Fact or Fiction? We address eight commonly disputed guitar myths

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Fact or Fiction? We address eight commonly disputed guitar myths

guitar myths
Words by Mixdown Staff

Busting the best guitar myths out in the wild!

It’s no big secret that the music community loves a good myth. Whether it’s the infamous Paul is Dead conspiracy or Billy Corgan claiming that paint colour can have an effect on a guitar’s tone, there are plenty of excellent conspiracies out there that are guaranteed to cause debate between cantankerous musicians on comment sections or the dark corners of internet forums. And guitar myths are no different.

In today’s era of fake news, it’s even harder for many to discern whether the opinion of some anonymous guitarist on an internet forum is legitimate or pure and simple bullshit, and here at Mixdown, we stand in staunch opposition to such conduct.

As a result, today, we’re putting on our tinfoil hats in an attempt to debunk some of the most famous guitar myths purported over time.

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

Do heavier string gauges make for a fatter tone?

Perhaps you’re one of the many players out there who, in the endless quest for pure tone, have whacked a set of heavy gauge strings on your guitar in order to beef up your playing sound. Logically speaking, this make a lot of sense – if there’s more metal vibrating over a pickup’s magnetic field, then yes, there’ll be more output which in turn creates a bigger sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan, for instance, was famous for using 13 – 58 gauge strings on his Strats for his remarkably fat tone, and Zakk Wylde is also known for going all the way up to 60 on some of his guitars.

However, there really is no need to punish your fingertips with heavy strings if you do want a big tone as guitar myths like this purport. Players like Jimmy Page forged incredibly huge tones and played strings as light as 8, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons switched to a super-light 7 gauge after B.B King called him out on his bullshit backstage one night. At the end of the day, it’s worth experimenting with as many different strings as you can until you find the right fit for you, but there’s absolutely no point making your fingers bleed on 13s in the off-chance it makes you sound like SRV.

Do true bypass pedals make your tone better?

True bypass is one of those buzzwords you see all over the internet when you’re looking up guitar pedals, yet a surprising number of guitarists have no idea what it actually means. Essentially, a true bypass pedal makes use of a direct route between its input and output, so that your overall signal doesn’t go through the effect’s circuit. That means when you switch the pedal off, your tone should be the exact same as it would be if you were plugging directly into the amplifier itself – hence, the circuitry is truly bypassed.

Does a true bypass pedal ensure a better tone than a pedal that doesn’t feature it or is this one of the great guitar myths? Technically, the answer is yes, providing your idea of a better tone is that of a pure signal unadulterated by dodgy wiring or vintage circuits. If you’re using a handful of true bypass pedals and are experiencing some ‘tone-sucking’, it might be worth using a tone buffer pedal, or even considering a shorter cable length

Can I get electrocuted from an electric guitar?

Yes, you can receive an electric shock from a guitar, and yes, it can be dangerous. If you’ve experienced a minor shock from an electric guitar or a microphone, it means your guitar amplifier or mixer is improperly grounded, and poses the potential to be a serious risk for your personal safety. Several big name guitarists like Keith Richards and Ace Frehly have both spoken about receiving huge electrical shocks through ungrounded gear, and Keith Relf, lead singer of The Yardbirds, died from electrocution while practicing guitar in his cellar in 1976.

If you’re experiencing a minor shock when you’re playing guitar and singing into a microphone, it means your gear is in serious need of servicing, and you should probably switch off your amplifier or mixer and immediately take it to a tech. It’s worth having some degree of an understanding of electrical currents and what can be dangerous – we recommend checking out the video below.

Is it bad for my guitar neck if I take all the strings off my guitar at once?

This is less of a myth, and more of a misinterpretation. If you go ahead and snip all of your guitar strings when they’re tuned to pitch, then yes, you could do some damage to your neck, and it’s also just a bad look – don’t be that person.

