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.
LCW on Bandcamp
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: attitude, motivation, philosophy, @musings info

Some people can afford the best

Some people can afford the best. I can't. After assessing my needs, I have found something with which I am comfortable.

One of my online friends wrote the above, partly - I think - out of frustration with having a particular very expensive, very difficult to obtain piece of gear recommended for what must have seemed like the thousandth time.

I believe that, aside from the imagined (by me) frustration, the message is extremely important:

I have found something with which I am comfortable.

When it comes to gear, this ought to be the most important thing. This really ought to be a mantra for musicians.

It's not (or at least, shouldn't be) about finding "the best" gear. At least not "best" in the absolute sense that most gear heads mean. Rather, "best" should always be understood to mean "best for my own individual needs".

Personally, I feel like I've gone through the looking glass on this. I used to care deeply - some might say obsessively - about my gear. Always tweaking; always searching for the "next big thing"; always buying and selling and comparing. I honestly spent more time on gear than I did playing... But that changed.

The change was gradual.

Portland is blessed with a lot of musicians. Many of them are quite good, whether you've heard of them (or will ever hear of them) or not. As I talked to many of the musicians I've admired, I became aware that virtually all of them told me pretty much what my online friend has said about his gear: "it works for me".

On the other hand, I've noticed (at least around here) that musicians who play "the best" gear (not to pick on any musician or brand in particular, but in general I mean "boutique" instruments, amps and pedals) have tended to be unexceptional - perhaps even below-average - in terms of their musical output. I know that's not predictive in any real sense, since the sample is so small. I know that there are exceptional players who use boutique gear. They're not in the majority; at least not around these parts.

One thing that seems pretty common among these par to sub-par players with the high-end gear has been that - in conversations about their music - they don't seem to have much insight to offer, but will elaborate at length about their gear.

Yes I'm painfully aware that, having written about this, I risk lumping myself into that category of unexceptional players who care too much about their gear. Personal change is a process. What more can I say...?

Having noticed the two different categories of musicians at least suggested to me that musicianship is far more important than gear, especially considering that most of the local musicians (quite a few of whom I admire) are young and poor and play on equipment that many of us (myself included) would consider as being, at best, average.

That suggestion, more than anything else, led me to examine and change my own behaviors. A bit of critical listening has helped to cement my position; while many of the well-known guitarists whom I admire have invested time and effort crafting a rig to to their own tastes, not one of them has - to the best of my knowledge - ever chosen a part of their rig based upon that part being "the best". It's always, always, always: "this is what works for me".

This is why I roll my eyes (or write long impassioned screeds such as this) when someone speaks or writes unequivocally about "the best" gear. There's no such thing. No offense to anyone who feels that they may have a dog in this fight... As far as I'm concerned, there is no fight. Gear is more or less suitable for one's purpose; no more, no less. You might argue, and I would admit, that for certain objective measures one may classify gear as good, better and best. And indeed, some of those objective measures might be important to satisfying someone's (but never everyone's) needs. Despite that admission, I have a hard time imagining that any objective measure could be construed as being universally and unequivocally better for all musical intents and purposes.

I'm not about to suggest that I, or anyone else who cares about the process of making music, shouldn't care about their instrument (broadly interpreted to mean all of the equipment involved in translating the musician's intentions into sound) or that any instrument is as sufficient to the musician's purpose as any other. That's simply not true. A good musician will always have personal preferences and will often appreciate and exploit the individual nuances of a particular instrument.

I'll gladly explain, to the best of my ability, why my gear "works for me". There are aspects of my gear that I understand well enough to describe in great detail, while I can only shrug and say "it works for me" regarding other aspects. Just as a well-rounded musician is never impeded by a knowledge of music theory or technique (although some overcome deficits in both to create music that moves us), a well-rounded musician is often served by understanding something about the technical aspects of his instrument.

