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The Ideal Guitar Amp: Survey Results

Last month 233 readers filled out the Ideal Guitar amp survey! Based on your responses everyone had a lot of fun, but maybe not as much fun as I had reading all of your comments! Many thanks to all those who took the time to complete the survey.

So, what’s the ideal amp? Let’s find out!

The Ideal Guitar Amp

The following composite descriptions of the Unlimited Budget and Limited Budget Ideal amps are based on the most selected features (in some cases I used the mid-point of a range of selections if they were equal in popularity).

Unlimited Budget

  • Head configuration
  • 50 watts
  • 6L6 power tubes
  • Tube rectifier
  • Treble-middle-bass tone controls
  • Tonality: great cleans and ‘shred’ preamp distortion
  • Two preamp channels
  • $2,500

Limited Budget

  • Combo configuration, 1×12
  • 18 watts
  • 6V6 power tubes
  • Tube rectifier
  • Treble-middle-bass tone controls
  • Tonality: great cleans and ‘shred’ preamp distortion
  • One or two preamp channels
  • $750

Following are the compiled results from each question.

Musical styles:

On average each respondent selected 2 music styles.

  • 80% play rock music.
  • 40% play blues. (DOH! I can’t believe I left this category out. Thanks to all you blues players for using the ‘Other’ category to write in your preference.)
  • 25% play country.
  • The rest are spread out over jazz, metal, fusion, surf, garage, noise, grunge, ska, gospel, swing, “folk noise Americana” and “post-rock biiiing biiiing sounds” (whoever plays that PLEASE send me a sound clip!).

Price
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As you can see, it is quite clear that $2,500 seems to be the sweet spot of the ‘Unlimited Budget’ (UB) price point. It’s interesting that there are about as many people willing to pay no more than $1,500 as there are those willing to pay $5,000 for their dream amp!

The ‘Limited Budget’ (LB) sweet spot is wider spanning $500 to $1,000.

Use

When asked “What are you going to do with your ideal amp” the answers were evenly spread across playing at home, jamming, rehearsal, gigging and studio recording. There was slightly more interest in using the UB amp for gigs and in the studio, while the LB amp would get slightly more use at home.

Head or Combo?

The UB amp is slightly more likely to be a head (55%) than a combo (45%). The LB amp is most likely to be a combo as selected by 65% of respondents vs. a head selected by 35%.

Output Power
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UB amps will have a fairly wide range of power spanning 30 to 100 watts.

LB amps will be lower powered with 15 to 20 watts being the clear preference. There’s a reason why there are so many amps available in this power range!

Almost all of the respondents who selected the ‘Other’ choice identified a desire for the ability to adjust the power of their UB or LB amps whether that be a continuous adjustment or switching power levels.

Power Tube Preference

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Clearly 6V6s and 6L6s are the preferred tube for the ideal amp. As can be seen, V6s are the preferred choice for LB amps while L6s are the UB choice. This makes sense when desired output power is considered: 6L6s produce more power than 6V6s, which matches with the UB vs. LB desired power output.

Power Supply Rectifier
70% of UB amp designers selected tube rectifiers for their ideal amp compared to 50% for LB amps. Of the non-tube rectifier responses most said they didn’t care whether the rectifier was tube or solid state.

Flexibility: Range of Tones
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These results surprised me, which makes me think that I didn’t do a good job of selecting the categories. However, the data shows that, regardless of budget, EVERYONE wants an amp that does great cleans and produces shred levels of preamp distortion. That’s surprising because virtually no one said they played shred-type music!!!

Preamp Channels

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Predictably, LB amps were designed to be more simple with fewer channels than UB amps. However, there was a strong desire for even the LB amps to have built-in flexibility from 2 channels.

Single Channel Design

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These results underscore my belief that the questions regarding tonal flexibility were not well conceived. The above chart shows that in a circumstance where an amp has only one channel, guitarists DO NOT want preamp distortion. That contradicts the Flexibility results shown above where it appears that most guitarists want shred preamp distortion in their amps!

The single channel preamp design question was much more clear than the flexibility question, which leads me to believe that its results are more reliable than the flexibility results.

Tone Controls
No surprises here. Regardless of budget, guitar players prefer treble-middle-bass (TMB) tone controls. They would be found on over 70% of UB amps and 60% of LB amps – 20% of LB amp owners would be OK with treble and bass controls. A presence control was a popular addition for those who selected ‘Other’.

Effects
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There was widespread response regarding the inclusion of effects. However, no one effect received support from even one half of respondents. The most popular effect is reverb, only one in three think it should be included in their ideal amp.

Thankfully, digital multi-effects were generally ignored by the ideal amp respondents. As can be seen, reverb and tremolo/vibrato were relatively popular, but none of the options provided were wildly popular. That would indicate that guitarists questing after their ideal amp are mostly focussed on tone and not effects.

Combo Configuration
60% of UB amps would feature two speakers and 70% of respondents wanted 12″ speakers in their UB amp. LB combos were more or less evenly split between one and two speakers (49% and 46% respectively), but a strong preference was still shown for 12″ speakers with 65% of respondents selecting them.

The Last Word
When asked what else they would add to their ideal amps, LOTS of ideas were thrown out including:

  • Stand by switch
  • Wheels
  • Various colors
  • Ceramic tube sockets
  • Hand wired circuit board
  • Specific tube rectifier models
  • Switchable negative feedback
  • EF86 preamp
  • Speaker impedance selector
  • Dual power amp – high power for cleans, low power for distortion
  • Fire-spitting jets that flame up during a solo!

