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Old 06-26-2009, 05:24 AM
jmagill jmagill is offline
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Default Can you trust what you hear?: 'Opening Up' and other Guitar Lore

Even though I rarely post, I check in with this forum and four others at least once a day, and even a casual visitor would notice how many topics continually return to aspects of guitar lore and the interminable wrangling over such venerable subjects as the superiority of this or that tonewood or brand or body size, new vs. vintage, the search for a 'cannon,' 'holy grail,' or 'banjokiller' whose sustain is so great that 'it's still ringing when I take it out of the case!' Apparently, we guitarists just love shootin' the bull about this stuff, even though it seems that most of us feel enough like experts that our opinions on such matters, grounded in the reality of what our ears tell us, are unassailable, and though we'll allow that everyone else is entitled to their own opinion, we're not convinced, because they just can't hear what we hear. What we hear rules, and nobody's argument is going to trump what we can experience with our own ears. I'm no different: others are entitled to their opinion, but all that really matters TO ME is what I hear. Only we ourselves can call into question what we hear, and I'd like to suggest that all of us do a little more of that, for the following reasons.

For the sake of argument, let's consider just one of many perennial forum topics: the phenomenon of guitars 'opening up' as they get more age and playing time on them. For the record, I believe that 'opening up' is real, not only because I think I hear it, but because, objectively, it seems to make sense. As wood cells age, lose moisture and resins crystallize, there would be less damping, and vibrations would pass through them quicker and easier. Finish and glue joints cure, increasing the effect, and it seems reasonable that hours, months and years spent coaxing the wood to produce the 12 specific tones of the western scale of music might 'train' the wood to produce those tones more easily. But can this process actually be experienced as it happens? Although a new instrument's sound does change noticeably in the first few days after it is initially strung up, it stabilizes fairly quickly, and most would agree that what we usually mean by 'opening up' takes months or years, so experiencing any change in sound requires comparing it to our memory of much earlier states, and this is where the slope first begins to get slippery.

We say we can hear a guitar opening up because it sounds different (usually better, whatever that means) now than when it was new. But we can't compare by going back to hear it again when it was new, so how can we really know? To compare the sound now to the sound then, we have to rely on our memory of what it used to sound like, and problems arise immediately. First is the obvious fact that our ears now are not the same as our ears then. It's well-documented that we tend to lose some perception of higher frequencies as we age. Also, our guitar tastes may have changed over the years, making it sound more (or less) appealing to us now than it did then. Then there is the phenomenon of 'psycho-acoustics', where we tend to hear what we want, expect or are predisposed to hear. From my reading of the posts here and on other guitar forums, I believe we guitarists are particularly prone to this condition. And of course, some of us may simply not remember things as well as we used to.

I've also found that some of my own memories tend do be more situational than I realized. For example, the best beer I ever tasted was a Dutch brand called Oranjeboom I had when I was 18. I think I remember it as 'the best' because I was in a rathskeller in Frankfurt, my first time in Germany, and I was able to successfully order my meal of wienerschnitzel and a beer, in German, without being asked my age. In that exotic setting I felt mature, capable, independent and exhilarated by the moment. Everything about the dinner made it a peak experience, and there is no beer I've had since (including another Oranjeboom) that I enjoyed more than that one.

Similarly, the "Best Guitar I Ever Played" was an early '30's Martin 00-28 or 00-21 at Gruhn Guitars around 1982, which sold for the fabulous sum (at the time) of $xxxx. It was just the brand, body size and woods I coveted at the time, it sounded better to me than all the other great guitars there in the store, and the price put it well beyond the reach of a struggling road musician like myself, making it all the more desirable, and all the more mythical in my imagination. I've played quite a few 00's of similar vintage since then, but none of them jazzed me in the same way, and none of the great, better-sounding guitars I've played since have matched that experience, either. A memory of our guitars when new may similarly be flavored by the excitement of acquiring them, what they cost and what we may have had to do to pay for them, how long we had to wait for them, how they compared to other guitars we own, etc. I know I've remembered that amazing little 00 at Gruhn Guitars many times, and here's where another problem arises.

Evidence from neuroscience suggests that once a memory is created, each time it is recalled it changes slightly, and since we always recall the most recent (changed) version of it, the more we recall it, the more it changes. To learn more about this phenomenon, listen to the RadioLab episode on "Memory and Forgetting" at <http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/>, or check out the work of Dr. Yadin Dudai at <http://www.weizmann.ac.il/neurobiolo...dai/dudai.html> and Dr. Elizabeth Loftus <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Loftus>. Memories, it turns out, are quite malleable. As Dr. Karim Nader says, "When a memory is retrieved, it is transformed into a vulnerable state in which it can be lost, changed or strengthened." The memory of a guitar's sound when new changes based on a number of factors including our perception of how it sounds now, whether we believe the 'opening up' process has occurred, whether we like the change or not (Norman Blake told of a guitar he had to 'rest' a few years because the sound had become 'too loose') and whatever other nuggets of guitar lore we happen to subscribe to.

