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Guitarists and their gear – A marriage made in heaven or made in hell?

By September 19, 2019 No Comments

By Aldo Chircop

You would be hard pressed to find another kind of relationship that provides as much drama, frustration, excitement, fear, paranoia, superstition, fetishism, self-doubt and misplaced pride all rolled into one, as the relationship between typical guitar players and their gear.

If you’ve been involved in the guitar world yourself for some time, or know people who have, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, the world of guitar playing provides so many spectacular and entertaining opportunities for ‘people watching’, that I’ve decided to give a tongue in cheek (but very truthful) account of my observations. Here are the main ‘sub-species’ I have encountered in my 25 years or so of being immersed in this particular eco system.

THE CLUELESS

This species is easy to spot. They are prone to make statements and ask questions that cause blank stares, the rolling of eyes or outright laughter from members of other sub-species. Here are some typical examples:

Clueless specimen to a specimen of another sub-species:

Q: “Oh, you’re playing an electric guitar, but it still makes some sound when you pluck the strings even though it’s not connected to that loudspeaker thingy. How is that possible?”

A: “Dude…seriously? They are strings. Of course they make some sound.”

Two clueless but hopeful specimens talking:

Q: “I watched a Pink Floyd concert on TV last night. Man, how does Dave Gilmour get notes to ring out for so long on his guitar?”

A: “Oh yes. I noticed his guitars all have a certain shape of scratch plate or whatever it’s called (outlines the shape in the air with his finger.) There must be something special with those.”

(Disclosure: the clueless specimen asking the question in this exchange, was me, many years ago. The ‘special’ guitar in question was a Fender Stratocaster. Probably the most common and widespread electric guitar model EVER.)

Yet another clueless specimen to his equally clueless friend:

“Hey, I was looking at an Iron Maiden poster, and I noticed that all the tuning pegs on Steve Harris’ bass were all pointing in the same direction. THAT must be why he sounds so good!”

And here’s another one that doesn’t want to die and still crops up every now and then:

“Oh, you have a guitar. Is it a rhythm or a lead guitar?”

In all fairness, being ‘clueless’ is one of the few traits in this list that are no fault of the person in question. We all start from there. So, if you are clueless right now but would like to know more, that’s great! If you already know more and get asked a ‘clueless question’, please try to be patient. 😊

Once hopeful guitar players grow out of the clueless phase, they typically branch out into other sub-species. Some go through all the different sub-species one by one as they mature, while others seem to get stuck in the same one their whole life. Let’s have a look at these ever so fascinating categories.

THE HERO WORSHIPPER

This is the kind of guy who gets totally fixated on some famous guitar player. He decides that to be just a good as his hero, he needs to imitate every little thing about him, which includes acquiring the exact type of guitar, amplifier, guitar picks, gadgets, hair style, clothes and sunglasses which the hero uses. Our hero worshipper therefore dedicates himself completely to the quest, secure in the knowledge that once he gets all those details correctly, he’ll be a hero too. Uhm…right.

THE DISILLUSIONED HERO WORSHIPPER

This sub-species is really a more advanced phase in the hero worshipper’s life cycle. This phase is brought on after the hero worshipper has dedicated tons of time and money towards imitating his hero, yet still sounds like total garbage when he plays guitar even though he’s now using the exact same gear that his hero uses. Funny how that works….

The disillusioned phase typically lasts until the hero worshipper discovers yet another detail about his hero that he hasn’t imitated yet and decides that this new detail MUST be the missing link that will get him to hero-worthy greatness. And the cycle keeps repeating.

THE CRUD MASTER

This guy has a very peculiar ability: being proud of the fact that everything about his guitar playing persona screams to the world “I SUCK!”

Identifying this sub-species is pretty easy once you know what cluster of characteristics to look out for.

The crud master firmly believes that ‘being raw and authentic’ always trumps being ‘too polished’ or ‘becoming a sell-out’. This will be reflected in every detail, which the consummate crud master will elevate to a true art form. This typically means a constant state of unkemptness, dirty attire and pungent body odour. All this will be perfectly reflected in the gear he uses: a battered, barely functional guitar that’s not even fit to light a fire with, set up in a way that makes it as difficult to play and as out of tune as possible, with strings that haven’t been changed since Napoleon was in exile. Even his guitar picks will look like they’ve been chewed up by a dog.

