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: fetishism, gatherings, human nature, marketing hype, opinion, philosophy, respect, terminology, @musings info

Online guitar forums

If you've been frequenting my music pages, you're no doubt already familiar with a multitude of online discussion forums dedicated to guitarists. There are many such forums, ranging from those having tens of thousands of registered users all the way down to forums of exceedingly narrow scope that don't get more than a few new posts over the course of a week. I have been active in quite a few of these forums over the past five years or so.

When I post to online forums, I try to present myself in the same light that people see me in real life. I try to be helpful and considerate and present a thought-out response to topics which are of interest to me. In fact, many of the articles on this web site started life as a post on some guitar forum. To me, establishing context and respecting other opinions are an important part of dealing with people in a public online forum. I do have my own biases and preferences and will defend them in a rational manner. I'm also the first to admit that my tastes and beliefs are not carved in stone; one only need skim my articles in chronological order to discover this. But I always strive to explain how and why I have arrived at the positions I defend in my articles.

I've been on the internet since the early 1980s. That was actually before the World Wide Web. Even then, there were online discussion forums on Usenet newsgroups, accessed by a special-purpose program called a "newsreader". These newgroups still exist, but you can access them now through the web; check out and use the search function. There have been guitar-related newsgroups for as long as I can recall. Nowadays these newsgroups are all but dead, killed by a lack of ownership and by the epidemic of commercial spam that has flooded all newsgroups beginning with the "pioneering" work of lawyers Canter and Siegel.

The growth of the web changed the technology behind online communities. Online bulletin boards, which previously existed on commercial online systems (e.g. Compuserve) and on private computers accessible through small numbers of low-speed dial-up modems, migrated to the web where access is not limited to online system membership or by the number of access points. (Available computer resources still influence the usability of such web-based boards, but their cost has plummeted over the years.) The bottom line is this: the web and inexpensive computing have made it possible for hundreds of thousands of guitar players to form dozens, perhaps hundreds of online communities to discuss their craft. That's a good thing, right?

Online discussion forums are almost certainly better than the isolation that guitarists experienced before the growth of the internet. In the "good old days" a budding guitarist found inspiration in records and support from a (typically) few local guitarists. Teachers were few and far between outside of major metropolitan areas. Music stores were all "mom and pop" shops carrying one or two of the name brands (Fender, Marshall, Vox and Ampeg) if you were lucky. Off-brand imports were more readily available through department stores (Silvertone at Sears Roebuck, for example) or electronics retailers (like Lafayette Electronics carrying house-branded Univox gear). Mesa/Boogie, arguably the archetypal "boutique" amp shop, was still operating out of a shed in the early `70s and didn't really rise to prominence until almost a decade later. There were a handful of effects vendors making noisy, fickle effects (the same effects that form the basis of many a modern boutique effect-builder's offerings). Virtually all guitar gear advertising was carried in a couple of monthly magazines.

All of this changed dramatically with the commercialization of the internet. We suffer now from an embarassment of choices for gear, lesson materials and recorded music. There's more out there than any person can reasonably assimilate. The glut is fueled by internet marketing for larger vendors and retailers and by word-of-mouth on discussion boards for smaller businesses. All of this is great for businesses catering to guitarists.

On the other hand, I'm not so certain that the "information age" has been good for guitar music. Lesson materials are certainly more readily available although their scope remains quite limited (especially compared to a reasonably competent teacher) and adoption rates are fairly low. The big musical-instrument makers are engaging in the same sort of cost-cutting found in other industries, which reduces access to effective customer support. There are more guitar players than at any time in history (witness the explosive growth of the well-known "big box" retailer catering to guitarists and related musicians). So where do all these guitarists turn for advice on music and gear? To the online guitar forums, of course...

Just as the Usenet has become choked with spam, the forums have become flooded with repetitive questions, off-topic discussion, ad-hominem attacks and questionable advice. Once in a rare while a discussion forum will host a thread containing some genuinely useful information. Over the past five years I've sought out these threads and have attempted to contribute to the discussion in a helpful and intelligent manner. The "good" threads are getting more difficult to find and have a relatively short life before someone derails the discussion. I'm losing interest in these online discussions partly because I'm no longer learning anything, and partly because of the accellerating trend away from intelligent, on-topic discourse.

In addition to the glut of frequently asked questions (most of which should be, but rarely are, answered with another question) strangling most forums, there's an increasing tendency toward product- and brand-boosterism. Questions of the form "What's the best X for Y?" are answered in short order with a long list of knee-jerk responses listing the respondents' favorite product without any consideration for the original poster's stated constraints (if any). Some people suspect that the more popular boards are frequented by posters paid to talk up a product; I'm not sure that this is the simplest explanation for the phenomenon of boosterism, which is more likely fed by a desire to be viewed as an "influential" (or vocal, at least) adopter of a popular or desirable product.

Another problem on guitar discussion boards is the imprecise terminology. Sound is a difficult phenomenon to describe in words, particulary considering the subtle variations observed by guitarists. The terminology used rarely has a commonly agreed-upon definition. In fact some terms such as "touch sensitive" are used with diametrically-opposed meanings on the same forums (and indeed, sometimes within the same thread). So you have hundreds of people making decisions based upon made-up words which have no consistent interpretation. This is, of course, great for the marketers; they adopt terminology which has generally positive connotations, apply it to their own product and leave the ill-advised consumer to figure out -- at their own expense -- that the term doesn't really mean what they expect.

For all of these reasons I'm weaning myself off the couple of guitar forums that I still frequent. I'll continue to scan a couple of forums for interesting article topics, but even that well has been running dry of late. I'm going to make an effort to draw more upon my own experiences rather than addressing frequently asked questions and common misunderstandings; this may result in more of a gap between articles. Meanwhile, feel free to write if you think there may be something within my scope of interest and understanding that would make for an intersting article...

September 23 2006 06:19:14 GMT