Actually, maybe a couple of them – men AND women, by the way – would have sounded better with one simple change in their acts. And that would be to invest in a decent sounding amplifier, sound system, or on-board guitar pick-up. Perhaps all those things. Beating up a guitar does not generate excitement or interest and if you combine that “style” of playing with the raspy, harsh, abrasive sound of a poor sound system or cheap electronics in a guitar you have a recipe for being very, very annoying, at best.
Wait a minute, Gene, you may be thinking. These are bars, not concerts for goodness sake. Being loud and piercing and in-your-face is a time honored tradition in bars that have live music. The idea is to get people drinking and keep them drinking, At some point the music may even begin to sound, uh, good (??).
Here’s the thing. Ten or twenty years ago there may have been a shred of validity in that line of thinking but not today. As with almost everything electronic, guitar amplification has come a long way in a short amount of time. For a few hundred dollars anyone can buy an amplifier specifically designed to be used with acoustic guitars that sounds very, very good. If someone is willing to purchase a guitar with a high quality pick-up and a few add-ons like a tube pre-amp are used the sound that comes out is almost as good as what you hear on a home stereo system or through earphones and an MP3 player. Even an average quality acoustic guitar can be retro-fitted with a superb sounding pick-up for relatively short money.
So why do we still hear that annoying, tinny sound coming from performers, not just in Key West but everywhere? In some cases it may be out of the performer’s control. I know a local bar owner who insists that performers use his house PA system, which makes everyone playing there sound like they’re singing with a pillow over their head and thousand dollar guitars sound like something made out of an old cardboard box. I suspect that this bar owner doesn’t want a performer using a superior system of their own because his regular customers would realize just how crappy his system really is. He is a notoriously umm…. frugal guy so he’s not likely to buy something new. In this case the performer is stuck. Go there and do a gig and sound like crap, regardless of how good a performer really may be, or don’t do the gig at all.
I’ve also witnessed performances by individuals and bands who had more than adequate electronics but just didn’t know how to adjust and use the stuff to its maximum capability. To me, this is just laziness, an addiction to the “plug in and play” mentality of today’s electronic devices of every type. Sure, we all want the process of setting up and doing a sound check to be quick and easy (hey wait! What’s a sound check?! Just kidding…. ) but while you may be able to zero in on basic settings of things like volume and equalization, every room has different characteristics when amplification is used. Having someone you know and trust stand in different places in a room and carefully listen to the sound you’re getting is essential in my opinion.
Another issue is something over which the performer has no control: crowd noise. Every performer I know, myself included, has at some point succumbed to the temptation of battling the crowd for auditory supremacy. The crowd grows as the night progresses, the drinks flow and talk gets louder. Pretty soon the music becomes a droning undercurrent in the cacophony and the performer has but two choices. Play louder and it’s likely the crowd will just shout more until everyone realizes it’s impossible to carry on a conversation – and that’s the band’s fault, right?! Or the band or single performer can just suck it up and keep on playing at a reasonable level, knowing that few if any of the crowd can hear them. There is a story about the Beatles playing their famous Shea Stadium concert when the screaming of the girls was so loud that at some points John and Paul just mouthed the words of certain songs, not even bothering to try to sing. Playing a very loud room is almost always a no-win situation and quality of sound doesn’t even enter the picture.
I guess all I’m saying in this rant is that while there are times when the situation is out of the control of the performer, many times there is an alternative to excessive volume coupled with awful sound characteristics. If you are considering buying an acoustic/electric guitar and an amp or PA, take your time, play and/or listen to as many set-ups as possible before making a decision. Or if you have a friend who is an experienced player or performer, ask their advice. And by all means, have a clear idea of what you DON’T want, sound-wise! There is no need to settle for inferior sound quality via electronics even if your budget is modest.
Peace & good music,