Guest Article | Jim Magill | “Can you trust what you hear?”

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 $4000. 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/neurobiology/labs/dudai/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.”

Originally posted on the 13thfret forum, reproduced with permission.
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©2009 J.Magil. Jim is a director, The Swannanoa Gatherin: link

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