Columnist Philippe Herndon on gear, freedom, and finding joy in making music.
Friends, my time here as a contributing writer for Premier Guitar is coming to a close. My intention was that this could be where the discussion of objects could become a venue for the consideration of ideas. A sincere thank you goes out to PG editors Shawn Hammond, Ted Drozdowski, Tessa Jeffers, and Joe Gore for the opportunity, and their patience with what I’ve wanted to say and the manner in which I’ve said it.
As readers, sometimes your feedback changed the way I think; at others, it confirmed my suspicions. Like every other piece of technology in our modern age, there is a balancing act between utility, art, design, and commerce where each of us stakes out our preferences and our reasons why. I would hesitate to say there’s an objective right and wrong—but I certainly have my own opinions on things, and I thank you for taking the time to consider and reply to them. I leave you with this.
The electric guitar might just be another electronic instrument, but I think it’s still the best electronic instrument. Keytars are good for conspicuous displays of ironic consumption, but they don’t actually look cool. Surrounding yourself with stacks of keyboards makes you Tony Banks of Genesis, at best. Modular synths turn users into 1920s telephone operators. And like someone who feels compelled to operate an imaginary steering wheel in a self-driving vehicle, anyone onstage vigorously moving around their groove production controller that they tap once a song section looks kind of ridiculous.
Much like muscle cars, monster trucks, lightsabers, bazookas, and being a princess with secret world-altering magical powers, guitars still appeal to our base, childlike, lizard brains with a special cocktail of power and cool. There’s a reason any thick fashion magazine full of viral affluenza ads always has at least one expensive-looking photo of a model awkwardly holding whatever guitar the crew could borrow. It hearkens to a legacy of loud defiance that goes back to Cash’s middle finger, Hendrix’s matches and lighter fluid, the cover of London Calling, and thousands of other images seared into our imaginations.
But behind the artifice and style—and artifice and style do matter—the electronic content of the electric guitar is still really cool. I once dismissively described the “balls to ovary birth story of your favorite tones” as the furthest thing from “natural,” but it doesn’t make them any less awesome. A spool of wire wrapped around magnets is no more sophisticated than a fifth grader’s science project, but the voltage created by its field getting broken by the vibrations of a plucked string can be harmonically rich, dynamically responsive, and immediate in ways that are special and unlike anything else in music. The effects pedals we’ve described here can vary from the medieval to sophisticated, but there is wonder and liberty in choosing exactly which devices sound best, look the coolest, and feel inspiring and fun to use. And then the amps! Whether you direct your sonic path to your laptop or plug into an old tube amp, each device creates its own magic and constraints for how you want to use it. At their best, each of the tools in your signal chain can have character and personality that contributes towards your sound.
In the end, it really isn’t about the gear. It sounds either hopelessly naive or self-defeating for a gear maker to say this in an era where people signal their virtues by their choice in chicken sandwiches, but I’m going to say it out loud: You are not what you buy. You are not the tuner you bought right before a show, the fuzz you scored at the flea market, or the amp you ordered after reading pages of effusive testimonials. I’m for people making well-informed decisions about the equipment they own and the people who make it, voting with their dollars for things that bring them the most joy and the least dissonance with their values and needs. But sometimes, it’s just a chicken sandwich because the family is hungry and this is the exit. Sometimes it’s just the overdrive that’s available and you need to save gas money for the drive home after these shows. And sometimes, it’s the amp you dropped way too much money on that just isn’t for you. You don’t have to let these things define you, because they don’t.
I was genuinely moved by a post from an acclaimed electronic musician who had once been so committed to the traditional ideal of the guitar-playing singer-songwriter that she was making herself miserable. I think it’s a miracle that she found her voice and joy in other genres and technology, making “trash beats” and arranging loops until she became really good at it. I’d encourage a similar sense of discovery and self-awareness within or outside of whatever instrument you play. In the end, it’s just the stuff we use to make music and sound. Make the sounds you dream of making, get the tools to do it, and be true to the pursuits that make you happiest. Even if some guy in a guitar mag thinks you look a little ridiculous.