Send me an email with your comments about the results of the Ideal Amp survey: Don@MackAmps.com.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

One of the very cool (for gear heads) fallouts of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was the great amount of small, oddball guitar makers trying to strike it rich in the 65-68 era. Plenty of small makers from all over the world got the idea that they would go into the guitar business. 1965 was, by far, the biggest year in guitar production up to that point. But then a strange thing happened. Even though garage bands were cropping up all over the place, guitar sales started to shrink (slowly at first). Then, by the late 60’s, you started to see cheap imports from the Asian market competing with the lower end US made guitars (Kays, Danos and Harmonys and so on), putting a serious hit on the US budget brands. And these new makers (budget and high end) who started in the wake of ’65? Most went belly-up within a few years, but left for collectors some very neat-o guitars for our collections.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

Check out, for instance, this rare bird. A 1966 Wurlitzer Gemini, made at the Hollman-Woodell guitar factory in Neodesha, Kansas. Part of Wurlitzer’s THE WILD ONES series (which included the more pedestrian-looking, but still pretty rad Cougar and Wildcat models), these were made to compete with the best of the domestic market. High end tuners (Klutsons), a wonderful chunky bound neck (like a Fender V shape, but a bit thicker), and a great look highlight the Gemini.

Other cool features include stereo pickups. That’s right – the guitar is wired in stereo, so that the neck pickup is one channel and the bridge pickup the other. With a stereo cord that has a “Y” splitter, that means you can send your bridge pickup to one amp and your neck pickup to another. There’s a traditional 3 position toggle to select the pickups, or set it for both and use the blender knob on the treble side horn. It’s a trippy sound to stand in between two amps with the split signal. Put the tremolo and reverb on one of them, and it’s a great sound. You can also run both pickups, of course, into one amp with the proper cord.

Each pickup has a rocker switch labeled “Jazz” and “Rock”. Predictably, the JAZZ setting cuts the output and trebles, offering a m ore rounded mellow tone. The ROCK setting opens the tone up a bit, boosting the treble and volume. It’s a very versatile guitar, with a high end feel.

The vibrato, with its very stylish W cutaway feels like a cross between a Bigsby and a Mosrite. It has the position under the hand and sound of a Bigsby, but with a hint of the feathery lighter touch of the Mosrite. The bridge has separate plastic posts that intonate very well and allow for the vibrato to return to pitch consistently. The balance is wonderful as well. It’s an odd shaped guitar, but it’s very comfortable to play standing or sitting.

And, obviously, it’s one of the best looking guitars to come out of that king of all great-looking-guitar decades, the 1960’s (sorry all you pointy 80’s fans). If the Airline Reso-glass futuristic model most associated with Jack White earns the nickname of the Jetson model, well what is the Gemini? It out Jetsons the Jetson model itself. Maybe it’s the Spacely model. Or the Cogswell’s Cogs model.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

So why didn’t they catch on, if they’re so great? Well, a lot of great companies couldn’t withstand the relative slump of the late 60’s and the birth of quality imports. Think of Danelectro, Valco and Kay all going south within a year of each other. Also, maybe they didn’t have enough capital to make enough noise outside of their Kansas factory. Maybe they just weren’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you’re looking for any areas where the guitar itself hurt its own chances in the hyper-competitive guitar market of the late 60’s, there are a couple. Wurlitzer could have done better in the finish and the pickups. The finish on all three Wild Ones models had a habit of peeling and cracking. This white Gemini (all three models came in Red, White and Blue) is in surprisingly good shape. It does, however, have the same pickups as the other models, and this isn’t a great thing. While the pickups (the same as one the famed LeBay 2X4 – they were made at the same factory) look to be between the size of a DeArmond Silverfoil and a P-90, sadly they don’t share tone with either of those great pickups. They are clean and solid, tone-wise, but their output is very low and they can’t overdrive the dirtiest of amps. They can get a pretty good snarl going with a nice preamp or a good overdrive pedal, but they aren’t going to sound too tough going straight into most amps. Power and tone-wise, the popular guitar they sound most like (output-wise) is the Fender Mustang.

These are incredibly rare. Most estimates put the entire Wild One line at under one thousand guitars. Of those, the Cougar was the most popular, followed by the Wildcat, leaving the Gemini as the rarest of the rare.

Cool shape. Awesome retro vibe. Stylish. Super rare and hard to come by. And they could use a pickup upgrade. Maybe the more standard MONO wiring. Sounds like a guitar that might be just right for a cool company that re-issues rad guitars from the 60’s (hint, hint, Mike). If enough of you make enough noise, maybe this one could come back from the past.

Mike Stern: Figuring It All Out

The question is ridiculously simple, but players throughout modern musical history have found it nearly impossible to answer: What kind of guitarist are you? If we’re not asking ourselves this kind of thing, we’re expecting others to answer it for us. Apparently, for a guitarist it’s best to have an affiliation. If you’re a jazzer or a blueser, then you’re no longer a danger to yourself and others. It’s an easy affiliation, like voting for a candidate simply because you think he’ll win. It’s like carrying a bigger club because you think it’ll make you a better caveman. And think about what it does for your image! If another jazzer should happen to hear you slide into a chord or play a staccato run behind the beat, then you must be all right. Or, if you make those notes plink and sting even with the tone rolled back to five, then you’ve got the stuff for blues. Just don’t rock too much, because then you’ll be pegged like a zit-faced kid at your big sister’s cotillion.

Not everyone is so easily fooled by the argument that one form or style of music is better or more valid than another. There really are guitarists who can walk either street, reflecting the mood with appropriate ease and authority. But since they realize it’s no use distancing one path from the other, they just allow the two routes to mingle and intersect, creating a style that’s more relevant to the music and the moment.

The truth is, playing it all requires a measure of self-assuredness. Call it arrogance, or call it balls. But if you can rip off those three-octave runs, play the big chords and take it to Chicago in one go, then you’re too cool for school. You’re ready to get out there and do it.

