Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Guitar Update (Part 1)

O the thrills and frustrations of finding a new instrument!

A local guitar shop has a 1960s acoustic archtop by Airline (or at least that's what the headstock says - Harmony, Kay, and Airline swapped parts and guitars more than your parents swap partners). They're asking $400 for it, which isn't bad for the condition, but the setup on the guitar was so terrible I couldn't work out what issues were due to the low action and thin strings and what were due to the construction.

I eventually decided that if there's a strong probability that I'll be doing this music thing for a living, I need a guitar that represents that decision and can hold up. If I'm going to use the guitar for years to come, there's no reason to settle. Unfortunately, not too many folks stock acoustic archtops in the store for me to try them out.

Why an archtop? Although I don't really want to get into an authenticity debate, the archtop was the guitar of choice for early the jazz musicians I want to emulate. While playing with the Shit House Boys on my old Harmony, I rediscovered the projection and tonal properties that set these instruments apart from flattops. Played with thick strings and picks, they punch right through a flat top's chimey strumming just like a twelve string (or Nashville tuning) cuts through piano. Too many two guitar bands settle on using the same tone for both instruments that the mix becomes muddy. Using a flattop/archtop combo is one way to establish different tonal ranges for different purposes.

When you listen to amateur musicians, that's one thing that sticks out: inadequate use of the tone and pitch palettes. Musicians step over each others toes and ranges. If you search for people doing acoustic versions of their favorite rock/pop songs on YouTube, you'll find a lot of guitarists who just don't seem to understand how to back down and end up burying the vocals or whoever else is playing. (I may get into this more in the future, but this misunderstanding of what makes a "wall of sound" work seems to be pretty rampant in rock/indie these days.) Since quite a few normal flatpick techniques don't work so well on an archtop, playing one - and critically listening to what I was playing - helped me develop a better ear.

I think I'll end up getting The Loar, specifically the LH-600-VS. I was tempted to get one of the old models years ago, and I'm glad I held out. It sounds like the materials and methods are constantly improving. I feel bad purchasing a Chinese guitar (made by imported Koreans apparently), but the specs are too good to pass up. I don't really have the funds to get an Eastman or the like in time for some upcoming gigs. The demand for the Loar is also so high and the supply so low that I'll likely be able to sell mine if it came to that.

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