Our columnist considers why we love to accumulate so much gear.
I’ve got stuff. Lots of stuff. It fills up my home and my shop. One of the many things that I’ve collected over the years are backstage passes. My occupation has taken me to a lot of shows—sometimes two or three a night. I’d come home and throw the evening’s pass into a box on a shelf in my coat closet. When the box got full, instead of tossing it, I’d put it away and start another one. This went on for decades. I probably just saved those passes for the same reason I’ve wound up with a lot of things—I like stuff. But not just any stuff. I like good stuff, quality stuff, interesting stuff. As a consequence, I have a lot of it. I’m betting a lot of you do too. Maybe you started young, by collecting trading cards. Maybe you came to it later in life. Maybe you’re thinking of tossing off the anchor and sailing away free.
In my dreams, I have a grand garage sale. I see table after table of NOS tubes, capos, cords, pedals, and straps, all laid out neatly and tagged with reasonable prices. There would be cabinets full of tools and electronic gizmos from ages past. I imagine a spread of guitars on stands and amplifiers lined up neatly like buildings on a boulevard—all plugged in and ready to demo. I’d say goodbye to all those years of guitar and automobile magazines organized neatly on my bookshelves, along with books about those two subjects. There would be a section for microphone and music stands, photo lights, cameras, and microphones. It would be a picker’s dream come true. Somehow this exercise gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling, and I’m not sure why, because I love my stuff.
So, why do we cling to these artifacts? You might say it’s your hobby, or if you are a pro, they are work tools. But that’s not the whole story. When I started playing, guitarists didn’t have collections. Professionals had one or two main guitars and maybe a 12-string. If you broke a string onstage, you’d either change it while talking to the audience or grab your one backup guitar. Studio cats might have accumulated a small array of stringed instruments (like banjos or mandolins) that they could deploy as needed in order to secure more work, but even some of the legends would borrow when the situation called for something different. Running parallel with the normalization of mass consumerism, it has become acceptable to own more than one or two guitars—maybe even 20.
"When I started playing, guitarists didn’t have collections. Professionals had one or two main guitars and maybe a 12-string."
That’s probably why when you think of the classic acts, you naturally picture those players with a certain guitar. John Lennon had his black Rickenbacker and George Harrison had his Gretsch. Paul McCartney is forever associated with Höfner. Clapton you have to define by era, but a few, like his “Fool” SG and his Bluesbreaker Les Paul—superseded by his now ubiquitous Stratocaster—were and are touchstones. When you think David Gilmour, you see a Strat. Likewise Rick Nielsen with his Hamer “Explorer” and Randy Rhoads on a white Les Paul. As different as they are stylistically, Elvis Costello, Thurston Moore, and J Mascis converge on the Jazzmaster. I could go on. For the first 40 years of its existence, the electric guitar wasn’t much of a collectible. But as we stand here today, most of us have a gaggle of guitars that may or may not be a collection.
So, do we or don’t we have collections? When I use a good piece of gear, whether it’s a guitar or a chisel, I feel joy. It’s a feeling that goes beyond mere possession, and it’s not just that the widget works. It’s recognizing that years of experience have led me to the point of knowing what quality is and why it’s important. I’ve read that holding on to physical things is hanging on to the past when we should be living in the present. I’m not going to dispute that, but my stuff and I have a grip on each other that’s more like a friendship than a psychological hardship. I’m not a working pro, but music has been my life since I was 12, and I don’t apologize for that.
Should I pare down my tools? Would I be happier without a selection of fine instruments? Perhaps purging the tonnage of stuff that anchors me down would open up a whole new take on life, but I’m not ready. Maybe you’ve thought about this too, but I wouldn’t worry too much. Chalk it up to whatever you like, but I’m fine with it for now, and I adore finding new things that make my life a little easier, and maybe a little more joyous.
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In the face of current events, we’ve witnessed the steady and resilient progression of the guitar industry.
Despite the tough times we’ve been facing over the past few years, the guitar world has kept on ticking. By all visible measures, the industry has been doing well, both for sellers of musical gear and for content creators. There has also been a resurgence of live shows, and even with the ebb and flow of infectious disease, the marketplace for live concerts is gathering steam. So, what has changed in our journey to the “new” normal?
For musicians, live music is the component that many enjoy most, so its return is a welcome catharsis. This is good news not just for musicians, but for all the supporting cast members who make the performance ecosystem run. Guitar and drum techs, sound designers, lighting directors, and all the ancillary venue staff needed to stage and manage a night out for a few hundred (or thousand) music fans are the lifeblood of the whole musical experience machine. It takes a lot of grease to make the gravy, which is good for people in the industry who have been sidelined for so long.
