it to a textural role rather than as a lead voice. When the band’s music is primarily acoustic, attempting to introduce the electric guitar usually complicates sound levels onstage, especially when there are no drums or other loud instruments. Also, guitar changes need to be choreographed into the setlist, an accommodation that is often overlooked (or ignored as guitar player vanity). This means that at the amateur or even semi-pro level, trying to use both usually doesn’t work… Your results may vary.
Professional touring bands make it look easy because they have professional support staff specific to every musician in the band and sound system resources to make the stage levels manageable. They can indulge their artistic choices and play whichever guitar they believe suits the song. Also, their audiences expect them to present the songs as close to the recorded version as possible so there really isn’t another option. I don’t have any of that. Until such time that I do, I’m again content to let the acoustic and electric guitars to return to their separate universes.
¿Por qué no los dos? Maybe someday…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)