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

The Man with the Axe

Mike Stern is one of those lucky few: a guitarist who can do it all. Though he’s known for the depth and precision of his jazzy ballads and rip-snortin’ fusion instrumentals, he’s equally respected for the woozy bends and woody tone of his paeans to the greats of blues and rock. Listen to any of his many excellent releases (all of which remain active in the Atlantic catalog), and you’ll caught by the power of his deceivingly subtle blend. He’ll start off a solo slowly, with notes that rise and fall like the undulations of a woman in the throes of romance. Those few moaning notes soon take on the tone of spoken utterances, urging the action. The speed builds, the intervals become more dramatic. The whole thing rises to a crescendo of volcanic proportions, climbing to the very pinnacles of stately, guitaristic glory. (Sounds like sex, doesn’t it?)

It’s really remarkable that Stern can sustain those levels of excitement over the course of solos that are much longer than is typical of either the jazz genre or rock. After all, these aren’t cheap little power ballads, they’re full-blown hotrods of composition and jazz improvisation. That’s right, they’re long and they’re loud. It’s convenient to compare Stern’s manner of opening to the sound of the late blues master Roy Buchanan (whose ancient Telecaster he would one day own), and rock archetype Jeff Beck. But those guitarists, despite their brilliance, didn’t leap the song format and compose for entire groups of musicians. Mike Stern has.

Early exposure to many kinds of music gave Stern a head start in his ability perceive the melody, or the long line, at the heart of a piece. His mother was a big influence there, being a fan of the great composers and jazz artists alike. Their home in D.C. was always alight with sound. As he says, “My mom used to play a lot of classical records around the house. I got into that, along with a lot of jazz. But I still listened to the Beatles, the Stones, Jeff Beck and Hendrix.” Which makes complete sense, since the Beatles, Hendrix and the best of their day couldn’t have done what they did without considerable background as listeners.

Early Explorations

Mike was born in January 1953, into a family based in the Boston area. Later on they moved to Washington, D.C., where, at his mom’s insistence, he took up the piano. By the age of 12, however, he’d made a decision about what he should play. And it wasn’t going to be the piano. Soon came the fateful six-string, an unassuming plywood job with nylon strings. “I took a few lessons,” he says, “but after a while I started playing by ear. I did that for a long time, and it just felt right. So, now it’s whatever gets to my heart. It could be simple, or whatever. In those days it was simple by necessity, because I didn’t have very much knowledge. Later I began studying more, because I wanted to grow and improve my understanding. I dug jazz, but I’d learned to play rock and blues by listening to records. Still, when I took my mom’s jazz records into my room and tried to play along with that stuff, I’d get lost right away. To be honest, I felt like I was in a rut playing only rock and blues.”

Mike Stern with Band Mike enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in 1971, just a few blocks from Fenway Park and the legendary Red Sox, and began a more in-depth exploration of jazz. That was where he finally got serious about it, thanks to the encouragement of guitar instructors such as Mick Goodrick and a very young Pat Methany, who had also been a student of Goodrick. Along the way he developed a deep respect for jazz guitar, notably the innovation of Wes Montgomery and the delicate touch of Jim Hall. Goodrick, however, was known to use an approach that was esoteric, in that he’d focus not on the instrument but on the individual.

Goodrick’s way of saying it was, “You are who you are first, and your music is secondary. Your playing reflects that relationship, so in turn you have to represent what your vibe is.” It was his way of saying the player comes first. Really, though, the music itself tends to do that. When the music is real, it comes through in a positive way, and that’s really powerful. People put their energy into something that at the very worst is harmless and at the very best is incredibly great. I think we need a lot more of that kind of thing.”

Goin’ Home

Stern eventually began to feel he should leave the academic environment of Berklee and return to D.C. So, home he went, and before long he was playing rock and blues gigs throughout the region. “I’d studied with Pat Methany for about a year, before I went home. Eventually I went back to Berklee, and Pat told me then: ‘School is great, but you gotta get out and play.’”

It was the message Mike needed to hear. He decided that he’d have to work harder than ever to make something happen, and by 1976 he was ready for the next step up the ladder. Word got out that the long-established band Blood Sweat & Tears was looking for a guitarist, and Stern was among the many who took the test. “There were all kinds of cats auditioning for that band, but [drummer] Bobby Colomby gave me the call. I auditioned just for the sake of doing it, and I got the gig. Man, if you can get that kind of experience, it will do so much!”

The spot in BS&T proved to be a lucky one, even though the band was well past its days as a hit machine. Still, BS&T was never a band that suffered fools lightly, and Mike knew he was working in the company of some seriously talented players. Among them was Jaco Pastorius, a former drummer who had quickly made a name for himself as the self-proclaimed king of the electric bass. The two quickly struck up a friendship, and since then Jaco’s unmistakable mastery of the fretless Precision bass has remained an inspiration for Stern.

New York: The Core Issue

Things change within and without, so Mike knew that Boston couldn’t be his home base forever. Besides, now that he was gigging with career performers and studio veterans, he wasn’t going to be sitting around the house much. So, once his career was off the ground he made the move to New York. He got used to the pace of it easily enough, and soon he and his girlfriend Leni (whom he eventually married) were offered a loft above his favorite jazz haunt, 55 Grand St. They just couldn’t say no to that. Imagine you’re actually living at the hippest little spot in town, and that you can actually gig right there. You’d be tempted to think there was actually a choice between brushing your teeth and plugging in your guitar. It made for an interesting lifestyle, and Mike became known as the guy who lived where he worked . . . in a manner of speaking.

Typically, Stern is humble about the way he’d become so much a part of that elite circle. It’s not about him, it’s about his friends and the memories and experiences they provided. “Jaco used to hang out a lot,” Mike says. “He’d always nudge me along. He and Pat seemed to have a lot more faith in my playing than I did. So, that was an interesting period. As time passed I was able to play a lot better, and I used to jam with Jaco all the time. He’d come up to New York, and we’d just play and play. So, it turned out that I frequently got to jam with people who were way better than I was, which helped me get my shit together.”

