TNAG Notes #18 by Stephen Bennett
The Science and History Edition! Welcome back, reader, as once again, Notes tackles the big existential questions so you don’t have to. For example, does luminous Lycra make you a better cyclist, will a thousand-pound rod catch you more fish and does that horizontal-wardrobe-sized pedal-board make you a better guitarist? (Answers: no, no and no – Ed.) Elsewhere, we ask you to cast your mind back a hundred years to a time when there was no such thing as guitar music. Well, that’s not strictly accurate but it’s pretty close. Then, finally, for all of us still sceptical with regard to that YouTube coloured-pencil guitar surviving its first gig, we throw the Fab Five spotlight on a few of the more successful (or at least, historically significant) experiments in building guitars out of Things That Aren’t Wood.
First, though, we explore the questionable relationship between Toys and Technique; does reliance on the former mitigate against development of the latter, is there a balance, where are we headed and – always the bottom line in such debates – do we care?
Our probe into the not-so-subtle nuances that separate playing a guitar from playing with a guitar were prompted by a recent evening in a Breton music bar (yes, we know…just go with it, okay). Set up on the tiny stage area, patiently awaiting the arrival of its master, was a 60s Gibson 355 (Bigsby, Varitone, the lot) fronting a vintage Selmer Treble’n’Bass Mark II with matching Selmer cab. Laid out before this lust-inducing treasure-trove was a technicolour smorgasbord of at least twenty effects peddles fitted to what looked like the repurposed chassis of a Morris Minor. Naturally, under such circumstances, one is led to expect Big Things. If only. The music that ensued over the next seventeen hours (may not have been 17 – Ed.) was drab, bland, insipid and any other word you can think of that conjures a total lack of spark. As the gig was free, it would be churlish to complain of non-existent bang for the audience’s non-existent buck. But still. What was so surprising was the big spending, heavily armed guitarist’s reluctance to supply any. All of which prompts the question, “who is it all for…all this ‘stuff’?”
There’s a story that Chris Rock, the comedian, was so exasperated with Jack White’s obsessive adherence to all-things-vintage (such that it was getting in the way of musical productivity) that he told the illustrious Raconteur, “Jack…nobody gives a f**k.” This measured appraisal hit the guitarist with all the force of a Damascene drive-by and he agreed to curb his idiosyncratic, pedant ways from that moment forth. For it is true. Nobody does. People like to enjoy themselves at a gig, they like tunes, they like to be made to feel good, to feel engaged, to connect. Our gear is more about serving us than serving them. A lot more. Some people have their emotional-support piglet, others have their under-used, vintage Tube Screamer.
Still, not all of us inflict ourselves and our diverse musical tastes on the unsuspecting public. Hence, what we get up to in the privacy of our own homes – Lycra’d-up or otherwise – ain’t nobody’s business if…etcetera. A point which (kind of) relates to the launch, in recent weeks of a range of thousand-dollar-ish acoustic guitars that – unplugged – can layer just about every effect you can think of onto your playing; chorus, tremelo, reverb, overdrive, you name it. We’ve already seen the Yahama spin on this technology and, of course, many friends of TNAG have embraced the potential of the ToneWoodAmp. This current sonic snowball is gathering size and speed and it surely won’t be long before internet connectivity – which the new breed boasts - is offering a means of coaxing side one of Aerial Boundaries from your smart-instrument while you nip into the kitchen and brew up. Pretty soon, we won’t even have to be there at all. And yet. From the year zero, in guitar terms, players have looked to extend the range of sounds at their disposal. With six strings on an acoustic guitar the options, at first, probably seemed limited. Then some smart-arse started bending the strings, another figured out how to pick out harmonics, or slide up and down with bits of glass and metal or wobble about in search of spooky tremolo. Some have even been known – God help us – to tap the guitar’s body for percussive effect. Imagine.
So, you acoustic players raising a worldly eyebrow in the direction of the overstocked pedal boards of your electric brethren, let’s not get too hung up on notions of ‘purity’. The fuzz-box, the wah-wah, the whammy-bar and all the rest are just natural progressions to the next level. We can talk about finding a balance or being sensitive to musical context or even fall back on that last timid refuge of the musical scoundrel – everything in moderation. In the end, it’s all about having more fun. And if mastering scales is your nutritional 5-a-day, you should feel no guilt indulging in the occasional footswitch chocolate éclair. Or Hotcake.
Having said all of the above, mind, in such a spirit of open-mindedness and generosity, that French band was still rubbish.
