Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Price Of Stepping Out Of The Main Stream

Over at my other blog, Hack Your Guitar, I just wrote about these wild new guitar strings I got in the mail this week. A bassist from California named Garry Goodman sells a brand of strings called Octave 4 Plus. They are specifically for extending the upper range of bass, baritone and standard guitars. They are made out of special high tensile strength steel wire in thinner gauges than are available in standard sets.

For people like me who have been bit by the instrument modification bug this is a godsend. At any scale length between 25 and 34 inches we can stretch the upper register of any guitar-like instrument by a fouth, or more.

So, why is this just coming to light now? Why haven't the big string companies been selling such strings for years?

Because just because it is possible doesn't mean it's mass-marketable, even if people want it.

Standard guitars and basses are popular for a number of reasons. They are versatile, relatively inexpensive, available in a dizzying array of styles, colors and patterns and the basics of playing them are easy to pick up (compared to oboe, for example). But most of all they are easy to own.

You own a standard guitar and one of the strings won't tune up. You take it to the nearest guitar shop. They replace the tuner, restring it for you and you are still out less than $50 bucks.

You own a Chapman Stick and one of the strings won't tune up. You take to the nearest guitar shop. They won't touch it because they've never seen one before...and it isn't a guitar. You ship it to Stick Enterprises in California for the repair. I am told that Emmet charges very reasonable prices for repairs (partly, I imagine, because he knows most Stick players have nowhere else to turn) but unless you are a neighbor of his it means shipping a valuable instrument and waiting for it to come back.

And when you are ready to restring your non-standard instrument (it doesn't have to be a Stick) what do you do for strings? Do you buy long scale bass guitar strings and hope they work on the 36" scale of a full sized Stick? Then, when you have screwed up the action on your Stick by putting on strings that are too heavy or too light do you take it to the nearest guitar shop? No. You learned your lesson when the tuner went out. You ship it to California for a proper restring and adjustment by the maker.

It is like this with everything, not just things we buy. Those are where it is easiest to see. I may never buy a European motorcycle agian, after my experiences getting my BMW serviced. Loved the bike. Hated having to get it serviced 90 miles away. It takes a little more thinking, but the same is true with ideas, although it plays out differently.

Anybody who has ever been a member of a minority religion in their culture can tell you how alienating it is to tell someone of your faith and see in their eyes that they have no idea what you are talking about. Compare that to the experience, where I live anyway, of saying "Oh, ya, I'm Lutheran." Here in the midwest we have a box to put Lutherans in. We know what it means, socially, to be Lutheran. That makes it easy to be Lutheran. Lutheran faith is easy to own.

It is the same way with other ideas, beliefs and identities. Whether you hold unusual political views, unconventional views about health and diet or believe you have been abducted by aliens you have some decisions to make about how to explain yourself to people. There is a good chance that if any of these apply to you many of the people you meet in a day will not have a box for you. Because they won't "get you" you risk extreme social awkwardness...just by being honest about who you are.

How about styles of music? "I'm in punk rock band." "I love all the new female country singers." Those go down pretty easy, whether you like the music or not.

Let's say you are a drum and bass producer. Your uncle knows you are a musician so at the family reunion he asks you what kind of music you play. You can say "DnB" and let him ask what that is or you can skip a step and say "dance music, like they play big city clubs."

What if you are involved in really fringe music, music that isn't rock, country, jazz, classical, dance, pop or from any particular ethnic tradition?

Being in the main stream of your culture is rewarded in many different ways and it applies equally to many different parts of a person's life. What you believe, consume and produce all get processed differently if they are in or out of the middle of the cultural channel. Things from the middle are easily grasped, boxed and accepted. Those that are not are costlier to believe, consume and produce. That cost can be paid in money, time or social connection.

As is true with so many things, these forces are self perpetuating. Inexpensive guitars will continue to be available because they sell well. They will continue to sell well because they are easy to buy and own. Conventional political and spiritual views will continue to be socially rewarded, making them visible to others and validated for those who already hold them.

Here in the marshes, along the edge of the stream, is where I have always been. I've always known people who were farther out, more alienated, more on the fringes of society than I am. I've never been comfortable in the middle of the road or stream either. One reason is my swampy, marshy friends. I never want to be so far away that I can't still reach them, so they can pull me back to the edge, where I belong.

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