Newsletter #5, April 1, 2003
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We live in a time of great technological as well as social change. The computer age has brought with it digital recording, MP3 copying and numerous gizmos and gadgets that have greatly changed the lives of musicians. As with most new technologies, this can be a mixed blessing. Digital recording techniques make it possible for musicians to bypass studios and achieve results at home which would never had been dreamed of in the past. However, these same technologies permit copying of music files on the Internet such that it becomes increasingly difficult for musicians to collect royalties for their efforts.
When I first started collecting guitars in the mid 1960s, the musician's stage rig was very different from that which would be used today. An electric guitar player of the mid-1960s could walk from his car to a stage and carry his entire rig by himself in one trip. All he would need to do would be to pick up his guitar case in one hand and his amplifier in the other. Hardly anybody had an amp larger than a Fender Bassman with four ten-inch speakers. The basic rig for an electric guitar player consisted of guitar, cord, amp and nothing more. An acoustic musician's rig of the mid 1960s was even simpler. He simply played his instrument into a microphone and any amplification was through the house PA system at the club or other venue. Stage rigs for both acoustic and electric groups of the mid-1960s were very simple. Electric musicians provided their own amplifiers. Any balancing of sound was controlled by the musicians themselves setting the levels on their individualn amps. Acoustic musicians utilized a very simple rig with players gathering in a semi-circle around a single microphone and 'working the mic by stepping toward or away from the mic as needed for solos or balancing the sound of the group.
Mixing boards and stage monitors were introduced about 1970 and brought with them a radical change in stage rigs and performance techniques. Acoustic groups quickly went from using two or three mics for a five-piece group to using a vocal and instrumental microphone for each musician. Rather than grouping around a microphone and 'working the mic' in the old manner, musicians stayed in place at their stations and relied on a soundman at the mixing board to set their volume, adjust their tone, and set their balance with the group. While many new effects were possible, the old system of working around one or two mics looked much more dynamic and gave the musicians greater control over their own sound. When a bluegrass or other acoustic group worked a single mic, they were in eye contact with each other and could hear each other quite clearly. It was possible to play very spontaneous jam session music on stage and to give a visually interesting performance. With the new technology the performers in an acoustic group are often lined up at the front of the stage with each musician facing the audience but no longer in eye contact with other members of the group. Even with stage monitors they frequently cannot hear each other as well as in the past when they were in a semi-circle around one or two mics. The new technology was a mixed blessing. While under the direction of a good soundman a group could achieve greater volume, spontaneity frequently suffered and the musicians themselves were no longer in complete control of their sound. When people gather together for a conversation they naturally gravitate to a circle or semi-circle. It would be quite unnatural for a group of five or six people to arrange themselves in a straight line facing one direction to have a discussion. Under the old system of one or two mics, musicians had their musical conversation just as people would have a verbal conversation. They were in eye and ear contact with each other. Under the new system in which they were arranged in a straight line, they were out of eye contact and often in less than ideal ear contact with each other such that the situation, at least in my opinion, was unnatural making it difficult to do anything other than carefully rehearsed rather than spontaneous performances.
The same technology has been applied to electric groups and produced similar . changes. Stage monitors as well as rack-mounted digital effects and stomp boxes gave musicians a wide variety of new options, but the mixing boards took a considerable degree of control away from musicians and gave it to a soundman. When an electric guitarist's rig consisted simply of the guitar, cord and amp, the quality of each component part was critical. When a guitar player has a rig consisting of a guitar, a foot-and-a-half long cord going to a wireless transmitter on his belt, stomp boxes on the floor, a six-foot-high rig of digital, rack-mounted effects, one or two amps each with a microphone in front of it going to a mixing board to a power amp and into the house PA system, each component part may be important, but the demands made on the instrument change considerably. Rather than looking for a guitar that has a soulful and gutsy sound played through a simple rig, many guitarists today want an instrument with a clean, noise-free signal which they can easily control through their rig. The instrument may not sound especially good when played straight into an amp, but the primary concern becomes how it interacts with the new much more complex rig. Many acoustic guitarists today are faced with a similar situation. Rather than looking for an acoustic guitar with great power and dynamic range as well as acoustic projection, an acoustic guitarist using an internal pickup often selects an instrument which may be acoustically relatively thin sounding with little power or dynamic range, but which works well through his acoustic/electric rig.
While the rate of change in our lives and careers as a direct result of technology is moving along at what appears to be a breakneck pace, there have been times in the past when new technologies caused every bit if not more radical changes in the lives and careers of musicians. When Edison first introduced sound recording in the late 1800s, the recording technology was mechanical rather than electronic. A musician would play into an acoustic horn which vibrated a diaphragm causing a needle to vibrate which could make an impression on a wax cylinder or disc for a recording. To play back the result, a casing was made of the disc and playback was in reverse. The cylinder or disc could be spun, which would vibrate a needle which would cause a diaphragm to vibrate which would be amplified by an acoustic horn. It was possible to record a few minutes of relatively low fidelity music which could be played back at relatively low volume. Music recordings were popular, but they did not threaten to put any musicians out of work. Every stage show, dance hall, many restaurants, and all movie theaters employed live musicians in the days before electronic replication and playback of music. This changed abruptly due to technologies introduced for radio and talking movies. In the mid 1920s one could go to half a dozen or more movie theaters and see the same movie but have a totally different experience due to the fact that rather than having a sound track, live musicians were employed in each theater. Needless to say, a low budget theater might have poor music while other theaters might have inspiringly fine musicians. Hundreds of thousands of musicians were employed nationwide to provide the sound at every movie theater and other establishment that needed music since the choice was either live music or none at all.
