Monday, June 20, 2011

Getting Great Guitar Sounds (Ross, Michael)

Rating: 5
Year: 1988/1998
Genre: Music/Technical
Read again? Yup.

One thing a serious musician will spend endless hours and wallet-loads of cash on is getting good tone, whether it's from a guitar or a trumpet. It starts with an instrument that will play in tune--and stay that way. It needs to be comfortable, too--if you're fighting the thing, you're not going to play it well.

Michael Ross starts us out with the instrument itself. The sound you get from an electric guitar depends on more than just plugging it into an amp. The big factor is wood. What's it made from (alder? Ash? Maple?) ? How is the neck attached (bolted on? Glued on? Neck-through-body?)? What's the neck material (maple is typical)? Is it a hollow-body? Solid? Semi-hollow?

From there, you get into string size, scale length, and hardware, all of which contribute to how the guitar itself sounds both before it's plugged in and to the overall sound. Then you've got pickups and controls, on-board electronics...

Lots of choices, there; to the non-musician they might all sound the same. But to a tone junkie, there's a huge difference between the sounds of classic Van Halen, Angus Young, Alex Lifeson, Joe Satriani, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards, and James Hetfield. Each has a distinctive sound that begins with his guitar.

Ross doesn't overdo it; he keeps his descriptions clear and non-technical, discussing how each component will affect the overall sound of a guitar.

That's just Chapter One.

With the second, Ross guides us through pickup choices (single-coil, humbucker, active) and location (bridge, neck, middle), wiring, controls (active, passive), and then finally to amplifiers. The amp itself will affect your sound--it doesn't just make the guitar louder, it colors the tone depending on how you play through it.

In Part Two, Ross discusses effects pedals, the tools a guitarist can use to further affect his tone: compression, distortion, preamps, delay, reverb, chorus, flange, and pitch shifters, all available as stand-alone "stomp boxes" or in all-in-one multieffects units.

Part Three sees us putting all this stuff to work; many of the effects sound better when they're arranged in a certain order, but there will be songs when you want a clean sound, your guitar's natural voice, without all the extra trimmings. From here, he looks at "live" vs. "studio" sound and the give and take of using vintage instruments, amps and effects.

His final note is about musicianship: none of these things matters if you don't have the chops. Alex Lifeson will sound like Alex Lifeson no matter what guitar/amp/effects he's using--the instrument's tone is important, but not nearly as important as what Lifeson does with it. The single most important part of your sound

Ross' advice:
--Play with authority. Play each note like you mean it--even if you screw up. Screw up like you mean it.
--Make your sound and playing fit the song! If you're going to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you have to lay into it with both hands. Stevie played hard, till his fingers were bleeding--and he meant it. But you can't play like that if you're supposed to be subtle and romantic.
--Listen. Pay attention to your favorites and try to figure out how they got that sound.

The closer is a rundown of some guitar greats and how they got their sounds: Jeff Beck, Clapton, Van Halen, Hendrix, David Gilmour, Andy Summers, The Edge, and Kurt Cobain, to name a few.

The book is a little more than 70 pages and sized to match standard music books. Pics are in black and white. Ross discusses various brands without pushing any of them in a sales pitch, making it clear that the thing that matters in any of this is that you pick what you like to get the sound you want.

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