Guitarists everywhere like to inform each other with condescending smiles that what younger guitarists are buying – the gear that they so strongly believe will make them better players – is all for naught.
“Gear doesn’t make the player.”
“Tone is in the fingers.”
“You’ll never sound like X, even if you played through their rig.”
And on and on and on.
Well, perhaps not entirely bull, but there’s still a conversation that needs to happen here because all the black and white mentality is getting a little irritating. There is OBVIOUSLY something to be said about gear and the quality of it if companies are depending on selling it in order to keep surviving in this tough economy.
Guitarists are saying that the gear doesn’t matter. Companies are saying that it does.
Guitarists say that you can pick a great guitarist – whichever guitarist if your favorite, go ahead and fill in the blank – and put them in a room with a Squier Bullet Strat and some lame-o (almost always referenced as a solid state for some reason) amp and they would sound exactly like they do every time they play on stage in arenas.
So why don’t they do just that?
It would certainly save on the touring budget. Imagine if, with the price of just one nice guitar (we’ll say $1,200.00) you can buy rigs for all four corners of the earth to tour with.
So how come that doesn’t happen?
Because gear matters. How could it not? Think about any boutique builder you’ve ever read about talking about wood. They knock on it and listen to how it sings, they sift through piles for the magic piece, and then they lovingly take a raw hunk of timber and turn it into your instrument – your vessel of artistic expression – and why did they do all that work if none of it mattered? Why not instead go to the local Home Depot, buy some thick plywood, and build a guitar from that?
Because it matters!
Now, I don’t mean to say guitarists aren’t right to some extent, but they’re going about it all wrong. This whole “there is no magic bullet, and you’ll never sound like your inspiration,” is a real downer. You know what other hard truths are out there for everyone?
1) You aren’t owed a sexually attractive mate just because you’re a nice person.
2) There is no Santa.
3) The promotion will probably go to someone else, and it probably won’t be based on merit.
4) There will probably be no windfall of karma turning your disappointing life toiling away doing the right things into something amazing like a modern day Count of Monte Cristo (minus the whole revenge thing).
But that doesn’t mean you just go around telling people these things. These are depressing facts that nobody NEEDS to say because they serve zero purpose whatsoever. All that matters is that right now someone’s happy and you hold the pin that could prick their balloon of happiness. Popping the balloon serves no purpose and makes nobody any happier, so why even consider it?
So maybe the overdrive pedal that the person bought was ridiculously overpriced to you. Did they use YOUR money to buy it? Are you impacted by this transaction in ANY way? And yes, it probably is a ridiculously overhyped pedal that the player will probably give up on in three weeks when they realize it didn’t magically turn them into whoever they were trying to be. Doesn’t that just mean they had three weeks of happiness?
Even if it was all a sham/racket/scam/shakedown/rip-off/sucker game, or just plain flim flam, what would be the point of telling someone that it doesn’t matter?
Consider the placebo effect: Placebos are drugs that aren’t drugs. They’re fake drugs – sugar pills in most cases – that are given as a control in drug experiments, but they have been shown time and time again to WORK. How crazy is that? WebMD – the ultimate source for finding out you’re dying right this very second, and probably from cancer – says that placebos have been effective for depression, menopause, pain, sleep disorders, and even irritable bowel syndrome. Real physical problems with real physical symptoms, yet fake drugs are sometimes able to shake the people free and give them back their normal life.
So say you have a friend who buys something that you know is just a placebo for guitar. A signature guitar that you know won’t make them sound like the signature artist, or the pedal that was bought second-hand at 400% the original asking price (they would have bought direct, but there was a huge wait and the Internet says that the batch from #35 to number #300 were magical in some way and, wouldn’t you know it, they bought #299!). You know because you’ve been around the block a time or two and know that it’s all smoke and mirrors and you want to tell your friend that they wasted their money and it doesn’t matter, but you pause and consider why. Failing to figure out one solitary good reason to rain on someone you love’s parade, you let them go and they go crazy with the piece of gear. It could be the missing link in their signal chain that makes them feel complete. It could be used in a way not necessarily intended, like when someone plays reggae on a Dimebag Darrel ML. It could make them experiment like crazy to find that hidden tone. It could make them dive into guitar only to come up for air WEEKS later, but they were playing and having fun the whole time. They may have even gotten a bit better with all that practice. At the very least they learned a bit more about gear before they decided to turn the piece around on eBay.
My point is this: even if you know it’s a placebo – even if it really is all snake oil, who is getting harmed? Nobody. But who is benefiting? Your pal, the guitarist, the people that make the gear, and anyone who benefits from people playing guitar more from crowds to the family members forced to endure their playing.
I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing as individual playing dynamics, nor am I saying that there is a magic substitute for practicing, but I am saying that, at the very least, gear is inspirational. Wanting more gear keeps us working, wanting it to sound the best possible keeps us practicing, and not wanting to have wasted our money keeps us playing it. We are inspired by aesthetics, we are inspired by sound, and we are inspired by hype. As cool guitarists, we act jaded and unexcited about so many things, but this stuff is exciting!
Gear matters, people! It may not matter in the way you think it does, but it matters. There is no need to go around popping people’s balloons. There is no reason to be that prick that ruins someone’s day. Because chances are you are looked up to and you’ll take away any magic that the gear may have had. Instead, when someone pulls you to their board, clicks on their pedal, or strums their open A and looks at you with that maniacal grin because they just know you’re going to hear the difference, embrace it! Tell them you hear something! Have they been practicing? Oh, it’s JUST THE GEAR that made the improvement in tone? Well rock on, guitarist friend!
So long as they keep playing, right?