Sometimes it takes a long time to get what you want.
When I finally determined that I wasn't going to be even comfortably miserable as a soldier in the army of Science Incorporated, back in college around the turn of the New Stone Age, I gracefully withdrew (we must not say "dropped out"), recalibrated my desires and switched schools and majors. My joke was always that I majored in Wandering Minstrelry with a minor in Electronic Music so I'd have a profession to fall back on, but that's precisely how it worked out. While I've made a substantial part of my living (still do, in fact) busking on random corners, I've also found myself up to my nits in synths and recording gear, mostly for my own amusement but also as a service to others not as versed in techicalese. In the interim between my graduation and my present happy state, EM metastasized into pretty much every part of music not anchored full fathom five in acoustic facism. If I'd actually stayed in the game I'd be some kind of senior programmer or sound designer, but there was that gypsy king-of-the-road streetnick thing performing not-unwelcome interventions at regular intervals to keep me poor but somewhat honest.
A couple years back, having lucked or stumbled into a de facto long-term residency playing outdoors in Seattle city parks (socialist arts at its finest, people), I was inspired by a little surplus income and an abiding dissatisfaction with the Same Old Same Old I'd been playing for eight or nine years to attempt to combine my avocation and my vocation as my two eyes make one in sight (yes, Robert Frost. So?), rigging up a portable electronic act. An old musician buddy had recently turned my attention to a new wireless MIDI pickup for guitar that allowed the player to play any instrument they wanted or could imagine right from the fingerboard and worked seamlessly with iPad sound apps, and my investigations into that pulled me down a rabbit hole into the wonderful world of iOS music, a seemingly endless variety of ridiculously affordable sound toys and utilities, all of which fit with ease into a happy little fondleslate. Flush from a recent construction bonanza (real musicians have day gigs), I dug right in, assembling pickup, iPad and assorted peripheral stuff to create what amounted to a one-man electronic jam band.
Almost immediately, though, I started scheming on yet another innovation I'd lusted after for years. I play a lot of different styles, including some without recognized names, and I'd always wanted a guitar that could emulate as many sounds as possible. Obviously, the MIDI pickup could cover the electronic end of things, and a decent electric to hang it on could do its part, but what about folkie stuff? In addition, I wanted something light to pack out to parks and way different in appearance from conventional instruments, to work that "people hear what they see" angle. If you play weird, you better look weird too.
I found a used Traveler guitar, an exotic design with no headstock and barely any body that was made to fit into overhead bins on airplanes, did a not-bad job emulating acoustic electric out of the box with an active piezo pickup under the saddle, and had room (barely) for the MIDI controller. For pure electric, I selected a mini humbucker of impeccable pedigree and had my skeptical luthier cram it in up at the neck for maximum jazzy-bluesy goodness. By the time I was done there was nearly more pickup than body. Just what I wanted.
Except. The neck pickup, with all its intricate coil-splitting phase-reversing wiring, sounded like, well, ass. Weak, muddy, bereft of character. My luthier had warned me of this: received internet wisdom nixed combining active and passive pickups, with workarounds that amounted to "It's complicated and it's not recommended." I had hoped, but apparently cats and dogs couldn't play nice together after all.
By this point I'd sunk enough cash into the beastie and just wanted to play it, which is what I did. The MIDI and piezo worked great, and I heard enough humbucker to silence my inner Scrooge grumbling about useless fripperies bah humbug. Half a loaf, glass half full, yaddah3. I used it all the summer and fall, receiving reviews ranging from enthusiastic approval and $20 tips to the parklounger who screamed obscenities in my face and had to be walked off the premises by a burly ranger. Everyone's a critic. There's an adage in the experimental arts world that if nobody hates what you're doing, you're not trying hard enough.
Still, next spring I went back to my older 12-string-harp-rack-snowshoe-cymbol stuff and felt none the worse for having laid off it for a year. The electronic show went under a table and I became engrossed in other projects. Short attention span, yaddah3. This season, though, park busking extended into the winter, and rather than permanently freeze my lips to a harmonica, I pulled the EM out. And surprise, began actually using the buck pup. Just turn it up, dummy! Jazzy noodling engulfed my sets just like I always wanted it to.
Last weekend I played in a benefit show for the New Old Time Chautauqua in Port Townsend and brought the rig along for recreational purposes. Wouldn't you know it, the musical saw player needed guitar backup. Wouldn't you know it, jacked into the bass amp and turned up to 8, tiny Frankenstein guitar performed awesomely. It's alive! It's alive!
But the best was yet to come. I got home and pulled the preamp battery for a recharge, and just on a whim I plugged Frankie in. Oh! That's what that pickup really sounds like! Apparently all those glowing reviews of the humbucker I'd chosen weren't fullapoop after all. And the secret to letting it loose was just to disconnect the piezo. Finally! 3! 3! 3 guitars in one!
I love it when a plan comes together.