Guitarists and Innovation: A Love/Hate Relationship

Over my years as a guitar player and lover of guitar history, I've always been surprised by the distinct love/hate relationship guitar folk have with innovation and originality. While we scour our emails, magazine ads, and product release videos to lust over new gear, it seems like we mostly crave more Les Pauls and Tele-style guitars, more Fender, Marshall, and Vox-like amps, and more Tube Screamer, Klon, and Muff clones.

This desire for “the way it was” is present with even the newest products.

This desire for “the way it was” is present with even the newest products. An example: The Fishman Fluence pickups offer a wildly innovative change in pickup modeling technology, but are only used to model pickups from the '50s. I had to ask myself: do we really crave innovation? Or, are we innately resistant to change? Let's examine some gear to find out.

Pickups are in all likelihood the most reverse engineered musical product of all time. There are not only models of every year and flavor of previous incarnations, there are even pickups evoking the sounds of certain songs or performances. Only a few companies are producing new takes on pickups (LACE and EMG are examples), but they only hold a fraction of a marketplace that is dedicated to reissues.

Vibrato systems are also seemingly held in the world of either the '50s or the '80s. Outside of the Bigsby, Strat, and Floyd Rose designs, no one has found a better way to whammy. This may be a result of limited room for improvement, but it's strange to such a complete lack of innovation on this part of the guitar. There have been many minute changes, but on the whole, the technology is surprisingly unaltered on popularly used instruments.

But perhaps my biggest surprise in guitar-making is the lack of truly original body shapes. You can buy a “Strat”-style guitar for $300 or a Suhr masterpiece or Nash relic for $4k or more. The same can be said for all of the classic Gibson and Parker Fly, it's hard to recall a truly pervasive and popular guitar shape that's not steeped in the '50s tradition in some way.

This reluctance to change also permeates the pedal world. How many pedal companies have at least one green pedal with a title that rhymes with “screamer”, or a pedal that has “face” in the title? Every Muff ever produced has a copy of that varietal in production as well. Surprisingly even large makers are knocking off small ones: the EHX Soul Food is an unabashed Klon “klone”.

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Finally, while amps have seen more innovation than other categories, it's still amazing how many times the Marshall, Fender, Vox or Boogie platform can be rehashed. Very few amps other than revered Dumbles and their clones are truly original designs (although even those carry a sizable Fender influence). My visit to the LA Amp show last year demonstrated just how many Marshall clones are still being produced.

Why do we shy away from new things? Did they really just nail the electric guitar in 1952, 1958 and 1962? Why do we stay so rooted in the technology of the late '50s, early '60s and to a lesser degree, 1980s?

To put it simply, we are still obsessed with our heroes from the past. Our minds, and our gear buying habits are tied to the gear of our tonal forefathers.

After much thought, the answer I come to is "The Cult of Personality." To put it simply, we are still obsessed with our heroes from the past. Our minds, and our gear buying habits are tied to the gear of our tonal forefathers. Upon reflection, this is not a bad thing. The guitar heroes of the past set a very high bar in terms of tone, and also were the first to push the limits of technology during their respective time periods. We can hear the tones of SRV, Cream and Derek and the Dominos Clapton, Santana, Jimmy Page, Van Halen, and Hendrix without even putting on a song.

We as guitar players are always chasing the tone of the influences in our head. I can describe the gear, and you can name the artist: maple necked Strat through a Fuzz Face and a Uni-vibe, through a Marshall? That same Strat and run into a Fender Champ on 12? Beat to hell Strat and Tube Screamer into a Vibroverb? One humbucker, a Floyd, and a MXR Phase 90?

But this chasing of tone from those that came before is part of the experience of being a guitar player. Take all of the greats that are mentioned in the last paragraph; they are the Mount Rushmore of the electric guitar. But even these greats were trying to recreate the sounds of their influences, and the players they worshiped. SRV was on a mission to sound like Albert King, and succeeded. Jimmy Page captured the tone of blues and rockabilly sidemen with great use of reverb and tiny amps. Clapton did very much the same, albeit in a more purist fashion. The outliers are really Hendrix and Van Halen, who changed the gear game completely.

As musicians, in most cases we only accept gear once our influences have accepted it first. You could say we are cautious, and refer to more experienced hands before we give things a try. I think with innovation, we should strive to take more of the iconoclastic approach of Hendrix and Van Halen, embrace what's new and innovative, and forge ahead with our unique tones. Without that inquisitive nature, there would be no humbuckers, locking tuners, or truss rods, which we can all agree were good changes. What will the next great change be?

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