Monday, May 25, 2009

How To Choose A Guitar That's Right For You

This article is not about whether you should buy a Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster.

Nor is it about buying a guitar that suits your budget, musical genre or penchant for a particular color. This article also has nothing to do with body-woods, fret size, neck shape, pickup configuration, or the age-old tonal debate of the tremelo versus a fixed bridge.

It goes slightly deeper than that.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1981 I decided it was time to get my first 'good' electric guitar. Heavily influenced by the jazz-rock guitarists of the day and given the limitations of my student budget, I decided on the Ibanez line of semi-hollowbody electrics. I even had a model in mind -- the Ibanez AS100. And preferably in a sunburst finish.

Accompanied by two of my guitar playing buddies, we made the bus journey to the guitar shop downtown. Needless to say I was excited.

At the guitar shop another teen, slightly older than I, was trying out a small-bodied sunburst Ibanez AS50. He was playing a few funky rhythmic ideas that I thought were pretty cool. A local professional drummer of some repute was standing nearby. After listening in for a few minutes he exclaimed, "This boy's got rhythm!" The kid put the guitar down when he was done and I asked the gentleman who ran the shop if I could have a go.

I picked it up, plugged it in and the first thing that struck me was how comfortable it felt in my hands. It had a low action, a really smooth, slinky feel and it sounded great. I proceeded to noodle on it, playing some rhythms and lines.

And I started to realise that I was playing some things that were beyond my level of development. To my ears, my playing sounded effortless and professional, bearing in mind that up to that point I had been playing for only 4 years . Even the man who ran the shop, who had seen me play in his store more times than he probably cared to remember, commented at my drastic improvement. My two buddies were staring at me, agog with disbelief.

The guitar was perfect except for one thing. It was not the AS100 model but a slightly cheaper lower-end model in the series. I put it down and asked if I could try out the AS100 which was also on display.

It was a gorgeous instument with a transparent red finish that showed the grain of the wood beautifully with a symmetrical pearl inlay design on the headstock. I plugged it in, tuned and started to play. And I sounded like my old self again.

Gone was that magic I had felt coursing through my hands just moments before on that other guitar. I rationalized that it was some sort of strange fluke. I was also sure that now that I had experienced that magical feeling, I could work toward experiencing it again and with some practice, make it a permanent feature in my playing.

And I put the money down on the AS100.

Don't get me wrong. The Ibanez AS100 I had purchased -- and still own -- is a fine instrument. But I can't help but wonder about the musical direction I would have taken because of the leaps and bounds I might have made in my playing, if I had gone for that 'magical' guitar all those years ago.

Since then, I've experienced this phenomena several times over the years -- that strange connection with an instrument for no apparent reason. About 20 years ago I played a beat-up early 70's Stratocaster that belonged to a rehearsal studio. It had ridiculously high action and rusty strings and was difficult to play, but it too had that magical vibe. It was then that I also realized that the physical setup of a guitar had nothing to do with this connection I was feeling with certain instruments.

In a 1983 Guitar Player magazine interview, Frank Zappa succinctly stated, "If you pick up a guitar and it seems to scream 'take me', then that is the guitar for you."

How true.

I never go guitar shopping anymore. Not deliberately. I prefer to let myself naturally discover instruments that I truly feel a connection with -- guitars that are so inspiring that I feel a sense of joy and freedom playing them. These instruments are few and far between.

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