Guitarist Series: Well Rounded Guitarist = Part Musician, Part Electrician, Part Physicist

I don't know how people who don't play electric guitar spend their weekends. Maybe they do things like spend time with their family, go out on the town or just stay home relaxing, but I spend either playing my guitars, digging around in my amps tweaking the bias and reading about how various sound/guitar equipment works (usually all while I have my headphones on listening to my most recent "favorite band").

Ok, maybe I don't spend every weekend like that, but I do spend a fair amount of time learning about how guitars, amplifiers, effects, sound equipment, speakers etc work. It's not only because I'm passionate about these topics (maybe obsessed is a better word), but also because I feel that the more knowledgeable about the equipment I am, the easier time I'll have crafting my tone and will actually save money in the long run.

Let's take amplifiers for instance. Amplifiers are big complicated things that can easily kill you if you mess around with them and don't know what you're doing. By doing some research on electronics and the physics of a guitar signal though, you can easily learn enough about these contraptions to be able to try different tube options, bias it properly and perhaps even make small repairs and modifications. All of these things will save you the money of going to an amp tech, but they will also allow you to experiment a little more freely with your sound and better craft it to exactly what you're looking for without trying endless different options. I'd make sure you REALLY REALLY understand what you're doing first though as, like i said, an amp can easily kill you and won't hesitate to do so if you touch it wrong.

A little easier project is working on the guitar electronics. Small changes in potentiometers or wiring scheme can drastically alter your sound both for the good and the bad. The good thing about tweaking guitars though is that it's far less likely that you'll kill yourself by accident. Also, tweaking electronics is easier than say... tweaking your fret work because if you mess up it will be a pretty cheap fix (assuming you don't do something that will make the guitar catch fire), while if you botch a fret job, you'll need to have the entire guitar re fretted...expensive.

Both these kinds of modifications though can be made just by taking the time to really learn what's going on inside your guitar, your tubes and your amplifier. You will have to read a bit on electronics to learn these things, but once you do a whole realm of possibilities opens up. You can even end up being able to make your own effects that do unique things that are not available otherwise.

A lot of people will take the time to look into the electronics side of being an electric guitarist as it saves them money by doing small modifications, tube changes, biasing etc. themselves. I think less people really delve into the physics of sound and guitars. Perhaps they should though, because I think this can not only improve your sound, but is another thing that can save you money in the long run.

The physics of the guitar can be quite a complicated topic to begin with and when you make it an electric guitar, add an amplifier and a couple dozen effects and you're really looking at a mess. Still, I think it's worth it to learn about things like why a guitar signal clips when overdriven, why certain amps sound one way and others sound another, how second order harmonics are produced, how speakers interact to produce sound waves, how different sound harmonics produce different effects, how fuzz effects (or compressors, limiters, distortion boxes, flangers or ::insert various guitar effect here::) works and why. This information can help you make sure to choose the effects, amps, guitars, sound equipment etc that will best give you the tone you want and the tone that will best fit your style of playing.

Taking all this information into account, the electrical side, the physics side and the equipment side, and you end up saving money on gear, on tech work and end up with a better sound in the end. It's like being well rounded guitarist really means more than just being a musician, but also part electrician and part physicist.

That's not to say that you can't ignore all the gritty science and just concentrate on the music as there have certainly been tons of amazing guitar players who couldn't tell you the first step of what happens within an amplifier. Great musicianship really comes from the soul and so knowing tons of technical specs won't make you a great player and not knowing won't make you a worse one, but I believe that this knowledge of what's really going on can enhance your musicianship and save you money in the long run.

What I'm trying to say is that if you're a new guitarist or have been playing all your life, don't shy away from learning a little bit about your equipment and the science behind how it works and even how sound itself works. You might find that it comes in handy on your quest for the perfect tone and actually make you a better player.

The best place I've found to start learning a little bit about these topics is right where you are right now... the Internet. There are tons of helpful sites out there if you look and make sure to check out multiple authors as sometimes it takes a different voice for complicated topics to become clear.


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