By now, you’ve heard quite a lot about this year’s NAMM Show. You get the gist of it – so many amazing musicians... So many companies... So many people! As it is every year, the 2012 NAMM convention was crazy and an overwhelming punch in the gut of musical goodness.
And although dull, that soreness remains in my stomach two weeks after reporting on the event. Write-ups, video descriptions, the strange experience of watching myself on camera blabbing through interviews – it’s a trip to say the least. I just can’t seem to escape NAMM! Even as I write this, I’m wearing an ugly Affliction/ESP Guitars shirt I got for free from the show, which is deemed an "around the house" shirt as I wouldn’t want to burden the outside world with seeing yet another t-shirt that screams Doosh.
But now that you’ve heard so much about the spectacle of NAMM, I want to get away from describing the overall experience and focus more on the true focal point of this famed trade show: the gear. And even more specific to those who peruse Ultimate-Guitar.com: the guitars.
It’s gear that continually brings the Anaheim Convention Center to life each January; it’s the instruments that musicians we look up to endorse and play; it’s the items we musicians set our eyes on, putting guitars, amps, basses, effects, and accessories on year-long wish lists, enforced by every trip to Guitar Centers.
So the following are some highlights of the more interesting guitars I came across at the NAMM show. Despite hefty price tags (they’re mostly dream guitars for those on a budget), you can see that many 2012 releases expectedly strived to push the limits of the latest technologies. And yet, some releases offer more subtle, conservative improvements to already fine products. Either way, there’s some interesting innovation going on and sexy new guitars are the result.
I’ll now allow you a few moments to fetch a bib or towel or anything that can catch the drool you’ll soon spill over this guitar porn.
Ready? Still need more time? I’ll stall...
...Catch the Grammys this past Sunday? Yeah, pretty much sucked... Had its moments though... Paul McCartney pretty much saved it at the end...
Okay, I think everyone is back. Guitar times!
It’s inevitable that companies will try to "push the envelope" and incorporate new cutting-edge technologies in their instruments. And why not? In a time when everyday items are getting more advanced, integrated, synched-up and sleeker, taking advantage of what’s out there an attempting to morph the electric guitar into a robotic instrumentoid with every capability short of playing itself sounds like a thing to strive for.
Well, the changes aren’t that drastic, but some of these advances aim to bring more and more technology INTO the guitar, an instrument we’ve all grown to cherish for its relative simplicity. Although effects and amp simulation aren’t necessarily new to us, it’s their inclusion inside the instrument, rather than through pedals, patches and amps, that’s noteworthy.
Is it too much, or are these must-have items? I’m still torn. Here are a few examples of some technologically ambitious guitars unveiled at NAMM.
When you hear of auto-tuning, you probably imagine a hyper-manipulated voice modulation effect on an untalented singer’s voice. The use of auto-tuning often sounds like an easy way out, especially those who put in years of practice time learning an instrument.
But some of the most intriguing, yet somewhat unsettling advances in guitar technology involves auto-tuning systems from Antares Audio Technologies; both Peavey and Parker guitars unveiled new models that proudly boasted the ability to achieve perfect tuning with perfect intonation, all with the push of one easy-to-press button.
For instance, the Peavey AT-200 can rest completely out of tune. Disgustingly out of tune, in fact. Press a button. Bam. Your guitar now has perfect tuning with perfect intonation.
The Antares system resides in the guitar itself, so you can play through any amp. This allows you to either forget about tuning all together, or be able to quickly change tunings with relative ease, which might open up some interesting musical possibilities (several tuning changes within a single song! ).
Similarly, the Parker Maxxfly also contains solid-tune intonation and pitch correcting technology. The result is 9 guitar models with single coil and humbucker sounds; octave shifting for bass sounds; 10 tunings, including 7-string and open tunings; plus a capo feature that places a virtual capo for quick key changes.
According to the Antares sales rep, you don’t hear any synthetic tones. It sounds and plays like a guitar, and extreme care apparently went into preserving the traditions of the instrument. In theory, the idea is to enhance the guitar’s capabilities, while still retaining it’s original functionality and purpose.
But as rad as this all is though, there could be some problems, or at least aspects one would have to get used to with owning this guitar. In one case, you’d have to get used to the feel of the guitar if it’s drastically out of tune; if you’re downtuned and the slack on your strings is really loose, it’s going to feel strange playing in E-standard tuning. Likewise, even if your slack is normal and similar to standard tuning, it may feel weird hearing your guitar in Drop-A tuning when the string tension is as high as it would be in E-standard.
Also, in order to fully hear the pitch corrections, your amp would have to be loud enough to drown out the original tone of the unaffected strings – I.e. If you’re playing at a low volume, you could hear two competing tones: the natural string vibrating sans amp, and the pitch-corrected tone coming from the amplifier
Plus, you could argue that it could make a guitarist lazy and unable to properly tune a "regular", non-self-tuning guitar. Yet, you could ALSO argue that because the guitarist is so used to hearing perfect tuning and perfect intonation, his or her ear for correct pitch may become much better.
