Clearly the obvious answer is “a good player”. Back home in Finland I have the Haines Manual for the Fender Stratocaster. In one passage, the author refers to Jimi Hendrix’s habit of recording demos by connecting his guitar directly into the mixing desk without amp or effects (“DI-ing”). He comments “it still sounds like Jimi Hendrix playing a strat”.
On the track Brothers by Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan. The siblings famously swap guitars midway through, while maintaining the same amp settings. Stevie Ray takes over from Jimmy at about the 2.00 mark and it’s clear as day.
So given that the most important part of the system is the guitarist, what makes a good guitar for a given player? I’d say it is down to the following things
- Playability. Jack White may say he likes to fight against the guitar and reputedly likes to find his instruments in cheap second-hand stores. But he’s a genius and I’m not. I like guitars that are easy to play, having a reasonably low action (clearance between neck and strings), have no fret-buzz and that stay in tune. I like my guitars to play easy. Fortunately most guitars can be made easy to play via a good set-up, but how a guitar feels to hold, its weight and its balance are not possible to compensate for.
- Tone. How it sounds. This is a really important and very complex issue, that has almost mystical status among guitarists. There are countless websites, magazine articles and probably even books dedicated to the subject. Although a lot of ‘tone’ can be created via effects and amps, the input device — the guitar– has a huge role to play
- Looks. Guitars are used by performers, who stand in front of people and get stared at. They thus have to look good. Like it or not, guitars are iconic objects. When you select one, you are consciously or unconsciously tapping into musical history. Each guitar has its specific symbolism and associations. You also want a guitar that is a pleasing object, that invites you to play it and looks good lying around your home. Of course what ‘looking good’ means is entirely subjective. My own taste leans more towards the classics. You won’t see me with a BC Rich Warlock