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Acoustic Guitar Notes #3

Thoughts on Tone
by Eric Schoenberg

A friend of mine, Dugald Stermer, who's into smaller and older Martins, says he cringes when someone describes a guitar as a "cannon." What he means, and I completely agree, is that a great guitar does more than roar - it offers a world of tone. In other words, comparing a great guitar to a cannon doesn't do the guitar justice.

Now, true, there's something very impressive about the bark of a powerful 30's D-18 with medium gauge strings, and sometimes when I hear one I exclaim, "What a cannon!" That means I was surprised and impressed by the sudden quantity of sound. But really, isn't it the incredible richness, fatness, complexity of the tone that thrills my ear, not just the loudness? This thrilling sound is even more present when I play (very biased statement coming) a real guitar, something smaller than a dreadnought. Like an OM-18 from 1931 that has tone that dances, that sounds happy (I'm remembering a particular guitar at the moment, an amazingly cheerful one). Or like a 12-fret 000 with tone sweet as sin but gutsy, throaty and loud like a ...cannon?

No, much, much better than that.

To look at it another way, a wonderful guitarist named John Miller (also a friend), says that dropped D is "god's tuning". There's a sound that comes out of that open D chord (with the f# on the 4th string, between the D's) that is so beautiful it transcends mortality. Cannons also tend to transcend mortality, but in a different way.

So when, at the Dallas show, a collector picked up, I think it was one of my Soloists, and slammed the strings with a heavy flatpick then handed it back to me saying, "Wow, that's a cannon", you can see why I didn't quite appreciate his compliment.

I guess in this column I've revealed my liking for guitars suitable for fingerstyle playing. I've been asked often, "What differentiates a fingerpicking guitar from a flatpicking guitar?" I think it has to do with an instrument's ability to impart feelings, like happiness and beauty, as opposed to a guitar that blows you away with loudness. Not all players will be able to use and appreciate a great fingerstyle instrument, but when one connects with such a guitar, the angels sing, which I like better than hearing the battle roar.