29 October 2007

When are you no longer playing guitar?

From the moment magnetic pick-ups were stuck on a guitar and plugged into an amplifier, guitarists have been experimenting with altering the timbre. At first, it was cutting holes in the speaker cone, driving the amplifiers to distortion, and rotating speakers. Then it was putting various electronic circuits in the signal path for all kinds of effects. Today, digital signal processing can not only emulate all those effects. It hasn’t only expanded into simulating tube amps and vintage speakers. The signal from your pickups can be morphed into that of another guitar, re-tuned, turned from a six-string into a twelve-string, or from guitar to banjo or sitar or synth. Products like the Line 6 Variax, the Fender VG Strat, and the Roland VG-99 offer mind-boggling versatility. (While Roland has been converting analog guitar notes to digital MIDI messages to control synthesizers for a long time, the synth sounds from their VG-99 are far more interesting. It directly processes the guitar signal to morph it into synth-like sounds. Though the MIDI out is still there in case you want to control a real synthesizer with it.) One of the things that attracted me to the guitar was the directness of it. There are no keys or mechanisms. It’s hands-on-the-strings. There are subtleties of articulation. Indeed, the compelling thing about these latest technologies is that they promise to let us keep those subtleties. This isn’t simply extracting the pitch to make a guitar pretend to be a keyboard. They promise convenience without compromise. You don’t need a Tele, a Strat, a Les Paul, and an acoustic. You don’t need a Marshall stack, a Fender Twin Reverb, and a Vox AC30. You don’t need a complex chain of stomp-boxes. No re-tuning to use alternate tunings. One guitar (and no amp) can be made to reproduce all of those sounds without losing the subtleties of articulation. Is there a point at which, however, the technology has gone so far that you’re no longer really playing guitar? Or, once we lost the sound box in favor of magnetic pick-ups did we already move into a realm where anything goes?

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