The guitar is always a big part of Stern’s life, but his discipline with the instrument has resulted from the combined influence of a busy circuit, a cadre of talented musicians, and the drive to acquire knowledge. “No matter what I’m doing,” says Mike, “I try to get a little place lined up where I can play. For example, I was playing with Bill Evans, the saxophonist, at a place called “Michael’s,” which is closed now. And Bill told me he’d be hitting the road with Miles. But I was also playing with Billy Cobham at the Bottom Line, there in Manhattan, so Evans brought Miles down. Eventually I got the call to do that gig. In fact, the title for “Fat Time” [from Davis’ classic The Man with the Horn] was taken from the nickname they gave me.”

Stern made his stage debut with Miles at the Kix club in Boston in June of ’81. That performance would see release as We Want Miles, the second of his three records with the band. This leg of the gig lasted for two years, producing a series of recordings that would get the jazz and rock communities buzzing with news of a guy with fret-melting prowess on the guitar. Three of the era’s most powerful sets—The Man with the Horn, We Want Miles, Miles! Miles! Miles! (Live in Japan) and Star People—showcased the journeyman guitarist. His sound blended the primal energy and sensual textures of his long-time hero Jimi Hendrix with the harmonic breadth of Wes Montgomery. “Fat Time” remains an awe-inspiring example of the monumental structures that Stern can create with a solid-body axe and a touch of chorus.

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

A Sense of Self

Jaco’s influence up to this point had been positive in many ways, but of course there was also a negative aspect to it. Despite the benefits of being able to play together whenever they liked, the pair had taken the party route a bit too often. Excessive alcohol consumption had begun to wear on the guitarist, depleting his energies and stressing his home life. So, after a while it was clear that he needed to chill out. Fortunately the job with Miles was still open to him, so Mike returned for another year’s work with the maestro. Then, around the next corner he found work with Steps Ahead, the progress and highly respected ensemble featuring vibraphone virtuoso Mike Mainieri. That led to a spot in a Brecker Brothers’ quintet, which would again mean a lot more experience.

The years following were busy ones for Mike, and right through 1986 he worked with one headlining act after another. Still, there was a need to see what he could do on his own terms. It was an insistent (some might say innocent or even dangerous) curiosity about life outside the bubble. It was 1986, and with his second stay in the Miles Davis unit drawing to a close he’d managed to put together a band with saxophonist Bob Berg (now deceased) for the recording of his first solo LP, Upside Downside. The record made its debut on Atlantic Records, marking the start of a ten-disc tenure that would create a spot for Stern among the leaders of modern jazz guitar. Upside was the record that made it possible for him to make music under his own name, entirely on his own terms. That was pivotal in Stern’s career not just because it followed on the heels of the Miles Davis records, but because it was the guitarist’s signature as a writer and musician. Cuts like “After You,” “Little Shoes” and the title tune were proof of his ability to create music that could stand on the basis of its solid, song-like structure and cohesive melodies. To put it in other words, Mike Stern made music that was intriguingly elaborate but totally memorable. The icing on the cake was a set of solos that just totally f***ing burned. (The writer remembers asking a friend and session guitarist in L.A. if he’d heard Upside, and his immediate response was, “Jeez, could ya get any more intense!?” That’s the effect this record had on even the most astute players.)

The critical success and very respectable sales of Upside Downside were encouraging for Stern and the powers-that-be at Atlantic. And because he knew from the start that doing a solo record was the right move from a personal standpoint, he’d also earned the freedom to compose music that suited his own rules (or lack of them) as a modern electric guitarist. What followed Upside Downside was the ’88 disc Time in Place, which offered a similar blend of bop-inspired rockers and emotive ballads, but with a slightly more “mature” sound thanks to the contributions of players like drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardist Jim Beard and organist Don Grolnick. The next year, though, Stern lit it up again on Jigsaw, with the New York-based guitarist Steve Khan as producer.

What Stern succeeded in doing, over the next several albums as the leader and soloist in various formats, was to make an otherwise technocentric genre work on his terms. And those terms would include a range of music and themes from an increasingly colorful palette, covering everything from standards to hard bop to music of a more global perspective. There was simply no way to lock him in or tie him down. If you liked what Mike Stern did, you’d go wherever the trip took you.

Labels Are for Cans

Stern’s previous works emphasize the textures that multiple instruments create when they collide and intertwine—like the two parallel roads that in some miraculous way intersect. But the recent CD Voices again resists the temptation to stick with the tried and true. Instead it combines Mike’s guitar with the ensemble voices of singer/bassist Richard Bona, Philip Hamilton, Elizabeth Kontomanou and the singer/percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan (whose talents have helped make Al Di Meola’s World Sinfonia projects so provocative). This is occasionally called “vocalese,” which is an attractive way of saying “singing without words.” But if you’re tempted to assume it’s more of that generic “marina music” for happy times and empty heads, forget it. One listen to the somber “Still There” or the gut-wrenchingly real “What Might Have Been,” and you’ll understand why some people wear sunglasses around the clock.

Major-label music is very strictly packaged today, of course, and the industry’s lawyers and dealmakers have a disproportionate say in the process of planning and marketing a project. It’s a circumstance that has polarized the industry, on one hand feeding the wealth of puppet entertainers while cutting off the opportunities for musicians who should be just as deserving. One can’t deny that in a world where real music can be seen as odd, and where very few people would bother to invent music if it didn’t already exist—the general population needs to be told what kind of music is preferable or valid. Like the guitarist who feels the need to “be” a bluesman or a jazzer, the casual listener can feel put off or even insulted by music that’s beyond his experience. The industry simply attempts to eliminate the problem. Quality has nothing to do with it.

