Is it the gear, or not?
One point that guitarists will debate ad infinitum is this: "Is it the gear or the player that makes great music?" On the surface, the answer seems obvious: It's the player. No amount of gear is going to produce music by itself. Photographer Ken Rockwell argues a similar point in his article, Why Your Camera Does Not Matter. He asks:
Why is it that with over 60 years of improvements in cameras, lens sharpness and film grain, resolution and dynamic range that no one has been able to equal what Ansel Adams did back in the 1940s?
Why don't you take a moment and read Ken's article. you certainly don't have to be a photographer to appreciate his arguments.
I think that Rockwell may be guilty of overstating his case to make a point. For example:
Your equipment DOES NOT affect the quality of your image. The less time and effort you spend worrying about your equipment the more time and effort you can spend creating great images. The right equipment just makes it easier, faster or more convenient for you to get the results you need.
It's pretty easy to debunk that by using extreme examples and specific cases. As guitarists we do that all the time. Witness the endless arguments about the merits of a "good guitar and crappy amp versus a crappy guitar and a good amp". Like Rockwell, I think we make certain assumptions about what constitutes a minumum acceptable level of quality even for a crappy piece of gear.
Rockwell later brings it back to earth with the simple statement:
Photographers make photos, not cameras.
The parallel to our situation is obvious. No amount of shopping will replace talent, technique or vision.
Photographer Kevin Borque covers the same basic issue, with respect to photographers and their gear, in his article Confessions of a recovering magic bullet chaser.
Although Borque's article is a bit more technical, it's pretty easy to get the gist of his argument. He writes:
The sad truth is that there are no magic bullets, no single-shot miracle cures. Good prints are the result of many incremental improvements. Furthermore, gross errors in one area can completely mask improvements in other areas. To see lots of improvement, you have to make lots of changes. Not just any changes, but the RIGHT ones.
Both Rockwell's and Borque's articles, as I read them, are basically saying that you can not buy creative excellence. I think Borque did a better job of qualifying this in his discussion of tools vs. the "effectiveness" of the practitioner. Bourque says, basically, that better tools will make a difference if not limited by the practitioner. Again, the parallel to our situation (as guitarists) is obvious.
However, I think that the analogy between guitars and cameras as creative tools breaks down if you push it too far.
The feedback between photographer and equipment takes a long time. The physical process of creating a photograph may take anywhere from minutes to days.
The feeback between musician and instrument, however, is nearly instantaneous. The musician can go directly from intuition to music whereas the photographer must be relatively deliberate and intentional. There are elements of skill and creativity in both disciplines; my point is simply that playing an instrument is more immediately gratifying (or grating, as the case may be) than making a photograph.
It's the close, immediate connection between instrument and player that really sets the guitarist apart from the photographer. The guitarist has many more opportunities to explore and express nuances of his chosen tool. For that reason, I believe that the guitarist stands to benefit from seeking an "ideal" instrument more than the photographer does by seeking "better" gear.
Of course, the end result is still dependent upon the skill and creativity of the guitarist. A hack with a vintage Les Paul and Plexi is still a hack...