It’s been a while since I hung out in a musical instrument shop, but I still flip through the latest issues of Guitar World, Guitar Player, and Guitar Aficionado when I find them on the newsstand, and I still feel a shiver of lust looking at what can only be described as guitar porn. If money was no object, I’d easily succumb to the siren calls of a Flying V, a Martin D-28, or a D’Angelico, among many other classic instruments; likewise I’ll always harbor private fantasies of being entrusted with George Harrison’s twelve-string Rickenbacker or Jimmy Page’s Gibson EDS 1275 double-neck. It’s a guitarist thing.
Over the years, however, I’ve come to realize that the true joy of music-making is independent of the implements employed for it. As a youngster I participated in tech-talk with guitar-playing friends – “I modified it with a DiMarzio humbucker and Schaller machine heads, but I still want a stock Fender pickguard,” etc. – in unconscious echo of the teenage hot rodders who came before me and the adolescent skateboarders who came after. Yet gradually I found that I wasn’t going to sound like my guitar heroes just by emulating their choice of guitar equipment, and that playing songs, however amateurishly, was more fun for me than perfecting the electronics and carpentry of my instruments to a point where they became too valuable to handle. Put it this way: I’d rather rock out on my 1977 Gibson RD Standard and my 1999 Yamaha acoustic every other day than preserve a 1959 Sunburst Les Paul on my wall, just as I’d rather get from place to place in an old beater than keep a customized 1965 Mustang in my garage.
The musicians who inspired me (and not just the guitarists) seem to have felt the same way. In interview after interview, the biggest names and the most revered geniuses have shrugged off queries about their axes: “It was just what I could afford at the time.” “I just liked the sound of it.” “It seemed like a good touring guitar.” “They gave me a free one.” Led Zeppelin’s bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones explained to Zep scholar Dave Lewis, “I have a vast collection of instruments, but I’m not a collector – instruments are for playing.” And Paul McCartney, a cult English singer-songwriter who’s scored a few modest hits over the years, once told Musician magazine, “If someone asked me what strings I used I honestly couldn’t tell you – they come out of a little bag. To me these things are just vehicles.” What makes such figures legendary is the sensitivity with which they wield their tools, not the tools themselves.
It’s true that quality musicianship requires at least workable instruments. Beginners won’t get far on guitars that don’t stay in tune or pianos with sticky keys, while professionals expect to have their favorite Stratocaster or Stradivarius in top shape for every gig (the Billy Joel – Ray Charles duet “Baby Grand” is a lovely ode from instrumentalists to their instruments). I’m a mere hobbyist, but I’d nonetheless miss my RD or my Yamaha, which fit me like well-worn shoes, if they went out of service. But as any real musician will tell you, the most important gear you can employ are your hands, your ears, and your soul. The industry which fetishizes minute variations in design and which celebrates talismanic associations with famous players risks turning musical instruments into mere acquisitions that only the wealthy or the expert can appreciate, instead of the populist artifacts they really are: machines for making art.