Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - The Ironic Nature of Rock Guitar Sound in the 21st Century

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Ironic Nature of Rock Guitar Sound in the 21st Century

 A long time ago, on a planet not far, far away, 



It was the year 2017. Music retail was in ruins and rumor of the demise of the guitar was rampant. 

The Corporate Empire had decimated music as art.  Small groups of rebels called "guitar players" scattered across the planet still maintained the Order of Guitar, while practicing "music".

Despite being reduced in numbers, they unconsciously sought the rebirth of the Era of the Guitar Player......

 Everything recorded today sounds "good".  It's hard to find a really bad sounding recording, and believe it or not there was a time when that was possible. Recording gear used to be astronomically expensive, and in turn people who knew how to use it were like acoustic Jedi, a rare and almost legendarily mysterious group.

 Everybody now has access to equipment capable of making a Professional Sounding Recording.

 Let me point out something I think people are missing "these days":


In reality, today the word should probably be "Professional Sounding Creation".  

Recording implies a certain documentary aspect that no longer applies. You're no longer "capturing" a Crazy Rock and Roll Band in the wild of the recording studio.  You're making a sound creation.

 Which is fine, it's what I spend most of my time doing, despite the paucity of public release. But bear with me Anonymous Reader, and consider the following:

 There was a magical time between say 1950 and 1980-ish when everything was recorded with perfectly vintage gear!


  While recording technology has all but been perfected, the last holdout of Sound Creation is the mythical "great guitar sound".  Everyone kind of knows how to get it: use the same light sabers that were used by the Jedi.

 The irony should not be lost on the reader that while everyone has some sort of semi-professional recording device and capability today, most do not possess the things required to create the signal source to make a professional sound.

  In 1972, it was by default you had a tube amplifier.  And probably a non-wacked out pickup configuration on your guitar.  Even if you didn't have a Marshall or a Fender, it was probably a tube amp you played through.

 I would bet that while guitar players at the time were very concerned about sustain, beyond that it was a more abstract thing as to what good "tone" was.  Ironically again, it kind of didn't matter since everyone had the necessary components to get one.

 Which meant that "rock guitar sound" was a tube amp turned up.  That's about all.  In turn all of the weird varieties of tube amps, guitars and speakers plus microphones and studios yielded a lot of Great Guitar Sounds back then.

 More importantly, great but diverse sounds.  Not-homogenized.

 Today most guitar players are super obsessed and hung up with not getting a "good guitar sound", but getting someone else's sound.

 I will digress and say that most guitar players are not equipped with the mental apparatus or technical acumen to really fathom that idea.  People will cite their favorite guitar player, but said guitar player's recorded sounds can differ greatly, using a lot of different combinations, not to mention recording techniques. 

 That being said, they still gravitate towards Holy Grail ideals already established, and go to extraordinary lengths to buy exactly the Right Thing to get it.  Except it's a red herring. Most of these ideals were serendipity.

 In the 60's and 70's, everyone wasn't trying to get an exact sound someone else had.

 Brian May, Jimmy Page, VanHalen, Randy Rhoads, Eric Clapton, none of these have sounds like the other.  Despite a lot of gear overlap.

 The reason I'm writing this is that I'm having a nostalgia-dive through the Eric Carmen/Raspberries catalog, and there is this song:

 Not something I want to listen to, but the guitar sound on the intro is "pretty cool".  Almost kinda pre-Van Halen Van Halen.

 There are freebies there for the era: a Marshall, or a Bassman, or "?"? I don't know.  But it's probably turned up to get that distortion, and the mic was probably not right on the speaker and in a 70's Storyk flat-dry, UNCOLORED sounding room.  And a plate reverb. Vintage gear.

 It's not that it was SPECIFICALLY magical gear, just that it was obviously of the era, turned up and recorded with period gear. It doesn't sound EXACTLY like Van Halen, and vice versa.

 Which is good.  Blast it, as a guitar teacher, I am soooo tired of hearing the Perfect Metal Guitar Sound Variation #76778. There was a time when the band SOUND was supposed to be unique, and was prized.

 Now it's the opposite, there are pedestals.

 Consider the following songs by Joe Walsh:

Walk Away
Funk 49
Rocky Mountain Way

 All 3 are GREAT FRAKKING GUITAR SOUNDS.  And all 3 do not sound like the other.

Consider the following songs by Billy Gibbons:


All 3 are GREAT FRAKKING GUITAR SOUNDS.  And all 3 do not sound like the other.

Consider (insert favorite New Metal Band Songs)


 "Great" sounds?  The last Great Unique Metal Sound was Dimebag's solid state Randall's IMO.  Those recordings sounded like "those recordings". Past that recording we have nth number of super saturated Metallica Black album variations, all interchangeable.

 Brian May hits one chord, and you know it's Sir Brian May.  That can't be said for anyone "new" IMO.

 You Retro Vintage Music People: I'm looking at you.  You're not excused.  You buy the gear, but then you want to set it just like Your Hero.   You never get there, because half the sound is the recording process.  But that's ok, you're having fun I suppose.

 Here's what you're doing wrong:

 You're not using your gear like people used your gear when it was brand new.

 It's not turned up to 10.  Yeah, it sucks, it's loud, and now sound engineers get to dictate what you do.  But if you spent a ton of money on a vintage amp, and you run it on 2, it probably sounds ok.  It does NOT sound like a band in the 70's, or early 80's.  You're fooling yourself.

 I sold my vintage amps.  Because it wasn't practical to run them at levels that might damage them for what they cost.  I could put them in a closet, or in my case a complete other building to deal with the volume.  But I couldn't justify running a vintage 1968 Marshall at levels where the transformer might let go.

 ..and see, unlike a vintage guitar circuitry doesn't get better with age.  It just gets different, weird of malfunctioning.

 So I have a New Tube Amp solution.  It's very much not a "traditional vintage" replicant.  I'm not concerned about that, just as the guy on the Raspberrie's recording wasn't worried about the pedigree of the tubes in his amp.

 Those sounds from the 70's recordings were easy.  They were not all Van Halen approved Marshalls, or Stevie Ray Vaughn approved Supers/whatever.  Keith Richards wasn't worried about not sounding like SRV while deciding he liked Ampegs, or whatever.  But in reality, anything "old Marshall like" with real Celestion greenbacks, or alnico speakers, with the right mic and recording chain is going to be good.  Not unique but good.  Any tube amp is going to sound good with those speakers.

 Or even with the "wrong" speakers.  Kudos to Derek Trucks for using car radio speakers.  Bravery in action.  A unique and great sound.

 But seriously, one should go back and listen to those old 70's hard rock recordings; they don't all sound the same, but they all sound mostly great from a guitar standpoint.  Not bland, not generic.  What a concept...

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