Newsletter #18, July 2004

(Please browse our newsletter archives)

The consequences of amplification for acoustic and electric instruments

The June newsletter on the subject of acoustic instrument amplification resulted in such a flurry of reader feedback that I have decided to continue on the subject of amplification in general for both acoustic and electric instruments.

Acoustic musical instruments have been on the scene far longer than amplification. It was always the goal of makers to produce instruments with maximum volume, projection, dynamic range and great tone such that they could be heard not only by the player but by listeners at a distance. Prior to the introduction of electronic microphones and amplifiers in the 1930s, musicians played strictly acoustically regardless of what style of music they were performing. The early parlor guitars with small body size and gut strings were considered suitable for intimate settings. The early five-string banjos of the 1880s and 1890s, which were also strung with gut strings, were not nearly as loud as the steel-string guitars and later design banjos and mandolins of the 1910s onward. Likewise the steel-string bowlback mandolins of the turn of the century were best suited for intimate settings. Gibson's steel-string guitars and mandolins featured carved tops and backs and were designed to project acoustically in a concert hall. The tenor and plectrum banjos of the 1920s made by notable makers such as Bacon & Day, Vega, Gibson and Epiphone were extremely loud such that they could be heard unamplified in a large ensemble or orchestra. By the late 1920s and through the 1930s guitar makers such as Martin, Gibson, Epiphone, D'Angelico and Stromberg were producing steel-string instruments designed to be heard clearly in an ensemble or orchestral setting without amplification.

While classical players continue today to play strictly acoustically, very few fretted instrument players perform without microphones or pickups. Today it is almost unheard for there to be a truly acoustic performance in any club or concert hall. Most listeners have never heard any of their favorite performers playing truly unamplified. As a result they have never heard the actual sound of any of these performers' instruments.

A guitar, mandolin or banjo produces sound by converting string vibration to air vibration via a vibrating soundboard or banjo head. If this sound is carried directly to the ears of listeners with no intervening electronics, then the audience indeed hears the genuine sound of the instrument. By contrast if a player utilizes an internal pickup, the vibrating soundboard stimulates piezo crystals which generate an electrical current which is often fed into signal processing and then into an amplifier. What the audience hears is air vibrations produced by a vibrating speaker cone rather than vibrations produced directly by an instrument. Similarly if a truly acoustic instrument is played into a microphone which then is fed into a mixing board, power amp, and speakers, what the audience hears is air vibrations produced by speaker cones rather than an instrument. While a well-designed sound system run by a skilled engineer may produce good quality results, it is absolutely not the same as hearing sound waves directly generated by musical instruments themselves. It is my experience that hearing great acoustic musicians playing in a strictly acoustic jam session is a totally different experience than hearing these same people playing some of the same tunes on stage utilizing either pickups or microphones. To my ear there is a quality of sound produced by acoustic instruments which has never been fully captured by any electronic amplification or recording.

There is no doubt that amplification is not only desirable but necessary when playing a large concert venue, but I do not share the opinion of those who feel it is simply impossible to play acoustically to an audience in a small club or even medium-sized concert hall. Prior to 1930 all performers played acoustically regardless of the size of the venue. Needless to say, the better known virtuoso players were able to attract large audiences and would not have been able to do so had the audience been unable to hear them. I personally had the opportunity to listen to guitarists such as Segovia and Julian Bream perform in the 1960s in reasonable-sized concert halls with no amplification and can attest to the fact that they could be clearly heard. Obviously all concert halls designed prior to the 1930s were intended for strictly acoustic performances, and classical music halls to this day are designed to have acoustics to enhance the experience of listening to this music with no intervening electronics. My shop is located directly next door to the Ryman Auditorium which was built before 1900. The hall seats approximately 1800 people and was obviously designed in the days prior to the invention of the microphone. It is indeed rare to hear a truly acoustic performance with fretted instruments in that hall, but I can attest to the fact that when Marty Stuart, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs played and sang there for Bill Monroe's funeral and did so with no microphones, it was my experience that not only was every note crystal clear but that it was the best sound I had ever heard in that hall. By contrast I have heard musicians plugged in with sound levels cranked up very high in the same hall and found that the sound was "muddy" and clarity as well as tone was a problem in spite of having more than ample volume. I have discussed this observation with a number of performers and have stated the opinion that the Ryman and other halls of this size are well suited to true acoustic performance if the audience is willing to shut up and listen, but to date I have persuaded no one to take the risk of putting on a fully acoustic old timey or bluegrass show in this or any other hall. Today's audiences as well as musicians are so accustomed to sound systems and amplification that they are hesitant to turn back the clock even for an experiment.