It’s going to take a while for the past level of venues to rebuild, I suppose. In the meantime, other outlets that have blossomed in the past few years will continue, with more and more emphasis placed on quality content like streaming shows. True, the format is hardly new, but the production values have improved significantly. Five years ago, you could get away with a shaky cell phone video of your gig or lesson. Today, the bar has risen to make well-lit multi-camera productions the norm. Video editing has become more sophisticated, and a lot of what I see looks more like real broadcast quality. The same goes for shop tours and builder interviews. On the gear side of things, podcasts and more in-depth videos from builders have reached a new level as well.
It takes a lot of grease to make the gravy, which is good for people in the industry who have been sidelined for so long.
Some of this has resulted from the plethora of information about how audio and video production works, and the huge amount of affordable video gear. Previously, only well-funded outfits could afford to hire production companies to create video content. The cost of making a 30-minute piece of broadcast-quality video could be five, or even six figures. Compare that to today, where a few thousand dollars’ worth of gear can get you into the game—and you start to understand why new videos are much slicker.
That’s not to imply that slick production is what makes the difference. Great content is at the heart of any great endeavor. Take a look at the in-depth YouTube series Archtoppery, featuring master luthier Ken Parker. Not that the production value is anywhere near Hollywood levels, but Parker’s guidance through the mesmerizing journey into the minutiae of guitar making is a must-see. What sets it apart is his depth of experience and his ability to verbalize the mechanics of the craft in a way that anyone can understand. You need a little patience to watch a solid hour of how to improve a wood gouge, but that’s precisely what makes this series superlative. Even though Parker is adept at building guitars in a factory setting, his love of the handiwork that he employs on his current instruments humbles even the most experienced among us.
This all brings me to the future of guitar-building on the individual level. If the first few years of this century was a gold rush to launch small-batch guitar brands, the pandemic years brought oversaturation. As we move into the next phase, the reality of the home-built market is setting in. I’m certain that a lot of the basement builders will continue, just as the home beer-brewing hobby does. My best guess is that a lot of the people who attempted to take their hobby to the next level may tire of the struggle to get enough traction to survive. At the corporate level, the Anheuser-Busch and Heinekens of guitar sales will still carry the day.
Trying to figure out how to mix up your musical life this year? Here are some ideas.
Here we are again friends, at the beginning of the human construct known as the New Year. So, as is traditional here at Esoterica, I’m compelled to lay out some goals I’d like to pass on for the months ahead. A lot of things have happened and changed in the last few years, and yet things are oddly the same. The chase for the ultimate guitar tone remains with us, even as tone changes with the winds and whims of fashion. Still, I feel compelled to daydream about our opportunities to grow as musicians and passengers on spaceship Earth in the coming year. So, enough of my yakking—here’s the setlist:
Stop calling it a fingerboard. Unless you are playing a fretless instrument, the part of your instrument that harbors the frets is known as the fretboard. It’s a board, and it holds frets. I’ve taken heat for using the wrong term, so I’m working on this, too. We need solidarity here, so I promise to help you if you help me.
Learn the names of those “wacky” chords you use. It has never been easier to decode your fretboard. (See what I did there?) There are some great apps for this sort of detective work, and you probably already have one or more on your phone. I’ve been using GuitarToolkit for years as a mobile tuner. Like many of the other offerings out there, it has a function that lets you enter the chord voicing on a virtual fretboard, and it tells you what it is. You may not improve your playing, but it’s always empowering to discover you already know how to play Esus4.
Introduce a child to guitar music. I never really thought about this sort of thing before, but somebody’s got to do it. Parents subject their kids to junk food and stick-and-ball sports, so be an evangelist for the arts and put a cranked electric in the hands of a kid—and watch the fun begin. I built a kit guitar with my granddaughter for her birthday, and now she’s playing White Stripes songs. I can’t wait to show her some Tanya O’Callaghan and Larkin Poe videos! This year I’m going to get her little brother some drums just to annoy her parents.
Tune ’em down, speed ’em up, and strain those vocals like bloody murder. Before you know it, you’ll be touring stadium gigs packed with young fans who’ve never heard country music before.
Install a Floyd Rose on your Jazzmaster. Do I really have to explain this? It’s a natural progression to defile a classic instrument in order to piss off future generations of collectors. While you’re at it, put some active pickups in that vintage Harmony Rocket III and put the OG foil pickups on Reverb.
Rework some country tunes. Nothing is as edgy as bending genres. This is exactly what put classic acts like Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, and the Black Keys on the musical map. My bet is on turning Garth Brooks and Dwight Yoakam ballads into modern anthems. Critics have called bro’ country “classic rock with a cowboy hat,” so here’s your opportunity to turn the tables for fun and profit. Tune ’em down, speed ’em up, and strain those vocals like bloody murder. Before you know it, you’ll be touring stadium gigs packed with young fans who’ve never heard country music before.
