So there's a lot of pseudoscience among guitar players, regarding what affects tone, and to what degree, as well as a lot of anecdotal evidence being taken as fact. It seems that many people hear with their eyes rather than with their ears, and are far too trusting of opinions being posted as fact on the interwebs. I'd like to hear some of the more ridiculous claims that you guys have heard. Here are a few of my recent ones:
1. I recently had someone tell me that he could hear a discernible tonal difference between a guitar that was wired with solid conductor wire vs stranded wire. He claims that he tried this out on a few of his own instruments. I call his soldering technique into question here.
2. Someone else asked me to degloss their instrument. Their main complaint that the instrument felt sticky, and they wanted a smoother neck, but they had also been told that a satin finish would allow the wood to 'breathe' more. I've heard this one a lot, that satin finishes somehow sound more natural sounding. Never mind the fact that we're literally just roughing up the existing finish.
3. I've also heard people claim that mounting pickups directly to the guitar body, rather than to a plastic pickup ring, will somehow allow the pickup to hear the vibration of the wood better. Some people have gone on to say that microphonic pickups are actually desirable in this application, because they pickup vibrations from the body better. Granted, I've heard Lindy Fralin say that a pickup being slightly microphonic isn't always a bad thing, and I've definitely heard overpotted pickups that sound awful, but I suspect that anyone making the above claim has never played a guitar with highly microphonic pickups.
What other crazy stuff have you guys heard?
One of my favorites is a rattlesnake rattle in a fiddle. I guess they have to sound better if you can keep the devil out of them.
I'd forgotten about the rattlesnake rattles. My brother worked with violin quit a bit and had a nice collection of rattlesnake rattles on a shelf in his workshop.
I had a friend that told me about an old man he knew as a kid that played the blues on an old harmony archtop. The old man told my friend that his guitar sounded better with a lit cigarette tucked between the E and A string tuners. Given what sort of quality his guitar had it's possible, I suppose, that this damped an unfavorable vibration of some sort but I think it's more likely that he was a chain smoker that wanted an excuse to keep a smoke going all of the time. Either way, it sure sounds like that sort of thing that gets this stuff started.
I've studied practical acoustics pretty extensively (along with Pyrotechnic Shock, Structural Vibration and a few other related topics). I'll offer the observation that you have to be able to measure an event with suitable precision to determine if something has changed. One might be able to sort out changes by controlled testing in an anechoic chamber with a calibrated microphone via Frequency Spectrum Analysis but very few of us have the time, money or access to such facilities. I've spent a lot of hours analyzing electronic systems in this manner and it is enlightening when you overlay what you perceive and the actual measurements. In my experience, changes that you can hear (even when you are closer to the system than the measurement microphone) invariably have far less fidelity than the instrumented data.
Without recorded data of this type, it is very difficult to measure incremental changes to an instrument (ex: changing pickups, brands or gages of strings, etc) simply due to the time lapse between the before and after condition. Unless something goes drastically right (or wrong), it is pretty darn hard to detect changes - particularly of the subtle variety - simply because you are relying on your memory of what it used to sound like. Combine this with one's expectation of what the change is expected to do and you will always have some degree of bias in judging the nature and degree of impact on tone.
As we used to say in my past career - In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data.
A musician's quest for tone are based on their perceptions - along with the feeling that "factor-x" gives them confidence that they have an edge that will make their performance better. Respect for the customer always comes first but I do try to steer my customers away from obvious snake oil based solutions simply because I believe in honesty (including admitting that which I do not know) and the fact that some of them will blame the repairman when it does not live up to their expectations. I also hate to see people waste money - particularly working musicians who typically have little to spare.
Also agree J.R.
Selling BS is a great way to lose customers and friends: we are installing another A/B (guitar) and A/B/C/D (Amplifier) system on the Sound Lounge floor so customers can step through relative tones in almost real time with the guitars and in real time with the amps. We also keep a couple of "standards" in the closet so we can do the before and after gig with stuff we've changed compared to base line standards that we have used and had for some time.
This is brave stuff but as JR and Paul both stress - honesty and respect are good character traits but also good for business. The eye opening educative effect of true A/B testing is something to behold.
And, any twit or troll can say "yeah but this won't be perfect.....what if the weather changes or your pick wears a bit or a butterfly flaps it's wings in Bermuda" - but on a day to day basis not too many changes happen that aren't relative. This works for us, and if you hear the difference it tends to stick (and from training acoustic <event and genus> recognition I know this does work) so you can recognize what is what next time you hear it.
Never too old to learn the truth.
One of the truths I've learned about myself is how much the sound of the instrument depends upon my approach to the music. There are times when I pull out one of my instruments and put it away after a few minutes because it's just not working.
It took me several years to figure out that my approach has much more to do with how I sound than is apparent to a new player. It all seems pretty straight forward to begin with. Get a guitar, learn some chords. Make your fingers sore and follow the path to being able to change positions within a reasonable time. Learn to strum and change chords and sing at the same time and you're a player... Right?
The many,many small things, like millisecond timing changes, dynamic finger movement in chording, right hand position and attack...that I incorporate into my playing today were completely unknown to me back then yet are a part of the the sound I wanted. I knew that I liked that sound but didn't know how to make it. Most of this is almost invisible to a beginner but I finally realized that the sound I heard out of the players I wanted to emulate meant that I had to do more than just place my fingers and strum down the strings.
This is a moment of personal observation that in no way should be taken as anything other than personal opinion. At the risk of alienating and inflaming my brother and sister guitar players that prefer electric instruments, I've always felt that it would be better for players to start out on an acoustic simply to cut out the tendency to rely on technology for the sound they want before they learn how much control they have over it with technique. I have no problem with electric guitars and players, it' just been my observation that, in the various players I've watched develop their skills, straight acoustic players tend to learn this faster than electric players. I think it is because the technology that is available and often required to color the sound in the electric world tends to mask their connection with the dynamic of what they play.
All of this boils down to the idea that I had to learn to control my personal sound with intention and with practice which is, unsurprisingly, how everyone else does it. It an ongoing process but know that my personal approach makes a greater difference to the sound I generate than any of the things we've talked about on this thread. I don't know if that's true to the same extent in electrics but I know that it does apply. If I'm not involved in playing to the best of my ability, the sound suffers.
Most new or less experienced/skilled players miss a lot of the little things more experienced/proficient players do. Like me, they may have some idea of the sound they want but don't understand just how much control they can have over that so they turn to "technology". The irony is that it may actually help for a while, because of the "new stuff" effect with the result that the players "hears an improvement" when they play. I think it's probably fairly short lived even if the player doesn't admit it. Whatever is new will, eventually, be old and they may be looking for another way to "improve" their playing very soon after that.
One of the best lessons I ever learned came from an interview I read decades ago with, I believe, Eric Clapton where he made a reference to how much he wished he could play like someone else.THAT was wide eyed moment for me. In the interview, he pointed out that no player ever perfectly emulates another player and that emulating them perfectly isn't really desirable. He said that the music we make should be our own. Of we do it as well as we can, it's never wrong.
To me, looking for "snake oil" fixes denies that we are capable of owning our sound.
I'm not knocking technology, I'm just pointing out that it may change your "sound" but all the tech in the world won't make you a better player if you don't work at being a better player.