Complicating the Sound Chain

In the 60’s, an electric guitarist’s sound chain was the guitar, cord, and the amp. The quality and reliability of each component part was critical to good sound. The acoustic musician needed a really well built guitar with resonance, depth and a powerful voice. In most, cases the instruments and amplifiers were handmade. By the mid 70’s, machine built guitars had entered into the picture. The quality of the instrument dropped considerably, the vintage market emerged, and the price of older handmade instruments began to rise.

Electric bands tended to used stage monitors, rack-mounted effects, and a wide range of stomp boxes that give musicians a myriad of sonic options that were never available to their counterparts in the 60’s.   When these new sonic tools were skillfully applied to the sound chain, they could clean up the tone of the machine built instruments.

Since the early 80’s, a typical guitar player had a sound chain (rig) consisting of a guitar, a foot-and-a-half long cord going to a wireless transmitter on his belt, a wireless receiver connected to stomp boxes on the floor, a six-foot-high rack of digital, rack-mounted effects, one or two amps each with a microphone in front of the speaker for the amp, foot pedals controlling the channel selection for each amp, cables connecting the amp to the mixer, a stereo power amp, and a connection to the house PA system. Each of these components affected the sound path. A tone, volume, or impedance adjustment at any point in the chain could dramatically affect the quality of the signal as it moved through the rest of the sound chain.

Some of the new technology, the mixers, monitors, ear-buds, and computer driven stage mains, took control away from musicians and gave the ultimate responsibility for how a band sounded to the sound engineer. Furthermore, programming the rack mounted effects were often beyond the capacity of the guitarist to accomplish, driving the need for skillful guitar technicians and engineers. Often the only skillful effects engineers in the band were the keyboard players who needed considerable understanding of the technology behind the sound to exploit the full potential of their tools.

But, just as things stabilized for the guitar player, the technology advancements invaded a new arena. The approach to creating guitars and amplifiers was on the move. The quality of instruments and the relationship between quality and the sound heard by listener was being manipulated.

Rather than looking for a guitar with a pure expressive sound that speaks to the player, guitarists started looking for instruments with good sustain that played with a clean, noise-free signal which they could shape with their sound chain. The newer instruments may not sound especially good when played straight into an amp, but the instruments integrate well with the complex set of electronics in the chain of sound that moves the signal from the guitar to the PA mains.    Skillful guitar players were adapting to the technology and finding ways to overcome the limitations of the newer guitars.

“I believe every guitar player inherently has something unique about their playing. They just have to identify what makes them different and develop it.” – Jimmy Page.