Things don’t sound the same

I have one of these, in the same “unpleasant coffee table” finish. It sounds as pointy as it looks.

One of my favourite musical jokes goes something like this. A guitarist is on stage and puts one guitar down to pick up another. “Oh, good,” the audience thinks. “Everything’s going to sound so different now!”

I find it funny because it’s true: while there are sound reasons for swapping guitars on stage (to get them tuned, mainly, but also because some guitarists move between different tunings or play 12-strings for certain songs), most of the time you can’t tell the bloody difference through a PA.

On record, though, things are different. Guitars and bass guitars sound different from other, ostensibly similar guitars and bass guitars. So different that Rush bassist Geddy Lee has written a massive book just about different bass guitars. It’s easy to mock but I think it sounds fantastic.

In it, he talks about the Fender Precision Bass, the Fender Jazz bass and the Gibson Thunderbird. I’ve got all three, albeit in cheaper form. And he’s right when he talks about how they sound.

I never took Gibson basses seriously because they have a muddier, deeper sound — much harder to get that twang that I love in my sound. So they were pushed off my plate, like when a little kid has peas on his plate — he doesn’t want to do there [laughs]. Yet friends of mine played Thunderbirds, for example, and loved them. When I started doing this whole revisionist look at the instrument, I had to check those out. As a player 42 years into my career, how does that feel in my hand? I found that fascinating, and I fell in love with all the bottom end coming out of those basses.

I’ve been a Fender player for many years, because they’re great guitars – and in my RSI-raddled hands, more comfortable to play than Gibsons, which feel different. But man, the sound a Thunderbird makes is really something. Fenders are at home in any company, but T-Birds are thugs. Where the Fenders are scalpels, the Thunderbird is a club with a nail stuck through it. The first time I played mine, I laughed.

It’s even more pronounced with lead guitars. Again, I’ve been a Fender fan for a long time: in my previous gigging days I played and loved a Fender Telecaster, and I also have a Stratocaster and a gloriously weird Marauder. But while they’re fun to play and very versatile, you can’t make them sound like Gibsons.

All of my Fenders are “proper” Fenders while my Gibsons are the lesser Epiphone models, but the Riviera and Explorer have sounds that you just don’t get from Fender guitars. They’re nowhere near as comfortable to play – my fantastically pointy Explorer has the ergonomics of a dining table – but they have a very distinct sound. The Riviera is fat and hot, while the Explorer hangs around with the wrong kind of people and like its Thunderbird stablemate is tooled up and looking for trouble. No wonder it’s so popular in heavy metal circles, played by the likes of Metallica and Therapy? (and U2’s The Edge, back in the day; he still uses the Explorer live for that authentic post-punk drive). As with the Thunderbird, the first time I played my Explorer I burst out laughing.

The guitar is only part of it, though. As Geddy Lee points out, even when you’re trying to emulate a particular guitarist, even if you have the same guitar and the same amp and the same effects and the same settings, you can’t mimic them entirely.

You can put the same bass, the same amplification in the same song with another player, and it’s not gonna sound like Chris Squire. Only Chris Squire sounds like Chris Squire. Only John Paul Jones sounds like John Paul Jones. That’s the personality of the player. When I was producing records for a short time a number of years ago, guys would come in and say, “I would love to sound like this guy.” I would say, “I’d love you to sound like that guy, but you’re not that guy. We’ll give you a similar sound to that guy, but you’re gonna sound you — you’re never gonna sound like him because you’re you, and you should celebrate the ‘you-ness’ of that.”

Many of my favourite musicians happily admit to trying – and failing – to sound like their heroes.

Lee again:

…failing to get it right is actually your benefit — when you fail to mimic them, you accidentally get your own thing out of it. I often say that style comes from being influenced by so many people that you can no longer recognize the influence and you’ve developed confidence in your own personality and that’s started to supersede the influences.