So, in a way it’s amazing that we can still buy music that’s made by people like Mike Stern. He simply does what he does, when he wants and with the musicians he wants. For those of us who bust our butts to play our best, it’s an important message: The idea isn’t to be different but to be true to oneself, and in so doing be different.

“I never have anybody to answer to,” he says. “So far, I’ve been very free to do just what I’ve wanted. That’s one thing: I feel as if there’s been plenty of effort to make sure I have that creative flexibility. At some point I’d even love to write for more instruments, and for different kinds of instruments. I have a pretty good idea of what I want from people in the group context.”

Mike Stern’s career as a guitarist mirrors the quest that so many of us face as dedicated players. For many it’s a quandary, given the options and the indefinable nature of the art. Here’s the guy who loved blues and rock so much that he nearly played the life out of the stuff, but who ultimately found himself at a critical intersection. He didn’t turn back or come to a screeching halt. He just kept going.

John Abercrombie: Straight Talk on a Crooked Road

Let’s agree that the guitar, despite the glories of the past fifty or so years, is still in its infancy. So, isn’t what it was, nor is it what it will become. It couldn’t be. The guitar has evolved not only in the way it’s built but also in the way it’s played. And what might once have required a big, voluptuous archtop can easily be done with a bolt-neck slab and some modeling gear. Still, it’s nothing to worry about. After all, it’s the music that matters.

Music, though, can fool even the most eager listener. Why? Because to appreciate music–really, to understand it–we first try to define what it is. That’s a benefit, but it’s also a bias. But when you find something you can identify with, it becomes something you crave. You’ll want to know more about it. That’s the case with jazz guitar great John Abercrombie. It’s amazing to think that in his playing one can discern the influences of so many great players yet immediately tell, from the very first note, that none other than he could be playing.

John Abercrombie on the cover of DownBeat Magazine

John Abercrombie on the cover of DownBeat Magazine

“Probably the first important guitarist I listened to was Barney Kessel,” he says. “He was the first ‘jazz’ guitarist I ever heard. At that time I was trying to make the transition from blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B players like Chuck Berry. Still, Kessel had a really twangy sound. It was a funky, bluesy, even country kind of sound.”

It was a constant drive . . . a hunger. There was so much to hear, and so much to learn. As a young man, Abercrombie listened to everything he could get by artists such as Jimmy Rainey and Tal Farlow, the latter of whom was considered something of a phenomenon in his day. “Eventually I was fortunate to hear George Benson, and he was just terrifying. And then I heard Pat Martino, and Kenny Burrell.

“But then I heard Wes,” says the guitarist after a short pause. “There was something so natural about the way he played. I used to see him play all the time, back in Boston. I could sit and watch him all night.”

The drive to play–to understand, explore and perfect–hasn’t diminished. The quiet, working-class guy with the moustache continues doing what he does best, as a composer of singularly moving music and a player of the first order.

John Abercrombie was born in December 16, 1944 in Port Chester, New York. Port Chester is sandwiched between the town of Rye (think Barbara Bush) and Greenwich, Connecticut (try not to think of Martha Stewart), two of the ritziest enclaves on the Eastern seaboard. It was the latter place that John called home, though his wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where caviar was standard fare. As he puts it, “I came from the slums of Greenwich. Believe me, there are working-class neighborhoods in all the upscale towns around that area.”

Neither was it a particularly musical household, he says. “In fact, there was no music in the family. My parents liked music, and they bought me a record player, but they didn’t listen to jazz or classical records. Just the radio, maybe, but it wasn’t an important part of their lives.

“The music was just in me,” he adds. “I was into R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that. But as I got a bit older, I decided I wanted to really study the guitar. My parents supported me in it, since they knew I had a good time playing. But then I got really serious, which sort of scared them. I mean, coming from a small town in the late 1950s and ‘60s, and deciding I wanted to go to school and study jazz? Nobody even knew what it was, much less anyone coming from a small town. It was a strange time.”

The avenues were limited in terms of formal jazz studies in the early ‘60s, but they were even more limited for anyone wanting to become a jazz guitarist. After all, the pop phenomenon was relatively new, and the six-string had to overcome a considerable credibility problem. So, John had just a couple of choices, one of which was the Berklee College of Music. Luckily, he was young enough to indulge his dream and give it all the energy it required. If it didn’t pan out, it didn’t pan out. So, once he graduated from high school in June of ’62, he headed up the coast to Boston.

He breathed deep the atmosphere of this earthly jazz heaven, and after a few years he received a diploma certifying him as a musician of professional standing. But he had little interest in making a hobby of the guitar. He wanted to gig, and he’d trained like an athlete in order to do so. Eventually the opportunity came, in the form of an audition for one of those jazzy, funky R&B units that populated the club circuits in cities of the period.

“It was around ’67,” he says. “During my last year of school I hooked up with an organist named Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith. I was all set to audition for him, and I was really excited, because this was going to be a real jazz gig playing a selection of stuff every night. You had to be able to comp and solo, and do the R&B stuff. It was a great experience. I had to learn lots of songs and get up onstage and play, night after night. Of course, my schoolwork had started to suffer as a result, because I’d realized that this was the real school.”

The guitarist made his first professional recording–an LP called “Nasty”–with Smith in ’68. The band consisted of Smith at the B3, Houston Person on sax, and Grady Tate on drums. Abercrombie toured with the band for a year-and-a-half, playing a gritty, crowd-pleasing mix of tunes. But this was a time of significant cultural change, during which the youth of America, inflamed by their forced involvement in a war overseas and by the exposure of political corruption and corporate collusion, took to the streets and campuses in protest. This could be heard in music, too, most notably in the ferocious guitar playing and poetical psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix, who had gone to London in the mid-‘60s and come back as a bearer of the Freak Flag for millions.

