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October 19, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST
There’s no doubt about it: Guitars are cool. A mixture of sex appeal and raw musical prowess, the guitar practically begs young musicians to start garage bands in the hope of making it big. With this instrument, form is indivisible from function.
Every guitar has its own design features. Some are for looks, but elements such as body composition and fret action alter the sound. A guitar with a hollow body has a more resonant sound than one with a semi-hollow or solid body. The kinds of pickups — mini microphones inside the body of the guitar that transfer sound from the strings to the amp — are also crucial. Single-coil pickups, made of a copper wire wrapped once around a magnet, produce a faint hum with a bright, clear tone ideal for pop and rock, but humbuckers (two single coils joined together) cancel each other’s hum to create the muddier sound of metal and punk. By choosing instruments based on design features and customizations, guitarists can capture the exact sounds they desire.
To demonstrate the importance of guitar design, four Columbia musicians gave Vox the inside story behind their music. Check out the way these instrumentalists found their characteristic sounds.
Musician: Mikey Wheeler, 24, plays guitar for Bald Eagle. The punk band released its debut album, Bacon and Eggs, Dear, under the Emergency Umbrella label this year.
Guitar: Wheeler plays a Gibson Les Paul special reissue with a red wine-stained finish on its mahogany body. The American-made guitar features a Stratocaster-style contour and P-90 humbuckers, a pickup that eliminates the hum but carries the clarity of single-coil pickups.
Sound: Wheeler says this is a good instrument to duplicate the “rich, crunchy, clear tones” of ’60s and ’70s rock bands such as Thin Lizzy and Fleetwood Mac.
Why it works: The rapport between guitar and amp is crucial. The pickups and the wood in the instrument’s construction produce thick, sharp notes, and the amp complements them with warm, vibrant, potent resonance.
Musician: Dwayne Welty is a guitarist for local metal outfit Sneath. This 24-year-old’s guitar specifically suits his left-handed needs.
Guitar: This made-to-order, three-year-old Carvin SC90s stands out because of its “fancy green burst paint job,” complete with “several custom nicks and scratches.” It also features a neck-through-body design. Instead of a separate neck piece, the neck extends to the bottom of the guitar’s body, allowing Welty to sustain notes longer.
Sound: Bass. The guitar was designed with a combination of woods and pickups to sound deeper and richer, and some have mistaken it for a baritone guitar. An amp intensifies the tone. “Depending on the song,” Welty says, “I’m either fighting (the bass) or embracing it.”
Why it works: The guitar’s fast action and wide, thin neck make it easy to play, and it is lightweight. The neck-through-body construction gives the guitar a sound similar to that of a Les Paul without the weight.
Musician: Shannon Diaz, aka Shirrelle C. Limes and the Lemons, has been playing guitar for 11 years. The 23-year-old has employed the instrument in multiple phases of her songwriting.
Guitar: Diaz, who plays this acoustic-electric Melissa Etheridge signature model Takamine, occasionally drops a pick during a solo, causing her to break the skin on her right index finger. “My blood is splattered all over the inside of it from years of shows,” she says.
Sound: The guitar allows Diaz to “put some booty in it” without an abrasive or metallic sound. She and other solo performers often play louder and more percussively to provide a strong beat without a backup band.
Why it works: To some, the acoustic guitar is a more expressive instrument than the electric and can allow for sound variation. By soloing with this well-worn acoustic, Diaz does not need to haul tons of equipment or argue with bandmates over who has to stick around to get paid at the end of the night.
Musician: Billy Schuh, 26, is the guitarist and lead vocalist for Foundry Field Recordings, an indie rock band formerly known as Billy Schuh and the Foundry. This year the band released its first full-length album, Prompts and Miscues.
Guitar: This guitar, which Schuh says he “always wanted,” is a late ’90s Rickenbacker 330, similar to guitars the Beatles used and with a sound reminiscent of ’60s pop and rock music.
Sound: Because this musician’s songwriting is influenced by the ’60s, his guitar fits that sound. Based on the position of the pickup switch, the guitar can sound full, (think “Let It Be”) or tinny (think “Drive My Car”) — perfect for music influenced by the mid-20th century.
Why it works: The balance between the sounds can reflect diverse moods. A song in a minor mode uses the guitar’s thin, ringing side whereas a cheerier tune with power chords makes use of the thicker, warmer sound. This guitar went home with Schuh after a timely inheritance from his grandmother covered the cost.