Some have argued that rock 'n' roll was born some half-century ago with the debut of Bill Haley & His Comets' “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955; certainly, that was the first big mainstream blast. But there's no denying that there was a whole lotta rockin' goin' on before that, and even before DJ Allen Freed brought the term “rock 'n' roll” into popular use. Actually, rock — modern, vintage or otherwise — owes as much of its lineage to the soulful blues recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936 to '37 as it does to the mid-'50s “pioneers.”
But whatever the source of rock's roots, one force has remained constant during the years: Rock is largely about guitar, from Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Dick Dale, to Clapton, Hendrix, Santana, Page, Van Halen and Satriani, to today's guitar heroes, such as Tom Morello, Billy Howerdel, Billy Corgan and Kirk Hammett.
A wailing guitar solo evokes a power and feeling no synth could ever hope to match. While other technologies have changed radically over time, it's ironic that a guitar in the hands of a great player plugged into an overdriven amp with a bit of spring (!) reverb is all that's needed to create that emotion. And unlike miking drums or vocals, capturing a screaming guitar amp to tape can be extremely simple, requiring little more than a decent dynamic mic and a couple of minutes of experimentation trying different placements in front of the speaker cone.
Yet, guitar science is hardly frozen into some static, Paleolithic space. Modern electronics brought into the guitar genre has made getting great guitar tone into a fast and relatively painless process. Outboard devices and plug-ins can model new and classic amps with stunning realism, so that producing huge, fat guitar sounds in the control room — with nearly any combination of stompbox effects — is just a few button pushes away. Meanwhile, products such as the Line 6 Variax bring modeling technology into the guitar itself, creating an instrument that can sound like your favorite electric, dobro, acoustic, banjo or even Coral electric sitar, all with the same ease with which a sampling keyboard can switch from Minimoog to B3 to Bösendorfer grand piano sounds.
Just months ago, Taylor Guitars teamed with legendary audio designer Rupert Neve to create a new approach to acoustic guitar electronics. Taylor's Expression System uses two vibrational body sensors and a sub-fretboard string sensor, with the three precisely blended/boosted via no-compromise electronics. A little attention here goes a long way.
At the same time, guitars themselves are constantly improving. I'm tempted to give up my '59 Les Paul! With today's emphasis on quality vintage reissues, custom shop axes from the major companies and more boutique luthiers than ever, there are tons of wonderful new guitars. And it's not just on the ultrahigh end: I recently bought a budget Schecter Diamond Series electric and it rocks: very playable, with a just-right, punchy edge. As the old saying goes, “You can never have too many guitars…”
You may have 50 virtual amps or crank up the real thing, yet getting cool guitar sounds doesn't require a lot of technology. But whether you have one or 100 tracks, the right song and the right player remain all-essential elements in the creative process. Robert Johnson proved that point so long ago.