How many guitars, pedals, and amps do you need? Enough to make you happy. But window shopping alone has its own benefits.
I just got back from the NAMM show, and I am suppressing the nervous twitch of desire. My eyes and ears were flooded with all kinds of great gear, from cutting edge software plugins to microphones to—my favorites—pedals, amps, and guitars. With so much new gear around, G.A.S. was so abundant you could almost smell it hanging over the show floor. (Sorry, I could not resist.)
As you all know, I’m talking about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the disease for which there is no cure. I have 15 guitars—17, if you count a cigar box and a diddley bow—that cover the sonic waterfront for me and then some. So why would I want more? My tube and solid-state amps are carefully curated so I can recreate all the classic tones I love, and with my quirky playing approach and equally carefully assembled pedalboard, I can put my own spin on every one of them.
And yet … I return with a pocketful of maybes. Maybe that new semi-hollow with the sleek neck and coil-splitting would get me another tone I can’t quite access now? Maybe that pedal would make it easier to accommodate pitch shifting while I solo? Maybe it’s time to add a bona fide high-gain amp, or dive into modeling?
I used to think these impulses were unhealthy. Especially when I was a touring indie musician and had no money to spend on gear. (One of musical life’s great ironies is that club-level working musicians often earn so little that they can’t afford to increase or upgrade the tools of their craft.) But I’ve changed my mind, thanks to my dog.
“You should never pick up interesting things with your mouth.”
Dolly, who is going on 17, is slow … or perhaps methodical … when we go on walks. But every inch of the way she is sniffing, her ears are up, and she stops to spend time looking at and smelling anything that captures her interest, even for a moment. That’s a great way to spend NAMM and to examine gear, with senses and imagination open, considering the potential of everything for your music, prepared to evaluate impulses without prejudice. (But, unlike Dolly, you should never pick up interesting things with your mouth.)
Considering a piece of gear is not the same as buying it, or I’d be broke. And evaluating these flirtations can lead to something good. Let’s say you’re smitten with a brand-new $250 modulation pedal. But after careful consideration and inspection, you realize you can get a similar sound with the chorus or vibrato you already own, and a delay or reverb pedal. The tempting new gear has led you down a path of finding a new, purposeful sound in your current gear. Same with a drive pedal. It’s fresh, it’s raw, it’s low and singing—and maybe with a bit of compression it isn’t very far from the sound you can get with your current overdrive if you just roll back the tone controls on your 6-string. And what about that semi-hollow? Maybe what I really need is a 10-band EQ pedal so I can approximate semi-hollow and hollowbody tones on all my guitars at whim, which would certainly inject a different voice into the solos or choruses of songs in my repertoire. Sometimes looking at new gear reminds us of the full range of our current musical real estate holdings. And that’s great. It’s easy to get in a rut and overlook the potential of gear you already own. (Parallel question: How many of you really make full use of the tone and volume controls on your instruments? I find this to be an oddly neglected zone of exploration, even this many years beyond Eric Clapton’s unfortunately dubbed “woman tone.”)
That said, there’s also not a damn thing wrong with buying some new gear. In fact, it’s great. Guitars, pedals, amps, microphones, plugins, and even accessories seem to get better all the time, which means we probably all have some room for upgrades if we’re able to make them. Same with the tones produced by modern emulations of vintage gear, which ideally get more on the nose with every iteration, while adding improvements to tonality and performance. In terms of consistency and playability, today’s well-made guitars are perhaps the finest ever built, in some cases outperforming the templates that inspired them at much lower cost. And, as the saying goes, every guitar—or pedal, or amp—has new songs inside of it, waiting to be discovered.
Hopefully you’ve gorged on the videos and reports from the NAMM floor that we’ve shared at premierguitar.com with you this month. There was a lot to see, hear, and smell. Well, maybe not smell, but I think you know what I mean. Never be afraid to chase gear temptation, because it can often lead you to interesting places.
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For affirmation, education, and socialization, there may be nothing better than performing live.
Play a gig! That’s my advice on how to become a better player, and maybe even a happier and better human. Sure, plenty of us have played plenty of gigs, but I know a lot of people with a room full of gear who have never taken any of it out of the house, save for maybe the beach or around a fire. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that, but why deny yourself the experiences that come with performing live in front of strangers through a PA? Take your acoustic to an open mic in a basement or local watering hole, or sit in with a friend’s cover band for a few songs. Maybe even sing, too. Just take any opportunity to get on any stage that you can, and let it rip.
Why? Because practicing at home is not the same as actually performing. And performing, which, to put it bluntly, lights a fire under your ass, has unlimited benefits. If you have some stage fright or general shyness, what better way to get over it than learning the techniques to cope that come naturally after a couple performances? To say nothing of the confidence that you’ll enjoy after you’re survived a few gigs. You learn to breathe differently (with your instrument), attack the guitar differently, to sing and play into a mic and sound system and grasp how it can be used for dynamic effect or to underscore a lyric, or how your guitar sounds amplified in a larger space when you pick or strum at various places along the strings or flip the pickup selector or roll back the volume.
