Earlier this week, my wife and I sat down on our all-too-comfy couch to look back on the year and make plans for the next. 2015 was crazy, right? But it was good to take stock of 2015 and have hope that 2016 might be full of more surprises. And while making my personal list of resolutions with joy and sobriety, I started thinking about the world of guitars and guitar-related ephemera.
2015 had some ups and downs just like any other year, from Gibson’s calculated-yet-consumer-pleasing move to return to their roots as far as robo-tuners and the like are concerned, as well as the sadness of losing greats like B.B. King, Lemmy, Chris Squire and others. So, while looking back at this crazy year, I started wondering about what resolutions I might suggest for the world of gear in 2016, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Feel free to add your own in the comments!
10) Let’s Be More Helpful
There is nothing I love more than seeing musicians helping other musicians come up. Whether it’s a recommendation that helps another guy or girl land a gig, or a shop like ours stepping in with spare equipment when something unexpected happens, the guitar community can truly be wonderful. Let’s keep that up!
9) Realize Competition Can Be Healthy and Friendly
I am so thankful for our fellow guitar shops in Seattle. Every time we attend the SEATAC Guitar Show, one of the first things everyone does is get together, shake hands, check out each other’s gear, and maybe, buy and trade a few things. In fact, the most fun we’ve had at a guitar show was going out for drinks with our good pals at Thunder Road Guitars. We spent two hours swapping stories, marveling at acquisitions we made, and plans for the future, and we did so while laughing our asses off. Frank and co. are great people, and they run a tight ship over there. We have the utmost respect for them!
And that’s not to mention the many, many other shops we partner with to get gear sorted out. We all visit each other’s shops, catch up, recommend when we don’t have a particular part or piece of gear available, and treat each other with respect. It makes the whole gear chase even more absurdly fun than it is already!
8) Let’s Celebrate Artists Before They Die
When we suddenly find ourselves mourning a beloved musician, it’s common to see tributes popping up all over the place, and that’s great. Of course we should celebrate the life of an artist and how their work affected our own. Sometimes I come away from it all wondering how cool it would have been to do that before the tragedy.
Yes, it’s impossible to predict the future, and in the case of music legends, they’re plenty celebrated as it is. B.B. King was universally known as “king of the blues,” and rightly so. Two weeks before he passed, Lemmy had his 70th birthday party at Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go with friends and fans alike, which included a performance.
But what about Ben E. King or Percy Sledge, two greats that I haven’t heard anyone talk about in a long time up to their deaths in April. I mean, I get it; staying relevant as an artist certainly contributes, but if you sang “Stand By Me” or “When a Man Loves a Woman” respectively, that’s worth remembering and honoring.
I think, personally speaking, if I like a piece of music or an artist, I’ll make sure I say so.
7) Try Some New Things
You my favorite thing about playing the guitar? The fact that, while you can be a technical master or a fretboard wizard, there is literally always something new to learn. Maybe you sat down to practice a scale and accidentally held the pick wrong, but now you’re getting a sound you didn’t expect. Perhaps a friend left his Whammy pedal at your house and that 4th/5th setting is inspiring the hell out of you. This year, I discovered how to bend strings behind the bridge on my Jazzmasters, enabling some super-authentic pedal steel bends. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m still figuring out how to use it effectively, but it keeps me going.
With the guitar, the ocean of musical possibilities is vast, and if you’re ever stuck in a rut, it’s relatively easy to find ways of snapping yourself out of it. Try a new pedal, buy a pick made of stone, change up your string brand, twist your amp knobs in new and terrifying combinations, maybe pick up a cheap guitar that would drive tone snobs crazy.
6) Stop Labeling Gear by Musical Style
There is no such thing as a “country” guitar or a “surf” guitar, but some people seem to believe that you can only play certain styles on certain instruments. That’s silly.
I’ve had my mind blown by an old man playing squeaky-clean country on an EMG-loaded Schecter. I once saw a girl that made the wildest noise-rock I’ve ever heard with a ‘50s Gibson ES-125 with P90s. One of my favorite punk-metal players of the ‘90s used 100% stock American Standard Telecasters and sounded heavy as hell doing so. I remember reading an article by a guitar guru where he wrote, “You can’t play blues on a Jaguar.” Bullshit! Hendrix did it. Or better yet, let’s throw jazz into the mix! Google ‘Joe Pass Fender Jaguar’ and you’ll bring up some incredibly smooth tones coming from one of the finest players on one of the most misunderstood instruments ever.
The point is, you can literally play anything you want on any guitar. In an age where everything is at our fingertips, for every person saying “you can’t play x music on y guitar” we can find hundreds of examples of someone doing that very thing.
5) Down with Blanket Statements
Going hand-in-hand with the last point, I’d like to add that many of the oft-repeated maxims we hear in the gear world are not always true, and hard opinions are often just that: opinons. Stop me if you’ve heard these before:
“Adirondack is the only good top wood.”
“Ugh, ‘70s Gibsons are the worst.”
“Long magnet PAFs are better than the short kind.”
“The Prequels were bad movies.”
I think we’ve all heard these time and time again, and thanks to the internet, they spread like wildfire through forums, sparking arguments and pissing contests at guitar shops around the globe. Here’s the thing: sometimes, you can see where some of these things come from.
For instance, are 1970s Gibson guitars bad? Well, it’s true that when Norlin took over, quality control did suffer, and things like three-piece necks and heavy woods make them less desirable to collectors than their 1950s and 1960s counterparts. All of that is true, but does that automatically make them bad guitars? Not at all! Go try a few out and you might be surprised.
