As Editor in Chief of a musical gear website, it seems like a silly question. Does gear matter? Of course it matters to me, otherwise I should probably be practicing my burger flipping (music is my only skill, if this doesn’t work out I’m totally boned) and yet as I have the opportunity to talk to lots of passionate musicians and try loads of different gear of varying types, I feel compelled to ask it of myself.
People are VERY attached to the kind of gear they play. Whether by branding campaign or legitimate love of the instrument, like many of our heroes our gear becomes part of our identity – a tattoo you can play. It’s one chromosome of the DNA of our music, without which the expression of the gene would appear very different. Some musicians are so closely associated with their instrument that seeing them without causes cognitive dissonance (not to mention some serious #daditude) in fans. Brian May has used the same guitar his ENTIRE career. Not the same model, not the same brand, the very same guitar. And it was his FIRST guitar. Almost every Queen song contains the iconic sound he created with it, so it’s pretty hard to imagine the band without it. But had he used something different, some generic store brand or production Fender, or one handmade by an experienced luthier rather than himself and his dad – would it have mattered?
Money Money Money, Moooooooney
I think the thing that many young and/or amateur musicians get caught up in is expense. They see experienced musicians they admire with gear they can’t afford and assume that without such gear, they can’t achieve the same level of production or performance. This is, of course, an exercise in futility – no piece of gear or instrument will make you as good as someone else any more than an expensive hammer will make you an architect.
A piece of gear is priced according to a few things: materials, design, craftsmanship, features, country of origin, and of course, the added cost of retail. Compromises of various kinds are always present, and just like picking a driver and car in Mario Kart, you typically can’t have top speed and acceleration, at least until you’ve beaten all the courses and unlocked the advanced karts. All that to say, sure, you can spend lots, but are you paying for things you don’t need? Are the features above your level, or outside of your style? One of my earliest guitars had a tremolo system. When I first plugged in the whammy bar (around age 12 or 13), I proceeded to spin it around and around in the hole, producing no appreciable change in sound. I then declared it useless and abandoned the concept entirely until much later. A cheaper guitar with a hardtail bridge would have served me far better during that stage of my career, that’s for certain.
I find that the most important feature of any instrument is your level of comfort. It’s the most subjective quality of an instrument, and as such it can’t be quantified, and therefore is impossible to put a price on. If you can’t get comfortable on your instrument, how can you give a great performance? That’s certainly not something exclusive to expensive instruments – it’s about what feels right. I have a cheap Indonesian made Ibanez RG that has one of the best necks I’ve played. It’s like somebody at the factory was like “Today I’m going to build my masterpiece – the greatest neck I’ve ever made!” and I happened to get it. I’m able to get the action insanely low, which makes me feel extremely comfortable when I play it. Conversely, I once paid $2000 for a baseball bat with strings that was extremely uncomfortable, and right back to the builder it went.
I interviewed Steve Vai last week, and even after all these many years he still mostly plays his go-to Jems, Evo and Flo. The only real difference is that one has a Sustainer pickup. He plays them because they are so comfortable as to feel like a part of him, and he doesn’t need to fix what ain’t broke, as they say.
The Right Stuff
The equation I’ve discovered goes something like this:
Difference in sound quality between a “good” and “shitty” player = 90% of tone
Difference in sound quality between “good” and “shitty” gear = 10% of tone
That last 10% is important, to be sure – but it’s really just the icing on the cake. You don’t want to put nice icing on a shit cake, do you? We’ve all seen a stellar musician ripping away on some cheap junker, making it sound like gold, as well as the rich lawyer who bought a custom shop Strat but hasn’t practiced more than an hour since he was 15 – which is better?
Of course, the golden equation that we all want to reach is: great player + the right gear = magic.
The RIGHT gear. Not just good – appropriate, useful, functional. A beautifully crafted Mayones 8 string in the hands of a blues player might not yield great results (although don’t you want to hear that? Sounds rad to me) – they may be FAR better off with a cheap Squier strat. The sound you are looking for might not be found in the high end instruments you lust after. I see some gear whores flipping high end guitars all day long – they post for sale ads instead of clips of them playing. I think that says it all.
A Pile of Ladders
This picture illustrates the real problem:
You may have heard the story of Microsoft polling users for features they wanted in the next iteration of Windows – almost all of the features people asked for were already available in the current version. Most people just didn’t know how to use them. The pile of ladders could be a pile of guitars, or plugins, or pedals – if you can’t use them to their full potential, or don’t understand what they’re for, it’s just going to get in your way and you’ll be no closer to your goal.
I honestly believe it’s possible to get a great sound of just about any piece of gear. This Rigged we did with Cherubs is a testament to that – these dudes find the virtues of the most lo-fi, thrift store jenky crap and turn it into gold. Spending real quality time with your gear, learning every feature inside and out and practicing with it daily is the only way to unlock it’s secrets and find that magic.
So does it?
There’s nothing wrong with being really into gear. I sure as hell am! But the question you must ask yourself when considering a purchase is this – do you actually need it? Is it going to enhance what you already do, or get you closer to something you’re trying to achieve? Do you feel like your music would benefit from another string, an extra tom, the newest iteration or version or edition? You might find yourself wishing you hadn’t sold your old standby, the one that makes you feel comfortable. Then again, have you been trying lots of different stuff? You may be overlooking a new possibility that could take your sound to the next level. What if Meshuggah had never commissioned 8 string guitars to be built? Steve Vai also said in our interview that he was using an Axe-Fx quite a bit, and that he had recently begun playing around with looper pedals, because he felt that the technology had advanced to the point where it had become useful to him, and the features he wanted were all there now. You better bet that guy never stops trying to improve his musical expression.
Of course gear matters. Unless you sing a cappella and/or clap your music without a mic, you can’t make music without it. Oftentimes the expense of buying a finely crafted instrument is totally worth it. If you’re serious about your craft, having what you need to do it right is crucial. We just have to remember that it’s just a tool, and being aware of when you need something and when you’re just fetishizing it can save you time, money, and energy for actually making music. You should never let a lack of perfect or ideal gear stop you from chasing the sound in your head. So if you’re waiting for your next paycheck to upgrade because you don’t think you can start with what you’ve got, I implore you – just start today.