I’ve been playing guitar for my own pleasure for many years, and have been a reader of your excellent magazine for a while. However, I’ve reached the conclusion that I’m unusual. I have acquired a number of guitars over the years and have been listening to music for decades, but when I read articles and letters, I feel mystified. I plug my guitars in and play them, and I enjoy each one, but can I tell the difference between a single coil and a humbucker? No. Does my Tele have that classic twang? Pass. Am I attracted to a guitar because of its looks? Absolutely. Do I have any idea how the bridge will affect the sustain? Not a clue.
I have a friend who clearly does understand all this and will make choices based on that understanding – and his choices are undoubtedly the better for it – but it all goes over my head. Am I missing out or should I just rejoice in my ignorance? Chris Avery, via email
This is fascinating Chris. Surely you can discern a difference in tonality between, say, a humbucker-equipped Les Paul and a single-coil Stratocaster? You may not be able to pick them out in a song, but when they’re side-by-side and you play them A/B, you should hear a difference in aspects of EQ at the very least. Then put some overdrive in the amp and A/B the guitars. The former will sound thicker and drive harder etc. That should be immediately obvious.
After that, to what level you can hear and understand the differences in guitars is down to time, experience, trial, error and learning. We’ll use the example of a wine expert. When they first become interested in wine – assuming their taste and smell senses are functioning – they learn to differentiate the various aspects of grape variety. Pretty soon you can pick out Pinot Noir from Sangiovese from Cabernet Franc, for example. Keep doing it for 20 years, drink enough of the stuff, learn to know what to notice, and you’ll be talking terroir and vintage with some degree of success. To the person next to you, it may all taste the same.
We think it’s the same with guitars and sound. Some of it may be physiological of course – deafness and its many levels proves that not everyone can physically hear the same stuff – but assuming your hearing is at least ‘average’ (whatever that is), you can train it to understand things over time. That might be harmony and melody (picking out intervals in a key for example), or it might be the sound of different guitars. Motorcycles, birdsong, etc, etc…
Are you missing out? We’d say yes, but what would you expect from a bunch of guitar freaks?
Can you tell the difference? Not everybody can…