Beware: Guitar mythology can become a tar pit.
I'm writing this before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the current political drama I'm witnessing has me reevaluating my core beliefs. For me, this time is reminiscent of my Santa Claus/Easter Bunny mythos deflowering. Turns out, I've been wrong about many things I once held to be true and semi-sacred. So why am I prattling on about this in a music-nerd mag? Because guitar geekdom is part religion, part cult, and part tribal society with loads of ambiguity and poor counsel guiding us crookedly along our path.
For example, if you've ever worked in a music store, you've met more than your share of opinionated blowhards. I was behind the counter in my early 20s when a guy came in looking for a Tele. We had an incredible pre-CBS butterscotch that I still regret not taking home. I showed it to him and he immediately dismissed it, saying, “Maple necks are not fast enough." Although I was young, stupid, and easily intimidated, I knew arguing the merits of maple with this deluded idiot would be like trying to turn a Jehovah's Witness at your doorstep. Guitarists are loyal to their dogma. Below I've listed a few of my earlier ridiculous beliefs for your amusement.
Compressors. Twenty years ago, drummer Stan Lynch came out on tour with a band I played in. Lynch mentioned casually that Mike Campbell used a MXR Dyna Comp on all of the Heartbreakers albums. I immediately bought one and left it on for over a decade. I was so psychosomatically addicted to it that if I had to choose between playing with a full set of strings or a compressor, I would have happily squashed those five strings all night. When my Dyna Comp eventually died mid-gig, I was in a panic until I actually listened to my un-squashed guitar and thought, “Jeez, I think I like this better."
Reverb. Like an idiot, I removed the reverb tank from two of my amps because somebody I admired (but now can't remember) said reverb makes your guitar sound small. How did I fall for that? Now I want to soak every note in that lush wetness, because it sounds huge.
Frets. There was a time I thought small frets made guitars play more in tune. I was so convinced of this that I went to great expense to refret my favorite guitar with tiny frets. Like a vegetarian who works “meat is murder" into every conversation, I became a small-fret zealot. Eventually I got a new guitar with normal, modern-sized frets. I didn't notice much of a difference in intonation, but it seemed like bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs were easier. After playing the new guitar for a few months, I picked up my old Tele and thought, “Man, what's wrong with this thing?"
Picks. At one point I was obsessed with tortoise-shell picks—an impractical addiction given that they've been illegal in the U.S. since 1973. On a weeklong gig in Japan, I literally spent more on picks than I made on the gig. I have one left, sitting in my Martin case. I never use it, because I'm afraid I'll lose or break it. Does it sound better? Don't know, don't care.
Guitar xenophobia. You know how Captain Kirk always ignores the Prime Directive? (If you don't know the P.D., I pity you. It prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations.) Kirk can't help but impose his 1960s-American views on all other civilizations because he's convinced his are superior, even when the other civilizations are thousands of years more advanced. That's me with guitars. I discriminate against all non-American-made gear. Granted, few would argue that anything beats a golden-era, U.S.-built electric or steel-string acoustic guitar. But as far as guitars coming off the line today, there are some great ones built around the globe. I'm starting to drop my prejudice and own a few superb axes built outside the US.
New music versus old. I've always maintained that the music made during my youth is better then modern music. Maybe it is, but, as I've learned from my shoddy web research, I can't say for sure. Psychologists and neuroscientists explain that our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we'll hear as adults. Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. Our favorite songs stimulate the brain's pleasure circuit, which releases an influx of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. New music may be great, but it can't compete with the chemical cocktail my body automatically feeds me when I listen to Abbey Road. I'm just glad I did not come of age when Backstreet Boys ruled the airwaves.
In summary, I've been an uncompromising ignoramus for most of my life. Killing some of my fatter sacred cows was a good thing. Feel free to reply online with your equally misguided convictions and we can compare notes.