“The fusion thing had started to happen,” Abercrombie says, “and all the musicians were listening to Hendrix. Around that time I joined a fusion band called Dreams, which was fronted by the Brecker brothers with Randy on horn, Michael on sax and Barry Rogers on trombone. Billy Cobham was on the drums. The band was holding try-outs, hoping to find a guy who could play rock guitar. So, I went down and auditioned. I’d grown up playing rock and R&B, I’d studied jazz at school, and I’d played all sorts of stuff with Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith, so I felt pretty much at home with what they were trying to do. They gave me the spot, which was great. I was even going to switch guitars. With Johnny I’d been playing a Gibson L5, but with the fusion stuff it had to be a Les Paul.”

It seemed the guitarist wouldn’t be leaving Boston anytime soon, at least not with all the contacts he was making. But even though Boston is a bona fide metropolis, it’s still a New England city, small by world standards. That meant only one thing: Eventually he’d have to take that first bite out of the Big Apple. The ticket to Gotham arrived in the form of a gig with Chico Hamilton. John moved into an apartment there with his girlfriend, and he quickly found that the spot in Hamilton’s band meant he’d be writing too.

“That was my first professional experience writing music,” Abercrombie explains, “because Chico didn’t write anything. But he’d played with Larry Coryell and Gabor Szabo, and he really liked guitar players. I was still young and full of testosterone, and I wanted to get in there and really do it. I played lots of notes, and I used lots of distortion.”

Abercrombie was by that time identified as a part of the Brecker Brothers scene. But a new group was being put together by heavyweight drummer Billy Cobham, again featuring Mike and Randy on sax and horn. “It was interesting that Billy would give us all a call. That was going to be the Billy Cobham Band, because the Mahavishnu Orchestra was breaking up and his plan was definitely to continue playing. Now, when this guy played, you knew it. And when we played, the decibel level was so intense you could see it. It was frighteningly loud.”

Abercrombie, though, hadn’t forgotten what he’d set out to be in the first place: a jazz guitarist. To him, the Billy Cobham Band wasn’t a jazz group but a variation on the fusion motif. “There was no emphasis on harmony,” he says, “and there was basically no jazz rhythm. Looking back at that time, I think of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report as the two most listenable groups of the genre. Of course, all those guys had played with Miles, and with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in there, Weather Report had a great deal of harmony. I think that was probably the most memorable music of the whole fusion period. The rest of it, even though it involved some amazing musicians, didn’t interest me. It was way over the top, like a circus.”

Fate stepped in again. Abercrombie’s reverberant tone, so somber yet brimming with emotion, had caught the attention of another gifted young guitarist: Ralph Towner. “I got together with Ralph in New York,” he says. “In fact, he’s the one who got me together with ECM Records. He’d done stuff with [Norwegian saxophonist/composer] Jan Garbarek, and also with [German bassist/composer] Eberhard Weber. I started meeting all these people, and one day Manfred Eicher [founder/executive producer of ECM] asked me to make a record. Manfred had heard me play on a record I’d done with an Italian trumpeter named Enrico Rava, and apparently there was something in my playing that he liked. First he recommended that I do a couple of things with [soprano saxophonist] Dave Liebman, and then he said, ‘I think you’re ready to do your own record.’ I certainly didn’t feel that way, but one day I just sat down and started writing some tunes.”

A sound was beginning to take shape in Abercrombie’s head, and part of the concept involved the polyrhythmic approach of his good friend Jack DeJohnette, the brilliant jazz drummer. The two got in touch, whereupon Abercrombie also called up a former roommate, the Czech keyboardist and Mahavishnu alumnus Jan Hammer. “I told Jack and Jan, ‘This is how I want my record to be, with an organ sound . . . . ‘” The result was Timeless, a set highlighted by intense improvisations and slow, moody tone poems. But Timeless was more than simply the newest rung on the ladder for a fast-rising guitarist. It was an artistic success that brought enthusiastic response from lovers of jazz, fusion and new music. Here was an electric guitarist who could play in a trio with the likes of Hammer and DeJohnette, who could contribute significantly as a composer, and who was enough of an individual to resist sounding like yet another John McLaughlin imitator. The feeling was of someone very new, yet of someone who had been around. From the first groove of the record, Abercrombie had stepped into the upper echelon of modern guitardom.

“Timeless was the first recording under my own name. I wrote about four of the tunes on it, so at that point I realized I had a knack for writing. Actually, I hadn’t done much of it until that record. This got me into writing more, and eventually having my own band.”

It was a time when the guitar was the measure of musicianship. Perhaps it was unfair even to him, but with Timeless Abercrombie had set the bar almost too high. How could he hope to follow it? The answer was simple: Do something different the next time around. So, he recorded Works, a solo collection resplendent in layers of John’s now-classic sound. Like its predecessor, it offered a trademark blend of harmonic sophistication and remarkable single-string technique. Indeed, Abercrombie’s style and approach proved a perfect match for the “ECM sound,” which conveyed a heavy sense of solitude through the use reverberation and other ambient techniques. This isn’t to say ECM ever pandered to the music-as-wallpaper crowd. The ECM label welcomed diversity and change, but it’s safe to say it wouldn’t put out the welcome mat for weeny players. Being the creation of a musician who was equally skilled as an engineer, and populated with a stable of gifted European and American artists, it stood out as a venue for those who sought more from music than what the usual, market-driven categories could offer. So, Abercrombie–having started at ECM with a trio before going solo–returned for his third outing with a quartet featuring Ritchie Beirach on keyboards, Czech bassist George Mraz and Peter Donald on drums.

