Trends In Guitar Lineage

Posted on by Orpheo

It’s a popular belief that history is cyclical: that a historical event will take place in the same or similar fashion in the future. The wide jeans of the 60s and 70s, afro haircuts, flower design on wall papers, minimalist design – many past design styles seem to be making a return. I won’t discuss cyclical history in an academic fashion but I do want to talk about the return of some older designs or features in the world of the guitar. Some things go away only to come back stronger and more powerful, while others never really go away. Let’s take a look!

Hot Vs Vintage-Voiced Pickups
As part of a project I did, I reviewed trends with guitar companies: who uses what and in what way did their lineage change? That made me think about the changes in pickups. Generally speaking you can divide pickups in two categories: hot and vintage. There is of course a middle ground but still: those pickups either have a vintage voicing with a modern bite or a modern voicing with a vintage undertone. It struck me that over the last few decades the trend has been for vintage-styled pickups whereas in the 70s and 80s the goal was to make pickups that were as hot as possible.

Surely those pickups were made to push the front end of an amp as hard as possible because things like stompboxes, cascading gain stages and even master volumes weren’t as widely used as they are today. Many players eventually came to feel that those super-hot pickups did push the amp hard but at the expense of clarity, treble detail and articulation. George Lynch, for example, was one of the first I know of who decided to go back to cleaner, lower output pickups to have his amp work as hard as possible to retain clarity and articulation (with his Screamin’ Demon and Custom Shop Super V pickups). Now, with better winding techniques and better ways of charging a magnet, hotter pickups are still being developed but with much more finesse than just raw power. Still, vintage voiced pickups seem to be more popular than ever before.

Artist-Grade Vs Plain Tops
I am a sucker for flashy woods: tight flamed Maple caps, quilted Maple so clouded you could dive into it, or Koa with so much figure it looks like molten chocolate and caramel. Yet a popular notion nowadays is to use woods with little or no figure at all. This is a trend stemming back from the early days of the guitar. Just take a look at those cherished 1950s Les Pauls: lovely aged finishes with lots of patina, but the tops aren’t that heavily figured! It’s not until the 80s with Hamer and a bit later Paul Reed Smith that we see the more widespread use of highly figured tops (like the one on the ESP Japan Amorous pictured above). Before them a highly figured top was a fluke, a coincidence, but Hamer and Paul Reed Smith consistently used tops with an exaggerated figure.

Conversely you’re seeing some builders using woods that aren’t necessarily the prettiest woods around: Spalted Poplar, Chestnut or even just plain Ash. Because those builders are crafting guitars that are purely designed for tone, with looks secondary, using ‘plain’ woods that yield great tone simply makes sense. Even the bigger companies are expanding their line of guitars that play and sound amazing but are visually less overwhelming.

Hollowbody: Solid and Laminated
Hollowbody guitars are coveted by some players for their woody, honest tone. Not as compressed as a solid body, the hollowbody (either fully hollow or semi-hollow, like the Schecter Corsair Bigsby above) is a popular choice amongst blues players, jazz players and even funk, soul, rock and occasionally even metal. In an effort to cut costs, many old hollow body guitars were made with laminated woods. That means that several thin sheets of woods are glued together to form one thicker sheet of wood. The benefit of laminated construction is that it appears to be more resilient against feedback and it’s often cheaper to make. But some players feel that laminated construction is less ‘alive’ than a solid piece of wood. Perhaps because it’s stiffer and thus less susceptible to the subtle nuances and vibrations?

Acoustic Steel-String Guitar
In the early days of popular music’, there was just the acoustic guitar. Steel-string or gut: that’s it. The electric guitar emerged somewhere in the early 1930s and soon there was a surge of optimism, progressive thinking and the desire to innovate. The 1980s, a period often hailed as the pinnacle of bad taste, saw a major decline of the acoustic steel-string guitar, with ever-increasing use of effects and even guitar synthesisers. But the no-nonsense attitude of the music scene of the 1990s reaffirmed the acoustic guitar’s worth. The need, desire and artistry of the acoustic guitar seems to be more solid and firmly cemented in modern music than perhaps ever before (with perhaps a little help from acoustic soundhole pickups like the Woody XL).

What guitar trends have you noticed? Which ones do you like? Which ones do you wish would go away?

Written on September 5, 2013, by Orpheo

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  • Edward Wille

    I found this post to be very interesting. I notice the same things, and especially the trend in the 80’s with regard to sound processing, which even included the production techniques in the studios at that time. In fact, I remember in the 80’s, (I have been playing for a while), seeing ads in guitar magazines that criticized the use of tube amplifiers!!