Perhaps the best benefit of gigging is how it broadens your world.
For me, playing solo and in bands has been great therapy, as well as a ticket to adventure. The confidence I’ve grown into standing in front of strangers and even talking to them during performances is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received. I was a shy, odd kid, and performing has taught me how to engage with others in a deeper and personal way, and lessen my fears about, well … everything! Also, the desire to be good and to entertain is a strong motivator for musical improvement. (That fire, again!)
But perhaps the best benefit of gigging is how it broadens your world. You meet other musicians, and invariably some of them become friends. Who doesn’t like making new friends? Plus, if you deliver a song or a set with a modicum of confidence and engagement, strangers will connect with that and want to offer you praise or commiseration or even their own stories if, say, something you sang or said resonated with them. That kind of sharing is a beautiful thing.
If you play a gig, and play more gigs, and keep getting better, and people start coming to see you on a regular basis, the connections deepen. I’ve had people tell me my music has helped them feel like they’re “at home”—a home they’d left years ago and long for. A few have told me that my recordings have brought solace to a dying loved one, or become a joyful bond of listening shared with a difficult parent. That has touched me deeply and made me feel better about choosing to travel a road that, at times, has been quite difficult.
If I hadn’t first stepped on a stage at a diner (that served cheap beer) in the woods outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, and kept pushing through the first 50 gigs that gave me the terrors, all that and more would never have happened. I am grateful that I did.
So, go play a gig. Then maybe another, and another. Each gig becomes a flagstone on the path of musical pursuit and, more important, life. They can lead to wonderful places and things.
Ever wonder what it’s like to do a Rig Rundown? It’s awesome! PG’s editorial director explains.
Although John Bohlinger has done the talking for the majority of our Rig Rundowns, followed by our director of video content Chris Kies and chief videographer Perry Bean, I’ve been PG’s jaws on my fair share. So, here’s what it’s like to do a Rig Rundown.
It starts well before we get to the venue, with Chris handling the scheduling with the artist’s team. Then, at the appointed time, Chris, Perry, and I convene at the club or concert location. I either know the artist’s work or have done research so I can ask informed questions. Chris and Perry arrive with cameras, lavalier mics, SM57s, tripods, and lights. Since I’m just carrying a notepad, I like to lend a hand. Every Rundown I’m on is like a reunion with Chris and Perry, too. We get to catch up, and since they’re best friends, they radiate a rapport and positivity that’s infectiously good. (I haven’t worked directly with our new videographer, Jarrad James, yet, but I hope you’ve seen some of his Drum Rundowns.)
Usually, the artist or guitar tech is ready for us onstage, and when they’re not, it’s either a treat to hear part of soundcheck—like the Allman Betts Band ripping through “Whipping Post,” or Eric Johnson last-minute-tweaking his amp setup—or, on unlucky days, torture—like listening to a guitarist blame the sound engineer for his lousy tone for a half hour, without once trying to change the settings on his own Marshall.
I like to make Rig Rundowns engaging conversations, instead of mere show-and-tell.
When the stage is ready for us, Chris and Perry use their experience to find the best angles to shoot the action. They position me and the artists and set up lights to illuminate where we stand. They put the SM57s on amps, help secure the lavaliers, do a quick soundcheck, and make sure the lenses are getting the goods. Honestly, they do all the hard work.
If the artist or tech isn’t familiar with Rig Rundowns, I’ll give them a quick outline of the conversation we’ll have. Often, emerging artists aren’t just ready, they’re psyched! I’ve heard, “Oh, I know how a Rig Rundown works!” … often. And with undisguised glee.
Then Perry, typically, says “rolling,” and away we go. I like to make Rig Rundowns engaging conversations, instead of mere show-and-tell, which is why I arrive informed and ready to talk about an artist’s history, recordings, stylistic interests, and more. If we can have a real discussion, and maybe even weave in a little humor or empathy, all the better.
If I make a mistake—ask a dumb question, stumble over words, stray out of the lens—I can stop or be stopped for a redo (and so can the artist), and Chris and Perry will cue me back in perfectly, coaching me on physical and verbal continuity. They’re really directors, making short documentaries. After filming a kabillion Rig Rundowns and demos, they’re also incredibly well-informed about gear, so they might suggest we focus on a particular instrument or stomp to hit all the right notes. They also encourage the artists to play, so we can begin each video with a live performance and really show off the tones these rigs create.
I love being onstage when somebody like Doug Aldrich, a great guy with a heart full of tone, rolls up the volume dial and hits the strings. Jimmy Herring did the same at a Widespread Panic Rundown at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater, and if I wasn’t standing next to him when I heard the low, mournful roar that came out his amp, I could have been convinced that Godzilla was coming up the nearby Cumberland River. It was one of the greatest sounds I’ve ever heard. Absolutely primeval.