“I had become a leader at that point,” Abercrombie says. “It was the mid ‘70s, and soon we were touring Europe and the States. The band continued until the early ‘80s, but by that time I’d hooked up with [drummer] Peter Erskine. He was moving back to New York from L.A., and he said we should get together. On a free night we went down to hear the Bill Evans Trio, which had Marc Johnson on bass. Hearing Marc just blew my mind. I was floored by his playing, and he said the feelings were mutual, which I felt was a great compliment. So, Erskine, Johnson and I put together a trio, and at that point we got into more of an electric style. I started using a guitar synthesizer, which a lot of people seemed to think I should never have done. The band lasted four or five years. My quartet had made four records for ECM, but ultimately this trio made five.”

The Hammond B3 organ is arguably the most imitated electric keyboard on the planet. Not surprisingly, Abercrombie, who had come up in Johnny “Hammond” Smith’s band and then featured the organ on Timeless would want to keep the vibe going. However, it would mean another change in personnel, and an end to the trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson.

“I really wanted to do something with the organ, ‘cause I’d always loved that sound. I had an old friend named Dan Wall, who said he’d like to do something with me, and I had another friend named Adam Nussbaum, who’s a great drummer. (I know a lot of great drummers.) So, the new trio became an organ trio.” Two studio records were produced, followed by a live set.

Jazzers seem so accustomed to their lot. Apparently they think nothing of grouping, disbanding, regrouping, recording and renaming. And while others might think of it as a liability or a barrier to the achievement of a good old-fashioned reputation, for these guys it can mean a degree of freedom they wouldn’t have otherwise. Hell, if you’re good enough to go from standards to meterless improvisation, who’d try to stop you? Thus Abercrombie, by welcoming prodigal string players and percussionists alike, has achieved longevity in his career and diversity in his musical output.

Now It Gets Personal

Abercrombie is known as much for understated melodic embellishments and soft yet persistent vibrato as he is for the sound he gets with his guitar. Where one artist would favor a very dry, very present sound–or where another might employ a touch of slapback to give it some projection–Abercrombie seems to play the room rather than the amp. His sound, which originates at the soundboard soft and muted, reaches the listener’s ear through a complex series of reflections, so that there is as much “air” in the notes as there is attack or decay. Well-known players from contemporary jazz and the studio world have made big money with the help of chorus, shelving and other time-delay techniques, but Abercrombie’s sonic palette stands apart for its purity and sincerity. Even when he rocks, it still manages to sound beautiful. So, where did he get such a rich, echoing sound? It’d be easy to assume he picked it up in church, or amid the hallways and high ceilings of some cavernous old house. But that’d be wrong.

“I could never have found that kind of sound in our house,” Abercrombie says. “My bedroom was tiny, and the room I used for practice was little more than a closet. But when I was young I had a teacher named Bill Frienz. He’d come over for a half-hour, and he could play some jazzy things. One day he came by with this little reverb unit. We tried it out, and it was such an attractive sound. From that point on I was really taken with the spaciousness of the way things could sound. That’s what I like about some of the old Miles records. You could tell they were getting a bit of reverb, even though it wasn’t a lot. This little Fender thing was amazingly cool. Still, in those days there wasn’t much of a choice in terms of amps. There was tremolo, but nobody really used it except to play like Duane Eddy. You had nothing to compare to, so you just relied on your amp. Most of my amps had spring reverb, which I always used. So, I guess you can blame it all on that.

“Years later I got an Echoplex, but I never really figured out how to use those things. I remember the first digital reverb I came across. I was working a gig in Munich, and everybody knew how much I loved reverb. Somebody suggested I try a unit by Dynacord. I went down to the local music store and plugged it in, and immediately I had to have it. It cost everything I was going to make that week. I still have it, in fact.”

Abercrombie credits his love of echo to the fabled Fender design, with its tube-driven signal path and integral springs. According to Keith Gregory at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, that would be a “Fender Reverb Unit.” Introduced in 1961, the Reverb featured a brown Tolex covering with a flat logo and a leather handle. The face panel was also brown, as were the knobs and a plastic domed switch. It incorporated a two-spring pan and a footswitch with a ¼” jack.

The amplifier is somewhat less critical in the equation. For lives dates Abercrombie will usually request a Mesa-Boogie or a Roland Jazz Chorus. At home he routes his signal through a Mesa-Boogie preamp and then into a Walter Woods stereo power amplifier, and then augments it with a Boss SE-50 reverb and a multi-effects unit.

“For a while I was so involved with synthesizers that it became an obsession. But eventually I had to get away from that, because the sound started to feel very synthetic. Basically, I gave all the stuff away, but I still have that Roland GR-300.”

A Unique Choice of Instrument

The soft yet persistent tone so readily associated with John Abercrombie is more often obtained through use of a solid-body guitar than a semi-acoustic or full-bodied archtop. That shouldn’t be so surprising, though, since the modern solid-body has undergone a considerable degree of scientific analysis and artistic endeavor, resulting in a number of instruments that are more playable and more accommodating than their predecessors. Abercrombie’s choice, then, is a Brian Moore DC1. “Basically, it’s a Les Paul style of guitar,” he says. “I tend toward a solid-body, Les Paul sort of sound, anyway. I have an Ibanez solid-body, too, and a Tele-style guitar by Roger Sadowsky.”

He still loves a good archtop, though, as is clear from his descriptions of two key instruments: “I have an old Gibson ES-175 from the late ’50s. It needs serious work, but it’s definitely the guitar I’ll never sell. I also have one made by Jim Mapson, out in California. It’s a little, shallow archtop, and that guitar is probably one of the most amazing ones I own. I can’t play it real loud—there’s a limit to how far it will go–but it has one of the fattest sounds I’ve ever heard.”

About the Music

If Abercrombie’s sound and touch succeed in evoking a sense of place, then the music he plays is equally a part of that success. With Abercrombie there is no discussion of a particular piece being assembled simply for the purpose of giving the players “a chance to show off their chops.” Despite his easy affability, there exists in Abercrombie a fierce drive to explore the inner environs of his imagination. After all, this isn’t kid stuff. This isn’t guitar for the sake of itself, in which the instrument’s make and model matter as much as anything else.

