Electric Guitar Technology 101
By: Kenny Auyoung
It is a curious paradox of the music industry: guitarists, particularly rock guitarists, are often thought of as trendsetters when it comes to fashion and culture; but when it comes to their instruments, they are notoriously conservative.
Innovations such as active electronics, guitar synthesizers and Steinberger’s intrepid steps into the field of headless instruments in the 80’s have failed to make much of a dent in the market.
Gibson and Fender continue to dominate the electric guitar market much as they did in the 1950’s and 60’s. Even with the entry of new competitors into the market over the years such as Ibanez, Paul Reed Smith and Charvel/Jackson, the electric guitar has remained essentially unchanged with one to three magnetic pickups and a mess of wires connecting them to the controls. But things may be about to change!
In the last couple of years a few innovations have come along that have totally turned conventional wisdom – or at least conventional guitar electronics on its head. The first is the nylon string solid body electric guitar. I first saw one of these in the hands of metal ace Yngwie Malmsteen and was blown away by the sound.
For any artist who is trying to incorporate elements of classical guitar in his or her repertoire, this instrument provides the mellow classical tone of a nylon stringed guitar with the comfortable feel and action of a traditional solid body axe. This has been made possible through the tremendous advances made in recent years in the field of Piezo pickup technology.
Without going into too much technical detail, the Piezo differs from a traditional magnetic pickup in that the Piezo element vibrates with the string, sending an electrical signal of that vibration to a preamp within the guitar for processing, rather than capturing an electromagnetic representation of that vibration which can then be sent directly to an amplifier, or to an onboard preamp if further shaping of the signal is desired.
The Piezo eliminates the need for steel strings, which would otherwise interact with the magnetic pickup, and also produces more satisfactory results for players with a lighter fingerstyle technique. Lest you think this is just another passing fancy, Parker has produced a nylon string version of their famous “Fly” model and another up-and-comer, Sadowski Guitars, is producing a Telecaster style model employing the same technology.
Another intriguing development is in the area of computer-guitar interface. This has been long time coming, and if you consider the explosion in the popularity of digital recording with Pro Tools and similar software, it’s surprising it took as long as it did. Far and away, the leader in this field is Line 6’s Variax model.
Now, I will be the first person to admit that I know just enough about computer technology to be dangerous, but I’ll try to tell you what I know from what I’ve read and from friends and acquaintances who have played the Variax.
I should also state that I am in no way affiliated with Line 6 or any of their subsidiaries or partners. The Variax is, according to the Line 6 brochure a “digital modeling” guitar that allows the musician to switch between a huge array of potential sounds on one instrument. The sounds of a 12-string acoustic, Fender Stratocaster style single coils, Les Paul humbuckers, banjo, chimes and dozens of others are all available at the flick of a switch.
The best part about it is that all of these tonal variations are available completely hum free. For the working musician, this means not having to lug around five to seven separate guitars to provide him with the all of the sounds he requires. The true test, however, is hearing one of these fine instruments in action, so if you’d like to check one out, a list of authorized dealers is available from the Line 6 website.
At an MSRP of around $1000 for the mid-line Variax 600 – it’s also available in the 300 and 700 – it’s not cheap, but for the professional or amateur with money to burn, it may be a worthwhile investment.
There is so much more to be developed in the near future with the improvements in computer technology and miniaturization. Whole racks of effects can now be had in a box the size of a cigarette packet. This is certainly a boon for the musician in terms of both price and the effort necessary to move the equipment.
I foresee a day when an entire guitarist rig, with the exception of the instrument itself will be contained within the body of the guitar itself. And while that may not be a comfort to the guitarist who finds himself at home amongst his racks of effects processors, time waits for no man, and he will eventually find himself at a crossroads in musical instrument development, much as those men did back in 1930’s and 40’s when the acoustic guitar was forced to make way for the first electric guitars.
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