(More boring guitar stuff alert)
It is a truth universally acknowledged by those who recall the first electronic keyboards with multi-instrumental voices, that if you want your piano to sound like a trumpet, go buy a trumpet.
Guitar technology seems to be at a similar juncture. The concept of the ‘hybrid’ electric guitar is one that pick-up technicians have been dancing with for a few years now, and there are various versions knocking around.
None of which, I have to say, has quite resolved the problem of having to carry five different guitars for playing in five different styles. Is that even a problem?
I’ve just acquired my first solid-body since I was a teenager, and I’m now well into my sixties. It wasn’t expensive, it’s quite nicely made in China, in the gloom it could easily be mistaken in looks for a PRS Custom 24 costing ten times as much; while I don’t suppose most people could hear the difference, given a decent amplifier.
But the reason I fell for it was the pick-ups.
This is the Tanglewood TS94 MT (the MT stands for Maple Top, I’d guess from the stylish maple top), and the cool-looking pick-ups are Alan Entwhistle-designed Mimesis AFGs, the initials standing for Asymmetrical Field (Generator?). (Don’t ask.)*
I’m still not sure if the Mimesis name also cuts across to the hybrid system used on the stunning £7,000 handbuilt guitars from legendary Scottish luthier, Mike Vanden. Nonetheless, the aim’s the same: to give the player the broadest tonal range from heavy metal to light folk, via every style inbetween.
I recently tried the Cort Custom M, which employs a different idea (in common with a number of other manufacturers, including the mouthwateringly pretty but eyewateringly expensive PRS Hollowbodies, and even a hastily botched-up Gibson LP Custom) to somehow combine magnetic humbuckers with a piezo pick-up under the bridge saddle to give you a choice of tonal blends suggestive of different instruments.
Depending on the make, you either have a single output socket with the mags and the piezo balanced with an onboard control, or two sockets with two leads heading off separately in the directions of both a mag amp and an acoustic amp (wouldn’t two guitars weigh less?), or to one of the rare amps offering both circuits internally, like the Rivera Sedona.
I disliked the Cort, thinking it small and nasty and not very effective at reproducing the different resonances. (More to the point, I disliked the dealer. That’s another story.) But it’s what’s supposed to happen, and a few moments’ thinking about it might suggest it isn’t really going to, even with the semi-acoustic build of the Cort. You’d need an actual synthesiser using acoustic sampling to give you a genuine choice between a deadwood plank and a hollow box. The sound a guitar makes comes from the design of the body and the bridge, not from the pick-ups.
Better maybe then to acquire a Carvin 565, that has mags, piezo AND a 13-pin Midi output, with which you could presumably turn your guitar into an entire orchestra of computer-driven, sampled sounds? Maybe not, when you have another option, of acquiring the Line 6 ‘Amplifi’ amplifier, that lets you dial-in your tone settings from an app on your cellphone. Or when you can buy a foot-pedal from Boss that converts your output signal into one of four (still not very convincing) acoustic guitar types before it reaches the amp.
I worked as a writer on the London trade launch of Yamaha’s seminal Clavinova keyboard in the early 1980s, so I’m familiar with how long it takes to get the voicings to sound pretty authentic. About twenty years, is the answer. Of course, technology is moving with light-speed, so let’s not be pessimistic. Let’s just ask the question: why? Because it’s there?
As a struggling player returning to the guitar in my sixties, I stuck doggedly to the same format: a big archtop with a single humbucker, a volume control and a tone pot. I reasoned it wasted hours less time than trying to balance two, even three pickups to get that authentic ‘jazz’ sound (play through a sock is the answer…).
And if I wanted for whatever reason (too much cider?) to sound like a folk musician, or Brian May, or even Paco de Lucia (in your dreams, mate!) then there were jumbos and solids and classical Spanish guitars that could be pressed into service. Five, six guitars in your playroom? How many is too many?
So here’s the Tanglewood, that I unwrapped a couple of hours ago, and fiddled with for half an hour before my son came back from work and I had to hide it (“So you’ve bought another guitar, dad? Why?” – this usually delivered with a supercilious sneer, by someone who owns four computers and an X-Box.)
And at first, looking at my now almost-new Taylor 512 with the nylon stringset, and my lovely if tunefully wayward Ibanez M-100, I wondered what the fuss was about?
For the TS94 is certainly well-reviewed, even raved about by some. It’s been out for a couple of years, but this was the first I’d heard of it.
One criticism is that there’s no helpful literature, not even on the web, to help find your way. So after half an hour of morosely twiddling between the pick-up selector and the mini-toggle, trying to understand why this position on one cancels that position on the other, and why you can only detect the difference when you turn the volume down, I was still waiting to discover what the Mimesis system was actually different from.
Until I came across a review that mentioned that it opens out into a more convincing acoustic and even a possible jazzbox set of sounds, when you think to pull-out the Tone knob. Who knew? I’m dying to try it, but maybe wait until after the boy moves out later this week? I can’t bear sarcasm. Fortunately, they haven’t designed a guitar with a built-in audience…
*Peering hyperopically at the pickups again the next day, I realise that, far from spelling ‘Mimesis’, the legend in fact says ‘Nemesis’. The thought-train now departing Platform 1 goes, roughly like this:
The words are homonymic. One can only conclude therefore that the minor adaptation is deliberate, and designed to avoid some legal quagmire attendant on silly notions of copyright ‘theft’.
‘Mimesis’ is a pretty word, implying that the pick-ups are designed to ‘mimic’ the sounds of other types of pick-ups and/or different types of guitars.
‘Nemesis’ is the name of a minor Greek divinity, that implies I had it coming to me.
I’m not sure I’m doing it right, but I’m still having some trouble persuading the instrument to sound like anything other than an electric guitar, albeit with a wide tonal range.