String Theory

Everything you need to know about finding the perfect guitar

From B.B. King’s soaring vibrato to Jimmy Page’s heavy riffs and Tom Morello’s pulverizing solos, the electric guitar has formed the very foundation of rock and modern music for more than a half-century. But before you’re ready to extend the legacy of these six-string legends, you’ll need the right instrument. And selecting an electric guitar is no easy process, especially considering the sheer myriad of choices available.

Hollow or solidbody? Humbucker or solid-coil pickups? American-made or imported? There are more varieties of electric guitars on the market today than ever. And with ubiquitous guitar blogs and forums ready to overwhelm with opinions and information, sorting through the facts is downright daunting.

To cut through the clutter, we sought out noted L.A. session guitarist Dean Parks, whose credits cover a wide swath of the West Coast music scene from the 1970s onward. The guitar guru has worked with everyone from Billy Joel, Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan to Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder. He was also a founding member of the pioneer jazz-funk band Koinonia.

How many guitars do you take to a gig?

For the session I just did, I brought along four trunks of guitars, with about a dozen in each trunk. Are they all necessary? Three-quarters of the sessions I play I can do on a single electric—either my James Tyler three-pickup or PRS 513—and a single acoustic. The rest are for when I need something specific, like a 1956 Gretsch or a Jerry Jones Baritone.

What makes a guitar exceptional?

The most important thing about a guitar is how even it sounds. From open notes up the neck and from string to string, there has to be a consistency. Every note has to sound like it’s coming from the same instrument. A lot of guitars’ low strings are really woofy while their high strings are really plinky. You don’t have to spend a lot to get a good guitar, either. Off the shelf, maybe three or four out of a 100 are any good, but they’re not always the most expensive guitars.

How do you select a guitar?

Don’t get fixated on a particular model. Look for a guitar that sounds good. Generally, you’re going to look for something with less bass on the low strings and a thickness on the top strings. You also want one with high gain and mellow sounds that has a whole range of character. A Fender Strat with three pickups is pretty good. I like the PRS 513—it’s a great Swiss-army guitar.

Solidbody or hollowbody?

An extremely dense solidbody will give you the most sustain and the least character, and a hollowbody will have a lot of attack and character, but less sustain. You can hit a hollowbody harder, and it’ll give you more volume. Dig into a Gibson ES-175 and it will be there for you, though not for long. But you get the bark of each note loud and clear. Hit a solidbody harder, and after a point it’ll bottom out, but the sustain will keep getting longer.

What kind of neck do you like?

I like big necks on guitars for sound, because they don’t compete with the body for resonance. Mahogany tends to be darker and maple tends to be brighter. But it doesn’t really matter, because you can get heavy maple and light maple, heavy mahogany and light mahogany, and they’re all going to sound different. I don’t think you can make any rules about the materials
because there are so many variations.

Is setup important?

Setup is an elusive thing. You can pick a guitar off the shelf, and if it’s set up right it’ll be easier to play. But that doesn’t mean it’s better than one that has a stiffer action but an even sound. For me, buying a guitar is a two-step process. First get the guitar, then take it to a tech. I have them make the nut as low as possible, which lessens the tuning difference the most between fretted and open notes. If your nut’s too high, you’re never going to get the open sound you want.

Humbuckers or single coils?

Both are great. Fender guitars are great examples of single-coil guitars. Think of 1950s and ’60s country, and that’s a Tele on the rear pickup. The sweet tone on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Wind Cries Mary” is a Strat neck pickup. It’s that thin, biting sound you can’t get with a humbucker. Humbuckers sing more and drive amps in a smoother and more complete way. There’s a thickness you’re just not going to get with a single coil, even a [Gibson] P-90. You’re also not going to get the hum and noise you’ll get with single coils. P-90s are great in hollowbodies, which have less sustain and lots of attack. They’re a bright pickup and they give you an old R&B sound that’s not like Fender single coils.

Do you ever swap out pickups?

There’s a lot to be said for trying different pickups. For instance, in the front position of my Tyler Swiss-army guitar, I have a Seymour Duncan mini humbucker. I love the way these pickups drive the amp without as much low end as a regular humbucker, so I put them on several guitars. I think you can find a guitar that really speaks to you, and then improve it bit by bit until it’s what you want it to be.

Active or passive electronics?

I am completely prejudiced toward passive electronics. I like a bit of amp overdrive, even on clear sounds—like the amp is just starting to break up. Passive electronics seem friendlier on the amp, with less extreme lows and highs to push the amp too hard, too fast. I have one guitar with active EMGs that has a good midrange push, but otherwise active pickups are slightly more synthetic-sounding. If you want to push your amp harder, you can achieve the same effect or better with pedals.

What gauge strings do you use?

For professional work, most guitars sound better with heavier strings and a higher action than you’re probably used to playing. All the great players that I’ve come across have surprised me by how high they like their action. On short-scale guitars, like Gibsons, you’ll want to go with something like 11s. It won’t feel as good, and it might not be as fun to jam with, but it’ll sound better. If you look at guys like Jeff Beck, I think he uses 13s, and Hendrix used the thickest gauges he could find. The compromise you make in string height and heavy gauges pays off with that great big sound.

Any other advice?

Become friends with other guitar players so you can ask to try their instruments. When you pick up a guitar, you’re hoping it’ll inspire the next thing you’re going to play. It’s got to play well and it’s got to sound good. Buying a guitar is also very personal, so get your hands on as many guitars as you can.

–Phil Selman

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