Asked whether he’d describe himself as primarily a guitarist or composer, Abercrombie says, “I’m a little bit of both, really. Jim Hall once said he was ‘a musician who happened to play the guitar.’ I feel that way, too. But he’d agree that we’re all still guitarists. I think you have to work at it, to a certain extent.”

The pull of jazz and its harmonic vocabulary is such that it leads Abercrombie to say, “I’d love to do an album of standards and play them kind of straight.” But he could easily go that route, having demonstrated his facility with chord melodies in the trio format. Still, his personal mode of expression isn’t so traditional. “When I compose, I don’t create music that’s straight. I have to follow my train of thought. Ultimately, I look at it as a positive thing, ‘cause I can go in any direction I want. Other guitarists might say, “Oh, that’s Abercrombie. He’s crazy, so he can just go with what he feels like doing.” That doesn’t mean there’s any less work involved, since I have to try and follow my own creative impulse rather than rely on what has come before.”

A Personal Ethic

Given the very personal nature of Abercrombie’s music, one might expect him to shy away from requests to share his knowledge. Actually, though, he teaches guitar at the college level. To Abercrombie it’s really more about the mind of the musician. And in the long run it’s more practical than what you’d get from a school of hot licks.

“I don’t have any specific goal when I teach, really,” he confesses. “You know, I try to give my students things that are helpful, encouraging or even disillusioning. I try to get them to play a little more like what they really hear, which means they have to play less. They have to think about the chords, not the scales. That lets them hear the music regardless of the changes in key.

“Playing less is actually very hard for the students to do, because they’re often too busy thinking about scales. That kind of habit can get you into big trouble. I find that rock players can use the scales more than jazz players, ‘cause they’re not playing through different keys. They’re thinking in terms of modes. But in jazz, if you start playing the notes of the scale, it sounds kind of funny. You have to go back and start thinking about the chords.”

All in the Wrist

An understanding of chords and their implied movements is certainly apparent in Abercrombie’s playing. Few other guitarists can delineate the structure of a piece with such admirable economy, and fewer still can give it such a beautiful sense of nuance. In his playing nothing is wasted, nor is there any allegiance to lounge riffs and pentatonic fluff. Instead you’ll find a sense of melody that enhances the perception of harmony and dynamics. His vibrato is certainly part of that. As much a classical rubato as the thumb-hinged grasp of blues origin, it’s remarkably fluid and personal. Added to that is a technique of relaxing the note from a whole-step bend or even a minor third. All this serves as a form of sonic signature, expressing his reverence for emotion.

So, what makes Abercrombie’s playing so approachable despite its depth and sonority? How is it possible to make a single note linger in memory for years? Perhaps it’s the patience that is so evident in his approach. Here the listener can readily sense the infinitesimal offset between the right and left hands, which, following on the slight muting of notes as they’re fretted, makes every sound one that’s eagerly anticipated.

“I think many musicians are aware that they have to be entertainers. So, with fusion stuff and the music that came later, there was an element of athleticism involved. There’s less of that in jazz music, or at least certain forms of it. Jazz playing in general requires a level of interaction, but a good fusion player wouldn’t necessarily have to do that. You could have blazing technique but not have to interact with the drummer. But with jazz, it becomes really obvious if you can’t relate to the rest of the band.”

The Point of Arrival

He may downplay his own technique, but there is a wealth of wisdom in Abercrombie’s playing. What’s apparent is that the knowledge of chords, the ability to compose and other skills acquired during his years in school have been refined over the course of a career as one of the finest guitarists in modern jazz. Abercrombie has managed to transcend the traditional approach to his idiom and reached a point where the physicality of playing the guitar becomes transparent.

“I’ve always gravitated toward horizontal playing,” he explains. “That’s how you can get places and play more melodically. I think of the guitar as a voice from bottom note to top. I was always taught based on positions, but I realized early on that alternate picking wasn’t the way I should go. I practice scales a lot, and I have a way of sliding between positions in the same scale without a lot of effort. So, you can learn where all the notes are on all the strings, but when you improvise on a chord progression using only one or two strings you can play more melodically without having to move across all the strings.”

The concept says a lot about the Abercrombie began his musical life as a guitarist rather than moving from another instrument, as so many others have done. Listening to those lines, which can burn in the mind yet just as readily elude the hands, it’s clear that the notes are meaningful as individual events and as components in a chord structure. It’s a quality that sets his guitar apart from other instruments.

“The only time I think more like a piano player is when I play chordally, as when I comp by using my fingers to pluck all the notes at once. Actually, I think of counterpoint more in terms of question-and-answer. I’ll play a phrase and then answer it with another phrase or line. They’re contrapuntal, but they’re not happening at the same time.”

It’s abundantly clear to John Abercrombie that to play well the guitarist should listen to the conversation going on between the other instruments in the group. Don’t play too much, he says. Stay off the soapbox until the time is right. Still, you have to be ready to do it. Remember, you’re playing for people who might be casual listeners at best, and at any rate many of them won’t be musicians.

Abercrombie needn’t preach his talents, nor should he play with any less of the economy for which he’s known. Like a Japanese fan once told me, “Basically . . . his music is best.” One need only interpret this to mean that Abercrombie has the brains and good sense to play from the heart. It means he always plays what’s right for the moment. There’s no better testament than that.

Author’s Note: Larry Payne is a professional writer whose work has been featured in Guitar Player, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Guitar Extra, Virgin Records’ Dogma, Music Connection and many others. He’s also a fluent guitarist and occasional collector of vintage instruments. Among his current favorites are an early ’60s Eko Model 200 small-bodied archtop, a 1984 Yamaha SBG1300TS through-body unit, his custom-made ESP Craft House Superstrat, and his new Eastwood Sidejack.