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Great tone or Speed?

MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
I've been noticing over the last several years that the standards for Gypsy guitar set ups have been changing. It used to be that most players were playing with fairly high action, 3.5mm or higher. That set up produces incredible tone, but takes a lot more technique to play well. Many of the younger players seem to be forsaking tone for speed. I've seen pretty low setups on the guitars of Samson Schmitt, Moses Rosenberg, etc. Even many of the greatest tonemeisters seem to be going with lower action these days: Stochelo Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre, Bireli, Boulou Ferre etc.

The lower action has definitely allowed many of the players to break the previous speed barrier...but in many cases it's come at the cost of tone. In my opinion, the best Gypsy tone on record is on this CD:

Stochelo's Selmer just sounds so fat on this can also here it on this classic CD:

But in recent years Stochelo, like many players, has gone with a lower set up. I think this is partially due to the physical demands required of playing a high action guitar. Technically, I think Stochelo was at his prime in the previous recordings which were done in the early 90s. My guess is that he was practicing and playing constantly back then....but he probably has a more relaxed attitude these days which probably makes it hard to play fast on a high action guitar. Bireli seems to have also gone the same route....Bireli has a great tone on the Gypsy project CDs, but it's still not ideal for me.

Anyway, I started this poll to see what people think. What really matters? Tone or speed? Would many of today's players be better off playing a little slower but with a high action set up?



  • aa New York City✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 800
    i think what matters most is how the strings feel. i think that it doesn't matter what guitar you play, so long as you feel minimum tension when your pick goes through the strings. if you play in the sweet spot, you can get a good sound out of most guitars.

    and as far as tone goes, i think jimmy rosenberg has the best tone out there right now. lot's of sustain, volume, and overtones for vibrato. and speed.

    also, it is really hard to compare tones from recordings, because the equipment and techniques they use to make the recordings have a lot to do with how the guitars sound on CDs.

    also, higher action can kill tone on some guitars by reducing the amount overtones. instead of rasing the bridge super high, i think there's a way to adjust the truss rod so that it feels higher.
    Learn how to play Gypsy guitar:
  • Ken BloomKen Bloom Pilot Mountain, North CarolinaNew
    Posts: 164
    For me, the speed is impressive at first but I get awfully bored with it with repeated listenings. The thing that always stood out to me about Django's playing was that he had all the chops in the world but used them rather selectively. His ability to play at blistering speeds was just one tool in the box. He was pecfectly happy to let the band chug along and leave some nice significant spaces when it suited his own personal vision.
    I've been listening to the two most recent Lolo Meier Cds and what I love is the tone and the fact that he doesn't hit me over the head with pure chops. The thing that always attracted me to Django's playing was the heart and expressiveness that was always there. The labeling arguments I leave to others. I will always prefer expressiveness and rich and varied tone over speed. I guess that means I'm not 20 anymore.
    Ken Bloom
  • Craig BumgarnerCraig Bumgarner Drayden, MarylandVirtuoso Bumgarner S/N 001
    Posts: 794
    You guys have ESP. No less than one hour ago, I took my .010" Argies off, cranked less relief into the neck via the truss rod and put on a set of .011". MUCH better action, faster, but the sound........? Well, it sounds like I'm hitting a pillow with a rubber hose (howz that for an image?). That is to say "DUD". All the character is gone.

    No free lunch, eh?

  • MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
    Posts: 5,891
    Well, it sounds like I'm hitting a pillow with a rubber hose (howz that for an image?).

    Nice one! :D
  • Craig BumgarnerCraig Bumgarner Drayden, MarylandVirtuoso Bumgarner S/N 001
    Posts: 794
    Regards speed vs. tone. Speed sells. Listen to live shows and recordings. When does the crowd go nuts? On the fast, gymnastic stuff, right? Performers like to please, fact of life. So speed trumps most everything else: tone, musicality,character.... most of the time.

    Then, as Ken says, there's Django.

  • ShawnShawn Boise, Idaho✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 295
    Tone wins 100% of the time for me.

    I think many young musicians (I say this being only 26 myself) in many genre's have no idea what musical phrasing is. I am not particularly fond of speed myself, nor am I fond of listening to an entire song where only one instrument plays the melody...something I will always admire about Django.

    I cannot stand listening to much of the Rosenberg Trio's music or similar artists who don't usually incorporate other instruments into their music. This is why I pretty much only listen to Django when it comes to Gypsy's not an entire song of JUST guitar...he was always able to create the perfect blend of violin, guitar, bass, clarinet, sax, etc., etc. Each instrument was given its time and place.

    Music to me is not about how fast and astonishing something can be played, but rather how it is played and when it is played and with what feeling is being conveyed. One of my personal favorite pieces from Django is "Improvisation on Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Andante" which is a very slow piece, but played in such a way that it nearly brings tears to my eyes everytime I hear it. In fact, I don't think I have ever heard a more beautiful solo from Django than on this's simply the right notes at the right time with the right feeling...and he doesn't over-do it!

    Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest.
  • MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
    Posts: 5,891
    It's kind of like pro cycling....they have a super streamlined bike for time trials, a feather weight bike for climbing, and a comfortable bike for long distance road riding.

    So maybe performance standards are getting so high we need to start switching guitars on every song just so we can perform at 110% all the time! A low action buttery guitar for the fast stuff, a high action guitar with great tone for the ballads, and a louder then hell guitar for volume challenged situations. Or maybe do the Jimmy Page thing and have a triple neck Selmer that does it all! :D
  • ElliotElliot Madison, WisconsinNew
    edited April 2007 Posts: 551
    I need light strings, low tension, and low action for this kind of playing. My ultimate concern for tone lessens when I can't hit the notes on time.

    I don't think this is a case of speed for speed's sake, just that the basic standard for Gypsy Jazz lead playing is pretty freakin' high. Maybe one can partly blame the Astuces books, (especially II) on which Angelo cruelly registers some of his most deft playing anywhere. I think it is part of the whole 'diabolique' aura that surrounds him.
  • BluesBop HarryBluesBop Harry Mexico city, MexicoVirtuoso
    Posts: 1,378
    Speed by itself does little for me.
    I want to hear and feel music, if I wanted to be impressed I`d go watch Michael Jordan... or to the circus...
    One of the things that I enjoy most about Django is that he never sacrifices music for flash. He can play blindingly fast but doesn't all the time. I love fast playing but not at the expense of beauty.
    Many of the younger players are missing out on the musicality aspect I think.
    While in Paris I saw some guys just using songs as an excuse to solo over as fast as they could, often forsaking the melody completely. Playing "Melodie au crepuscule" and just starting the song blazing and not even hinting at the beautiful theme Django composed. That totally turns me off.
    A combination of both speed and good tone are the ideal for me,
    but if it has to be one or the other I`d always go for tone.
  • asd123321asd123321 ✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 119
    When Leo Eimer said he was aiming for a more acoustic sound in Stochelo's guitar pickup system, I was betting Stochelo was going to lose his sound. I think people should urge him to go back to his old instrument and setup for recordings.
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