Electric instruments—especially the electric guitar—have become so universal and ubiquitous in the post-WWII rock-dominated world of pop music that a word had to be invented to denote the old-school way: “unplugged.”
Decades ago, an ad agency for 7-Up came up with the ingenious and successful “un-cola” campaign, and proved that defining things by what they are not can appeal to the impulse to stand out from the crowd, go your own way, and march to the beat of a different drummer.
As a mid-Boomer, I saw my first electric instruments at age 12 when my big brother Mike came home with a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Precision bass guitar. Both of these instruments are solid-bodied, meaning that they have no acoustic sound of their own—they must be plugged into an amplifier to be heard. Mike let me fool around with the P-bass. In the quiet of our living room, without using the amp I could hear the tiny, plinky sounds the P-bass made well enough to learn how to get around on it.
I also played the trumpet in the junior high school Band, two hours per week during the school day, but after school I played bass guitar in a rock and roll “garage band” with its heady promise of raw sexual power. In theory at least, plugging in an electric guitar converted one’s testosterone into electrons, which were then broadcast directly into the brains of nearby females via an irresistible magnetic beam.
It turned out that we were the first generation of musicians steeped in the dual worlds of loud, electrified rock ‘n roll and softer, subtler unplugged jazz, folk, and classical music.
Jazz had discovered the electric guitar in the late 1930s with Charlie Christian, and Miles Davis embraced rock rhythms and all-electric combinations with his seminal 1971 albums Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Since then, electrified rock elements have been important contributors to whatever commercial success jazz has had in recent years. These days, the average listener is likely to encounter a live “jazz” performance not quite up to the volume of a heavy metal band, but very loud nonetheless.
As a young adult professional musician, I went through what I thought of then as reinventing myself as a “jazz bassist.” In my work I used both the solid-body electric bass guitar and the bass fiddle. According to the fashion of the time, I explored every known method of amplifying the fiddle. My aim was to produce a sound at least loud enough to compete with the other players who would show up to the job with their amps and gear. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was contributing to an endless “arms race” of upwardly spiraling volume levels.
The results were rarely satisfying. In all of my experimenting, I never found a pickup or amp that sounded as good to me as the unplugged bass fiddle did in my practice room at home. The more gear I bought, the more frustrated and disappointed I became. In 1990 Jim Cullum called to offer me an audition with his band in San Antonio with the stipulation that the bass position involved playing strictly unplugged. That immediately got my attention. Then, a phone conversation with bass legend Bob Haggart convinced me that this was the way to go.
Our friend Marty Grosz, acoustic guitarist, singer, raconteur and guest on Riverwalk Jazz, has a lot to say about how electrifying stringed instruments changes the way they function in a jazz setting. “With an amplifier, your sound is not coming out of you, it’s coming from behind you out of a box.” Furthermore, he says, the string height of electric instruments is usually so low that the player feels very little resistance under his fingers. Marty says, you’ve got to have that “fight” or a certain amount of stiffness, to create a pulse that swings.
During 14 happy unplugged, amp-less years with the Cullum band, I’ve come to learn that creating swinging rhythm involves some physical as well as mental effort. I realized why jazz performances captured on old 78-rpm disks often swing more and sound more alive than on more modern ones: The pre-electric player had to learn how to draw a living sound and swinging pulse out of a hollow wooden instrument by moving and controlling a resonating air column with sheer muscle power and musicality.
Now we’re getting somewhere!
Today my music room closet is full of pickups, cables, amps, pre-amps, equalizers, etc., gathering dust. I should probably get rid of all of it on eBay, but it’s nice to know it’s all there in case I have to “go electric” again. But by then it will all probably be way obsolete, and I’ll have to start over from scratch.
Here I am 6 years after I wrote this, living in Southwest Florida and free-lancing. Yup, my gear turned out to be way obsolete. After 19 unplugged years I awoke Rip Van Winkle-like to the world of amplified jazz. I’m using a Gage Realist pickup and an Acoustic Image amp. Sometimes plugging in is unavoidable, especially in those “special” situations where the crowd has been drinking and, their hearing slightly alcohol- impaired, they start barking at each other, even before the band starts playing. Other times it works better if I play unplugged so guests don’t have to shout to have a conversation. That way the rest of the guests who want to hear the music can do so. I’m lucky that I have a nice Mittenwald round-back bass from about 1920 that has a robust sound of its own, especially strung the way it is with high action and gut strings. I bought an electric bass but have not yet used it on a gig down here. And I’m working 7 nights a week. Not every gig situation (or drummer) is suitable for unplugged playing, but those that are are the ones I want.