Why Do You Need So Many Guitars?
by Wayne Harvey
George's Music: Berwyn
On Jackson Browne’s 2005 album, Solo Acoustic Vol. 1, he tells a great story about how when he was younger, he could never understand why someone needed more than one guitar. He just didn’t understand it. The audience begins to laugh, and you know why because when you see him pictured in the liner notes to the album he’s sitting on an auditorium stage by himself with a baby grand and a row of guitars from one end of the stage to the other. Pretty cool, eh?
That question has plagued many buyers over the years, from mom’s of younger players to spouses of older, more experienced players. People see performers constantly switching out guitars onstage during a show and you can be forgiven for thinking it’s only vanity (and, well, maybe sometimes it is), but what it really comes down to is that every guitar has a different tone, and when an artist crafts the right tone for a particular song, they need just the right guitar. That’s why we need so many guitars!
Tools in the toolbox, shoes in the closet
Whenever a customer is trying to explain to their parent, significant other or friend why they need another guitar, I help by using a couple of analogies. My favorite one is the toolbox analogy. I ask them: Do you have just one screwdriver in your toolbox? Absolutely not. You need a Phillips screwdriver and a flathead screwdriver, and you need them in different sizes. You need a good socket set. You’re going to need several wrenches: adjustable, ratchets, combination, hexes, channel locks, etc. You may only use a particular wrench for one job, but once you have it, you hang onto it for when you need it again.
My other favorite analogy is shoes. Yep, it’s that simple. Do you live your life with just one pair of shoes? Let’s make a list: you got your running shoes, your gardening shoes, your Sunday Church shoes, your dancing shoes, your hiking shoes, your comfy-round-the-house shoes, your sandals, your beach shoes, your work shoes. Need I say more? Different shoes for different purposes; different tools for different jobs; different guitars for different sounds and songs.
What’s different about acoustics, you might ask? Well, I’m glad you did! Acoustic guitars come in all shapes and sizes, made from different woods and other materials, and from guitar manufacturers who design them with many different features. Walk your way through the websites of guitar makers like Martin, Taylor, Yamaha, Gibson, Guild, Ibanez... you pick one and you’ll see that all of them make guitars from various woods, some rare and some very plentiful. Some you might have heard of before, like Rosewood, Mahogany, Sapele, Ash, Maple, Koa, and some you probably haven’t, like Mutenye, Ovangkol, Macassar, Cocobola, and many others. All of these are various types of tonewoods used in guitar making, and each of these woods produce sounds that are unique to the wood, and therefore make each guitar made from it sound different. From woods that accentuate the high end and mid-range, to woods that give more power to the bass and softens up the treble. There are tons of factors that go into this, and these guys are tinkering every day to improve (just try a Taylor with their new V-Class Bracing if you want to hear a quick example. Ooh, la, la!).
Also, while materials and bracing make a huge difference, what makes a significant impact in volume and tone is the actual size of the instrument. For the longest time the Dreadnought was the big boy on the block, and if you wanted a guitar with awesome body and volume, this was your huckleberry. Over time with advanced bracing techniques it has enabled smaller body guitars to sound much better and not quite as tinny as they usually do. (Anyone’s who’s played a Taylor GS Mini or Martin Dread Junior will attest to that!). Different sizes lend to different styles. Large body guitars are often favored by big "cowboy chord" strummers and smaller body guitars are often embraced by the more subtle fingerstylers. But remember one very important point - there are no rules, so don't get locked into anything and don't be afraid to try new things.
But your true examples - and the easiest to see and hear - come from electric guitars. While they are primarily solid pieces of wood, what drives them are the pickups installed within each one. From single-coil pickups with their traditional hum or their new noiseless options, to humbuckers which combine two single-coils for a fatter, louder sound, the variations on the amount and kind of pickups can drive any guitar player into a tone-seeking frenzy. Back in the 80’s an enterprising young man named Eddie Van Halen loved his Fender Stratocaster but couldn’t get the power he wanted from their single-coil pickups, so he tore out the wiring and the three pickups it came with and installed a Gibson PAF into it, gaining the power and, between his songwriting and unique playing style, carved himself into a rock legend. Fender Stratocasters had three pickups and a three-way switch until another rock legend found the sweet spot between the top two positions and forced them to change to a five-way switch.
Electric guitars also come in different shapes and sizes - from smaller scale models to larger-bodied semi-hollow models that are often seen in blues and jazz but also favored by hard rock players as well. Again, no rules here!
So, there you have it, for better or worse, while there are definitely players out there who have succumbed to the deadly disease G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome), most of us are just searching for the right sound for the songs we play. And like the cars we drive, those guitars come in all shapes, sizes and various forms of coolness. My best recommendation is to simply try them. There's no substitute for putting one in your hands, and trust me, you'll know if it's time to grow the collection.
If there are any other questions I can answer for you, please contact me at [email protected].
And, as always, Rock On!