Saturday, March 7, 2020

Why acoustic guitars are so much better for songwriters than electrics

It may be that playing an acoustic guitar instead of an electric is doing it the hard way, or a wimpy way, depending on how you look at.  Electrics are tougher, meaner, wilder and more aggressive sounding, but they’re easier on the fingers to play.  You don’t have to press as hard, the necks are thinner and faster.  Bronze wound acoustic steel strings build up calluses on your fingers and thus kind of get you in better shape for playing.  Higher action and heavier strings on acoustics, lower and lighter on electrics.  Hard rock on an electric is easier to play, soft rock on an acoustic is harder to play, one could argue.

Depending on your preferences, acoustics can perhaps sound harsh and rougher on the ears, whereas electrics have a slick smooth sheen about their sound.  The sustain and effects can hide a lack of good playing technique, whereas acoustics leave you naked and can easily reveal the little mistakes.  On the other hand, acoustics played well can be simply beautiful.  The music they produce may be lighter sounding, and the actual weight of them is physically lighter.  Electrics can be uncomfortably heavy to play and the necessary shoulder straps can hurt your shoulders and give you neck and back problems, especially when you’re older.

To use an all-American baseball analogy, acoustics could be considered like practicing batting swings with several wooden bats in the on deck circle before throwing them on the ground and stepping up to the plate with a light aluminum bat.  Maybe electric guitars are aluminum bats, and maybe amplifiers and effects pedals are like swinging with corked bats.  I have a preference throughout my playing and recording "career" to stick with acoustics, not for practice to get in shape for electric playing, but even when I have electrics available at my disposal, I almost always choose the old dreadnaught.  It’s more handy for writing, and I just prefer the tone they make more when recording.

I’ve stayed true to a signature sound that includes the acoustic guitar as the primary instrument in my music.  It evolved naturally.  I was not a musician until several years into adulthood.  Before that, I was a music fan.  Early on, I was a fan of music my parents liked, which included early 70s folk rock, an example of which was the John Denver records they had in their collection.  His music also featured acoustic guitar, his lyrics were about the beauty of the natural world, he was an environmentalist, he seemed like a nice guy, and he liked skiing – all things I appreciated, even as a young boy.

As I got a little older, I got into the hard rock of the late 70s with my peers, which included musical acts who also had acoustic songs like Neil Young and even Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.  On the radio, I’d hear the soft rock artists like America, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Paul Simon, CSN, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, and Bread.  This is what I grew up on.  The late 70s brought a myriad of changes that lasted through the entire 80s that were not great for acoustic music – with the exception being the Violent Femmes, a huge influence on me.

Disco and punk faded out as new wave, pop and hair metal came and went along with grunge in the early 90s.  Then came the unplugged MTV show and related album releases of the early 90s – it was getting appealing again – with rock bands playing rock music on all acoustic instruments.  From about the turn of the century onward though, acoustic music has been off the beaten path and underground for the most part.  Mainstream country sounds like bad rock music sung with a southern twang accent, which I don’t have a taste for.

There’s always been this undercurrent of serious folk – last popular in the 60s and slowly dying since with the baby boomer crowd – that’s just somehow not cool or fun enough for me.  It should be no surprise the singer-songwriter genre leans more toward rock than folk, and features the acoustic guitar.   Along the way, I somehow discovered the good stuff from before I was born – the early acoustic blues and hillbilly music., the acoustic songs of the Beatles, etc.  Online discovery and recommendation has led me to discover the odd gem I somehow missed along the way like Elliott Smith.

The cheap, used acoustic is a typical first guitar for many, and I’m no exception.  It’s easier to find sheet music or chords online for guitar than other instruments when you’re learning covers of your favorites early on.  Because I was raised on rock, the guitar is a natural choice, because there was at least one in all these bands I liked.  It’s great to learn on, and there’s just something about the immediacy of being able to just pick it up and make sound without the hassle of having to plug anything in.

When the creative urge strikes, you want to capture what you can as soon as you can so you don’t lose the magic.  Over-editing and over-producing can achieve slick perfection, but I like the rough edges.  On the other hand, I have a soft side, I’m a mellow laid-back kind of person, so it’s just a part of what suits my style and personality I guess.

It’s also a lot easier to emulate the songs you like as opposed to playing a bass, drums, or a horn to sing along with, so it’s the ultimate solo instrument.  It’s made of trees, so it’s pretty organic.  They’ve been around a long time.  They’re portable, and you don’t need extra stuff like an amp and a cable to get sound out of it.  You don’t need to be near electricity, so you can hike into the wild and entertain around a campfire.

For all these reasons and more, it’s possibly the best instrument to write songs on as well.  You get a faster idea to recording transfer.  They tend to stay in tune better than electric guitars.  They rest on your leg easily while sitting without the need for a shoulder strap.  You don’t have to turn knobs to dial in a sound first – just grab it and start playing.

I love me some loud electric guitars from time to time so don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking them.  In early jazz and blues bands, acoustics weren’t loud enough to be heard live, so amplification helped with volume.  It’s arguably cool to get more sustain for certain styles, as it is to add effects like reverb and distortion.  Too much of that can get annoying in a hurry though.  I guess it’s just more pleasing to my ears than electric – that’s the bottom line.

It could be that as people get older their music tastes might tend to mellow a bit, and that would be true with me to some degree, although as already stated, I’ve always been a fan of the mellow stuff.  Another factor is that I don’t want to impair my hearing further, and want to preserve what I have, so I’m cautious about excessive volume as I get older.  I have played electrics in bands, some of which accompanied acoustics, and I like me some crazy digital noises on occasion, but I like the honesty of an acoustic guitar better, and both as a fan of other music as well as my own, I gravitate toward an all-acoustic unplugged overall sound in general.

As a songwriter, I want to put my ideas to music quickly, before I lose the muse, and an acoustic is great for that.  A typical way to record is to lay down a rhythm guitar track first before you add bass, drums, vocals, or keyboards, so my first track is often an acoustic rhythm track.  Due to my tastes, it just so happens that I like to hear my songs in an acoustic style as well, so I don’t replace it with electric.  I also enjoy knowing I’m not using digital, electronic and technological trickery.  It feels more true and real and authentic with an acoustic, like I’m not cheating.  No covering up imperfections with fake sounds or software fixes.

In the back of my mind, I know it’s a little harder to play than an electric, and for some reason, I like knowing I’m doing something that’s a little more difficult.  Some of the primarily electric guitar musicians who went on the unplugged show revealed they weren’t that good on acoustics, and you don’t want to be like them in that way.  I’m not a take the easy way out person.  In several areas of my life, my personality has been such that I’ve intentionally and perhaps even stupidly, done things the hard way as a general approach, but there’s a greater satisfaction in it for me knowing that.

It has been said that if a song is really good, it sounds good with just a single guitar, as if when stripped of additional instrumentation and studio polish, the true quality of the songwriting can really shine.  Some songs are band songs, and don’t sound great when performed solo on one instrument.  So, in this way, a songwriter has a better idea if the song can stand alone that it will possibly be even better when doctored up with accompaniment.

In it’s pure, raw form a good song will sound good on an acoustic guitar, so it’s a good test, and a way to get immediate feedback when playing live or listening back to a demo recording.  For me, I always opt to keep the initial scratch rhythm acoustic track in the mix, and take it from there.  I even prefer to play fills and solos with an acoustic as well, just because my ears like what I hear better.  So it’s through this preference based on many aforementioned good reasons that I’ve evolved into a primarily acoustic solo recording artist, and why I feel strongly that the acoustic guitar is better than an electric for writing songs.

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