Maximum Overdrive

Several years ago, after my Great Uncle passed away, his wife returned my father’s old guitar amp to him, a 1962 Sears Silvertone, with the original tubes and speakers still intact. My father had all but forgotten about it, after 40+ years, and surprised me with it, uncertain of how it might sound.

But the tone was incredible: there was no distortion or overdrive channel to be found on such an old piece of equipment, but the amp itself would naturally distort when pushed past its limits, resulting in a tone that was at once cleaner and more crisp but still dirtier and harder than I ever could have expected. No matter what I tried to play, I sounded like I was in one of those old Rolling Stones albums, where even clean guitars had balls and drive.

That was when it started becoming clear to me that no amount of reverb or flange could make up for the aural truth that bleeds so clearly from strings slammed and strung with the desperate, futile passion of a performer lost in song. Whether it’s the ear-piercing screech of fingers sliding up the neck and shifting position or the scratch of a pick or fingertips against the winding of a string, there’s something to be said about the drive—the natural gain—of an acoustic guitar or a clean, dry amp channel being played like there’s no tomorrow. You can lightly pluck an electric guitar played through a Marshall JCM2000 Half Stack on the OD2 channel (I endorse this product, especially the TSL60), with the gain, EQ, and volume cranked enough to piss off Brenda upstairs (or crank it to 10 like Johnny Ramone, or crank it to 11 like Nigel Tufen), and sure, your shredding might be awesome, but the sympathetic frequencies will never resonate quite like they do when that dreadnought body is played hard enough to break the strings or rip the callouses off your fingertips without remorse or hesitation.

And so it seems that the higher the Gain, the more subtlety is lost, the more nuance obscured and destroyed. The performance, the personal art of the song is so often lost by the rip-crack of speakers and tubes and air pushed over the edge of comfort, of sound they can control. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to be said about a great distortion tone, the kind that really drives a song. The opening chords of “You Really Got Me” would have never grabbed the world like they did if Ray Davies (or was it Dave Davies? And who names their kid something so cruel?) hadn’t sliced up the speaker cone with a razor blade, but even then, the sound was so analog.

Truth is, I never heard much of a difference in Bob Dylan’s music after he went electric. As far as I was concerned, his fingertips and downpicks distorted his acoustic guitars much, much earlier in his career. There was something dirty about his sound, and that’s what made it good; plugging in was just a shortcut. That meticulous, almost artistic control of dynamic attack on wound metal strings creates something so undeniably human and true that no high-gain, detuned Ibanez (I do not endorse Ibanez anything, ever) could ever hope to compare. It is the harmonic nuance of the physically overdriven tube amp or acoustic guitar generates sympathetic vibrations that make these songs, however small or powerful, truly affect us and stick with us like they do.

I leave you now (over the word limit) with a brief excerpt from Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman:

    We started talking about how the best parts of songs are usually accidents; [Jeff] Tweedy [of Wilco] mentioned that the most transcendent moments in pop music are inevitably unintentional, because listeners reinvent those mistakes and give them a personal meaning no artist could ever create on purpose. This segued into a conversation Fleetwood Mac, and I told him about the way Quincy and I would incessantly play the opening five seconds of “I Don’t Want to Know” at maximum volume, This is because—if you play the song loudly enough—you can hear Lindsey Buckingham’s fingers sliding down the strings of his acoustic guitar. His sliding phalanges make this unspeakably cool squeak; it sounds organic and raw and impossible to fake. Q and I would play this opening sequence over and over and over again, and we were convinced that this was the definitive illustration of what we both loved about music; we loved hearing the inside of a song.

And that is rock and roll.

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