Electric guitars and tough decisions

I write about music to offer a fleeting digression from the unhappy news of the day.

You should interpret this blog post as well expressed opinion rather than absolute fact.  I recommend a tempo of adagio; you may go off the path for a moment if you like.

An electric guitar, like a fine-looking woman, should have a neck that is proportionate and comfortable.  Guitars vary in the qualities and styles that catch an individual's attention and later devotion.

In stating this I mean absolutely no slight upon the many marvelous instrumentalists who play, say, an oboe or a tambourine.  Deft description should run in an open pasture of personal application.

For those who have not spent the last 60 years ruminating upon electric guitars, I will offer a short primer.  There are two basic models; everything else is of attractive hybrid.  There is the bolt-on neck and clean pickups of a Fender model or the glued-on neck and less ethereal sound of a Gibson.  After that, it is all proportion, individual recipe, and feel. 

My first electric was a strange beast my father bought from the local shopkeeper.  It was a Fender Coronado II, and it mimicked the dimensions and temperament of a pterodactyl.  It was once red and flashy; today, it has aged to a light and unappealing orange.

You might think I would be a Fender man the rest of my life, but I'm not.  My favorite Fender is a Stratocaster, and I own one with a beautifully clear voice, but it's too hard to control on stage.  This is not a failing of the instrument; it demands an attention to detail I have no gift or appetite for.  Jeff Beck is a genius.  I'm not; I'm just a really good sideman.  I need consistent reliability of response.

As I prospered, there were interludes with several Gibson Les Pauls of uncommon beauty and talent, but eventually they all grew heavy and stiff.  They made my left shoulder ache and pinched my lower ribs.

Then I found an old Gibson SG Special, a '63.  Its pickup configuration was of two single-coil P-90s.  The neck was warm and beautifully sculpted; it had a give and elasticity that fit me immediately.  It looked older than it was.  I put a set of Grover tuning keys on it, and together we went on a thirty-year run.

The old SG is retired now; it was already a hard used twelve when adopted.  She had what one might refer to as a checkered past.  Today I play a 2006 reissue of similar design and demeanor.

Sometimes, I watch a moment of the many "Guitar Tone Tests" that litter YouTube.  Too many of the testers have an unrefined technique, which always renders the same shallow tone regardless of model being tested.  No one thinks to call them "Technique Tests."

Your fingertips have to understand at what pressure point a string will sing in its clearest and most sustained voice.  It takes thought and patient trial and error.  Rash decisions will never obtain.

The pleasure derived from such thoughtful examination of physics and athleticism is immense.  It keeps you off the streets.

Michael James has been a professional guitarist and public school music educator for over forty years.