Music Versus Quasi-Music

Sunni's picture

I’ve just spent about 45 minutes downloading a bunch of music from two different sites that came to my attention within the past few days. One site primarily offers short clips of full songs; the other offers full songs in a variety of styles, including one I like but don’t see much of these days – ragtime.

So, anyone want to guess which music folder I’ve deleted, and which I’m currently listening to and enjoying immensely?

I deleted the folder of full songs after listening to snippets of maybe 4–6 songs. Those original compositions were interesting, and showed a lot of promise. So what’s my gripe?

All the music is performed on a keyboard.

It sounds like a decent-quality keyboard, but there’s no disguising the fact that all the “instruments” are in reality synthesized facsimiles of the real intrument’s sound. Much of the timbre is lost, even of other keyboard instruments, so that the resulting sound is quite flat.

And so is the performance. There’s no dynamic range to the notes, no sounds of indrawn breath between runs on a flute, no near-crack when a trumpeter stretches for a high note, no squeaks of string on guitar as fingers fly to get to the next chord. It sounds like what it in actuality is: quasi-music by machine.

It is a stark contrast to the aforementioned short clips from the other site I mentioned earlier. Some of this music is kind of experimental, and not all is to my taste, but it is performed by people on real instruments, and there is no mistaking the passion and joy the performers put into their music. It is suffused with life and spirit, and even the raplike samples leave me wanting to hear the entire song. Give me living rap over sterile ragtime any day!

Now that I probably have at least a few of you wiggling with anticipation, I’ll make you wait a little longer by saying that I discovered the site in I-Got-It-From-Agnes style, from godemperor who mentioned it here, who got it from Jomama. The artist is Stoyan Yankoulov, and he appears to be primarily a percussionist. That barely covers what he offers there, though. Wonderful stuff!

Oh, and as an aside, can any guitarists who might be reading this answer me a couple of questions? Why is Brian May’s guitar sound so singular? I don’t mean just the style, but the sound itself. I’m aware of one or two songs by other bands where the guitar sound approaches his, but that’s all. That unique sound makes Queen as instantly identifiable as Freddie Mercury’s voice does. And my second question is why don’t more guitarists seem interested in distinguishing themselves from the axe-pack in similar fashion?

It's All About The Touch

I've been playing guitar since 1969, and I'm not talking about casual campfire strumming. My guitars are never in their cases unless they're traveling. Right now, I have four of them on stands within nearly arm's reach of this desk, and I never go a single day without playing if I can help it. My practice routines resemble an athlete's. These days, it's starting to hurt: the first signs of arthritis, etc., and my response is to challenge the pain: play right straight at it and push it back as far as it'll go. That's how I play, and always have.

I've listened closely to guitarists all my life, and I am convinced that a guitar player carries about eighty percent of his tone around in his fingertips. Some people are just born with it, and some are able to sweat it out in long years of dedicated work. However, the guitar (and this is even more true with electric guitars) is an instrument of such personally tactile intimacy that most people who don't play just can't imagine it. The whole gag to "tone" is in innumerable, invisible, details in both the left and right hands: a minute difference between the pick's angles of attack on a string from two different players -- playing identical rigs -- can make all the difference in the world by the time that it blows out of the speakers. If you were standing there looking at them, you would never see this difference, but you would hear it, and never know what it's about.

I've seen people spend small fortunes on all kinds of gear: guitars (and guitar parts like pickups, bridges, etc.), amps, processing, you name it, chasing down "tone", and all in vain. It never comes to them as they hope and dream and wish for it. Some people could find it if they knew what to work on: the simple and simply ineffable matter of just how to touch the thing.

Like I said: some people are just born with it. Others somehow gain this almost Zen insight and bend their lives in the right direction after the dream: they learn how to touch the instrument.

The world is full of mediocre players who don't know this, and other mediocre players (like me, I think) who just don't have what it takes. The smart ones learn to live with it if they're in the latter group.

The breakout stars -- the ones that history will bless with remembrance -- have that touch.

To put it like that seems ridiculously inadequate, but I'm convinced. It really is that simple.

Carlos Santana once pointed out that there is a small handful of guitarists in the world who can be positively identified within the first half-dozen notes. He didn't say it, but he's one of them. Brian May is, too, and I'm convinced that it's for the reason that I've stated here.

Very interesting!

Thanks for your observations; I suspected that something like what you’re describing was in play. And I agree with you regarding Carlos Santana being another easily identifable axeman.

But now I have another question: how is it that so many guitarists sound so effing similar, then? I mean, I can usually tell Alex Lifeson from Eddie Van Halen from the guy who riffed for Def Leppard, for example, but that’s largely by their styles, rather than the sound waves.

Sounds Are One Thing, But...