I fully acknowledge that amplification is here to stay and I have no delusions that fully acoustic performances with fretted instruments will become the mainstream, but I am firmly of the opinion that we need to be aware that we are no longer hearing the true sound of acoustic instruments on stage. For those musicians who have great acoustic technique and powerful instruments to match, I strongly urge that they at least provide some opportunities for audiences to hear this unmodified sound. As it is today I hear numerous people speak of the sound of one person's mandolin, banjo or guitar versus another when in fact upon questioning it turns out that they have only heard these individuals on stage or in recordings. As such they have never heard sound waves generated directly by any of these musicians or their instruments. If one performer gets a distinctly different tone from another, it may be more the result of their pickup system, microphone, sound modification, experience of their sound technician, brand of amplifier or numerous other factors. Many players have modified their technique to fit the electronic equipment they use to such an extent that they now play music which would be exceedingly difficult to play strictly acoustically. Some of these are truly superb musicians who undeniably are blazing new pathways such that they are utilizing electronics to expand musical horizons. It is my sincere hope, however, that those musicians who have instruments capable of great volume, projection, dynamic range and fine tone will set them up with sufficient-weight strings and high enough action that they can perform to their true acoustic potential and occasionally play in settings where the instruments themselves can be heard by an appreciative audience.

Electric guitars by their very nature are very different from acoustic instruments in that any sound heard by the listener is a product of electronic amplification rather than air vibrations produced by a vibrating soundboard on the instrument itself. Even a hollowbody electric guitar which produces a different type sound than a solidbody by virtue of the fact that string vibration over a hollow chamber is different from that produced by a solid body instrument still produces any sound heard by the audience via string vibration activating a pickup to produce an electronic signal which is then processed and amplified and directed to a speaker. Whatever sound the audience hears is generated by speaker cones rather than directly by an instrument. The fact remains, however, that technology has affected the manner in which electric musicians perform every bit as much as it has for acoustic players. In the early 1960s when I first started out collecting and dealing guitars, a typical electric guitarist's rig consisted of a guitar, a cord and an amplifier. Musicians performing in a large hall would use a bigger amp than those simply playing at home but the basic rig was fundamentally the same. Even those playing in large halls still had amplifiers small enough that one person could physically lift them. A Fender 4-10 Bassman was considered large. I can still vividly remember Buddy Guy playing at the University of Chicago in the mid 1960s using a maple-neck Stratocaster, a Fender 4-10 tweed Bassman amp and guitar cord and nothing more. Virtually any musician could walk from his car to the stage and carry his entire set up in one trip. He simply needs to have a guitar case in one hand and his amp in the other. When I heard the Butterfield Blues band, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy as well as other R&B groups playing in Chicago at that time they used nothing more complex. When they sang they often did not have any separate PA system. The old Fender amps have an input labeled INST and another labeled MIC. Many players in those days played and sang through the same amp. Those who were vocalists as well as players simply needed to bring a microphone in addition to their guitar, cord and amplifier.

