The Pitfalls of Good/Better/Best Thinking in Music

There is no “best.” In fact, when it comes to art, making qualitative statements like that is pretty much ridiculous. I know, I know – I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Just this past week I hailed Jason Richardson as “the cleanest and probably best living shred guitarist,” for which I got plenty of shit. Thanks comments section! Just one man’s opinion.

But what really frustrates me to see is this kind of talk:

“You should get rid of your old ____ and get this new one, it’s better.”

“Is this the best note choice?”

“What’s the best scale to use?”

“This one is more expensive, so it must be the best one.”

“I’ve only got the budget model, I need to upgrade before I can start gigging and recording.”

The gear we use, the notes we choose, the sounds we pick should always be a reflection of our artistic needs. Expression is a word people throw around a lot, but what does it really mean? When we express ourselves artistically, we are not just making a statement about life on Planet Earth, we’re expressing our aesthetic preferences.

In the case of music, our gear choices partially shape our sound, and our note choices and rhythms etc. do the rest. We often make the mistake of looking at the things our heroes play, the price tag on an instrument, the hype, and in our mind we create a tier. There’s a good one, a better one, and a best one. Also, usually a “shitty” one.

This reflects an absolute lack of objective thought on the matter. In metal, we place a high value on “high-end” tube amps, custom guitars, and pristine production. These are all fine things, to be sure – just try and take away my Ernie Ball Music Man JP7, I dare you – but it’s only one way to go about it. If a polished production is what you’re after to express your feelings properly, then by all means pursue it. But many are in the mode of thinking there’s some arbitrary gold standard that everyone needs to aspire to.

So why is this kind of thinking a major problem?

Art is COMMUNICATION.

This good/better/best mindset is a pitfall because rather than making art and expressing things we feel, we are instead relegated to being elitist hoarders, working jobs we may hate to earn the cash for the latest and greatest in lieu of practicing our art. We think there’s an upgrade always waiting, something that will give us some edge over the “competition,” an ideal that we will one day reach and then, only then will we be at the level of being worthy to create.

This kind of thought process is rampant in modern metal production, where innovative producers are rarely chosen over ones who can create a slick and homogenized sound, which, while not problematic in and of itself, leaves little room for experimental sounds and more expansion into new sonic territory. There’s a standard that is set, and the front runners are aped until hordes of albums sound the same, and the music starts to become created to fit the production instead of to fit the mood of the writer. For example, I recently found myself considering the mastering stage during a songwriting session. Talk about a fucking boner killer.

In the 90’s, early Black Metal bands used 10 watt practice amps and washy, overly-reverby drums to create terrifying lo-fi sounds that had never been heard before. It would be easy to look at what they were doing in the studio and say, look at this shitty gear, that’s going to sound like garbage, why would you use that? But they had a vision, and they used the tools at hand to create an amazing atmosphere and communicate that vision.

There is no “best” scale, chord progression, melody – there’s only the one that hits you square in the nuggets, that lets you make the listener feel what you feel, every time. We are in the business of communicating things that cannot be communicated by other means, and you need to focus on setting the atmosphere of your music instead of pursuing the most futile standard of all, the “best” note, the “better” drum head, a “good” rack compressor. You need to find the thing that is best for your piece of art.

Written by

As Editor-in-Chief of Gear Gods, I've been feeding your sick instrument fetishism and trying unsuccessfully to hide my own since 2013. I studied music on both coasts (Berklee and SSU) and now I'm just trying to put my degree to some use. That's a music degree, not an English one. I'm sure you noticed.