The simple truth is, there’s more than just one good wood for a guitar top, Squier had some great models (like the Vista Series) and is making great guitars these days, a good guitar is a good guitar no matter when it was made, some pickups sound great regardless of magnet length, and the Prequels weren’t––well, okay, so that one’s true.
4) Stop Equating Gear with the Skill Level of a Player
Too often, musicians are ridiculed because of their “budget” or “substandard” gear. Just because you can’t afford a $3,000 vintage guitar doesn’t mean you’re a bad player. Some of my favorite bands use cheap gear, and they’re great players as well.
Example: Don’t really care for Epiphone guitars? Totally valid opinion! I applaud your experience and would love to hear your thoughts. Roll your eyes at the kid toting an Epiphone case to a gig? Think using anything less than a real Gibson means they aren’t real musicians? That’s a ridiculous assertion, and I hope the kid you’re talking about is better than you.
3) Stop Telling Bass Players They Can’t Use A Pick
Seriously, just stop. You can’t even talk about playing bass anymore without someone screaming “REAL BASS PLAYERS DON’T USE PICKS!!!” This old argument is almost as tired as the word “tone” these days.
See also, Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Lemmy, Noel Redding, Chris Squire, etc. etc. etc.
2) Stop Comparing Your Skills to Others
When I had students, one thing I heard come out of the mouths of frustrated novices was “I’ll never be as good as ____.” Not only does something like this needlessly discourage the student from realize his or her potential, it’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of the way music and art actually work. My answer was always this:
“Music is a grid, not a ladder.”
When we speak about something abstract like skill level, I think we tend to over-simplify and visualize the thing like a straight line, a progression from point A to point B, measuring our success like a ruler.
Creative outlets, however, don’t work like that at all. Where one player could be a shredding metal virtuoso, another could be a master of wringing atmospheric sounds and minor chords from her instrument. This player might have perfect pitch, but that one is fully content being able to play songs at church. He might think Lou Reed is God, but she finds herself in more of a Gilmour or Zappa kind of place. All are valid.
In each case I’ve come up with, the player in question could have conceivably reached his or her goal. And truly, art should never be a checklist to complete so you can say, “That’s it, I’ve done all the art.” Yes, it’s good to have heroes, and if there’s a player that personifies the place you’d like to be, of course, use them as inspiration. If your goal is to play loud power chords in a four-piece rock outfit, that’s great! If you want to give Steve Vai a run for his money, then I wish you well on your journey.
Just remember that it’s not about who is above or below you on the skill ladder; on a grid, you’re over there, she’s up here, and I’m somewhere on the left.
The guitar world has always been a boy’s club of sorts, with female musicians often used as set dressing, their bodies co-opted to boost sales and are otherwise overlooked for no reason other than their sex. I mean, how often have you heard the phrase, “pretty good for a girl” used to describe female guitarists? In my line of work, all the damn time.
I’ve worked with many female musicians, both as a tech and as a musician myself, and hearing about and experiencing the marginalization of women in shops or at shows is infuriating. I’ve seen sound guys turn up the wrong guitar during a song because “chicks can’t solo.” I’ve seen guitar shop employees outright laugh at female customers asking genuine questions about a guitar they wanted to buy. Or take some big guitar hardware manufacturers and organizations that have “sexy girls” included in their logos for no flipping reason. I mean, check out the ads for the most recent LA Amp Show! What does this even have to do with guitar amps???
What about the bassist of my former band, a good friend that, without fail, would have to endure shouts of “show us your tits” at every gig we played. It didn’t matter that she was good, that she was fierce, or that she was freaking classically trained. She was a woman, and because of that, she was treated like garbage everywhere we went. There were times that other male band members had to keep close to her because creepy guys were making her feel incredibly uncomfortable. They would back off when we said so, but never when she told them. That’s messed up, and it’s an all-too-common tale.
You can’t even post a photo of a woman playing music without the dumb comments rolling in. Do me a favor, and scroll up to the screenshot of the girl playing bass above. The original Facebook post by Ampeg features Laena Geronimo from The Like, and even without anonymity, these guys can’t resist spouting off whatever lewd comment they can think of. (And in a shocking two-birds twist, the first comment is about her using a pick. Ugh.)
Or what about this post from Gibson? In no time at all, this woman sharing a shot she really liked of herself posed with her favorite guitar was met with
I mean, come on. I can’t believe these guys took the time to type out this nonsense without taking a moment to ask themselves, “Does anybody need to read this?” Even crazier is the fact that it would have taken less time to click the link above and discover that this woman that Travis doubts is really a guitar player IS REALLY A GUITAR PLAYER. And a damn good one at that.
Luckily (finally) it seems like people are starting to wake up. Discussions are taking place, women are sharing their stories and fighting back. In 2015, I was introduced to a magazine called She Shreds, a guitar mag for women and by women. Interviews, gear reviews, tech tips and editorials all written with women in mind. Even the ads in the magazine are thoughtful, showing women actually playing guitar and retaining their agency. I am so thankful it exists. READ THIS MAGAZINE.
In 2016, be mindful of how these kinds of comments, attitudes, and routines described above make the guitar world less inclusive and less safe for women. And better yet, be open to hearing from women how these things make them feel. Men, educate yourselves.
So please, can we have less of this
And more of this?
I would also like to say that it makes me sad that Annie Clark of St. Vincent has not been on the cover of a guitar magazine.