When the filming’s over, Chris starts packing up and Perry takes stills for the Rundown’s text on PG’s website. I usually snap a few cell phone photos to capture details I’ll want to use writing that text—just as visual notes. And then it’s a wrap … except for the hours of editing that go into each Rundown, where an entirely different magic happens.
The bonus for me, of course, is getting to talk to artists I love about their gear. After interviewing Eric Johnson and Devon Allman for years, it’s been great to meet them and find they’re also kind and generous in person. My favorite Rig Rundown was with Buddy Miller, who I’ve long admired, and who invited us into his home studio for a spirited, free-ranging talk about his favorite instruments, recording gear, and way more. He even let us use his vintage overheard mic when we came up short. And yes, Nick Raskulinecz’ Nashville pad is the ultimate heavy rock playroom!
Every Rig Rundown I’ve done has had real highs—moments of discovery, enlightenment, musical adventure—and I hope you experience that, too, when you watch them.
Music is a lifelong pursuit, and all of us who love guitars and the sounds they make are in it together.
When you pick up an issue of Premier Guitar, you’re chasing music. And I’ll bet that’s something you and I have been doing, whenever we can, our entire lives. Driven by love, curiosity, and the excitement of discovery, we pursue the sounds that thrill us or might thrill us, and the more we learn or find, the brighter the flame grows.
For me, the first sparks happened in my parents’ kitchen, where my mother, Rose, listened to WEXT, a country station broadcasting from New Britain, Connecticut. There, I learned that music takes you places, like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” and introduces you to the vastly different lives of others, via songs like Johnny Cash’s“The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” TV also became a path of exploration. I was only 6, but I remember seeing—and hearing—the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and not exactly understanding (all that screaming!), but grasping that rock ’n’ roll was something I should look into. Soon, Shindig! and Hullabaloo introduced me to the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Herman’s Hermits, and the giant whose birthday I share, Howlin’ Wolf. (June 10 … feel free to send cards!) The Johnny Cash Show spotlighted Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Derek and the Dominos. And The Midnight Special turned me on to virtually every major rock and R&B artist of the early ’70s, and sent me down a lifelong rabbit hole of blues and soul when Ray Charles and Ike & Tina Turner appeared. My first allowances—50 cents and eventually $2 a week—were spent on music. (First album: The Sound of Johnny Cash, for $2 at Woolworth’s, and I still own it. It features my first guitar hero: Luther Perkins.)
Shortly, I discovered there was such a thing as music journalism, and I fell for the writing of Robert Palmer and Lester Bangs, and found a magazine called Musician, where I would eventually make my bones as an editor. Each of these discoveries enflamed the chase, and by the time I got to college, I spent part of nearly every weekend combing new and used record shops from New York City to Hartford. I was also able to get to Manhattan easily from school in Bridgeport, to experience the punk revolution. And so it went, and still goes—that unquenchable pursuit of musical discovery.
Somewhere along the line, a guitar fell into my hands, and a new dimension slowly and painstakingly (I am far from a natural) developed—where I could be part of that great musical continuum in a deeper way, and where, eventually, I learned the wordless language of musicians. It’s a rich tongue that conveys so much emotional information without as much as a single vowel. The dialog of sound. It is amazing, powerful, profound, and unlike anything else. If there is real magic, it is in listening to and playing music.
That magic has taken me many places. I went from seeing bands at CBGB to playing its stage many times. I played the New England clubs that I would sneak into when I was underage, catching G.E. Smith with the Scratch Band and other regional heroes. Eventually, the music I played took me across the country and to Europe, and to the stages of Bonnaroo and Memphis in May and France’s Cognac Blues Passions and Switzerland’s Blues Rules and so many roadhouses, dive bars, and breweries and barbecue joints you’d think I wouldn’t remember them all, but I do.
The point is this: Music is a lifelong adventure. We are in the chase together, no matter how different we may seem. The sound of it thrills us, and I’d be surprised—shocked, actually—if it hasn’t taken you somewhere. As guitar players, even those of us who’ve never left the couch have been transported. Tell me you’ve never played a song, plucked out a melody, or slammed out a favorite riff and suddenly found yourself completely removed from your surroundings—in a kind of reverie. And make no mistake, even if you’ve never played a gig and have a hard time forming an open-position B chord, you’re a guitar player. No one should be judging you (although I know it’s hard not to judge yourself).
It’s an honor and a privilege for us at PG to offer signposts for your chase—to introduce you to new players or reintroduce you to ones you love, to turn you on to new guitar music, to shed light on new gear and how to use it, and make using the gear you own even better. We do not take this lightly. And we love the chase every bit as much as you do.