Personality of an Instrument?

We often refer to “personality” when discussing characteristics of a given instrument. It may seem strange to some, as assigning personality traits to an inanimate object defies logic. On the other hand, in some ways this is really a way to convey the way it looks, sounds, feels, plays. Some can be very smooth talkers, others are reserved and polite. A rude guitar can get very nasal tones that can suit a player’s mood at a given time. There is a huge supply of adjectives that translate to an instrument’s performance in any number of situations. Thus, each has it’s own personality.

I’ve owned “perfect” guitars- they played flawlessly, looked fantastic, had very even tones. Honestly, I couldn’t find fault with them. Build quality was excellent, fit and finish was outstanding. Not one of them “stuck”. No matter the price tag, there was a missing ingredient. PERSONALITY.

If I may take license to draw a comparison between guitars and lovers, these fine instruments were along the lines of a Stepford Wife. They did whatever I wanted, without giving me anything in return to build on. Just exactly what was asked- nothing more. The funny thing is that such an instrument always left me stagnant in my playing. Yes, they were very good, but no “fight” in them, no FIRE!!

In any healthy relationship, an opinionated spouse will give pause, give feedback, give a touch of opposition. Cause you to rethink your position, and build on your strengths. All while taking good care of your personal needs and loving you back. That’s how couples grow together, and help improve each other’s lives. There is nothing worse than getting into a rut. My grandmother used to say that the difference between a rut and a grave is simply depth. I think she was on to something there…

So it translates to a relationship with an instrument. If it can purr like a kitten, scream bloody murder, fulfill your inner yearning, then it gives something back that becomes a building block for fresh inspiration. It will accentuate your playing, for better or worse. No hiding the subtleties of your technique when it’s plugged in. This alone will pave the way for a player to improve, give more attention to finger placement, vibrato, picking intensity, muting, sliding, slurring and bending. The reward becomes immediately apparent, and the clarity lends more depth of feeling, more emotion to your style. Ultimately, I have a wife who forces me to grow, and expect nothing less from an instrument. We are, after all, lovers.

My father is a classical violinist who has been playing since around 1940. He always used to remark about this violin or that one, and I never understood his ramblings, as they sounded like nonsense to me at the time- He would tell me that the better a fiddle was, the harder he had to work to bring out its qualities. This seemed counterintuitive to me. Well, after playing guitar for a few decades, I have found he was absolutely correct, and the same principle applied to guitars and basses. As my listening skills improved, it became painfully obvious that placing a finger in a certain way would change the entire character of a note on an acoustic instrument. Sure, I could play just about anything I wanted, but there were nuances that would be lost if the technique had not been addressed. It became clear to me that most of my playing technique was getting buried in the sound of any electric guitar I owned- which was a big plus when my technique was poor, but a big disadvantage when I had put forth the effort to make something sound very special. The modding bug reared its ugly head again, and I tried everything I could think of to get a clearer representation of my playing. I wanted my electric to act more like my acoustic, but retain the “electric” vibe. Bear in mind, this was before many pedals existed- so if I wanted a new sound, I had to figure out how to make it happen. I think I had a Maestro Fuzz and a wah pedal. That was all there was available, and those never really sounded great anyway. Thus, I brought my problems to my friend whose father was an electronics engineer for NBC. He had a great many ideas, and we played with resistors, capacitors, coils, and soldering irons while our contemporaries were throwing baseballs and so on. Eventually we started doing things with tubes and then transistors, but that’s a story for a different day…

The result was more clarity, lowered output, and a fierce amount of treble on tap. Not “ice pick in the ear” treble, but piercing and strong. All of a sudden all the crappy notes came shining through. That was a bit disconcerting, but on the other hand when I did something spectacular, that came through just as clearly. The lesson in all of this was in order to get my musicality out to the audience’s ears, I needed that degree of solid sound with fine definition.  The down (up?) side being that I was forced to clean up my poor playing habits in order to sound competent on the instrument. It was very much like looking in the mirror with fresh eyes, and seeing all the warts. Once we found the right capacitor to match the circuit, I could attenuate the trebles to taste. More about this later, but trebles are funny- you can always turn them down, but if they aren’t there to begin with your instrument will get more and more muddy sounding as volume increases. That’s a common problem in a band situation, and one of the root causes of volume wars onstage. Ego is another cause, but that requires therapy. It’s pretty amazing to know the guitar is so loud that it’s drowning out the rest of the band, but you still can’t hear it.

Back to personality of an instrument…

There are plenty of things that can be treated certain ways to help develop the personality, some having to do with setup, hardware, species of woods, construction techniques. On custom builds, we like to discuss the customer’s tastes, styles, things they like/hate about other instruments they’ve played. This allows us to build something that will satisfy the current desires, and control the overall aspects of the instrument, right from the beginning. Things go much more easily if the customer has given thought to the minutiae, but many players haven’t broken things down to such a level. We spend a great deal of time getting to know what people expect, their likes and dislikes, neck shapes, and many other details before any wood is even cut. By doing this, we can shape the personality of the instrument into something distinctive that will stand the test of time. If a player isn’t sure of something, we have the experience to offer opinions and solutions. This communication is highly critical from the design stage through final setup. Please, if you consider a custom build, put some thought into what you want. If you have questions or concerns, we are here to help find the right path. Each of our instruments is treated as the most important one, and the end result is consistently a long term companion. There are very few Rice instruments on the used market, because once you fall in love, they are hard to give up.

2 thoughts on “Personality of an Instrument?

  1. Rich, I get that completely. Over the years Ive had some quite expensive guitars that don’t speak to me and some cheapie that won’t shut up. The happy balance is something I know you know. Bless.

    1. Thanks for your reply, John. 😉
      There are many players who never come to this realization. Once the right one gets in your hands, it stays there.

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