Author: Campbell, Bruce

You Are The Instrument

In bluegrass, there’s an ongoing subplot of the Quest for the Best Sounding Instrument. Guitar players will wax poetic and actually swoon as they describe the perfect tones of a vintage pre-war Martin HD28, or a similarly ancient D18. It’s not just Martin – Gibsons of a certain lineage inspire similar emotional reactions. Naturally, the biggest stars strum and pick guitars most of us could only dream about. Once in a while mere mortals like, well, me, get to play one of these masterpieces and we fantasize about hitting the stage, night after night, with an instrument so sublime as to reduce audience members to gushy tears with each note.

Mandolin players: don’t smirk at the last paragraph. Remember how YOU behaved when someone brought out a Lloyd Loar at a jam, or how your knees nearly buckled if you got a chance to play it. The little hairs on the backs of your arms stood up as you heard those perfect tones. Banjo players, you’re no better. You actually called your wife on your cell phone after you had a chance to play that 1928 Mastertone – you know you did!

Truth is, most of us are sure we’d sound a whole lot better if we could just get ourhands on that Perfect Axe. Make no mistake – quality instruments sound better than ones made of cheap materials with less skilled craftsmanship. But remember this – the instrument doesn’t play itself. Just as important to the tone as the craftsmanship and tonewoods, are the fingers of the player.

Everybody has their own tone, and imparts that to the instrument you play. Recognizing that, and nurturing it, is a vital part of the development of a musician. Your tone isn’t obvious at first – you’re too busy trying not to make mistakes.

But as you practice and grow more skilled, you start to see that you impart something unique to the music you make, and it doesn’t even matter what the instrument is – this applied to any instrument, including your own voice.

Aside from your voice, you have to find the instrument that suits your tone. I saw a very interesting example of this recently. A friend of mine played a set at an open mic, with his own Santa Cruz guitar. He’s had the guitar a long time, and its sound and playability suits his particular tone perfectly. The musician that followed him borrowed that instrument to play his set. This next fellow was an accomplished musician – if I told you his name you could picture his sound in your mind – but the Santa Cruz was not a good fit for him. In the hands of the owner, this instrument projected the player’s notes perfectly and richly. In the hands of the second musician, despite his pedigree, the Santa Cruz sounded tinny – it was weird!

So, for some musicians, the vintage D28 is a perfect fit. For others, a much different guitar matches their personal tone much better. Don’t assume the paying the most is the best way to find your musical match – play dozens of dozens of instruments, old and new, expensive, and less so, to find the one that elevates your own sound. And play on, and amaze your friends!

Posted:  1/23/2013

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