I'd like to believe that one of my contributions to the community has been that of helping others to understand how and why some of the technical issues related to gear are important to us as musicians. More important, though - at least to me, is maintaining and promoting first and foremost the awareness that the gear never creates anything of musical value without the intent of the musician.

It's always better, I believe, to make informed gear choices based upon your own musical needs and visions than it is to ask someone else for guidance. Whenever I'm asked about my gear, my first response is always that "it works for me". If the questioner seeks specific insights, I can sometimes oblige with a specific answer. Still, aside from broad-brush distinctions such as suitability to a particular genre or use case, it's often difficult to say anything specific about how my gear choices might apply to someone else. That's why your best bet, if you're curious about a particular piece of gear, is to try it for yourself.

Some folks, when offered the "try before you buy" advice, complain that they can't do that. The gear in question isn't available locally or can't be obtained without sacrificing other gear to fund a sight-unseen purchase. My advice to these folks is for them to examine their motivation. If they're making music with their own gear but think that, somehow, a new piece of gear will improve their music, this is gear lust. There's a belief, fueled by marketing promises or by collective consensus, that the new untried gear must yield "better" results than the gear that's already at hand (although no one ever explains how this magic occurs). If you've been online in any internet musical community for more than a year, you've watched this scenario play out again and again: an exciting new product gets hyped and adopted by folks who honestly believe that it's "the next big thing" until the product's supremacy is suddenly overturned by the next "next big thing".

The other scenario, among folks seeking advice about gear that they can't play before purchase, involves replacing gear that isn't suitable to the player's purchase. We've all been there: perhaps a hasty or ill-advised purchase has left us with gear that really doesn't work for us, or perhaps no longer works for us because our needs have changed. When someone in this situation goes looking for advice on purchasing something they can't play before buying, I advise them to instead find something that they can play before purchase.

My own experience has been that heavily-hyped gear rarely lives up to its advance billing. To be fair, this is not the fault of the gear but rather that of the overly-enthusiastic hyperbole regarding the gear.

There are other risks as well. If the gear you lust after is unavailable locally, how do you think you'll fare in the (hopefully rare) event that you need service or support? This is yet another factor that should influence you to find a locally-sourced product that fulfills your actual needs rather than some internet phenomenon that, according to "everyone", promises to deliver the world on a platter if you could only buy one for yourself.

I like to pose this thought experiment to folks who believe that they need some particular new product in order to fulfill their musical needs. The game is called "would you know it if you heard it?" Briefly, can you listen to music in your favorite genre, either live or recorded, and tell with any degree of certainty (without visual cues in the live setting, of course) exactly what gear has been used in the creation of what you're hearing? The answer for most people is a resounding "no". All the little nuances imagined by those suffering gear lust have no readily identifiable sonic signature. Even the broad brush strokes get lost in the musical intent; you'd think that any fool would be able to distinguish between a Les Paul played through a Marshall stack and a Telecaster played through a bargain-basement Valco amp, but Jimmy Page proved us all wrong about that one...

The usual retort to that particular thought experiment is the notion that "well, the listener may not know the difference, but the player does." That's obviously true. But does it matter? As I said earlier, a good musician will appreciate and exploit the nuances of a particular instrument. But what matters in a musical sense is not the nuances of the instrument, but the intent of the musician. This is exactly why we have stories about famous musicians demoing budget-grade gear or sitting in on an impromptu live session with an unfamiliar instrument and sounding exactly the way we'd expect them to sound. The popular meme for this is that "the tone is in the fingers", but it's more than that: the tone comes not from the gear or the fingers, but from the sound the musician intends to make.

And that point, my friends, brings us full circle back to "it (the gear) works for me". When you play with intent to create a particular musical experience, you'll make the gear at hand serve your needs. Changing the gear will only change how you must, as a musician, express your intent. Gear doesn't create music; musicians do.

At the end of the day, it's all about making music.

January 03 2012 06:16:53 GMT