While an electric R&B or rock band is a very different beast from a bluegrass or old timey acoustic group, what they did share in common back in the 1960s and earlier was that the musicians each individually controlled their own sound. The acoustic musicians did it by playing with volume, dynamic, range and tone to their best of their ability by varying their picking technique. Electric musicians had the option of using different type strings, different brand amplifiers and, of course, setting the volume and tone of their amps. Just as acoustic musicians controlled their balance in the group by varying their own picking technique, electric musicians did the same. Some of the amps of the 1960s were larger than those of the 1950s but the basic principle remained the same. The Fender Dual Showman and the Vox Super Beatle amp were larger than anything available in the 1950s, but using one of these was essentially no different with respect to the musicians' playing technique than using a smaller amp. Although I can vividly recall thinking when it first came out that the Vox Super Beatle amp was an absolute monster, I have been told by someone who attended a Beatles concert in an outdoor stadium in Atlanta that the screaming girls virtually drowned out the band. While it was my opinion that Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters were plenty loud enough when they played at the University of Chicago using early Fender tweed amps, nobody in the 1960s had access to equipment capable of delivering the volume used today in many medium-sized clubs. We certainly don't have a problem now with bands being drowned out by cheering or screaming fans. If anything the problem today is volume levels capable of damaging our hearing.

At about the same time in the early 1970s when acoustic musicians began to use mixing boards and complex sound systems, these same devices made their appearance with electric bands. My personal recollections of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Richard and the Butterfield Blues Band from the 1960s were that their tone, volume and balance of musicians within the group was just fine. Just as I consider it to be a mixed blessing to have acoustic musicians at the mercy of a soundman sitting at a mixing board to get proper tone, volume, and balance within the group, I have mixed feelings regarding the use of similar technology in electric bands.

Players such as Jimi Hendrix opened whole new vistas with their use of distortion, feedback and special electronic effects. By the early and mid 1980s heavy metal musicians were not only playing at extreme volumes, but they were using so many effects, pedals, distortion boxes and rack mounted hardware that their sound was so thoroughly modified as to be virtually unrecognizable from the typical guitar sounds of the 1950s and 1960s. In the early days when the musician simply had a guitar, cord and amp, each component made a huge difference in the resulting sound, but by the mid 1980s many players were processing their sounds to such an extent that it was virtually impossible to tell what brand or model of guitar they were playing or even if it was a hollowbody or a solidbody instrument. Just as I have commented in the June newsletter that many Nashville studio acoustic players select instruments based not on volume, projection or tone that sounds great to my ear, but instead pick instruments which are physically comfortable to play and have accurate intonation, but may often have little in the way of volume or what I would consider to be rich, mellow tone, heavy metal musicians of the 1980s who were using a great deal of signal processing often selected instruments that were physically comfortable to play and matched their outrageous costumes. Often they selected low-impedance electronics which offered a clean, low-noise signal with little regard to having a rich, full sound when plugged straight from guitar into an amp. Since the signals were being processed to such a great extent, the actual tone of the guitar was less important than having a low noise level and easily manipulated signal. The early and mid 1980s were a very difficult time for major companies such as Martin, Fender, Gibson and Guild but were much kinder to Kramer and Jackson, which featured heavy metal design instruments with Floyd Rose or Kahler dive-bomb tremolo systems.

Today even a band playing in a very small club is likely to have far more advanced technical equipment than any band even as big as the Beatles had in the mid 1960s. A typical guitar player may have a rig consisting of a guitar connected to a foot-and-a-half long cord that goes to a wireless transmitter on his belt, stomp boxes on the floor, rack mounted digital effects, two amps each with a microphone in front of it, a mixing board, power amp and, finally, speakers. The sound the audience hears is produced by vibrating speaker tones just as it was in the 1950s or 1960s, but there is so much intervening electronic manipulation that the end result is markedly different. I have seen bands playing small outdoor venues in Nashville playing to an audience of no more than 200 people, but playing louder than the Beatles or any other group would have been capable of in the mid 1960s. I personally do not understand the urge to play so loud as to overdrive the human ear and produce severe pain, but we now have the technology to do this at will.

