The Simple Technology of the 60’s

When I first started playing guitar there was nothing like the tools we have now for digital recording, MP3 players, lightweight amplifiers, and the extremely small gadgets available to musicians at a price that does not limit their use to the elite professionals.

The digital recording equipment of today makes it possible for musicians to avoid the intervention and artistic stifling from ‘big name’ studios; we are able to record at home. Additionally, today we are able to create the same recorded sound on the live stage with affordable gear that was simply not available to anyone but the extremely wealthy in the past. But, there is a down side. The easy availability of the technology suggests that ‘anybody’ can do it and permitted the market to be crowded with a myriad of new songs and new bands every day of the year. The intrinsic value of the song is declining.

In the mid 1960s, the musician’s stage rig (sound chain) was very different from that which would be used today. As a bass player, I could walk from my car to the stage and carry my entire rig in one trip, My first bass cabinet (6 ten inch speakers) had wheels (much like the suitcases of today) and rolled easily to the stage. The amp head fit into the bottom of the cabinet for transportation. I pulled the amp with one hand and carried my guitar in the other hand.  I was set up, tuned, and ready to go in 5 minutes or less. The guitar players I worked with used small amps. They were able to pick up their guitar in one hand and amplifier in the other.  They also could set up in a few minutes. Hardly any guitarist had an amp much larger than a Fender Reverb with a single 12 inch speaker or a Silvertone 1484 amplifier (the amplifier head fit inside of the cabinet).

The basic sound chain configuration for any bass player or electric guitar player consisted of guitar, cord, and an amp (nothing more). Occasionally the guitar player had a fuzz box or a fender reverb unit, but these boxes were expensive and few had them in their arsenal. Often, the musicians I knew, were handy with a soldering gun and able to make their equipment using heath kits. Speaker cabinets were hand crafted, stomp boxes were hand crafted, in some cases even the amplifiers were hand crafted.

Managing the sound on the stage for electric players of the mid-1960s was very simple. Individual sound levels were controlled by the musicians adjusting their individual amps. Listening to each other, they hoped what the audience heard was what they were hearing on stage. It should be noted — because of the short guitar cables (10-12 feet) we were unable to move around on stage and hear what each other was creating. So we really had no clear idea of what the people on the dance floor actually heard.

Acoustic musicians had it much easier. If there were multiple acoustic players, they gathering around a single microphone and ‘worked’ the mic by stepping toward or away from the mic as needed for solos or balancing the sound of the group. This worked, but the sound quality was directly related to the fidelity of the mic and PA system. In most cases the amplified sound fell short of expectations.

The music of the 60’s was infectious, but the sound quality achieved with the existing technology limited the clarity of live performances.

“I have pictures of me sitting in the racquetball court in my pajamas with an acoustic guitar and Wolfgang is probably just to-and-a-half-feet tall.  I’ll never forget the day I saw his foot tapping along in beat!  I knew then, I couldn’t wait for the dat I’d be able to make music with my son.  I don’t know what more I could ask for.”  Eddie Van Halen.