Looking and Listening

Do looks matter?

In a world with anorexic supermodels and guys with “six-pack” abs flashed before us, the answer might be “Yes, duh!…” Or the answer might be “it all depends”. Depends on what, you ask? That woman on the cover of the fashion magazine might have a great personality, or one to rival a dead fish. The buff guy in the gym might be able to amaze you with his knowledge of history, or might be more interested in his biceps measurement. In reality, many of us realize that looks are not everything, but they DO matter, sometimes. We like looking.

When selecting a guitar, the most obvious advice will be to select one with the sound you like best. But on walking into the mega guitar store, you are confronted with hundreds of guitars, and sound is not the thing that makes you takdee one off the rack to try. Face it – you probably won’t pick up a guitar that does not interest you in some aesthetic fashion, unless you are super-experienced and know what is in the packaging. This should not make you feel bad – you are not shallow for selecting something to try based on looks, although hopefully it will not limit your final choice of guitar.

There are many things that will make you walk up to the first guitar to try. Maybe you are only looking at acoustics, or electrics. Perhaps you researched brands on line, so you know about Gibsons or Martins, but have never heard of Takamines. You wanted to try an Ibanez but the store has Epiphones. Your friend plays a Fender Stratocaster, and claims that is THE way to go… Maybe you have a budget you must stick to, so you won’t even touch a guitar out of that range. You may look at the wall o’ guitars, and have no clue where to start, even though you have read many articles and thought yourself well prepared. Finally, though, you will see a guitar that just looks good (it’s RED!), and you want to try it.

Go ahead! There is nothing wrong with taking down and trying the expensive candy apple red Strat, or the blue quilted maple top Gibson, or the light natural wood Yamaha bass, just because they are attractive. Maybe the prettiest guitar (in your eye) is also the most expensive one there, and you can’t afford it – so what??? There is nothing against trying it – you may fall in love, or you may discover that the packaging is a disguise for something that sounds miserable. There is little chance that you will convince yourself to buy a guitar that looks good but sounds bad. Guitar manufacturers do build for looks too – they take great care in the appearance, knowing that they are building for different audiences – what appeals to a 15-year old grunge rocker may not appeal to a 35-year old classic rocker, or maybe it will!

I was at a local chain music store, and spent time observing a father-daughter pair shopping for a guitar for the daughter. She appeared to be 8-10 years in age. There were no daisy guitars there! At one point, she spent quite a bit of time dragging around a purple electric guitar (I forget the brand). They had been trying out guitars – plugging in and everything. I got distracted for a little while. The next thing I knew, she had a different guitar, in BLACK, clutched in her small hands. I overheard her tell her dad that it SOUNDED better than the purple one! They walked out with the black one – I don’t know what they knew or did about amps, or if they knew how to change the sound, but she had made her decision.

When I was having difficulty playing a guitar my grandfather built (classical), I decided I needed a guitar that fit me better. I knew I wanted a steel-string acoustic guitar – something I could take around and play for others to sing along. I needed a neck/fingerboard that was not too wide for my short fingers. I was looking for something with a rich mellow sound, not twangy or sharp, yet not built so large that I could not reach my arms around it. The action needed to be lower than grandpa’s guitar. I had a stretchable budget. I did research, read articles, and went to several stores. I just could not find the one guitar for me, and kept walking out.

I realized that I had other things to think about. There are a variety of tone woods, which helped me understand the different sounds I got out of a variety of guitars. I was interested in Koa, but had heard that it did not produce a good sound. I soon learned otherwise. Amy White has a Koa Takamine (I had never before been impressed with a Takamine) that sounded wonderful! I could not always identify the wood of guitars I tried, however, and Koa was rare and expensive. So, I would just keep listening first, and learning about the woods as I went.

I did notice something disturbing (to me) about the guitars I pulled from the racks. I kept being drawn to blue guitars (my favorite color), though I was cautioned against “fad” colors that I might be tired of in a few years. I did not realize how much “looks” were going to affect my choice of guitars to try. The guitars with bright colors were often acoustic/ electric, an option I had not considered but was now thinking about. It seemed that would expand my options for playing, if I could find one that was loud enough unplugged.

Finally, we ended up at that same large local chain where the young girl had been. We walked into the acoustic room and bam! – a guitar that practically called to me. I am from Hawaii, so when I saw the electric/acoustic Yamaha that was royal blue (burst), with gold hardware, mother-of-pearl dolphins on the fingerboard, and palm trees carved from different woods around the sound hole, well, I was hooked, and scared. You don’t choose a guitar on looks, I told myself. Plus, I did not know much about Yamaha guitars, and it cost more than I had expected to spend. I did not even pick it up. I dutifully went through many other “appropriate” name guitars. I tried guitars from different makers, in different price ranges, and even had other people play them so I could discern differences.

Finally, I could not resist – I kept going back to look at the beautiful blue guitar. With an apologetic look at my husband, I took it down. The body was not as large as a straight acoustic – I could hold it and play it comfortably without constantly readjusting it against my body. The neck was fairly slender, and the action felt perfect, making my fingerings more fluid.

There were some additional features that demonstrated how much thought Yamaha had put into this guitar. All the bindings and joinings looked smooth and tight – turns out it was a handcrafted guitar, and very well built. The input jack was at the bottom of the guitar, where you attach a strap, instead of in a separate place. Also, you don’t need to go through the soundhole to change the battery – it is directly accessible outside the guitar, to the left of the neck – very convenient.

And sound? The Yamaha sounded really good, to me. Each note was clear, the overall sound fairly rich with good lows and fairly bright but not brassy highs. It was not quite as loud as an acoustic, but close enough, whether I strummed or tried fingerpicking. Then I plugged in to some acoustic amps – and fell in love – it sounded amazing with chorus! I learned that the pick-ups, L.R. Baggs, were actually a combination of a piezo and mic, which could be adjusted to whatever blend you wanted, providing additional sound choices.

I was afraid I was not being objective (like this process could be!). I had others play it (they also liked it), asked questions about it, and kept asking my poor husband what he thought. He said the key phrase “it’s what YOU think that matters!” I was afraid to buy it because maybe I let outer beauty blind me to sound. After 3 hours, and having given myself a stomachache, we bought it. As it turns out, while I was drawn to the guitar for its looks, it also met my requirements (except price), had some extras that enhanced its overall playability, and sounded great! It was overall an excellent choice – I have no regrets. Laura Lasley of OLGC also told me that looks first drew her to a guitar: “I definitely picked my red Guild for looks, and discovered the great sound after it caught my eye. Flash is good in a guitar.”

As to why I put myself through “guilt” due to my guitar’s looks, I can only say was due to a misplaced belief that looks should not influence my choice. Well, looks did influence my choice, but I let sound confirm it. So don’t feel guilty when you try the “pretty” guitars – there may be a good reason why they are calling to you with a visual siren’s song!

About the author:

Lee Budar-Danoff has also written: Music at Mary’s and Another Approach.