Sounds Subjective/Subjective Sounds


Norman L. Beberman

"Hear that?"

"Hear what?"

My point exactly! If you are a living, breathing human being,you have probably experienced this exchange. It is entirely possiblefor two people to be in the same place, at the same time, &not hear the same thing.

The critical distinction is between the existence of sound& the perception of sound. Is it possible for sound to exist& yet not be perceived? Philosophers love debating this! Theclassic philosophical debate is the "if a tree falls in thewoods & nobody is present, does it make a sound?"

The answer to this depends on one's initial position. The firstchoice is that the tree falling makes no sound because sound mustbe heard or perceived to exist. This position is based on thepremise that for sound to exist, it must actually be subjectivelyheard, experienced or perceived. They conclude that if no onehears the sound, there can be no sound. So, this premise wouldconclude that if a tree falls in the woods & no one hearsit, it does not make a sound.

The second position is objective; a sound exists if it is capableof being measured. The critical distinction here is that the soundmust merely be capable of being recorded, heard, experienced orperceived. Even if no one was present when the tree fell, it wouldmake a sound because had someone been there or had a recordingdevice been present, the sound would have been recorded, heard,experienced & perceived.

This article came about after a few sessions with some fellowguitarists. One guy had a guitar made by a small boutique builder.The second guy had a few guitars made by a mass-production factory.I had a completely, hand-made guitar; everything from the bodyto the inlays & everything in between came from one man'seffort.

Body sizes ranged from OM to Dreadnaught. Topwoods & tonewoodsvaried from different spruce tops, while tonewoods ranged frommahogany to Brazilian Rosewood. Needless to say, this is wherethe fun began! Having attended a few guitar parties where peoplebrought primarily mass-produced guitars, the sound of the variousguitars was a highpoint of discussion.

I would swear that my Engleman Spruce & Brazilian RosewoodDreadnaught had the deepest, fullest, richest sound. I also thoughtthat the Sitka topped/mahogany backed factory-made guitars soundednot quite as rich & deep. The boutique guitar seemed to betoo new & shiny, as though the top had not opened up yet.

The guy that had the factory made Sitka & Mahogany Jumbothought that my Dread had volume at the expense of note separationclarity & concluded that he liked his guitars' sound better.The boutique OM owner swore up & down that he could not tella noticeable difference in terms of richness or thinness of sound;he perceived differences of volume, but not necessarily tone.Further discussions revealed that he had once worked in a largewood shop with many power tools operating at loud volumes in close-quarters& thought that he may have suffered some hearing damage asa result.

Does any of this sound familiar? How many times have you chattedwith someone about the way a guitar sounds & had opinionsthat ranged from being in complete agreement, to having slightdifferences of opinion to having completely different, contradictoryopinions.

Opinions, are like the part of our anatomy on which we sit:EVERYBODY HAS ONE! Profound, huh?

This "Golden Age of Guitars" in which we live isso-called because guitars are being made to higher-quality standardsthan at any time in history. Some pre-war vintage guitars areworth alot of money due to their scarcity or rareness & notnecessarily because of sound. Plenty of old guitars that I haveplayed sound muddled, yet are rare enough to command a respectableprice in the vintage guitar market. At some point, vintage guitarsare old guitars that lack the sound available in some guitars.

The quality of guitars made since around the early 1990's maybe discussed in terms of quality of materials & quality ofconstruction. Quality of construction covers the spectrum frommass-produced, factory-made guitars with very tightly controlledtolerances due to the use of CNC (computer-numeric controlled)machines to the guitar completely hand-made by one person usinghand or power tools. The middle-range is occupied by small, boutiquebuilders.

The tone characteristics of materials has been a ripe topicof discussion & is frequenly the subject of articles abouttonewood & topwood qualities by guitar builders & players.Engleman, Sitka, Adirondack, German & Italian spruces aresaid to have their own unique sound characteristics. Tone qualitesof cedar & redwood topwoods have made them popular with certainbuilders & players. Tonewoods currently used include, BrazilianRosewood, Indian Rosewood, Amazon Rosewood, Cocobolo, Pau Ferro,Maple, Bosnian Maple, Mahogany, Maccassar Ebony, Australian Blackwood,Bubinga & probably otherrs not mentioned.

The permutations & combinations of available topwoods &tonewoods are calculable, but are beyond my basic mathematic capabilities!This brings us back full circle to sound perceived & soundexperienced.

What combination of topwood & tonewood should a buyer choose& how should he or she make the choice? Should they base theirchoice based on what they read in the many articles on the subject?Should they base their choice based on what friends, contemporaries,builders,endorsers or players say? In a radical vein, should they be sobold, daring & individualistic as to base their choices basedon what sounds good to them?

Articles about materials may be honestly & objectivelywritten or they may be driven by sales & marketing considerations,so it is important to carefully evaluate the source of the articles& information in order to make an informed decision. The opinionsof friends, contemporaries, players & endorsers, are at theend of the day, personal opinions, some of which may be basedon financial relationships betwen builders & players, or not.Opinions are, by their very nature, subjective; they vary withthe person giving them. As previously mentioned, opinions arelike that part of our anatomy on which we sit: "EVERYBODYHAS ONE!"

This leaves the last choice; basing one's choice for topwood& tonewood combintation based on their own opinion as to whatsounds good to them. Different builders may use the exact samecombination of topwoods & tonewoods & yet their guitarswill sound radically different due to different brace-shapes,body sizes & other factors unique to their method of constructionused to obtain the desired sound.

Keeping an open-mind is crucial; those who say I would onlyplay "Brand X" or "Brand Y" are clearly notopen to the range of available guitars, &, their opinionsare obviously biased.

The point of this article is to suggest that guitar buyersbe open-minded in their choice of guitar, guitar materials &guitar builders. Play as many guitars as possible & listencarefully not only to the sounds they make, but also to the soundsthat you can get from them. Attend guitar functions, seminars& festivals in your area. You will usually find a varietyof guitars & people who will let you play them. Play as manydifferent guitars, by as many different builders in as many differenttonewood & topwood combinations as possible. Listen to whatsounds good to you; you will know it when you hear it!

Lastly, I would like to briefly touch on one other subjectwhen choosing a guitar, &, that is the nature of the relationshipbetween builder & buyer. Are you sensitive to the one-on-onenature of the relationship between yourself & the person whomade your guitar? Do you receive a degree of satisfaction fromknowing that you builder makes 15 guitars/year? Do you enjoy havinga guitar with a serial/build #57? Are you a secure-enough individualto own something totally unique?

Just about everyone is familiar with buying a factory-made,mass-produced guitar & is content with that sort of more-or-lessanonymous relationship with the manufacturer. That sort of relationshipis, on its' face, neither good nor bad. It is, however, a largelyimpersonal relationship. There may be, after the purchase, a cultfollowing of certain manufacturers that give rise to relationships,factory or non-factory get-togethers that afford the opportunityto make friends & acquaintances with other like-minded guitarbuyers.

Guitars are clearly about sound; they are musical instrumentsmeant to be played. There are
aesthetic & personal considerations to the purchase of a guitar.Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be a little moreopen-minded & a little better-informed in your choice of guitar.After you buy it, please remember: PLAY IT!