Having both begun playing guitar about this time last year, in this post Xan Nowakowski and J. Sumerau collaboratively reflect on some ways people interpret and use guitars in ways that signify meaning about themselves, music, and the wider social world.
One of the things we have enjoyed most about learning to play guitar is learning about guitars themselves, and all the different ways musicians interpret these objects. How does a guitar become an iconic element of a musician’s act – and indeed, of their image beyond that act? How do people assign meaning to their guitars? In a dramaturgical sense, what does these objects signify to people using them and / or witnessing their use?
There is perhaps no more suitable case to start such a conversation than Willie Nelson’s undying, singular devotion to a specific guitar. Since the beginning of his career, Nelson has played his beloved Martin acoustic guitar “Trigger” to the exclusion of all other instruments. These days Trigger sports a large hole in the body and shows ample signs of wear, but Nelson plays it with all the affection of an eager beginner. An introvert by all accounts, Nelson finds comfort in familiar things, and most of all in his first guitar. In the electric world, a cartoon, Metalocalypse, offers a similar example. Dethklok lead guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf, whose parts are played in real life by show creator Brandon Small, is rarely seen without his trademark Gibson Explorer. Without the guitar, he becomes an awkward shell of himself, unsure of what to say or do.
Just as Trigger’s familiarity and reliability is a source of comfort for Nelson, dependability and consistency are also considerations for many other guitarists. Consider how many musicians, for example, rely on brand-name versions or licensed copies of the Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul. These two instrument lines have become industry standards in the world of electric music, just as Martin guitars remain iconic stalwarts of acoustic offerings around the globe. Indeed, many guitarists who prize function and a “known quantity” with their sound above all else return time and again to the Strat or the Paul.
Take Eric Clapton, for instance. Renowned as one of the world’s greatest guitarists in a wide variety of electric and acoustic styles, Clapton returns time and again to his two favorite guitars –both Fender Stratocasters. “Blackie” and “Brownie” are plain, standard-issue Strats with exactly the body colors their names suggest. Write Where It Hurts editor and SSSI Music guest contributor Xan Nowakowski often plays a pale silver Gaspar 3R, which is a licensed Stratocaster copy made by a local Tampa Bay company, and likewise loves its versatility and dependability with little excess. SSSI Music and Write Where It Hurts editor J Sumerau, however, prefers hir bright red Fender Starcaster, a less expensive modification of the Strat favored heavily by grunge musicians, for its durability and rugged sound.
Sentimental value is also a key consideration for many guitarists, not just people like Nelson who play a single instrument for their whole career. Some musicians gravitate towards instruments they idolized as children. Our Assistant Editor at Write Where It Hurts, Lain Mathers, knows a bit about this as ze recently gave hir young nephew a used Gibson SG for Christmas. Some of the most famous guitarists around have similar stories. Motley Crue multi-instrumentalist Nikki Sixx talks of longing for the Les Paul he saw through a shop window, and painstakingly saving enough money to buy it. An instrument acquired through hard work and careful planning can become an incredible symbol of perseverance for musicians – sign equipment indicating the ability to see a dream through to completion.
Guitars can also signify a variety of aesthetic preferences, both visually and auditorily. Folk-rock guitarist KT Tunstall creates an edgy yet glamorous image for herself with Fender Jaguar guitars decked out in every possible bit of sparkle and glitz. Tom Petty, master of all things strange and fantastical in his songwriting and music videos, favors eye-catching Rickenbacker models in bold colors. Blues legend Bonnie Raitt got noticed with a glittering blue Fender Stratocaster before blowing audiences away with her incredible technical proficiency. Metal guitarists like Lita Ford and Wendy O. Williams have delighted in instruments with an aggressive, harsh aesthetic to help show their toughness to audiences for a genre traditionally dominated by males.
Yet aesthetics seldom come at the expense of function. Indeed, Ford still favors one of the all-time classic instruments of heavy metal, a BC Rich Warlock Metal Master. Designed with input from Slayer guitarist Kerry King, one of the founding musicians of shred technique, the Warlock brings together the piercing wail of early specialized guitars for metal with the full-bodied sound one would expect from a blues or jazz guitar. Xan just recently purchased a Warlock at a steep discount when a shop was getting ready to discard it because of a damaged headstock.
Xan’s Warlock is an example of how the story behind a guitar can become part of a guitarist’s own story – their character arc in the grand play of life. In Xan’s case, they restored the Warlock using tools they had at home and got it looking just about perfect, without ever having to pay anything close to list price. If you know Xan in person, you know they love few things so much as do-it-yourself projects and getting a good deal. Being able to share an instrument with the likes of Ford, King, and Overkill multi-instrumentalist DD Verni is also a selling point, of course. A guitarist often fashions themselves in the image of musicians whose styles they wish to emulate; this can apply to the visual presentation of self as much as the auditory.
Repairing a damaged headstock is also small potatoes in the world of what some guitarists will do to craft their signature image and sound. Keith Richards, for example, has long been known for removing strings from his Fender Telecasters – he favors a partial-hollowbody sunburst model from 1972 just like the one J plays out on zir front porch some nights. Removing one of the E strings allows Richards more control over his sound, and a way to conceal the amount of functional limitation he lives with in his hands due to nerve damage from years of heroin use. Richards is an icon for both Xan and J, albeit for different reasons. You would not find Xan playing something as heavy as J’s ’72 Telecaster, nor would you find J constantly exploring the possibilities of rhythm guitar. But we both appreciate Richards’s stripped-down, back-to-basics approach as well as his outspoken opinions on the importance of studying and celebrating classic blues and jazz artists’ who often received little mainstream credit or recognition, as well as honing in on technique by practicing without tons of amplifier or pedal effects.