It is my opinion that just because it is possible to play incredibly loud does not mean that one always should. The fact remains that this technology has greatly altered musicians' capabilities and has resulted in significant changes in the type of music being played and musicians' selection of instruments. If one is playing through a complex rig giving a highly modified signal, the quality of the guitar is often less significant than much of the intervening electronics. The sound of an original 1952 Telecaster played through an old tweed Fender amp is quite distinctive, but I myself would be hard pressed to tell a new versus old Telecaster or even a Telecaster from a semi-hollow Gibson ES-335 played through many heavy metal type rigs. While an acoustic bluegrass band may seem very far removed from R&B or rock, in my view the technological changes in sound systems have resulted in some parallel evolution in sound systems, playing technique and its effect on the end product. Just as I feel that technology frequently seems to have the effect of reducing spontaneity and forcing acoustic musicians into playing only pre-rehearsed material, I feel that modern sound systems and electronic technology have altered R&B and rock along parallel lines such that these musicians also frequently play with less spontaneity than my memories of the "Good Ole Days" of the early and mid 1960s.

In my conclusion to last month's newsletter regarding acoustic instrument amplification, I stated that technology need not be the enemy of creativity and spontaneity. I feel similarly with respect to electric instruments and sound systems. I still like the sound of a vintage guitar or bass plugged into an old Fender tweed amp, but I am well aware that there are many fine new guitars and amps. Just as this is a new Golden Age of acoustic guitar building with more good makers today than ever before in the history of the instrument, there are now more truly fine electric guitar builders and amp manufacturers than at any previous time. Back in the 1950s there really wasn't any great alternative to a tweed Fender amp, and Fender, Gibson and Gretsch pretty well controlled the electric guitar market. By the early and mid 1960s, we could add Rickenbacker to the small cadre of fine electric guitar builders, but Fender still dominated the amp market. Today there are dozens of small factories as well as major manufacturers producing fine guitars and amps and hundreds of individual luthiers making stageworthy instruments and quite a remarkable number of boutique amp builders. In addition to all of this, there are now several major pickup manufacturers and dozens of boutique pickup builders producing fine pickups for use in new guitars or for aftermarket installation. While I have yet to see any new electric guitar that in my opinion beats a 1952 Fender Telecaster or a late 1950s Gibson sunburst Les Paul or dot ES-335, there is no denying that some of the new instruments being made today are absolutely stageworthy. I would not be comfortable having to stake my reputation on being able to distinguish the sound of vintage versus new electric guitars played through modern PA systems. I can vividly recall that in the 1960s when I first started dealing electric guitars, it would have been no problem to distinguish vintage Les Pauls or Telecasters or Stratocasters from the currently available new ones in a blindfold test. Today's new guitars, while they may be subtly different from the classic electrics of the 1950s, are certainly of far higher quality than those of the mid and late 1960s through the mid 1970s. Just as acoustic instrument collecting started because the acoustics of the mid 1960s through mid 1970s were poor in comparison to vintage Golden Era classics, electric guitar collecting started because many musicians found vintage classics of the 1950s through early 1960s so far superior to the new ones of the late 1960s through mid 1970s. Since there are not enough of the true Golden Era classic Les Pauls, Telecasters, Stratocasters, ES-335s and other such models to go around, even to those who have deep pockets, we are fortunate that today virtually any musician has access to reasonably priced but remarkably fine guitars, basses and amps.

Taste is a matter of personal preference. While I personally prefer old timey and bluegrass to modern, dissonate jazz and classical and like R&B and early rock better than heavy metal, I recognize that all readers will not share my taste. We now have electronic effects and sound systems capable of blasting out far greater volume than the human ear and brain can process. Today's musicians are constrained not so much by what they can do as by what their taste dictates. Our parents' advice, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should," probably is more valid musically today than at any time in previous history.

George Gruhn