Saturday, August 9, 2008

It's All About How The Instrument Makes You Feel

I'm continually amazed at just how much musicians will pay for instruments and other gear in the name of "tone."

To me, the irony is that the tonal difference between vintage (or otherwise special) gear and more mundane tools of the trade may never reach the listener. If they do, will the listener notice? I bet not very often unless the listener is also a musician, and then maybe not.

I've concluded that it has little to do with the listener. Musicians spend thousands of dollars to upgrade to superior instruments for themselves. They may say otherwise, especially if they are full time professionals, but it's really all about them.

And that's OK. Really, it is. Sure, people go overboard, but anybody who has played more than one guitar can tell you that they all feel very different. This, in turn, makes the musician feel different about playing.

Some of the feel is the physical touch of the instrument in the player's hands. Some of it is "tone." Some of it is the look of the instrument and how that makes the musician feel. The more emotionally involved a musician is in their music the more this all matters.

Several years ago I dropped my prized 1945 Harmony arch top guitar. My mother bought it used in the 1950's and gave it to me in 1993. It has been my main acoustic guitar ever since. I couldn't find the luthier who restored it for me in 1993 and my local shop said they didn't have the tools for that type of body crack.

Despairing, I started playing new guitars with an eye toward buying one. They all sucked. Martin, Yamaha, Taylor, Takamine. I hated them all.

Thankfully I stumbled across the business card of the Des Moines luthier who had done such a nice job restoring the instrument for me almost a decade before. I was relieved he was still working. He was in his 70's the first time he worked on the instrument.

Many of the guitars I "hated" when looking for a replacement were better than my Harmony in any number of ways. Still, they couldn't give me the sensory experience wanted. They couldn't feel right.

Someday I'll go into a shop with a better attitude (i.e. not grieving) and find another acoustic that sounds a feels good and it won't bother me that it's nothing like my heirloom Harmony. Like most people who stick with playing music I am very emotionally involved in everything I play. If it doesn't feel good I won't play it. For me it won't take a $6000 guitar to do the trick, but if I believed that was what I needed it would probably become true.


Hahn at Home said...

I get this - but I am not a musician. It's kind of like a pen for me - don't laugh - it has to feel right or the words don't flow the same.

DJ Dual Core said...

Ya, that's it! I happen to be picky about pens too, but what you are describing is the same phenomenon.

I've heard that professional house painters are every bit as picky about the brushes they use for trim, for example, as someone who paints portraits.

Marshall McLuhan said "the medium is the message." I've never really agreed with that, but the medium/ tools/ instruments/ devices we use certainly influence the message, in many cases by way of how we feel.

I'm not laughing. I can totally see it.