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.
Life—and playing guitar—is really about the art of storytelling.
I became infatuated with Roy Buchanan’s incendiary playing when I was a relative youngster, after finding a copy of Guitar Player with Roy on the cover. He looked more like one of dad’s disheveled friends than a star, which intrigued me enough to pick up Roy Buchanan and Second Album—the first time I heard the war between angels and demons channeled through wood and steel.
A few years later, my friend Stuart Stack and I hopped in my dad’s battered ’67 Comet to see Roy play the Pinecrest in Shelton, Connecticut. The opening band was unmemorable, but then came the wait. One hour. Two hours. And no Roy.
Suddenly, the sold-out crowd began parting behind us, and I turned to see Roy coming through the human sea, with a Fender case dangling from his left hand. As he passed, saying hi and excuse me, the aroma of distillery accompanied him. Stu and I looked at each other. This was not going to be good.
We were right. It was amazing! Roy took the stage and quickly summoned every demon and angel at his call, sending overtone squeals to the sky, supercharging his chords on standards like “Green Onions” with one of the crunchiest “clean” Tele tones I’ve ever heard, and dancing up and down the fretboard like the Nicholas Brothers. (Look them up on YouTube. It’ll be worthwhile.) He even delivered “The Messiah Will Come Again,” with its heartbreaking melody, stoic monologue, and explosive finale. We became fans for life.
A few years after that, when Roy had signed with Alligator Records and cut a firestorm called When a Guitar Plays the Blues, I interviewed him after another casually brilliant—and sober—performance at a club called Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the gig, Roy and I adjourned to the motor lodge where he was staying in Harvard Square. Roy wanted to do the interview in the lobby, where, luckily, the coffee table, two chairs, and hot pot of java that were its only appointments were available.
He was a delightful person: soft-spoken, articulate, his eyes bright with humor and life. And about half-way through, for obvious reasons, I asked him if he believed the guitar had the power to channel the spiritual world.
“Well,” he replied, “the ghost of Jim Hendrix appeared to me and saved my life.” I was instantly all in. Roy went on to explain that after a gig he’d played in D.C. one night, when he was so wasted by booze and other vices that he felt near death, some college students—seeing he was in a bad way—invited him back to their place. Once there, they offered a cure: LSD.
It was the first time he dropped acid, he said, and in addition to the colors and weird audio transformations, he started to see a kind of mist, and Jimi appeared. He warned Roy, reflecting on his own death, that if Roy kept on this path he would die, and that the time to quit and get sober was now—or he’d no longer be able to serve a higher calling with his guitar. Roy promised Jimi, who he’d never met before, that he’d find a street called straight.
I asked Roy if he believed Jimi really appeared, or if it was just the acid. Roy said he wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought it was real … or at least real enough.
I’ve told you that story because, well, that’s what I’ve done my entire life—told stories. One of the great joys of interviewing musicians and gear makers is finding interesting stories and passing them along, but only after you’ve relished them yourself for a while. And if you love chasing musical adventures like I do, then you also create a few stories of your own along the way.
Every page of PG—even regular features like Gear Radar and Tools for the Task—is a story. What’s new, what’s good, what’s useful? We want to tell you what we’ve found. And some of our best storytelling is in our reviews, which are really accounts of musical explorations, where our writers share the memories, references, and sonic triggers they experience and, when the gear is good, the very tangible joy they feel in playing.
We can all relate to that, because there might be nothing better than picking up a guitar and letting the stories—or the angels and demons—inside it talk. In that sense, we’re all deep storytellers … and if the ghost of Jimi Hendrix happens to appear, well, that’s a bonus!
Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view.
PG has been a home to some truly legendary guitar-music journalists. Andy Ellis, whose writing I first eyeballed when I was in high school, was a colleague when I landed my gig here six years ago. Joe Gore was also a longtime contributor whose writing I’ve admired for decades. And, during his tenure, Shawn Hammond, who left his post as PG’s chief content officer for a new career (we all love and miss you Shawn!) with the previous issue, exemplified the qualities of editorial exceptionalism: vision, precision of language, deep knowledge, and an open heart. The latter should never be underestimated, because if we bring an open heart to what we do, it will connect with others.
I’ve named just a few, but within the PG family, I believe other legendary careers are underway. Time is always the reckoner of such things. But the heart is the mechanism that drives everything. An open heart allows us to hear and understand music in ways that we might not if we’re unwilling to really listen, fully. It does the same when it comes to hearing and understanding each other. And in the world of guitar, we truly all have something to offer, and hearing, understanding, and sharing brings all of us joy.
As PG’s new editorial director, I’m excited about the great stories and columns and podcasts and videos about gear and artists and how-to strategies we’re going to continue to craft for you. That’s what’s made this magazine terrific. (There, I said it!) But this gig isn’t just about bringing you in-depth and—ideally—thought-provoking reporting on the sound toys and musicians you love. It’s about spreading joy. And I’d like your help.
This gig isn’t just about bringing you in-depth and—ideally—thought-provoking reporting on the sound toys and musicians you love. It’s about spreading joy.
Consider this an invitation to drop me an email, send a line via socials … a singing telegram? I’d sincerely like to hear from you. What are your likes and dislikes about gear and music coverage? And not just at PG. I’m honestly interested in what interests you. I’d like to get to know you, which, I realize, is a big ask. But it’s part of that sharing thing I mentioned.
And speaking of sharing, it’s a pleasure to share our 2022 rundown of “The Year in Gear.” I always find this annual report inspiring. Sure, it’s ostensibly a catalog of the coolest instruments, effects, amps, and recording tools we’ve reviewed over the previous 12 months, but it’s also a glimpse into the imagination and vision of some of the brightest minds in the musical instrument industry—the people who refine and birth ideas that help all of us play and sound better, and who give us an entryway into the sonic worlds we want to explore, whether those worlds were first traversed by the Ramones or AC/DC or Andrés Segovia or Muddy Waters or Joan Jett or Billy Strings. It also reminds me about some of the gear I’ve wanted to check out myself—although this year I was also lucky enough to review a number of real gems.
It reminds me about our bond, too. We’re all nuts about gear, and we love to chase that obsession. Over the past few years, I’ve especially been fixated on overdrive and fuzz pedals, and amps. Always amps, which are unique and colorful instruments unto themselves, and the last point in the signal chain that helps articulate our musical voices.
We are, after all, a community of voices. So, let’s continue our conversation about the music and gear that we love, and keep it going strong.