However, if you loosen your strings so that they’re slack over the fretboard before you go ahead and snip them, you and your neck will be totally fine. Just make sure you check your intonation and ensure you really stretch your strings out when you chuck a new set on, and you’ll be laughing.

Can I lose an eye from a snapped guitar string?

I’m sure all of us have had this thought run through our head at some stage when winding up a taut high E string. The idea of a guitar string snapping mid-wind and flicking upwards into your eye is something that terrifies even the staunchest of shredders, and there’s a fair few stories of some guitarists copping some nasty minor injuries from overly tight strings snapping.

After some research, I’ve found no discernible evidence to confirm that anyone has ever lost their eye from a guitar string snapping and hitting their eyeball, which leads me to assume that it is an unlikely phenomena – but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. If you’re worried about this happening, just do the safe thing and face the guitar away from your line of sight while playing or restringing, or better yet, wear a pair of safety goggles. Common sense really works wonders sometimes.

Can boiling bass strings make them sound better?

We all know that bass strings are among the most exorbitant musical expense out there, and most bassists will do all they can to avoid shelling out the clams on a new set of strings when their old ones are on the way out. For some, this means giving their strings the al dente treatment by throwing them into a pot and boiling them in an effort to create a snappier tone. But is this an effective solution, or just another one of the big guitar myths?

Funnily enough, there’s actually an element of truth to this. Boiling your bass strings will loosen them and get rid of all the gunk and grime that gets stuck to your strings and deadens them over weeks of playing, which in turn will make for a slightly better tone. Obviously, this trick doesn’t work with coated strings or flatwounds, and it’s not going to make your bass sound like it’s been decked out with an entirely fresh set of strings, but it’s definitely an option worth exploring if you’re living life on the cheap side – and let’s face it, if you’re a bassist, then you probably are.

Do nitrocellulose-finished guitars sound better than polyurethane-finished guitars?

This is one you’ll see a lot of vintage snobs fervently debating over on forum boards, and it’s certainly a worthwhile debate. In the golden era of electric guitar manufacturing, companies like Fender and Gibson used nitrocellulose lacquer finishes on their guitars, which is considered to provide better sustain and allow for a better tone due to its porous nature. In contrast, modern polyurethane finishes provide better protection to the guitar and are also less harmful on the environment, but are said to be constrictive on tonewoods and can neuter a guitar’s sustain.

The answer for this one is a bit murky, and tends to lay within each player’s own subjective experiences with nitro and poly-finished guitars. Ultimately, a nitro-finished guitar mightn’t always sound as good as a modern poly-finished guitar, but it will undeniably feel better than a poly-finished guitar in most cases. That being said, most manufacturers now apply a much thinner coat of polyurethane than they did when it was first introduced back in the day, so realistically, it’s not as big a deal as a lot of vintage purists make it out to be. Unless you can afford a vintage Fender, it shouldn’t be seen as a dealbreaker in today’s guitar market.

Do older guitars really sound better than new ones?

Continuing on from the above debate about nitro versus poly finishes, there’s a lot of players out there who believe that vintage gear sounds better than modern gear. In some respects, this can be true – back in the day, guitars weren’t mass-produced to the extent they are now, and probably received a lot more TLC than your average production line Stratocaster or Les Paul does today. There’s also a much scarcer supply of the coveted tonewoods that many of those vintage builds were crafted from today, with manufacturers facing huge fines today if they’re caught out using endangered tonewoods such as Brazilian rosewood and Malagasy ebony.

So, do older guitars sound better than new guitars? The truth is: there’s no easy answer. Like the old brand name debate, it really does come down to a case-by-case basis. That being said, an acoustic guitar with an aged top is likely to sound better than a newer acoustic guitar, but a newer acoustic guitar with an aged top will undoubtedly smoke an old plywood parlour guitar from the ’50s. Moral of the story: do your research, and don’t buy anything online without playing it unless you’re 100% certain it’s the one for you. And don’t take all guitar myths for fact because John Doe said so!

This article was originally published July 20, 2020.

Find more on guitar myths here.