So, when we're trying to discern subtle qualitative differences in a guitar's sound over time, what can we really say with certainty?

Well, subjectively, if I hear it, then it's real – for me. What we know can be objectively tested, duplicated and verified by others; all the rest is simply what we believe, so even though I believe 'opening up' to be true, as an objective phenomenon, there's too much uncertainty in the methodology for me to say that I know 'opening up' to be true. It's precisely because there is no definitive, objective proof that might resolve the issue, that debate about 'opening up' and other aspects of guitar lore rages on. Personally, I think it's this ambiguity, permitting us all to spout off with relative impunity, that we most enjoy, and keeps forums like this one chuggin' along.

So, the next time any of us feels the urge to climb up on the old guitar soapbox and lay down the law on some issue of sound quality, or set matters straight on someone else's preposterous declaration, based on our own considerable experience and finely-tuned ears, before we type anything, let me gently suggest we should give pause, because there's enough factual evidence to indicate we should all take what our ears and memory tell us with a very big grain of salt. As a popular bumpersticker has it: "Don't Believe Everything You Think."
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Old 06-26-2009, 05:51 AM
Brent Hutto Brent Hutto is offline
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Like the man says...

Quote:
People say believe half of what you see,
Son, and none of what you hear.
I can't help bein' confused
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Old 06-26-2009, 05:51 AM
Jeff M Jeff M is offline
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I'm just a simple fellow.
If I like it, it's good.
If not, it's not.
If it (or my perception of it) changes and I like it more, cool.
If I like it less...time to sell.

Got no time for shaking machines, hanging guitars in front of speakers, vibrating them, massaging them.
Rather spend it playing them.
I'd rather improve my playing than how a guitar sounds.
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Old 06-26-2009, 05:56 AM
M.D.Smith M.D.Smith is offline
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Good info.
I just recently aquired a new guitar with an addi top and made a recording of it using only a micrphone because I too want to hear the "opening up" process instead of using memory as a baseline.
Even after two months, I can listen to the recording and then play her and hear a difference. Same strings, same pick, same chords, same everything, even humidity. The only variable that has changed is time.

This process, I believe, is better than memory alone.

I will in the future put more recordings on the net so others can benefit and let their own ears make the decision.

I've heard from many a good folks that guitars "open up" so I would just want to be able to hear it as time goes by.
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Old 06-26-2009, 06:05 AM
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rmyAddison rmyAddison is offline
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However fallable they may be, and I am big time into high end audio and very familiar with double blind tests and aural trickery, my ears are all I have and if they are happy......I am happy.

I know what sounds fantastic to me and that is my reality. If something "different" is anothers persons perfect guitar, good for them and it doesn't have any effect on me.

I keep it simple, play the best you can afford tempered by how important music is to you, and allow the other guy to do the same!
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Old 06-26-2009, 06:33 AM
Huckleberry Huckleberry is offline
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Well I've noticed that guitars I've bought new seem to lose a bit of 'stiffness' fairly quickly (like over a few days). But I also noticed this later on, particularly with my Martin HD-28 - whenever I hadn't played it for a while it would feel and sound stiff for an hour or so, then relax.

I'm sure guitars do 'open up', but I'd expect it to be a pretty subtle change over a long period - difficult to quantify, and there are so many other things that affect the tone more radically (strings, temperature, humidity, acoustics of the room you're playing in) that I would find it really difficult to isolate one aspect of the sound and say "that's due to the guitar opening up".

In terms of fallibility, changes and situation basis of memory over time - absolutely. Read any text on Neurolinguistic Programming, and that'll give you some methods to do it proactively.
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Old 06-26-2009, 06:46 AM
Eric S. Eric S. is offline
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While I do believe that a guitar's sound will change with the passage of time, I think that my familiarity with the particular instrument is at least as large of a factor...ie. as I play a new guitar over a length of time, I learn what attack on the strings etc. maximizes the sound that I am looking for. just a thought....
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Old 06-26-2009, 06:49 AM
ewalling ewalling is offline
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The only guitar I've had for any length of time is my handbuilt 000 built by British luthier John Hullah. I bought this brand new in 1988 and although I bought it from a store I did take it to John for a set up a year or so later. For the first few years I had it, I thought it was a good guitar. In the mid nineties, I found myself really getting into learning fingerstyle ragtime and my playing became more frequent and more focused. It was then that the guitar began sounding not just good, but really great. As you suggest, there must have been a subjective element in all this, but... I still suspect that it hadn't sounded quite like that when I first bought it. Without definitive before and after recordings it's impossible to say for sure, but I feel that the truth as to whether it was the guitar or I that accounted for the improvement may lie somewhere halfway between the two.
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Old 06-26-2009, 06:50 AM
SongwriterFan SongwriterFan is offline
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If guitars do "open up", then they must do so at different rates, but still somehow manage to "leapfrog" each other in doing so.