So…what were you listening to a hundred years ago today? Probably someone reading the highlights of the Treaty of Versailles, Stravinsky’s new Firebird Suite or a bus conductor whistling the current hit song, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (still annoying music-lovers all these years later). After all, guitar music, as we know it today, didn’t exist. There were some beautiful guitars around – the Cubists were painting them, left right and centre that year - the most covetable of which was probably the rare (even then) Martin OOO-30; a lovely little creature that heralded the first use of synthetic ivoroid binding instead of actual elephant ivory and relied on the new-fangled mahogany neck to provide the support needed for the steel strings everyone wanted, what with all that crazy Hawaiian music flying around. It must have been easier to handle than the spectacular, archtop Gibson Style-O with its elegant, scrolled upper-bout, oval sound-hole and bottle-opener cutaway; a thing of beauty, for sure, offering all the user-friendly playability of a six-string sideboard.
If, a hundred years ago, you wanted the kind of guitar music we’re familiar with today, you made your own. Guitars, if they could get a look in, unamplified as they were, would be shoved away to one side of small orchestras or wood and brass-led Dixieland bands. Charlie Christian, who pioneered the single-string solo styles that transformed guitar playing in the 20th century was three. And it would take three more years for everything to change. And Italian by the name of Dominic Lucinese became the first person to make solo recordings on the guitar in 1922 when he released the groundbreaking double-whammy, “Pickin’ The Guitar” and its natural follow-up, “Teasin’ The Frets”. As was the way back then, Signore Lucinese had decided, on launching his musical career, that he might have a better shot at fame if he anglicised his name. He settled on Nick Lucas and the rest, of course, is history.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
…guitars made of other stuff! We sneer, we roll our eyes, we offer a hundred reasons why the whole notion is ludicrous and yet…deep down…we’re fascinated. And yes, we want one! Who among us has not longed for a plastic Beatles fan club guitar? Sorry…? Just me, then. Anyway, here are five quirky lovelies that have caused a ripple – and quite a racket - over the years while, even now, there’s someone out there thinking, “if that oil can/cigar-box/cat stays still long enough, I’m going to make a guitar out of it”. More power to them.
- The fabulous Tokai Talbo - or ‘Blazing Fire’, for those not too embarrassed to utter it – 80s version. This was the Japanese aluminium engine that fuelled the all-conquering power-pop machine, INXS. They look great, original without being outlandish and, like a couple of the others mentioned below, are as rare as hen’s teeth – always a sign that those who have them tend to keep them. Like James Trussart’s guitars, they’re about so much more than just metal.
- The legendary ‘Plastic Maccaferri’. Ah, the wonders of machine-moulded progress. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Try playing one and you’ll think this is your fingers’ worst nightmare. Listen to Bryan Sutton play his and it sounds like Django Reinhardt’s dream of perfection. Should you uncover evidence of anyone else attempting something similar, however, it’ll sound like a bottle-top scraping down a chalkboard. But none of that matters – every guitarist with a soul and a sense of history wants to own one. Word has it that Dick Boak and Grit Laskin bought up most of old Mario’s surplus stock and there are a few still out there at madly inflated prices. An absolute beast to play – and, of course, the ultimate collector’s item.
- At the other end of the spectrum – Not Wood But Good – is the late-20s National Style 1 Tricone square-neck (in particular for the upward curve where the body meets the neck). It might just be one of the most beautiful guitars ever made. In the late 1920s, the US craze for Hawaiian music was at its height and, consequently, most of the guitars National produced back then had square necks for playing variations on a style so popular with the public. The trendy new features included an ebony fretboard and a body forged from German silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel named for its colour rather than its content and specially selected for its hardness and resistance to corrosion as much as its looks. Shines like the Mississippi Delta, apparently.
- No mention of wood-swerving would be complete without a big shout out to Carbon fibre. The stuff that won’t bend on the beach. Rainsong, Journey, Emerald, Modulus Graphite et al have all given it an impressive go but for that elusive looks-and-sound combo (there must be a carbon emission joke here but, frankly, we’re too lazy) the award goes to the Blackbird Rider. It looks different - a bit Marmite, admittedly – and produces the sound Mario Maccaferri must have hoped for from all that white plastic. Again…not wood but good.
- And finally…who can forget, try as we might, the mighty, see-through Acrylic, rock light-sabre that was the Ampeg Dan Armstrong. While it wasn’t the first, it was er…clearly the first to take hold of the public imagination, however briefly. Gibson actually produced a clear Acrylic L-5 in the late 30s (talk about collector’s item!) and Fender had a go with a few Teles but wisdom soon prevailed, mainly because Lucite, the compound in question, weighs a ton. Basically, it’s a form of Plexiglass, a transparent thermoplastic almost indistinguishable from Acrylic (though a higher-grade version) that was seen as the ideal shatter-resistant alternative to glass. Well, they were aimed at the 70s rock market, after all. Madness. But they look really cool. And Keith played one. Say no more.
Listen to everyone else’s – play your own. See you around! SB
by Stephen Bennett