“Musically, I am still hooked and just hypnotized by the sound of the guitar itself. I mean, a guitar sounds good if you drop it on the floor.”
— Leo Kottke
One of the things I like the most about guitar is its many facets. I’m inclined to agree with Kottke—there’s just something magical about every sound a guitar makes. Every guitar design has a purpose in mind, but musicians, being artists soon move beyond those boundaries. As much as its originally intended function is the point of the design exercise, a guitar’s range is not limited purely to its original intent—but rather, the imagination of the player. Jeff Beck has raised the random sounds of an amplified guitar to high art, while Hendrix and Pete Townshend made some glorious noise experimenting with the percussive capabilities of the guitar as well. In the 1980s, Steve Stevens asked me to incorporate a toy ray-gun into the circuitry of one of his guitars in order to expand its vocabulary and Paul Gilbert used a cordless drill to pluck his strings with Racer X. Today, players like Jim Campilongo continue to coax both the classic and the histrionic from their guitars despite what we, as builders, intended in the first place.
Then there is the visual aspect of the guitar, both as an homage to the past and its shock value in the present. Of course, almost every possible variation has been done by now; mirrors, lasers, flamethrowers, flashing lights and so on. I’ve been guilty of partaking in more than my share of sight-gag instruments over the years, but is guitar-building an arms race? I don’t see it that way—just as I don’t think guitar soloing should be an athletic competition where the most notes win the gold.
So where does this leave us as builders? Should we continue to mimic the designs of the past relying upon innovative players to reapply our creations to new frontiers? Or, should we attempt to break the mold and hope that musicians respond to the challenge?