Why do I say that?

Because I can prefer guitar A to guitar B to guitar C one week, but then the next week, prefer B to C to A, then next week prefer C to A to B, etc.

Frankly, I think our perception of sound (and our memory of it) changes far more than the guitar itself does.
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Old 06-26-2009, 07:15 AM
Huckleberry Huckleberry is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SongwriterFan View Post
If guitars do "open up", then they must do so at different rates, but still somehow manage to "leapfrog" each other in doing so.

Why do I say that?

Because I can prefer guitar A to guitar B to guitar C one week, but then the next week, prefer B to C to A, then next week prefer C to A to B, etc.

Frankly, I think our perception of sound (and our memory of it) changes far more than the guitar itself does.
I've noticed that effect, but I don't think it's due to 'opening up', which I think is a gradual process over many years, rather than week to week.

Some days one or other of my guitars just doesn't 'do it' for me - the tone just isn't there or it's not feeling right. I'm pretty sure this is down to humidity (humidity in my playing room swings between 45% and 60% at the moment) and temperature fluctuations. I imagine these changes affect each guitar a little differently, so usually at least one it in the zone.

The really bad days are when none are really singing... Then I just don't play, otherwise I get paranoid that something's wrong and that great tone is gone forever...
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Old 06-26-2009, 07:56 AM
skiltrip skiltrip is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SongwriterFan View Post
Frankly, I think our perception of sound (and our memory of it) changes far more than the guitar itself does.
This, my friend, is a brilliant statement. So true, so true.
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Old 06-26-2009, 08:04 AM
1cubilindo 1cubilindo is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Huckleberry View Post
I've noticed that effect, but I don't think it's due to 'opening up', which I think is a gradual process over many years, rather than week to week.

Some days one or other of my guitars just doesn't 'do it' for me - the tone just isn't there or it's not feeling right. I'm pretty sure this is down to humidity (humidity in my playing room swings between 45% and 60% at the moment) and temperature fluctuations. I imagine these changes affect each guitar a little differently, so usually at least one it in the zone.

The really bad days are when none are really singing... Then I just don't play, otherwise I get paranoid that something's wrong and that great tone is gone forever...
I agree with this. I tend to leave all of my guitars out of the case. Everyday it seems one is the star (probably due to environmental conditions). The lammies of course are mostly constant. All wood guitars seem to open and close more often as a result.
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Old 06-26-2009, 11:29 AM
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I've owned my Harmony (my first guitar) for 40 years this Sept. Do I remember what it sounded like in 1969? Hell, no - I don't even remember 1969. Would it tell me anything if I did? Not really - I play differently now, my fingers are different, I use different strings, play in a different room, and my hearing has deteriorated as I've gotten older. I don't doubt that the wood has changed over time, and this probably has altered the tone. There are many things that affect the tone of a guitar - some people hear them, some don't. The only thing I know for certain is that it sounds good to me.
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Old 06-26-2009, 12:01 PM
ewalling ewalling is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Krash View Post
I've owned my Harmony (my first guitar) for 40 years this Sept. Do I remember what it sounded like in 1969? Hell, no - I don't even remember 1969.
May we inquire as to why not?
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Old 06-26-2009, 02:34 PM
jmagill jmagill is offline
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I knew there was a very real possibility this thread would devolve into yet another tedious debate about 'opening up,' which was not my intent, so to try to direct it back toward the point I was trying to make, let me clarify.

First, as several here have said, what I hear is good enough for me, too, and I'm not questioning what anyone hears. As I said, it's only they who should be doing the questioning.

Second, I merely used the 'opening up' phenomenon as an exercise to illustrate to those who use their subjective opinions to style themselves an authority on matters of perception and taste how questionable such matters are when examined objectively. I could just as easily have used as examples those who say they can hear the difference between Brazilian and Indian rosewood, or why Adirondack spruce makes the best top, etc.

My goal was to try to add a cautionary note to the tendency of some to promote without question their subjective experience as objective truth, and to encourage them with good reasons to, in fact, question that subjective experience.

Then perhaps, we can move beyond guitar lore for a while to fresher, more interesting topics.
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'07 Circa OM
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Remembered:
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