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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Eight Key Points To Remember When Choosing A New Guitar Wisely

Pass a guitar around a room of players and ask them to describe it. The chances are that you will receive descriptions including:
“Bright sound….mellow tone….high action….lovely basses….even sound….easy to play”
and:
“Not loud enough….basses too loud….not even….thin tone on the top….action too low: will improve with a higher action….hard to play”

You get the picture.

One person’s “bright” sound is another one’s “mellow”. One person’s “lovely basses” becomes another one’s “too strong”. Some of these differences of opinion can be explained by players having a different touch, especially attitudes to “high” or “low” action. It also explains why some may describe the same guitar as “easy” or “hard” to play. Both of these features are both immediately compared by the player to his or her own instrument and judgment is pronounced forthwith. Fair enough, you might say. But is it? The guitar is certainly different, and for this reason may require some more dispassionate examination which can lead to other surprising conclusions.

Just as serious is this: how can it be that a roomful of experienced players cannot even agree how to describe the sound it makes? This, taken in conjunction with the other aspects of evaluation, leads to an inescapable conclusion. We take it all too personally and bring no objective measure to the proceedings. The guitar is rather like a familiar beloved object: your girl-friend, your boy-friend, your car….your mum! The more familiar you become the less you are able to step back and describe it, or her, or him.

So next time you try out a guitar, and more significantly, think of purchasing one, bear in mind some objective facts. Try some of these out for size (some of them quite literally). Below each I have written a common perception (or misconception).

1 Scale length
Is it the standard 65cm from nut to saddle, or the enhanced 66cm?

Common perception: 65cm is the ideal length, 66cm is huge and a big stretch.
Actually the difference is tiny. Proof of this is that the great majority of players in experiments I myself have conducted do not note the difference until I point it out. Besides many players are now significantly taller and bigger than their counterparts 75 years ago!

2 Action
Measure the action at the 12th fret. In other words take a metal ruler to it, and see how high the string sits above the fret. For an experienced player, anything less than 3.5mm is low, and anything above 4.2mm is high. For beginners, 3.5mm is high enough. Similarly, have a good look at the nut and see how high the strings sit above the fretboard at the first fret. You can “feel” whether it is tough by holding down a barrée there. You can also see it at a glance.

Common perception: High action avoids buzzes and creates a big sound.
Actually buzzes may be caused by a variety of causes other than low action. Raising the action may cause unnecessary difficulty in playing. Also, there may be confusion in the player’s mind between the tightness of the string response on playing it and the action. It may create a bigger sound, but at the expense of sustain and beauty of tone.

3 Balance
Check this out by playing chord sequences all over the guitar. Do it slowly and listen carefully. Find out how easy it is to “voice” the chord. In other words, can you hear all the notes in the chord? Can you bring out one note more than another with relative ease?

Common perception: Balance is about the relative strengths of bass and treble.
Actually this is part of the story since the treble strings alone should be tested for balance as I have described above.

4 Volume
This is the Achilles’ heel of all guitars. There is no such thing as a genuinely “loud” guitar, only a less quiet one. You only have to play with (or against) a string quartet and a “loud” guitar is completely swamped if the quartet pushes the pedal down and plays at its loudest. The difference between a so-called “loud” guitar and a quiet one is minimal as far as decibels are concerned. Now we’ve got that out of the way, let us see what we can really expect! Let me describe what you could be looking for in the search for a louder - OK let’s call it loud – guitar:
i/A loud guitar can produce a big impact at the instant you play the note.
ii/A loud guitar can put all the sympathetic harmonics to vibrate.

As far as the first is concerned, the decay of the note is rapid i.e. less sustain. As far as the second, there is less immediate impact but more sustain. The quandary faced by all guitar makers is how to reconcile both in one and the same instrument.

Common perception: A loud guitar is the answer to all problems regarding projection of sound.
Actually, this doesn’t take into account the different types of loudness I have described and their effect on projection, and of course, it makes little difference when pitted against those big bullies – other instruments (except the flute, lute, ocarina and clavichord, plus a few other remote brethren).

5 Sustain
If you insist, this can be measured with a stop-watch, not that I have ever done so. Spruce top guitars often have more sustain, but take some years to develop. Cedar top guitars are more explosive, but can also have excellent sustain. They sound pretty good straight away from new, and thus are more instantly attractive to the buyer.

Common perception: Sustain is really important.
Actually, I agree. However, less sustain can be compensated for by more volume, and vice versa, as I described in the paragraph above about volume.

6 Tone
Ah yes, tone. How to describe it? Well, let’s start by listening carefully to one note at a time and hearing the combination of harmonics each produce. Find the magic spot within the soundhole area where all guitars vibrate at their maximum. If you have never done this before, you are in for a treat. It really is a magic spot. On bass notes you can hear the overtones more easily, and the relative strength of their mix (low overtones, high overtones). The tone is largely determined by the mix of overtones, and how they are projected by the timbers used. On the treble a lack of overtones makes for a dull lifeless sound.

Common perception: It is very hard to describe tone. Either you like it or you don’t.
Actually, this is quite true as far as it goes, but invites more intelligent enquiry to take it a stage further.

7 Colour
Test this by playing over the sound hole, next to it, and by the bridge. See whether the response matches your expectations of the variety of colour you are looking for. Try it with single treble notes. Try it with open strings which are naked, since they have to sound good without being all dressed up by left hand vibrato.

Common perception: Tone and colour go hand in hand.
Actually, this is not so. A guitar can have a beautiful tone but little variety of colour, like a beautiful face with no expression. The opposite is true too, lots of colour but poor tone: this is unusual but does happen, especially when there is a wild maker in town.

8 Overall feel
This is important and relies on your first initial reaction, followed by a more sustained exploration. If your first reaction is that you totally hate it, then you are unlikely to grow to love it. But if your first reaction is that you quite like it, then a sustained exploration will determine why, how much, and whether you could live with it.

Common perception: You can often tell straight away. It’s like love at first sight.
Actually, we all know what can happen to love at first sight. It’s either true or a complete disaster. I hope this rough guide to choosing a guitar helps, and at the very least avoids a complete disaster!

11th April, 2014, Mexico

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Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=3136 .
© 2017.

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