Other points of pride for the crud master are the variety of band stickers and patches that adorn his cruddy gear and cruddy attire, the number of empty beer cans strewn around his band’s rehearsal

garage, and his constant unsolicited advice that “you don’t need to learn music theory, man…just play from the heart!”

THE BRAND FETISHIST

This guy is the diametrical opposite of the crud master. He firmly believes that you are only as good as your gear, and the greater the mystique and price tag of a piece of equipment, the better. He’ll go to extreme lengths to acquire a variety of the most expensive and ‘legendary’ gear, and he’ll make sure that you know about it.

He also convinces himself that one day he’ll actually get serious about practicing guitar and learn to play at least four measures of a song in time, but right now, re-mortgaging his house to buy that rare 1959 Les Paul is more important.

THE INSECURE HOARDER

This guy is somewhat like the brand fetishist in his worship of gear, but whereas the fetishist goes for name, the insecure hoarder goes for quantity.

How do you spot an insecure hoarder? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you. This is the kind of guy who as soon as he discovers you play guitar or are interested in starting to, just HAS to let you know that he has 47 guitars and 29 amplifiers at home, which he’s been collecting for the last 31 years.

The important thing to know about the insecure hoarder, is that the number of guitars and amplifiers he owns will invariably be inversely proportional to his guitar playing ability. In other words, the more impressive his collection is and the more eager he is to tell you about it, the more you can be sure that he can make all those countless guitars and amps sound like garbage. But somehow, he convinces himself that owning lots of gear makes him a musician, or at the very least gives him the right to brag about how ‘seriously’ he takes his craft.

THE PARANOID TWEAKER

This guy is sort of the crazy professor of guitar gear who’s always looking for the new type of ‘flux capacitor’ that will finally give him his ‘perfect tone.’ Rather than acquiring expensive brands of guitars, he seems to delight more in seeking out obscure gadgets, rare effect pedals and unique equipment modifications. He’ll go to great lengths to find a specific rare brand of tubes to upgrade his hand wired, heavily modified valve amp, or some type of diode that’s been out of production since 1963 to fit into his vintage Tube Screamer.

Strangely, he is convinced that the dozen or so drunks who hang out at the Dog & Vomit pub where he plays open mics every weekend will notice whether he has germanium or silicon transistors in his effect pedals….

THE THRILL SEEKER

This is the kind of guy who just HAS to try every new gadget that comes out on the market. He’s like the paranoid tweaker in his eternal quest for ‘tone’, but whereas the tweaker looks for the more

obscure and hidden details, the thrill seeker likes it big and flashy. The more complex and packed with features a gadget is, the more the thrill seeker ‘needs’ it, even though he’ll never ever use 99% of all those options. What drives the thrill seeker is the hope that somewhere within all those features, he’ll discover that one magic bullet that will finally get him to sonic nirvana.

This is how the thrill seeker rationalizes spending thousands on some new amp modeller that’s more complicated than a spaceship and sports more features than he’ll ever use in a hundred lifetimes, even though he still can’t play four measures of a simple groove without losing the beat.

THE JOURNEY MAN

This is the young guy who just managed to scrape, borrow or beg enough money to buy his first viable guitar and amp. Typically, he’s forced to make do with cheap or old gear because he can’t afford any better. But what he lacks in gear bragging rights, he makes up with enthusiasm. He’s the kind of guy who’ll sit in his room for hours every day practicing like mad.

Ironically, unlike the categories above, he will usually have become a very good guitar player by the time he can afford better gear. Not having the funds to chase shiny objects lets him focus on the most important priorities (like, you know, actually learning to play the guitar.)

THE ZEN MASTER

This is the guy who has finally achieved peace and wisdom. After a long journey across the guitar gear universe, he’s finally seen the light.

He has experimented so much that he doesn’t need to do it anymore, except for an occasional ‘treat’. He has discovered what works for him and what he actually needs and has pared down his gear to the essentials. This means a few choice pieces of high-quality gear which he has learned to use really well, plus maybe an extra toy or two just for fun. If he used to be a recovering hoarder, tweaker or thrill seeker, nowadays he has the wisdom to stay away from temptations, such as shops and websites selling shiny objects that could trigger an episode of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome.)

Sometimes even the most seasoned Zen Master will have an occasional relapse, but typically he’ll keep it under control.

No one ever starts out as a Zen Master, and very few manage to reach this level, which requires paying your dues and struggling through many, if not all, of the previously mentioned categories.

Then again, as they say, the fun is in the journey itself. 😊

About the author:

Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta.