Since its inception, legions of surf guitar players have engaged in heated debate about gear. Suffice it to say, everyone has an opinion. However, newbies often want a simple answer to the question, “What do I need to get going?” Below, I lay out the answers, based on the classic traditional surf sound of the Sixties. Whether you want to nail the sound with vintage gear, or whether you are on a budget, you’ll find useful guidelines here.
This month’s column focuses on my pet peeves and some very important and yet overlooked aspects of guitar playing and your enjoyment of your guitar: tuning and set-ups. Everybody deserves to have a guitar that plays well, stays in tune, and is in tune with itself. This is not just the privilege of globetrotting superstars, but everyone who owns a decent instrument.
I’ve been playing the electric twelve string guitar professionally for the last 16 years in my band The Carpet Frogs. Guitar players have often complimented me on the tone of my electric 12 string and have asked me how I get that “authentic” sound! For me, it all started with the two Godfathers of the electric 12 string: George Harrison of the Beatles and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. Obviously, the first ingredient is a great 12 string. The Granddaddy of them all is the Rickenbacker 12 string.
Sure, you can rattle off scales and string riffs together and throw in the odd mode or two, but unless you’re thinking melody, you have not made music; you are not improvising. You may have confirmed that you know which building blocks fit, but you’ve created nothing new. Improvisation to me implies invention, and you don’t invent scales any more than an artist invents Cobalt Blue or Vermilion Red. Scales and modes are like the squirts of paint on a palette. You have to choose carefully which to use, which to blend. Start mixing too many colors and you wind up with mud.
That’s where capos come in. Whoever invented the guitar must have already thought of the capo, which compensates for the unfriendly keys. A simple idea, it effectively moves the nut up the neck by clamping down all all strings at once. The result is to raise the overall pitch while keeping the relative tuning of all the strings intact. This allows the player to choose another key to play in, a more friendly key. I should really say ‘pretend key’ because the key doesn’t change at all. Only the fingering changes, as if it were a new (friendly) key.
As a guitarist who has always played with my fingers, as opposed to picks, I have always been very interested in bass notes. My right-hand thumb is always free to go looking for bottom end notes, and I’d like to pass on some of what I know.
I have hated the idea of scales all my playing life. I never use them (consciously), and never think them. I think melody. I don’t know, or care to know, the names of the various scales and modes. I know the major scale and see all others as being distortions of it. I am also aware that there is the chromatic scale (all twelve notes) to use at all times. You can link any interval with semitones if you so choose, any scale note to any other scale note, from any scale you care to name. It becomes a question of timing, to get to the note you want in the time left to do so, if you follow. All twelve notes are there for the asking.
Awful as it sounds, it’s the truth. But don’t let it scare you off. The highest number I’ve ever heard in the context of music is 13, so you don’t have to be a genius to figure it out.
One of my students was around the other night and pointed out that even when I was playing his guitar (a beautiful Strat), I still sounded like me. It’s true – no matter what guitar or amp I plug into, I always sound like me. After 38 years of playing, it would be impossible for me not to. For a long time this bugged me. I guess because I was so used to “my sound”, I started to think it was pretty ordinary, and over the years I’ve made the odd attempt to change it. I can’t anymore.
While related, keeping a guitar in tune and having a guitar play in tune up and down the neck are two different issues. If your guitar stays in tune but the chords sound out of tune as you go further up the neck and closer to the body, this is the article for you. Having your guitar play in tune up and down the neck is generally referred to as intonation.
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