Jazz Maestro Ralph Towner Reveals Acoustic Guitar’s Intriguing Adaptability

by Madonna

Distinguished jazz virtuoso Ralph Towner has unveiled a captivating perspective on the nature of acoustic guitars, asserting that these instruments possess a unique ability to adapt to the individuality of their players. This assertion takes a fascinating turn as he delves into his preference for a natural, microphone-based approach over amplification when gracing concert stages.

In the realm of music lore, the notion that an artist’s distinct electric guitar tone is not solely the result of the instrument and accompanying gear has floated for decades. From Frank Zappa to Steve Lukather and Nuno Bettencourt, this idea suggests that a musician’s essence significantly contributes to their sonic signature. When considering acoustic guitars, this concept takes on an even more compelling form, given the absence of complex signal chains and supplementary equipment.

In a recent exchange with Guitar World, the venerable jazz composer, performer, and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Towner delved into this phenomenon, proposing that acoustic guitars intricately “adapt to whoever is playing them.” Elaborating on his interaction with luthiers who craft his beloved nylon six-strings, Towner shared:

“Oh, yeah. My preference is not to have any frequencies dominate or outweigh the highs and the lows and the mids, so you can control the whole thing. Sometimes certain notes will jump out, but a well-made guitar will be really even, if you can find one like that. The quality of the sound, of course, is pretty subjective. But, as I say, I like it very even, in terms of the dynamics that it has.

“Guitars adapt to whoever is playing them. They become very personal to the guitarist over a period of time. I can even play somebody else’s guitar for two weeks and it will change according to how I play it. I mean, it’s interesting. That’s a nice thing about a guitar. I think all instruments might do that, but the guitar is particularly sensitive.”

Delving further into his nuanced approach, Towner expounded on his steadfast decision to opt for a microphone during his live performances instead of succumbing to amplification:

“The reason, and it’s kind of a musical one, is that as a classical guitarist you spend most of your life on an instrument trying to develop complete control and the illusion of tones sustaining even longer than they actually do, in terms of how loud you play each string, and how long it sustains.

“But the thing about amplification, although it’s improved so much over the years, is that it’s always sustaining beyond the dynamics of [what you’re playing]. You’re trying to hide certain notes and voices behind others, it gets to be that subtle. And the electric thing amplifies it too much, almost, so everything is sounding and it doesn’t really sound like your sound, although it has improved.

“I spent all this time learning how to control the subtle things, and with the amplification you end up hearing the pitches and a little bit of the articulation, but you don’t hear the dynamics quite as clearly between the individual strings. It depends on the player, but with amplification it comes out sounding more electric, which, as I say, defeats all your studies.”

In this revelation, Towner unveils not only the intricate interplay between a musician and their instrument but also the delicate dance between sound manipulation and authenticity in live performances. His perspective offers a unique lens into the realm of music, where the nuances of tone, timbre, and touch interweave to craft the symphonic tapestry that enraptures listeners worldwide.

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