A guitarist’s body and their instrument may become one in many ways, but the guitar also becomes a way to extend the body and make it either larger than life or small and contained. Former Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash, a physically smaller person who often felt very uncomfortable being in the spotlight, cultivates his iconic look with classic Les Paul models that offer big sound without a large body. By contrast, a larger musician like Blues Traveler frontman John Popper or Heart bass guitarist Ann Wilson may load themselves up with big instruments and gear as a way of negotiating judgments passed on their bodies, and reaping some of the benefits of conforming more to expected norms of physicality.
We see these patterns in our own playing too. Xan personally loves the Warlock not only for how powerful it sounds, but also for how fierce it looks – a tough mask on a body often perceived as fragile from a lifetime of chronic gastrointestinal inflammation’s inevitable consequences. It is small and light as guitars go, but potent in its sound and vicious in its image. Likewise, their steel-string acoustic Yamaha folk guitar is small in size but big in volume, producing an experience more akin to playing electric with a warm, rich vibrato unique to acoustic instruments. J, who has a very different set of aesthetic preferences in presenting hirself, likes any guitar that looks old even if it is brand-new, a Fender T-Bucket acoustic being the latest addition. It looks well-loved and shopworn, a bit like J hirself and everything else about the image ze presents – comfortable, approachable, lived-in, experienced, a bit rough around the edges but soft beneath the surface. Whereas Xan wants their guitars to tell the world they are bigger than their body gives them credit for, as singer-songwriter John Mayer once put it, J communicates a sense of approachability and gentleness to contextualize hir big and tough physical appearance.
The things guitars can signify about a musician are endless. Def Leppard bass guitarist Rick Savage is famous for playing Fender Jazzmasters emblazoned with Union Jack flags, embracing their British nationality and culture. Pioneering guitarist Jimi Hendrix took the world by storm, changing the very face of electric guitar on the wings of his trusty black and white Stratocasters – a nod, perhaps, to the racial politics of his peek career years. Cabaret musician Aurelio Voltaire pushes mariachi guitars to their limits, his Cuban heritage embraced and extended by experimentation with traditional Mexican and Central American genres as well as the classical techniques of his ancestors’ homeland. Guitars can also symbolize sexuality in a variety of ways, whether by how one moves their body while playing or by the incorporation of sound and design elements traditionally regarded as masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Queer musicians Melissa Ethridge, KD Lang, and the late Freddie Mercury offer excellent examples.
Decorating one’s guitar can also provide a means of expressing political beliefs. Some queer musicians have decked their instruments out in rainbow or pastel colors in support of LGBTQ rights. Others musicians have added explicitly political statements in text. Perhaps the most infamous example is Woody Guthrie’s “this machine kills fascists” in felt-tip marker on the body of his folk guitar, a message that modern guitarists like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco (sidetone this link takes you to a space to download the new Wilco record for free) have embraced and incorporated into their own music in various ways. Tweedy’s bandmate Nels Cline, by contrast, focuses almost exclusively on sound with little consideration for image or message. Cline plays a broad range of styles, from jazz and blues to classic rock and metal.
Indeed, guitars can symbolize prized elements of music itself for an artist. Cline illustrates handily how musical influences are a common theme in many guitarists’ choices of instruments, playing everything from Dobro resonators to Jaguar jazz electrics. Alice Cooper touring guitarist Nita Strauss plays a series of Stratocaster copies made by Ibanez, an unmistakable nod to Iron Maiden guitarists Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris, whose music she regularly reproduces with fellow members of the all-female “Iron Maidens” tribute band.
Strauss and her Iron Maidens counterparts also suggest how guitars can become memorable signifiers of an artist’s proficiency, not just as a nod to one’s idols but also as indicators of how one has achieved and even exceeded those high standards. Eddie Van Halen, for example, regularly plays two-necked guitars, as does Alex Lifeson of Rush, both regarded to be all-time greats of the hard rock genre. Shred virtuoso Michael Angelo Batio takes this form of sign equipment to another level by regularly playing guitars with four necks, arranged in a massive “X” shape. Watching Batio play is a surreal experience that quickly drives home why he consistently tops lists of the world’s fastest and most proficient guitarists.
In fact, the potential of signification contained within guitars is likely only matched by the variation in the sounds they can produce in different people’s hands. Take, for example, the iconic ingenuity and pure genius of a black Les Paul in the hands of B.B. King, and you find a series of instruments capable of simultaneously becoming trademarks of an artists’ appearance, generators of vast mythologies concerning their names, origins, and the stories they could tell, and facilitators of some of the most fascinating guitar licks many people have ever heard in person or on a stereo. In much the same way a guitar may produce any of an infinite possibility of sounds in the right hands, it may just as easily produce, signify, or contain any of an infinite possibility of meanings tied to the experiences, emotions, and tastes of a given artist.
Here we have explored how guitars can become sign equipment for the musicians who play them and the audiences who listen to them. Guitar accounts for the vast majority of our own time playing music, and occupies a special place in our hearts because of the ways in which it has enriched our intimate relationship with one another and our own individual processes of coping with trauma. That said, interactionists could easily extend this framework to other types of instruments as well. Think about your favorite musicians and how they present themselves through their instruments and the accessories that accompany them. What do you notice that catches your eyes and ears? What kind of stories – about them, about the world, about the audience – do these objects generate? In short, what do guitars mean to and for the people who use them, listen to them, look at them, or otherwise interact with them?