Well, I think what you're asking now is exactly about style. I mean, Alex and Eddie also have inimitable styles, and style is, I think, actually a larger element of most peoples' general consideration of any given player than the waves coming out of their speakers. The lines they play, their rhythmic emphases, all kinds of stuff will stick a given player in one's head. And people are forgettable for all kinds of reasons; some just didn't get enough work or whatever; business stuff. Some people cleave to things like styles instead of genres -- witness untold numbers of blues players of all abilities who never manage to bring a personal style the way Clapton does. Well, some people who don't have great style nonetheless manage to get work, too, and they're going to sound similar even if you can't name them.

Does that makes sense?


"I am convinced that a guitar player carries about eighty percent of his tone around in his fingertips."


Well, I'm no great musician, that's for sure. But, when I was younger, before I got "sick," I did play a few different instruments, including piano, trombone, and even had lessons on the bagpipes (using a 'chanter'). In Grade 6, everyone took a "musical aptitude" test - I apparently was the first ever in the County to score perfect on it.

I loved music, playing music, learning more - but hated singing - and I can tell you why I hated singing: My mother liked my Soprano voice - and apparently when I was younger, it was quite good - but that was the LAST thing I ever wanted to do- sing Soprano, anywhere!!

I was put into singing lessons but purposely did what I could to be as bad a student as possible. To me, a boy singing soprano was shameful!

A variety of circumstances subsequently showed themselves - including my voice deepening, a love of rock and roll, while being taught rock was the epitome of evil itself, enjoying piano but finding my illness that inflicted me making it difficult to learn more; being quite "decent" at trombone, but changing schools where violins were what was focussed on instead of brass - and never actually being able to do what I WANTED to do.

So for years, music, as far as something I participated in, was lost.

Then, I bought a used guitar from a friend.

Took some lessons to learn some finger picking.

Oh yeah... those who experienced that were able to pick out MY style alright!

"God, there's dad again, trying to pick Lightfoot's 'Bitter Green'. Poor Dad. Ouch.. did you hear that? Was that like.. umm.. 'New York's Not My Home?' - well.. that's what it sounded like with the words he was singing... "

Dad even tried growing his nails on his right hand to get the "right sound" when finger pickin', while keeping the left hand nails short. Heh.

Just goes to show you. Some can even pick out lousy guitar players by their tone too :) Pretenders and wannabees.

Now, recently I did receive a brand new and wonderful piece of work in a practice chanter for learning the bagpipes. Perhaps I'll try to find my own unique style in that.

Student Of All, Disciple Of None


I have long wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes! But I have no idea what a “chanter” is.

Technique plus...

I agree with Billy's comment on touch. Guitarists like Clapton and May sound like themselves no matter what equipment they use. That said, Brian May uses a guitar he designed and built himself, and uses a sixpence as a pick, along with other stuff which affects his sound.

See here:

As to your second question, most guitarists, like all too many people, fall for the groupthink of what equipment, etc. you are supposed to use. They also have no education on how their sound is produced, so they can do nothing else but copy others. I think that guitar creation, audio engineering, and electronics training are musts for creating a truly original sound. Music theory training is, of course, most important.

You can hire out some of this stuff(like hiring someone to modify your amp), but I think that you are hampered by not knowing what the person hired is doing.

I think you've hit on it ...

Thanks so much for that link; I really enjoyed that article, as well as others I read there. (BTW, a comment can have one or two hotlinks in it; but three or more will trigger an antispam measure, and the comment won’t be posted.)

I think you’ve teased apart the admittedly deeply conflated variables under consideration. It is style that largely identifies various guitarists, to my ear anyway; and that is heavily dependent on the musician’s touch. What I was asking about has more to do with the sound waves, and why they seem so similar among the top axemen, with a few exceptions. And it makes sense that equipment would play a large role here.

I, for one, would really appreciate hearing more variety in guitar sounds. But I would guess most musicians would be pretty intimidated by the thought of building one’s own guitar.

DIY equipment - Mix and Match!

One solution, play mix and match!

Building a guitar from parts is not that hard. Making your own neck from scratch is very hard to get right, so for most I would not recommend it. I've built several guitars and basses out of parts myself, either bought or from older instruments. You'd be amazed at how much you can change your sound by changing the pickups, for example.

Looking at my earlier comment, I may have over-stated my case a little bit, but I still say that the more you know about these things, the greater are your sonic possibilities.

The recommendation that I would give to aspiring guitarists is try as many different combinations of gear that you can get your hands on. Try all of your friends' amps. Try their guitars. If you have more than one guitar, trade the pickups or buy new ones. Swap necks, bridges, etc. Trade parts and whole gear pieces with your fellow musicians. Try different guages and types of strings. Try everything in the music store. Find other stores and do the same. Get a job in one, even part time.

If you cultivate relationships with the owners of your local (not chain) music store, you'll be amazed by how willing they are to have you try new stuff. I've even had them give or loan me things they were thinking of carrying. You'll also get impressive discounts on stuff that they will not give anyone else. I was so good at that that I used to buy gear on other people's behalf.

Mix and match gear is a great pastime. And you'll impress your friends just how knowledgable you have become, and how cool your sound is. And you don't need to be rich to do it. I never have been. I was just a whiz at trading, borrowing, and smart shopping.