The difference between a good guitar and a great guitar is subjective, but it goes way beyond tone and aesthetics.
I used to hate Stratocasters. Okay, that’s not exactly the full truth, but as much as I admired their straightforward design, signature sound, and robust construction, they never gave me gooseflesh like, say, a blonde dot-neck 335. My happy place was that buttery smooth 24 3/4" feel and the fat, fat, fat, singing sustain of a humbucker-shod, glued-neck guitar. That’s not to say I haven’t owned a slew of Fender products over the years. I treasured the 1950s maple-necked Strats and Teles that passed through my hands, but I never really bonded with them. I didn’t feel like they were my friends.
Fatal attraction. No doubt about it: Visuals are a powerful thing. Whether it’s walking into a store or browsing online, your eyes are your gear radar. And once locked onto the target, a lot of potential turn-offs can be rationalized into the background. I’m as guilty as the next person of being seduced by a lovely shape. I’ve owned at least three of the same-model electric 12-string just because they were so fetching visually. Inevitably, their narrow and crowded necks rendered them almost unplayable to me, so each time I quickly gave up on them.
If the shoe fits. A comfortable neck is a great selling point that has lured many a guitarist into playing certain instruments. Easy is good, right? One of the reasons I didn’t get on with Stratocasters was that everything seemed harder to play on them. I interpreted the long-scale stiffness as an impediment, and quickly lost interest no matter how good they sounded. Once, however, I found myself in a situation where for a couple months my only guitar at home was a Strat. After being held hostage for a few weeks, I realized that a little fight was good for me, and the skirmish became the point. Once I acknowledged this, wringing the neck into submission became a joy instead of a struggle. I also became aware that easy can be lazy, and the Strat pushed me to do better. Amazingly, it also made playing more comfortable guitars better, too.
The quest for tone. At the heart of most guitar safaris is the belief that if we had the right tone, we’d be inspired to play more—and better. This is where things get a little misguided. Some guitarists talk about searching for a sound they hear in their heads, which might not be as useful as finding the sounds already buried in the guitars they own. When you examine the breadth of tones that different artists get from the exact same guitar, you realize that sometimes it’s the archer, not the arrow.
The argument for exploration. When I was first starting out, I didn’t know how to mine for gold in any given guitar. But being broke and relegated to a cheap beginner’s instrument, I was forced to explore what it could do. Luckily, I was so fascinated with the damn thing that I tried all sorts of stuff. I experimented with where I picked the strings and noted how that position sounded on all the notes up and down the neck—and how it changed with the different pickups. I turned the controls constantly in conjunction with the amp settings and made mental notes of what happened. I played too loud, and then softly. I leaned the headstock against the speaker and banged on the body. Everything was fair game, and I built up a catalog of knowledge. I’m not a great player, but I know a lot about what guitars can do and why. Along the way, I’ve discovered that building a friendship over time is sometimes better than a first impression might imply.
Quality time. What makes an instrument become a soul mate? First impressions are important, but sometimes misleading. We all have stories about guitars that catch our eye from across the room. Their beauty beckons us closer and invites our touch, but living with them becomes a letdown. Then there are the sleepers that just make you feel at home. I think that sometimes it comes down to spending quality time with each other. My favorite guitars are the ones that push me to try a little harder and reward me when I do. I don’t feel judged if I try something a little beyond my reach, and they don’t complain if I tell the same old story for the hundredth time. Your guitar should bring out your best, and catch you when you fall without judgment. Sometimes that trust just takes a while.