I’m writing this editorial right now literally surrounded by guitars and music gear. Not figuratively, not literally like the kids use it – literally. I can’t look in any direction but up or down without seeing something I use to make music. Sure, it’s one of the perks of the job – I’m always getting sent stuff to try, so there’s always loads of gear around, but most of it is mine. But it’s these awesome things that could easily be my undoing – and yours, if you let it.
I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened, but at some point in the last ten years or so the focus of many musicians, especially in metal, has moved from being on the audience, to being on other musicians. I guess you could say that the audience for a lot of bands has shifted from the general populace of metalheads (or even the world at large) to the metal musician subgroup.
This isn’t even that monumental of a change in terms of numbers – in my experience, the metal audience is made up of a HUGE percentage of musicians anyway – I haven’t done a formal survey, but it’s for sure higher than any other genre I can think of. But the way we create and view music has been radically altered to fit into a different glove in many ways. I’m in the unique position of getting paid to impress musicians with new and cool gear, techniques, and technology, but I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t – and here’s why.
We’re born here on this planet, and we are literally slowly rotting from the minute we hit our personal physical growth peak until our bones dissolve to dust. Everything we do as artists is to codify and communicate the profound deeper meaning behind the suffering we endure and the joy we experience in between birth and death. The medium we use to convey these messages as musicians is vibration – sounds arranged in patterns that we use like letters to form words and musical sentences, which create a deep connection between the composer/performer and the listener. We draw closer to one another by putting our shared experiences into a consumable form and partaking in communion with the music as our wafer, together. We artists are here to hold a gilded mirror up to the world.
So when we change the focus from all of that to merely impressing other members of our trade, the art form suffers. It’s a subtle change in your mindframe, maybe you didn’t even realize that you’re doing it. I certainly didn’t. But you’ll notice it when your Facebook feed is full of pictures of instruments and people selling them, or when audience members only want to talk about your gear after the show, or when your videos are filled with comments only about your technique, and not about how your song made them feel.
I became a guitarist because I heard music being made on the guitar that made me feel like I wanted to fly. I wanted to run across a grassy field and feel the sun on my face and enjoy being alive even when the world was full of pain and suffering. I didn’t spend 8 hours a day for many years of my life practicing so I could stare at eBay auctions trying to find a good deal on better pickups for my 14th guitar and stun every other guitar player in the comments section with my stellar tone. The rest of the population of this blue and green ball need you – they need your real and profound thoughts and feelings set to vibrations so that they can come together in groups and let each other know that they feel the same, and that they are not alone.
The benefits of this subtle mindset shift back towards your true audience will be very tangible. You will feel more fulfilled because people who don’t know why scale length is important will love your music more than those who do, and they will judge you less harshly. They’ll really feel it when you get it right, and they won’t criticize you as much when you miss a note. They’ll feel the passion in your playing and not hear the kind of capacitors in your vintage tube amp. In case you wonder why a band like Mastodon who don’t even really shred that hard and play dad guitars is way bigger than Scale the Summit, it’s because of this dichotomy (not hatin’ on STS people, just an example. They sell tab books at their merch table.)
Sure, it would be easy to call me a hypocrite right about now – the Gear God telling people not to be all about their gear. And you might even be right (and it’s not even the first time I’ve done it) – but keep in mind what I said – my position is unique. I’m your source for all things gear, and my job is relevant to the technical aspect of my trade. You need tools to create your art. The statue of David didn’t come to life without a hammer and chisel, and you can’t get the sound you’re after without the right gear. But the obsession should end when the downbeat comes, or when you hit record, or when it’s time to write a song. That’s when tools are just tools, and what we build with those tools is something greater – a pile of steel beams and welding equipment becomes a bridge. If we spend too much time fetishizing the welding torch, we’ll never get across the river so we can reach each other. An architect designs a bridge so that any person can cross it to reach the things they need, not just a bunch of other architects who think they could have done it better.
If your motivation when you write or play is to show everyone else who does what you do that you can do it better, or that your tools are better than theirs, then you’re not only limiting your audience, your limiting your own art form. I love gear, I really do. But all I’m doing when I try new gear is searching for a means to build more and stronger bridges – from my heart to yours.