David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: attitude, evaluation, fetishism, goals, human nature, marketing hype, motivation, philosophy, @musings info

Balancing music vs. gear aquisition

Every now and then I hear from someone who's confronting the issue of gear vs. talent. These people want to know whether they're wasting time and money by having nice gear or lots of gear (or lots of nice gear) at a time when they perceive their playing abilities to be relatively weak. This kind of introspection is counterbalanced by players who view collecting gear as a hobby in and of itself, largely independent from one's ability to play. I believe that there's a beneficial balance to be struck somewhere between these extremes.

If you're feeling angst about your playing ability relative to your gear, the best way to cope is to deemphasize the gear and focus your attention on music. Maybe put away all but one of the guitars... Focus on playing just with the one guitar, amp, and pedal. Keep it simple. Too many choices can be distracting and frustrating.

There are lots of good educational resources on the net. Find them with Google. Learn something new - that helps to keep interest up. If you're stuck in the "blues box", check out some of the jazz instructional materials. I'm not saying you should learn to play jazz, but even starting to understand the theory that the jazz guys know cold will expand your musical vocabulary and give you plenty of inspiration.

Practice quietly. There's nothing more annoying than being dissatisfied with your playing and hearing it in all its non-glory at stage volumes. Turn it down and listen hard. Explore the nuances of your instrument: fingers vs. pick, plucking at different places along the length of the strings, different intensities, etc. Work on finding all the different sounds that your rig can produce.

Go easy on the distortion. It's a useful trick sometimes, but it can also homogenize your playing. Learn to play clean, and add distortion when you're sure of what you're doing.

Read Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo.

If you're still frustrated, take a break for a few days, a week or even a month or so. Enjoy life. Come back to the guitar when you're ready, bringing a fresh perspective.

On the other extreme is the player who has an obsession with gear. I believe that this is a bigger problem, driven by quirks of personality and societal pressures.

I see no problem with the hobby of collecting gear. Just don't kid yourself that it's going to improve your playing over the long term. If you want to get better at playing, it helps to be of the mind that you'll work with the gear you have until you hit an insurmountable barrier to progress based upon the gear. It also helps to have a long-term goal so you don't give yourself an excuse to buy new gear every time you want to try a "different style". Stylistic differences are still mostly in the playing and not in the gear; tone changes are just icing on the cake.

If you identify with a particular musical scene you'll experience pressure to have the "proper" gear. Every scene becomes consumption-oriented over time. The hippies, the punks, the "weekend warrior guitarists", ... you name it. In all of these scenes, you must maintain a certain minimum standard of ownership of the "right" products in order to be taken seriously. That doesn't mean that everyone who has the right gear is a credible member of the scene; there are plenty of people who want to buy credibility rather than earn it the hard way. As long a you can tell the difference between someone who "gets it" and a poser with lots of disposable income (or mummy's credit card), that's all that matters.

Large musical instrument companies sell gear at a wide range of price points. Boutique makers carve out their niche at the highest price points. Some people view ownership of the more expensive gear as granting membership into a semi-exclusive club. There's even a bit of a superiority complex evident in some players' attitudes when their justification is, "I can afford this, so why shouldn't I have the best?" Meanwhile the folks who can't (or won't) pay the higher prices believe that there's little or no benefit to be had from the extra expenditure. Sometimes there's a bit of reverse snobbery at work - "I saved thousands of dollars and got something just as good."

Well... there's two parts to this, right? There's the "prestige pricing" and there's the way the "haves" treat the "have nots". Neither of those is unique to the field of musical instruments. All kinds of companies make big bucks catering to people who like to own expensive things.

The difference between a guitar and something more pedestrian - a car or a home theatre system, for example - is that the guitar depends more on the owner to be able to realize its potential.

By way of contrast, the guy who drives the Mercedes really can't do much more with the car (except perhaps attract women who are attracted to money) than the guy who drives a Ford. They're on the same road, in the same traffic, following (or bending) the same laws... And the expensive home theatre is just totally passive. Sure, you might like the little tingle you get from the subs or the 7.1 or the 50" plasma screen, but in the end you're watching the same content, same story, same emotional and visual cues as the person who's watching a 27" Maganavox TV.

The best way to deal with people who cling to the value of their posessions is to pity them.

On the flip side, there's no shame in having high-end gear, either. A lot of top-notch guitarists are gear-hounds, too. Yes, so are a lot of players who have far more disposable income than talent, but so what? There are also a lot of people who play inexpensive gear who aren't very good; does that make the gear bad by association?

There's a lot of confusion over the true value of high-end gear. The big manufacturers know who's got money and they're marketing "high end" gear to folks who think it must be better if it's more expensive. And by and large the expensive gear isn't that much better... A $3,000 instrument isn't ten times better than a $300 instrument. There actually are some improvements in quality as you go up the price scale, in general.

The one thing that adds nothing but cost to an instrument is an artist endorsement. A percentage of the cost of the so-called "signature" guitars goes straight into the pocket of the artist. And you just know that the manufacturer is going to skim a bit, too, to make it worth their while to produce a signature guitar.

Don't overlook the other source of expensive instruments: small, independent builders. Most of these guys do make the instruments entirely by hand. (I can only think of one or two who use CNC machines, and they're up-front about their methods.) What's really cool about the little guys is that they can make any guitar you want, to your exact specs. (The big-company custom shops are much more comfortable with giving you a custom paint job than a non-stock body shape.)

And you know what? The small builders' instruments are a better value than the high-end production instruments from the big boys. Their prices are constrained by what the market will bear, and that's set by their competitors: the big companies selling high-end gear.

However, high-end gear does not make you a great musician. It doesn't even make you sound that much better. Capital-T tone is not in the gear. Good gear makes it a tiny bit easier to be a good musician, but if you don't have the chops or the soul no amount of money is going to turn you into an artist. If only it were that easy...

Unfortunately the external pressures don't begin and end with pricing differentiation. Marketing people are always looking for an angle to help them sell us something we didn't know we need. They do this by overstating the benefits of their product, appealing to our insecurities and linking products to cultural icons. This misinformation is amplified by hoards of self-appointed "experts" who try to spin already questionable information into forms that their own audience will gladly consume.

We (speaking as an American... I don't know whether it's different elsewhere in the world) are a culture that has largely abandoned the power of our own experiences for the relative certainty of a "media"-created universe where there is always an "easy" answer available. Instead of thinking for themselves, people get their opinions from the "experts". This behavior is ingrained at a very young age by schools that teach students to perform on tests rather than to observe, question and think.

Guitarists are no more guilty of adopting a herd mentality than any other segment of society. If you want to be part of the herd, go ahead - it's easy and you'll fit right in. If you want to stand out, you're going to have to blaze your own trail. Be critical of your playing and your gear, but first know where it is that you want to take your music.

February 19 2006 21:48:38 GMT