For some amassers of guitars, there might be more to it than simply G.A.S. and conspicuous consumption.
Like many people in the music industry, I’ve long believed that guys who buy lots of guitars (Yes, they’re almost always guys.) are driven by conspicuous consumption, or would rather fuss for hours or even weeks buying guitars at the lowest price than spend that time playing music on them. I’ve recently dealt with estates, however, that suggest some collectors just don’t fit those stereotypes. What can you say about a guy who has guitars hidden behind a false wall in his closet that nobody knows about? Hiding guitars from the wife is one thing, but what if an impressive collection of mahogany dreadnoughts is hidden from everyone? What if a collector visits online forums and user groups but never mentions—let alone brags—about what guitars he owns, and only family members know he plays at least one of his guitars everyday? What’s that about?
Somehow describing such an urge to own several guitars seems like more than just G.A.S. (aka Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, a favorite code term in online forums). In talking to a Stanford professor who owns multiple guitars, I learned that the urge to buy yet another instrument similar to ones we already own might not be mere consumerism at all. Instead, the urge to compare similar instruments in detail is in our DNA.
Learning how to discern differences in things that appear to be similar is an important part of human evolutionary development. So, rather than dialing the Wayback Machine to the dawn of rock ’n’ roll and eavesdropping on the development of Les Pauls and Telecasters, let’s go back another couple of hundred thousand years.
Caveman Ben and Caveman Bob came back empty handed from the hunt, and are now gathering mushrooms since their respective families will be having soup for dinner instead of bison ribs. Caveman Bob is stronger and faster than Ben, and picks mushrooms more quickly, too, but Bob scoops up some death caps in the fading light along with the good ’shrooms. Ben’s cave family dines on thin broth and wakes up hungry the next morning, but Caveman Bob and his clan don’t wake up at all. Ben’s superior sense of smell and touch, and his urge to look carefully and critically at what he was gathering, allowed his clan to survive and his DNA to be passed down. Chances are good that Ben, and women in the tribe with similar critical abilities that anthropologists call ethnobotany, used those skills in determining what other plants were toxic and which ones had healing properties. Despite what we see on movie screens about the lives of early humans, it took more than brawny spear throwing and noggin cracking to survive.
Fast-forward to the present. Beginner Ben is a guitar player who is probably never going to take the stage or even join a jam session, but his keen ear propels him to spend hours at guitar shops testing different guitars. His pal Bob, however, is rocking up a storm in the basement and doesn’t care what guitar he plays as long as it’s loud. Thanks to the FDA and mushrooms from Safeway, Bob’s family is safe despite having to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” played on a cheap, Stratocaster knockoff with crusty strings and out-of-phase pickups. Ben is meanwhile on a tone quest and—guided by a wide range of recordings and YouTube videos from Tony Rice to David Grier and Bryan Sutton—he foregoes electric guitars and their confusing array of pickups, pots, and other factors that alter how a guitar sounds. Ben instead buys a used D-18, and soon another. He never quite gets the sound he’s seeking, but he gets a lot of enjoyment out of the search.
By reading guitar magazines like this one and visiting online forums, Ben taps into the collective intelligence of others like himself. He learns terms like “crunch” and “shimmer,” and what contributes to “bell-like tone.” He drives his local guitar shop’s repair crew crazy with questions about neck angle, action height, and TUSQ bridge saddles versus bone. And what about stainless steel frets? Or torrefied tops and hot hide glue? His endless questions are tolerated because he can’t seem to go more than a few days without buying another type of pick, or several. They could be thick picks with beveled edges, or maybe Ben’s testing classic celluloid versus polycarbonate. Be it the unslotted bridge pins or another $75 capo, Ben could stock a bluegrass-festival booth with accessories for flatpickers. He doesn’t keep any guitar for very long, but often owns a half-dozen different dreadnoughts at a time while straying to a slope-shoulder Advanced Jumbo for a while, and then to Custom 0000-size with deep sides.
In terms of his playing, this guy will always be Beginner Ben. Replicating the music of guitar heroes who drew him to the acoustic guitar in the first place isn’t what his guitar shopping is about. Instead, his satisfaction comes from testing and comparing, making Ben a lot like people who would rather taste wines than drink more than half a glass. And why not? There are lots of ways to enjoy wine, and there are lots of ways to enjoy guitars. There’s no reason that testing and comparing dreadnoughts isn’t just as valid as drowning out the banjo player’s Mastertone with one. Bill Collings and Leo Fender, after all, were the testing and comparing kind, too. If their distant ancestors ever gathered mushrooms, you can bet they only picked the good ones.