The Holistic Stack

Jimi Hendrix was once quoted as saying that he didn't play the electric guitar, he played amps. The point being that the art of electic guitar and his unique sound were about more than just the wire-and-wood strapped to his body. While he says "amps" I really think of this as more like the entire signal-chain.

Take a moment and consider the long strange trip your musical ideas take from your brain to your ears. Even though they're right next to each other, those ideas travel a long way and go through many transformations before your ears hear them.

These are just some of the layers your music goes through.

These are just some of the layers your music goes through.

This little graphic doesn't even really cover all of the layers either. If you really want to get deep you could include the signal from your brain to your hands, the transfer of force from the pick to the strings, how the strings excite the magnetic coils in your pickup and how the tone and volume knobs on your guitar affect the output. This chart doesn't even include putting effects in the effects-loop which includes more cables and attention to the pre-amp and power-amp stages in your amplifier.

Overwhelming? It can feel like it. I suppose if you showed this chart to any earnest kid eager to start playing the electric guitar they might just walk away and take up the drums instead. But if you spin this a bit and take a "glass half-full" approach, you can start to appreciate the vast array of choices each guitarist can make to shape their tone and musical ideas.

There's a lot of territory to mine here and having some familiarity with each layer is a big part to making the kind of music you want to. You don't necessarily have to be an expert in each layer, but it does help to understand what each stage of transformation does. It also helps to understand which transformations your favorite players use the most and which ones they do without.

Just to get a sense of the magnitude of change your guitar signal goes through try plugging your guitar into a mixer or audio interface directly with no amplifier (or simulator). It's a pretty plinky, uninspiring sound. That sound alone would never have made the guitar the cultural and musical icon that it has become. Clearly something happens to that irritating little sound along the way to become the source of enjoyment and inspiration for so many. How does that happen?

There's a lot to say on this topic and we'll start digging into this layer-by-layer. For now, I just want to get you thinking about the entire "stack" and about the idea that great guitarists understand how to manipulate those downstream transformations to create their unique sound.