Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bringing Tradition to the Electric Guitar

   When I'm not at Longy I have a very unique career in the music business. I repair instruments and electronics for a small company called Musical Instrument Service Center (MISC) and we are contractors for Berklee College of Music - the biggest contemporary music school is the world. Fortunately there are not many people in the country who do what we do at the level we do it at. Unfortunately for me there are not many other places I can do this and to some it is seen as an "anchor job", but luckily that's not the case for me. I love what I do and love where I do it.
    For the past two years classical guitar has become a very important love in my life. However; for twenty years my first love has been, and still is, the electric guitar. Some people can instantaneously identify with their instruments and if there was one thing that identified me it would be the electric guitar. I just love the simplicity and the complexity of it. A real classical guitar is complex with many layers to the technique and approach taken to get a good sound. The funny part about the electric version is that there is so much to hide behind in amplification, effects and layering. This makes it easy and fun, but what most people never seem to realize is that this makes it incredibly hard to sound good. Whether you're 10 years old or 30 years doesn't matter cause the feeling of using this for the first time is the same: Pure excitement. At that first moment your thought is in the area of "this sounds good" and you're not concerned with "does this sound good?" or "is my sound good?"
    Having been around the block a few times I've realized that electric guitarists do not have a tradition of understanding their instrument like classical guitarists do.  Perhaps this can be attributed to relatively young age of the electric guitar (which turned 80 this year) or maybe this is a fault of the ones commonly seen as pioneers of the instrument. Unfortunately for electric guitarists our pioneers are not recognized for how they played the instrument so much as for what they played on the instrument which is essentially backwards. Our understanding of the instrument has a very small tradition with as many variations on how to play as there are players. Everyone eventually figures out how to play it, but few ever understand really how it works. This is the main difference between classical guitarists and electric guitarists: a disciplined approach to understanding how our instrument works.
     For me a better understanding of the guitar was the reason I moved to Boston to attend Berklee. With so many guitarists in Boston (the most per capita anywhere in the world) I felt I had the best shot of finding what I needed. That wasn't so much the case. Rather than find a lot of people who knew how it worked I found a lot of teachers who were obsessed with how to apply the guitar (which is still very admirable, but becoming increasingly harder to do) and scores of students who wondered, but never searched for their answer. So many just accept that it works and don't concern themselves with how. Which brings me to how I'm going to try and solve this problem.
     On November 19th, 20th and possibly the 21st I will be giving a free lecture at Berklee College of Music to any interested on the  history of the guitar, an advanced understanding of its anatomy and how it works, considerations for performance and the necessity for a tradition. This is part of a much larger project that I have been working on for a few months now and is something I am very excited for. To this point in time the information I will be giving out has been held on to as "privileged information" by those entrusted with building the guitar and those who are asked to fix them (which are never the same people). My hope is that by doing this students will not only gain a deeper understanding of how their instrument works, but they will understand the different sensitivities involved with maintaining a working instrument and why it needs to work a certain way. The electric guitar is very complex, but extremely limited to different possibilities in it's construction. People are inventing new techniques and having new guitars built do accommodate those techniques, but it becomes a compromise between keeping current aspects original or losing some to gain others. My belief is that the future of this instrument is no longer in the construction, but rather in the understanding of it. Doing so will give more weight to how we play, which in time can hopefully give an even greater importance to "what we play". I feel this is essential and am taking the steps I deem necessary to fix this problem.