Refinish your relic Strat to mint condition. As long as we’re zigging while others zag, you may as well define the next big trend in guitars. Factory fresh is what you’re looking for, so make sure you use gobs of polyester clear to provide the final detail. And if you’re stuck with that minty PRS, go against the grain and refinish it with nitro and put it in the freezer until it checks like crazy. This goes over great at corporate gigs.
Befriend an aging musician. This is more of a cry for help on my part than advice to you. Just like a 23-year-old Peter Green introduced older Chicago bluesmen to sideways vibrato, you can teach old dogs new tricks too. The younger generations always have the latest innovations and techniques that can give has-been guitarists a new perspective and extend their careers. Move past the boomer jokes and help us understand that tone isn’t in our arthritic hands.
Get John Bohlinger to rundown your rig. Let’s face it, Bohlinger’s Rig Rundowns are the launching pad to stardom. He’s the man behind the careers of Joe Bonamassa and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein. So why build your fanbase organically? That’s so 2019. Just think, you’ll be turning this page (or scrolling) and BOOM.
Here are the good and bad habits to look for when you’re watching a builder at work.
It’s fun to binge-watch YouTube videos, and for guitarists there are a plethora of them to behold. There are mashups of metal and funk, as well as never-before-seen footage of classic acts in every genre. Then, there are the how-to videos that have helped me and countless others learn new fretboard moves. My favorites are the ones that decode songs, unlocking finger positions and chord voicings that have eluded me for years. But next to that, I enjoy watching guitar-making videos. As a builder whose 50-year career has allowed me to tour and work in dozens of guitar factories and shops, you might wonder why on earth I would subject myself to this. The answer is that you can always learn something new if you know what to watch for. New and correct information is certainly what most of us are hoping for when we spool up a video.
The first thing I look for is if a shop is organized and relatively clean. I say relatively, because woodworking is, by nature, somewhat messy. All that cutting and sanding creates shavings and dust that’s hard to control completely. Most decent shops have some sort of dust collection, so when you spy ankle-deep wood shavings, you might wonder where the priorities are. Wood dust is flammable at best and explosive at worst, so if you buy a guitar from a shop that’s a ticking time-bomb, you may not be able to count on any long-term customer service. I’ve written before about the benefits of being well-ordered, and I think that it speaks volumes about the builder’s attitude. Clutter slows things down as little interruptions in the workflow add up to mistakes or even bankruptcy. I’m not saying that great work can’t be done in a messy shop, but I’m not a gambling man either.
“Wood dust is flammable at best and explosive at worst, so if you buy a guitar from a shop that’s a ticking time-bomb, you may not be able to count on any long-term customer service.”
For a guy who hates hammers, I’ve got a lot of them. Sometimes it’s the only tool that will get the job done. One task that a hammer isn’t good at is fretting. Sure, that’s the way it used to be done back in the good old days—you know, when all those unplayable budget guitars were being sold at department stores. I cringe when I see builders smacking a neck with a hammer, and you should too. In a repair shop, there’s room for the hammer as an adjustment tool, but it takes hundreds of hours to get really good at it.
The problem is that hammers aren’t very consistent, and seating frets properly demands uniformity. Hit the fret a little too hard and it’s buried, not hard enough and you get a high fret. That’s why the best shops use a mechanical press of some sort.
This brings me to another chilling moment in guitar videos: the fret leveling. Fretwire manufacturing is a precise art with tight tolerances well within the range of good playability. That means if the fretboard is true and all the frets are seated properly, no fret leveling is needed at all. So, when a video is about doing a “fret job” on a brand-new build, you know that something was botched in an earlier step. Fret filing is reserved for compensating for uneven fret wear or impact damage. Of course, if the fretboard radius is sloppy, there’s no way the frets will be level regardless of how you put them in. I roll my eyes when I see a hand router on a plywood fixture used to crown a fretboard. It’s certainly faster than sanding with a radius block or swing fixture, but not nearly as accurate. To be clear, if a router is followed with a more precise shaping process, it’s perfectly acceptable. But you can see that if the first step isn’t right, it’s just kicking the can down the road as everything after that compounds the issue.
Finishing is another area that separates the good from the bad and ugly. A good spray painter is amazing to watch, as they systematically layer smooth and consistent passes over an instrument. You don’t want to see the painter waving the gun around from side to side with a lot of wrist movement like they’re watering a garden. The trick is keeping the speed and distance consistent. When done correctly, clear coats lay out flat and shiny and barely need to be buffed. It takes a long time to learn, but when you get it right, it’s like magic.
There are a lot of great ideas and unconventional yet effective methods to be seen in how-to videos. I’m always happy when I see something brilliant and noteworthy, but occasionally it’s the opposite. Just like the “lessons” that don’t quite get the chords right or ignore the fact that a song was recorded in an open tuning, home-guitar-building videos are not always insight into best practices. That’s doesn’t mean that they can’t be entertaining. So, get out the popcorn and settle in for some luthier jump scares.