Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Selecting The Steel String Guitar

Players looking for a steel string guitar have an unlimited selection of excellent guitars to choose from. Moreover the prices for good guitars are at an all time low thanks to the ingenuity of American guitar factories. All of the name brand factories such as Martin, Larrivee, Taylor and Gibson offer instruments for under $1000 that are as good as any factory guitar made in this century.

A modern guitar factory is still a labor-intensive industry, but thanks to the use of computer controlled machinery and modern finishing systems, it now takes well under 10 human hours to build an instrument. To be sure there are sacrifices made to productivity. Niceties such as binding trims, gloss finishes and solid tone woods sometimes give way to the bare essentials. Still for the player community, the entry-level instrument offers a terrific bargain in sound and durability. Try looking at the Martin all-Mahogany series that sell for $6-700 in all sizes for a warm and thoroughly enjoyable guitar.

If you prefer that special instrument drawn from the vintage era complete with inlays and exotic woods, there are still plenty of choices from all of the major factories, typically leaning on their past designs, artist models and special custom trim packages. In these guitars you can look for upgraded woods, gloss finishes and plenty of shell inlays (accomplished by computer CNC machines) For these guitars you can spend as much money as you care to…….$2500-$5000 is commonplace. But you still need to exercise judgment regarding the sound and playability of your purchase compared to the lower end instrument. Often they are made on the same assembly line with the same machines and people.

Most of the guitar factories look for a consistent type of sound that people have come to expect from their guitars. There is little in the way of experimentation to advance sound within an existing design. If you are shopping for a Martin Dreadnaught then you can pretty well know that 80% of all Martin Dreadnaughts are going to sound similar to each other and up to your expectations. Another goal is to avoid returns either for repairs or because the guitar didn't sell. So each guitar is going to stick to the safe processes, thicknesses and construction ideology.

Today is the Golden Age of Guitarmaking so many experts say and that is because of the rise of the handbuilder, the individual Luthier who makes special instruments to order. These craftsmen and women can and do advance the state of the art through experimentation and personal attention to every materiel selection and process along the way to building a guitar. Here you will find tolerances taken to the limit of design inspiration along with the finest of woods. The individual Luthier can hand select and match tonewoods where factories cannot and this shows in the sound and playability of the instrument. Players needs can be identified and custom matched by the handbuilder to yield that perfect instrument. Keen-eyed readers will note that the author is a Luthier so I'll try not to be too self-serving , but the instruments made by modern handbuilders can be startling in their sound quality for about the same cost as higher end instruments from the factories. Even though I build guitars, my favorite exercise is to fondle the used and vintage guitars at the Folklore Center and I learn a lot about how guitars age, how they are set up and where the differences are. I admit to having bought several older guitars in my time and there should be a special place for these instruments in your consideration. You get a chance to see how the instrument will turn out without waiting years for the mysterious "playing in" process. Also, chances are that whatever would go wrong already has and has been adjusted or repaired………."what you see is what you get". Finally whatever you pay today for that older guitar, chances are that it will retain that value for a long time. Not that I recommend collecting guitars for investment purpose, but if you really like the guitar there is nothing wrong with owning say two or three……or even five to seven…..or ……..well, I should be careful here in case my wife happens to read this!


75% of all steel strings today are made with either Mahogany or East Indian Rosewood with a Sitka Spruce soundboard. These are the sounds one expects to hear in a guitar. But more and more, the guitar factories are turning to alternative woods or plastics in order to meet their profit margin requirements. Along the way they are attempting to reeducate their customers to accept new woods and materials. This is a good thing, as there are many different tonewoods available that will yield excellent sound and are beautiful as well. Examples are Cocobolo, Honduras Rosewood, Walnut, etc. Be sure to educate yourself about the various tonewoods coming on the market. This will help you find that "just right" guitar as well as help the world supply of tonewoods, which are under pressure internationally. As players, we all have our ideal of perfection in the guitar. In reality, it is more important to have the instrument connect with you than to know that it is constructed in certain ways or built of the "correct woods". The perfect guitar provides the tone you want and inspires you to play well. To be sure, the aesthetics of the guitar including the woods it is constructed of contribute to value, but "tone first, playability always" should be your key. When having a guitar commissioned, you need to have confidence that the woods you select will produce that tone you expect. Today, you have an excellent selection of tonewoods from around the world that will help you create a very personal unique sound for your music. Have fun with the choices!

Steel String Sound

Sound is a subjective and personal thing. Scientists know that the human brain stores sound patterns and any new incoming sound is compared to that database in a qualitative way. There is more to that perfect guitar sound that you hear in your head than you may have thought!

If I were to describe in words my perfect guitar sound it is not likely that you would disagree with my word vision, while in real life if we actually hear and play those sounds there are apt to be differences of opinion………some of them pretty strong! To the non-player, most guitars pretty much sound alike. It is the quality of the playing that makes the real difference to them. It is also true that the differences between great guitars and good guitars are sometimes very small. But those differences then become all the more important to us. A musical instrument is a personal, emotional partner and the way we feel about it affects our musical well-being. If you visit a music store with a wall of guitars for sale, chances are you will make a connection with one of them. It will help if you know why and make that selection based on knowledge. This means listening critically to a lot of live and recorded music, playing a lot of guitars and talking to other players. The guitar magazines such as "Fingerstyle Guitar" and "Acoustic Guitar" often present articles on these topics and they are very helpful. I would be a little careful of the chat rooms on the Internet as there tends to be a terrific set of braggadocio floating about e.g. "All Taylors suck!" or "Martins Rule!" All factory guitars produce instruments on a bell curve. That is 15% of their guitars are going to be poor, 70% are going to be average and 15% are going to be "cannons" I would hesitate to say, for example that Guilds are better than Gibsons because it is the individual guitar that counts…..don't fall for brand "nameitis", evaluate each guitar on it's own merits. In the last analysis, even a very modest guitar is a wonderful thing, can be played well and is capable of thrilling you as the player and others as listeners. Choose well but don't obsess.

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