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No Electricity Required: The Raw Beauty of the Acoustic Guitar

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As a young musician, I strongly identified with electronic music. I was into synthesizers and drum machines, digital effects and multi-track recording. I always thought that if I got into guitars that it would be the electric variety with a highly processed sound and pedals everywhere. I wasn’t prepared for the raw beauty of an acoustic guitar.

Stringed instruments have been around for a long time. A very long time. They probably evolved in prehistoric times as a primal musician recognized beauty in sound of the twang of a bow as he loosed the arrow towards his prey. Over the millennia that sound has been improved on, as craftsmen sweated over subtle varieties in material, dimensions and design. As a result we have a whole family of stringed classical instruments, not to mention the harp, the lute and the Arabic ud. And the guitar.

Somehow - probably in reaction to all of the technology that surrounded me - I was attracted to that simple and ancient stringed sound when I first found myself motivated to get serious about playing guitar.

An Appreciation for Quality

I had already had an acoustic guitar for a while — a hundred dollar special that I picked up from a music warehouse. While I knew that it probably wasn’t a very good guitar, I didn’t know what I was missing out on. Every other guitar that I’d picked up was about the same quality. I learned a few chords, but never took the instrument seriously.

That was until I met a Kiwi guitarist named Andrew. He played acoustic guitar like I’d never heard before, and his sound and style matched the soulful quality of his voice. I thought his guitar sounded amazing. It was an Ovation— a 1984 Collectors’ Series—that a businessman who believed in his talent bought for him.

I started visiting pro guitar shops and playing as many guitars as I could. I learned the differences in sound between an Ovation and Gibson, a Takamine and Maton. I bought myself a nicer guitar (second hand), and when I was convinced I was serious, bought the guitar I still play over twenty years later—my Ovation Elite. It has a sound I love, and have come to appreciate more through many years of playing.

Even when I’m plugged in I prefer to play without effects - though when recording I love to tweak the EQ and use some reverb and delay. Quality guitars are capable of a wide variety of sounds depending on how they are played. The sound of my guitar inspires me to play in new ways, and constantly improve. When the EQ is tuned right, it just sparkles.

Serious Practice

I knew I’d caught the guitar disease when I couldn’t put the thing down. I had been playing keys for around five years—and still loved playing—but I felt different when playing guitar, and could express myself in new ways.

I played and practiced for many hours each evening, even when watching TV, which was probably pretty annoying to my wife now that I think about it. I bought “The Guitar Handbook” (still a classic) and a book of lead guitar licks, and practiced until my callouses had callouses. A friend bought me a book on finger picking for my birthday. I had a strong belief back then that if I practiced enough, I could learn anything.

I learned every open chord in the book, and practiced moving between them smoothly. I learned E- and A-shaped barre chords up and down the neck, and fiddled with a few other shaped chords as well. I practiced scales and riffs for hours. I became very fussy about my technique - I didn’t want to spend all that time practicing just to learn bad habits. I could see progress and improvement in my playing every week, and friends started to come over and practice with me, and some came to get lessons.

The main focus of my playing back then was on learning new tools and techniques, and learning to play the best I possibly could. Most of the years following have had a different focus: learning to simplify my playing and use those tools and techniques as well as possible. Having learned a reasonable guitar vocabulary, I’ve spent time writing musical poetry, and learning to express myself as simply and clearly as possible.

Right now I’m probably getting to another point in my life where I’d like to widen my vocabulary again, and learn a few new tricks and techniques. I have some younger guitar friends who can do some amazing things on a guitar, and I’d love to learn to play more like they do.

A Love for Open Chords

After eight months of toil and serious guitar work, I was comfortable with my guitar, familiar with the fretboard, and moved up and down the neck playing smooth and crisp barre chords. I thought I was doing pretty well, but wanted an honest second opinion. I asked my wife!

She was probably already quite familiar with my playing from all of that practice during TV shows, but she sat down and listened to my playing with a keen ear, promising to be ruthless with me if necessary. She pointed out something very interesting: although my barre chords sounded quite clear, they didn’t ring out in the same way that open chords did.

Over the next few days I listened carefully to my playing, and realized she was right. I gained a new appreciation for the clarity and richness of open chords. I can be a perfectionist at times, and could have decided that I needed to work on better technique with my barre chords. Instead, I decided I wanted to focus more on open chords. I bought myself a capo.

Learning to play with a capo taught me how to transpose music really well. It also meant that I played barre chords less often, so now I don’t play them as well as I used to. I spent time discovering new ways of playing open chords further up the neck. I’m still happy I made that decision. It has led to a fairly unique style of playing that I enjoy, and feel defines me. I still love that clear and ringing sound.

I’m Still In Love

Twenty years later, I still have that same earthy love for the acoustic guitar. I’m still surrounded by electronic/digital musical gear, and I still relate to the guitar as a “natural” alternative - sort of like getting back to nature, or finding my roots. I like the feeling of the music being just me and the strings and the resonance of the guitar’s body. No electricity required. Though I love the sound of an electric guitar, and all of the colors that are available with a multi-effects unit, I’ve never gone down that path with my own playing.

Over the years, I haven’t maintained that crazy pace of many hours of practice each day - that period only lasted for a few years. There have been some periods where I’ve played much less. But the guitar has always been there - an important part of my life, and a way that I can express myself honestly.

Do you love playing guitar? What drew you to the instrument? What keeps you coming back? Let us know in the comments.

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