Tuning Up: Get out of Your Tone Lab, Poindexter

Sometimes the Information Age + the Golden Age of Gear simply adds up to … bluuuuuuuuuuurgh.

We all know how cool it is to live at a time when A) there’s a ridiculous amount of amazing guitar gear being made, and B) it’s sci-fi-future fast and easy to see, hear, and find out about it.

Even so, many of us—myself absolutely included—are too often blind to the fact that we’re spinning our artistic wheels indulging in the addictive process. We could literally spend every waking hour of every day perusing videos, write-ups, and audio samples on media and manufacturers’ websites, and then slavering over YouTube, SoundCloud, and various gear forums, and still never consume all there is to learn and know about all the gear options out there.

Our love of guitar sounds and the ease of exploring a never-ending string of new products can very easily become a lethal combination. Too many of us obsess over every nuance of our sound, wondering if this or that guitar, pedal, amp, tube, pick, string brand or gauge, or pickup combo will finally give us that extra 2 percent push into the heavenly tone realm of which we’ve always dreamed but never quite attained. All while being completely oblivious to the fact that we’ll never be tonally content simply because we change as we age, grow tired of one thing, or discover some new possibility we’d previously either been unaware or dismissive of.

In short, sometimes the Information Age + the Golden Age of Gear simply adds up to … bluuuuuuuuuuurgh—a mental short-circuit preventing us from focusing on the higher dimensions of art. Gear and “amazing tone” become the main attraction rather than tools to facilitate a clear musical vision. It’s easy to become so fascinated with the “innovations,” supposedly significant improvements, and the possibility of having every cool guitar sound extant that we’re like drooling toddlers staring at brightly colored, plastic-pellet-filled baubles, giggling with delight and marveling at the mind-blowing aural chain reactions as we bash them against the playpen floor.

Rather than thinking about immaterial factors such as being loose, spiritually inspired, and aware of self, bandmates, and audience, we’re thinking, “Hmmm … I wonder if I’d sound better if I swapped my amp’s phase inverter for a 12AY7.”

But that’s the minor drawback. The bigger, far scarier one is that such insular, context-less assessments have a very real likelihood of turning our music into one-dimensional, self-obsessed drivel that’s primarily of interest to similarly afflicted guitarists. We risk having our riffs, songs, and performances become perennially half-considered—half finished because, rather than thinking about immaterial factors such as being loose, spiritually inspired, and aware of self, bandmates, and audience, we’re thinking, “Hmmm … I wonder if I’d sound better if I swapped my amp’s phase inverter for a 12AY7.”

Call it the Bore-Me Paradox.

The reasons for this paradox are (at least) twofold. First, as we’ve already covered, is the whole gear- and tech-glut thing. The second is that we put our favorite riffs and licks under the microscope for so many different rig configurations, effect-setting iterations, and technique nuances that our playing starts to sound like 21st-century elevator music. Sure, it’s smooth and technically proficient, but it’s devoid of fire. It’s up its own butt. It’s one thing to be well rehearsed for a gig. It’s entirely another to have your entire style sound rehearsed. If you ask me, it’s tragic.

Make no mistake, in the ultra-competitive, instant-gratification culture we live in, it’s incredibly easy to slip over the line from captivating to fickle, attention-challenged homogeneity that the masses might mistakenly label as exciting but that time will reveal to be as throwaway as every other era’s legions of copycats and one-upping formula embracers.

And yet, we’re all genuinely in love with guitar and the mind-bogglingly diverse array of sounds to be made with it. We don’t start out intending to be sidetracked down a rabbit hole of options that everyday music fans couldn’t care less about or, frankly, be more bored by.

How do we avoid it?

Your guess is as good as mine. I mean, perhaps the tech and gear-glut trappings of modern life aren’t as consequential as I’ve made them out to be. Maybe they’re just our era’s manifestation of the traps and pitfalls that have faced creative types since the beginning of time.

Maybe the only solution is to constantly ask ourselves crucial questions. What is my musical vision? What tools do I really need to achieve it? Do I need to develop skills rather than acquire more gear? Do I just need to dig deeper into my heart and psyche?

Here’s to hoping you and I can keep these front of mind while enjoying a healthy level of the advantages of the age we live in.

Cheers, my friends!

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