When The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson first played in 1928, it was immediately evident that a new era had arrived. Whereas a few Hollywood based musicians made an excellent living recording movie soundtracks after the introduction of talking movies, all musicians who played movie theaters, regardless of how good they may or may not have been, were immediately put out of work once talking movies hit the scene. The same technology that made talking movies possible made it possible to provide sound in stage shows and dance halls, but musicians were more successful in keeping their gigs in those venues alive than they were in the movie theaters.
Radio also had a dramatic impact on employment for musicians starting in the mid-1920s. While numerous musicians found work due to radio, many others found that people could listen to radio at home rather than go out in the evening to see a performance. Restaurants which had in the past hired live musicians in some cases replaced them by simply turning on a radio. In 1930 the American Federation of Musicians (Musicians Union) ran nationwide ads in major magazines for their musical defense league in which they urged people to avoid shoddy mechanical reproductions of music rather than the real thing. Needless to say the campaign didn't work much better than if wagon and buggy whip makers had mounted a similar campaign against automobiles. Once a new technology is introduced, it is virtually impossible to turn back the clock.
The new electronic technologies introduced by talking movies and radio were soon translated into amplifiers which could be used for musical instruments and were quickly followed by pickups and electric standard guitars and lap steels. While manufacturers such as Rickenbacker, National, Dobro, Gibson, Kay, Regal and others produced numerous lap steels and electric guitars prior to World War II, the amplifiers of the day did not have great power and were not perceived to be any great threat to the big band era of the day. After World War II, however, the new breed of amplifiers introduced by Leo Fender (and soon copied by others) as well as the post war electric guitars caused a rapid shift in musical trends. Utilizing new electric guitars and basses with powerful new amplifiers, it was possible for a very small combo group to put out more volume than a twenty-piece acoustic big band. Not only was the public's taste in music changing, but a club or theater owner faced with the choice of hiring a four-piece combo or paying for a twenty-piece big band had a strong financial incentive to go for the vastly less expensive smaller group. The new technology dramatically changed the music scene and set the stage for the introduction of rock-n-roll, honky tonk, and much of the music we are familiar with today. At the same time, it put many of the 'old guard' musicians out of work.
While we live in rapidly changing times today, the changes in the lives of musicians were probably never more rapidly or radically altered by technology than they were during the late 1920s through the early 1930s. Not only were musicians immediately put out of work by the introduction of talking movies, but they got the double whammy of being hit very shortly thereafter by the economic downturn of the Great Depression. For most musicians it would be quite a few years before it became evident that new electronic technologies offered them opportunities rather than simply being a threat to their existence.
Today we live in a world of great technological, social, and economic change and turmoil, but through it all the demand for high-grade vintage acoustic and electric fretted instruments has remained strong. While recording and performance rigs have changed, today's musicians play instruments which have been virtually unaltered in their basic design for many years. The best selling new acoustic guitars, banjos and mandolins on the market today are virtually unaltered from designs of the 1920s and 1930s. The most popular electric guitars on the market today are closely modeled after (and frequently historical replicas of) designs of the 1950s. While almost all manufacturers today are using numerically controlled routing equipment and other high tech gear in their factories, they are utilizing this equipment to produce vintage design instruments. In spite of all the advances in electronic and other technology, it would appear that nothing has come along to make a 1923 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F-5 mandolin, 1933 Gibson flat head Mastertone banjo, mid-1930s Martin dreadnought guitar, 1952 Fender Telecaster, mid-1950s Fender Stratocaster, late 1950s Fender Bassman amp with four speakers, sunburst 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, or 1960 Fender Jazz bass obsolete. Not only are the old ones not obsolete, but the new ones, in most cases, simply are less appealing. The old ones are not only great collector's items, but they play and sound superbly well and are great investments. If one had invested money in the latest recording and musical playback gear from the late 1920s onward, almost all of it today would be little more than historic curiosities worth remarkably little money in comparison to the cost of the equipment when new. However, the same money invested over the years in musical instruments would have been a superb investment. In the forty years since I first started collecting fretted instruments, I have never seen a time in which fretted instruments in general went down in price. There have been times such as the early 1980s when prime rate interest was over 20% and the rate of price escalation of instruments was subdued, and I have seen some individual models go up and down in popularity and price, but the fretted instrument market overall has been a remarkably good investment over this forty-year span. In the short term from the year 2000 to the present, stocks and many other investments have done quite poorly, but vintage fretted instruments have appreciated considerably. Just as violins of the late 1600s through mid 1700s still considered to be the standard of excellence and greatly sought after today, it is my opinion that vintage fretted instruments will continue to be not only greatly sought after by musicians as utility tools but will be great investments for years to come.