All in all, the auto-tuning technologies offers considerable perks and advantages, but it may be hard to convince purists that pitch correction will actually sound as good as a normal, tuned guitar.
Although it can get a little exhausting combing through the amount of goodies shoved into this guitar, it’s undeniable that Gibson's Firebird X is an impressive display of how effects can be incorporated into a guitar’s body.
I was told this was THE guitar for the new millennium. Gibson may be onto something, but is it too much to handle?
Regarding tuning, this guitar also has self-tuning capabilities like the Peavey and Parker models, yet instead of digital auto-tuning, the guitar robotically twists and turns the tuning pegs to put the guitar in tune.
Among the staggering amount of features included in the guitar (seriously, browse the site…it’s nuts) are 2, 000 pickup combinations; acoustic guitar sounds; patches and apps that can be downloaded into the guitar; Bluetooth foot switches; and “trogpots, ” which are toggle switches that include twistable knobs to increase or decrease the selected effects, such as piezo/distortion combinations or the wet/dry characteristics of reverb and delay.
I actually did get to jam on the Firebird X for a bit, and although it’s fun cycling through the ridiculous amounts of effects and being reminded of an Erector set when robo-tuners twist and turn, I found the quality of the effects to be a little on the cheap/saturated side and the guitar didn’t actually stay in tune that well.
All in all, this is an ambitious release for Gibson, which I’m sure will be improved upon (better effects...) in the coming years.
Pricetag: More than you have.
Ultimately, I think the way we’re going to be able to determine if these guitars are truly great or just flash over substance, is when and if our guitar heroes use them and create original music highlighting their unique features. Maybe a brilliant guitarist will come along and incorporate several tuning changes in a long, progressive, live instrumental jam, creating atmospheres that are made possible from almost instant tuning changes. Maybe Slash will abandon his Les Paul and record his next solo album exclusively with the Firebird X, demonstrating how valuable the all-in-one approach to guitar making can be (extremely doubtful though).
Or maybe these guitars won’t catch on at all because they’ll be too expensive.
But just as we’ve seen onboard GPSs eventually becoming more standard in cars, it’s conceivable to think that in the coming years, many more guitars will include on-body effects and auto-tuning systems. I just don’t know if that’s a good thing or not…
Don't Reinvent The Wheel, Just Make It Better
And then there are the guitars with few bells and whistles to distract us from what we’re actually dealing with – a good ol’ electric guitar; improvements are made, of course, but nothing drastic goes into changing the functionality and purposes the instrument.
Here are a few guitars from esteemed companies that aren’t so much about the flash as they are about quality.
Paul Reed Smith has a tradition of offering exquisite looking guitars with pristine sounds – a touch of delicacy to the modern electric guitar.
New for 2012 is the P22 – the first solid body PRS guitar that has a piezo pickup system.
The most impressive aspect of the P22 is the high quality acoustic tones made from the piezo system. The blending of the piezo system with traditional magnetic pickups allows for an impressive mix of acoustic and electric tones with varying warmths and attacks. Despite the fact that acoustic and electric tone blending from piezo pickups is nothing new, the quality of the acoustic tones doesn’t elicit any "oh that’s an electric with an acoustic effect" response.
And the acoustic sound is highly convincing. Hearing it live, as seen in the video below, I couldn’t get over how close to an actual acoustic the guitar sounded. And then, especially when combined with some distortion, having the acoustic sounds mixed in creates a pleasing, dynamic and layered sound.
With guys like Steve Wilson from Porcupine Tree backing the instrument, we may see more players looking to the P22 as the go-to solidbody electric/acoustic on the market.
Nodding to the iconic style of the Fender Mustang and celebrating the legacy of Kurt Cobain – a voice that represented a back-to-basics approach to music – is the Kurt Cobain Mustang.
These are beautiful guitars, simply put, and nothing too far from what you’d expect from tried and true Fenders. You have a single coil neck pickup, Seymour Duncan humbucker for the bridge pickup. Simple, to the point and solid, I wouldn’t mind having a Cobain Mustang in my collection.
Lastly, leaning on the side of art are the guitars from the Los Angeles-based guitar builders, James Trussart. Trussart takes iconic and recognizable guitar bodies and crafts them with beautiful, brushed and rusted steel, giving these established bodies sexy, new looks.
I just have to share these with you (I hadn’t seen them before) because these guitars are stuning. At the Trussart booth, I kind of just stared at them for a while, like a painting in a museum that probably contains a deeper meaning, it just isn’t immediately apparent.
So you, guitarists, what do you think? Is it better for guitars to simply remain guitars and undergo modest improvements from year to year, or are the technological leaps – the innovation incorporations – the best bet?
I think opinions will depend on personality. Just as we have rock purists who gravitate toward traditional sounds of the electric guitar coming from tube amps, we have the new generation of guitar players eager to squeeze the maximum sonic potentials out of new and improving technologies. It all boils down to taste, and although it’s astonishing to hear a detuned guitar immediately shift into perfect tuning, there’s also something greatly satisfying about a bare bones approach to big block of wood with six steel strings.
But that’s what’s cool about NAMM – the advanced and the traditional, the quirky and the conventional, are all proudly featured.