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The Space Between the Notes

D’Angelico Style A from the 30’s. Not just a great looker but a wonderful player. I didn’t want to put it down. It wasn’t particularly loud but for some reason every note took on a life of its own. It was quite an eye (and ear) opener.

I’ve been playing more acoustics lately and one of the characteristics of a good acoustic has become clear to me as I play more and more really good ones. Some guitars have what I can only describe as more separation between the notes. Even when playing chords, it is apparent that some guitars are better than others at keeping the notes coming out of the guitar distinct and separate. I use the term “articulate” to describe this. With an electric guitar (plugged in) it can also be a factor but many electric players, especially those who like some dirt in their tone, want just the opposite. Part of the beauty of distortion is the fact that it fills the space between the notes making you sound perhaps a little more proficient than you actually are. I know that when I was playing gigs as a teenager, I relied heavily on the ol’ Fuzztone to make my solos sound a bit more coherent. I also learned that practicing  said solos playing clean made me a better player. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Most electric guitars are not terribly articulate when plugged in. It may have more to do with your ears and your amp than the guitar. Some amps seems to enhance note separation and some do the opposite. The 5F6-A tweed Bassman is famous for bringing out the individual notes from any guitar and is, because of this, considered an amp that forces you to be a better player. It is not forgiving until you get really loud. For an electric, a 335 is a fairly articulate guitar. Unplugged it always seemed pretty good to me until this week when I played a guitar that was in another league entirely when its comes to note separation. It was a 1936 D’Angelico Style A. I’ve seen plenty of D’Angelico’s but I had never played one for more than a strum or two. My good friend, Bob, traded his 68 Johnny Smith for this particular guitar and brought it to me to go through it.

I don’t generally fall in love with a guitar. I don’t actually own any keepers. Anything I play, I have for sale in my shop. It’s a simple rule that keeps me from having 150 guitars in my rather small house. But this one could have broken the rule. What was so interesting and compelling was, of course, the great separation between the notes. While arch tops are not generally considered a finger pickers guitar, that’s how I usually play an acoustic and that’s how I played the D’Angelico. I do a lot of hammer on and pull off technique and a lot of grace notes when I play acoustic. Some of it always seems to get lost. My test song when I pick up an acoustic is usually “Anji” and it’s a great test of a guitars articulation. I’m not a particularly good player but somehow, I sounded really good on this guitar. The song is loaded with hammer ons and pull offs and every note just jumped out of the guitar. The double stops were clean and clear and the chords seemed more like three or more individual voices than a chord. Pretty cool.

I’m not going to start playing a D’Angelico and get rid of my 335’s. I’m an electric player most of the time and all that wonderful articulation isn’t necessary for most of what I play. I also generally play through a tweed Bassman or Bandmaster and both of them are pretty articulate, so I get some of it whether I like it or not. It’s a factor that I never paid that much attention to before but now I get it. I need to do a little more experimentation and research before I can figure out just what factors make this happen. It’s probably like figuring out what makes a Stradivarius sound like it does. They’ve been trying to figure that out for 300 years or so.

7 Responses to “The Space Between the Notes”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, awesome description! Yes, something magical can happen when you play a special instrument. Each note speaks to you. My first rack 345 hits me the same way! So does my SVL Strat! Best, RAB

  2. Leeds says:

    I’ve always loved great arch-tops. (And articulate guitars in general). My 1945 blond Epi Deluxe sounds divine. Looks incredible also. But those of us who love nice archtops are a very rare breed.

  3. Michael Minnis says:

    Love great archtops, Charlie. Nice to see them mentioned here in the 3X5 Universe!

  4. RAB says:

    Leeds, does your Epi have the cloud inlays? Always loved those! What a fine git-box you have! RAB

  5. Leeds says:

    Indeed it does. Abalone clouds are amazing. As is the headstock inlays
    Spectacular woods and new-looking (original) condition. But the sound and feel are its most compelling qualities. Sometimes playing it acoustically or with its original pickguard-mounted pickup makes me wonder why i’ve always been an electric guy. The purity of vibrating wood carved and crafted by masters is quite compelling to this classically trained guy who became a progressive jazz-influenced blues rocker.

  6. RAB says:

    Excellent! Enjoy!

  7. chas scales says:

    As a young man I spent about 30 seconds playing what I believe was a ’30’s Gibson L5. The guy who owned it certainly didn’t know what it was and I didn’t either. I figured it out later when I thumbed through Tom Wheeler’s “American Guitars.” Anyway, in less than 30 seconds my unsophisticated ears got an education. A D’Angelico? I can’t even imagine……

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