Finding the “Complete” Guitar

I have somewhat of a problem. I’m perpetually dissatisfied with the guitar. The range, no matter the strings or the scale, is never enough for what I want to do; sustain is never enough and on top of all that, I really hate picks. Yes, for years I’ve used what’s otherwise known as “hybrid” or “chicken” picking, but it doesn’t solve some of my fundamental complaints about it. I’ve never been comfortable with any method of gripping the pick and during extended periods of time (especially when playing heavier music) the strings will start to wear away at the nail of my index finger, turning the tip into this brittle, flaky mess which can expose some of the nail bed underneath. It sucks.

Over the years, I’ve realized that part of the way I conceptualize music is counterintuitive to the nature of the guitar. The guitar, regardless of whatever genre it may find itself in, is fundamentally a folk instrument: of the people. It’s a cultural instrument which shifts and reshapes itself depending on the cultural context. My experience with the guitar was more personal, private. This is part of why I was so drawn to “shred” guitar in the past, but it also means that I don’t always approach the instrument with that kind of culturally expressive mindset (to whatever degree one can actually do that). My approach is almost always technical and procedural. I tend to conceive of musical concepts and attempt to carry them out on the guitar; I can’t, at least not authentically, just jump into a pentatonic scale and “express” myself that way.

This, I’ve come to learn, is what holds me back when it comes to improvisation. Now, it may be somewhat ironic to say this given that my live sets tend to be very improvised, but the difference there is that I’m usually improvising with a concept. Sometimes the concept is purely hardware specific–running loops in certain ways through certain effects–while other times it is more musical (taking a two-chord progression and making it last for 12 minutes). I also enjoy taking certain melodic sequences and playing around with them through various effects or by taking odd numbered patterns and playing them with an even rhythm, and so on and so forth.

So when I think of the guitar, I’m hardly thinking of the instrument as many tend to, essentially a cultural icon. It’s a tool, and in my music, it’s a tool like any of the stomp boxes or effects processors I use are. When I say “guitar as oscillator,” I am being somewhat literal. The guitar is a part of the puzzle I’m trying to put together, and it’s increasingly frustrating when the nature of the instrument doesn’t allow me to execute certain musical goals.

It’s part of why I’ve always been on the lookout for the “complete” guitar; and the more I studied music, the more complex that “complete” definition became. The search has led me through 7 strings, 8 strings, fifths-tuning, (note: DADGAD tuning, for me, has actually been a move in the opposite direction, searching for a more simple, non-complete guitar in order to be given a creative restriction) fretless guitars, just intonation fretted guitars, etc etc etc etc.

I could talk about any of those, but the 7 string is what’s interesting right now. A 7, tuned in standard with 12 frets per octave is a standard of “complete” I’m happy to embrace. As far as temperament and tuning is concerned, its complete within its own system–so make that complete*.

My first 7 was an Ibanez RG7621. I still have it; it’s a little beat up and it at one time lived an alternative life with a microtonal neck; but after enough issues with that neck, I restored the instrument to what it was before. It’s got its dings and dents and someday I’d really love to refinish the body and neck to give it a fresh, new life, but it’s still a great instrument. Is it complete? Well, the moment I knew I had to have this instrument was a genuine feeling of completion like I never experienced before.

I was playing in a metal band at the time, toying around with a number of different tunings. I ended up settling on a 6 string tuned to B standard. It growled; it was menacing. Perfect. Problem was, all my scale patterns weren’t what I was used to with standard tuning. I have a lot of issues with standard tuning, but it remains the tuning I grew up learning and still will always be a kind of “home” for me because of this. A 6 string tuned B to B got the riffs done, but I was missing my other chords, scales and techniques and concepts I had previously come up with on a standard tuned guitar.

The 7 string immediately met the desire of merging these two worlds. It was kind of surreal, a true feeling of completion; all of the riff material was there on the lower strings, but when it came time to solo or play something more melodic, I was instantly transported back to the guitar as I grew up with it. I could simultaneously navigate these different worlds without needing to change guitars.

Several years later, I acquired a second main 7 string (I say “main” because there have been a couple of 7s that have come and gone for me). An Ibanez yet again, this one has a fanned fret system, allowing me access to a baritone scale length and a standard 25.5. Once again, this provides me with the ability to traverse different musical modes and worlds all on the same instrument and it currently interfaces well with my setup both in terms of “genre” and the pedals I’m using.

It’s enabled me to appreciate 12 tone equal temperament a little more, and a more traditional guitar setup. I’ve come to accept that there will never be a “complete” guitar, but these 7s go a long way for a specific, wide-ranging sound, which I think is the crux of what I’m speaking of here. The essence of “completion” is about knowing whether or not these instruments fit the needs I have; they are always “complete” in context. There are a couple of things I’d change; both could use a new set of pickups (the fanned fret one is a pain in this regard since it has two active 8 string pickups to compensate for the string spread). Otherwise, when I use one of these guitars, it is complete in doing what it has to do, and in the musical realms where it can’t travel, there’s another “complete” guitar.

Though I often say that I contemplate moving away from the guitar in the future, thinking of these instruments in this way seems to keep them around. It becomes a challenge to find musical applications where these instruments fit a specific need in a satisfactory way and making each one “complete” is about considering what the musical application will be and how it will be processed via effects.

This is why I can’t just be satisfied with blues boxes.

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