I really like gear…
I already have some piles of it, and if money were no object, I’d surely have an awful lot more.
Every cymbal has its own personality, every snare drum plays just a little bit different… The brands, the finishes, the hammer marks… There’s an infinite amount of beauty in these percussive instruments while they’re just sitting still – and at the hands of a player, they come to life!
It’s a universe of its own, with history and nuance and drama. There are loyalists and eccentrics, innovators and traditionalists and downright hoarders.
To be an instrumentalist of any kind is to have some kind of relationship with the instruments themselves. There’s no wonder we place such value on these devices, that the objects of our music making become (to us, at least) more than mere tools. They become extensions of who we are, and identifiers of our heroes.
There’s a reason we know what a “Bonham kit” is… That Jimi played Strats and Jimmy played Les Pauls…
We know the names of iconic instruments we don’t even know how to play, and underneath it all, is the desire to accumulate these things – to get to know as many of them as we can.
There are hobbyists and collectors and historians, and worse – those misguided folks who think great gear is a substitute for skill or ideas… And that, friends, is where we get to the topic at hand.
Gear is fantastic and fascinating. There IS something to be said for using the best available tools… But the moment you put the equipment above the player, you’ve gone right off the rails.
Before I start talking shit, there are exceptions.
A drum with a wonked out bearing edge, a guitar with a woefully warped neck, a horn with locked up valves… These are broken instruments, or at the very least, made for beginners and mass produced with little regard to… Anything. Cheap cymbals are typically pretty bad, junky acoustic guitars have so much tension at the nut, the rip the novice player’s hands to shreds.
All of the things I’m going to say have this in mind: you need decent tools to make music, usually, but it shouldn’t be the prime concern. Shitty gear is better than no gear at all.
And still, with a certain degree of developed skill, you likely need good instruments. You can’t pull the most luscious tones out of a $20 plastic violin, or expect a whole lot of durability out of First Act drum set hardware…
Somewhere in all of this, there’s a baseline. The instrument has to work in the first place (but even if it isn’t terribly reliable, that shouldn’t stop you).
Everything else is a luxury – something you earn with time and sophistication, and yes, money.
The Illusion of Selection
How many kinds of snare drums can you name? How about brands of basses? How about models of guitar strings? Different types of XLRs? Saxophone ligatures?
How much do you know about bearing edges or how pickup coils are wound? Is it a through-neck or bolt on? What’s the real difference between birdseye maple and mahogany – and what does that mean for drum shells or guitar necks?
The rabbit hole is deep – and that’s awesome. For the truly discerning player, you can get whatever you want, customized to heart’s content, with all the mods that help you dial in exactly how you want the instrument to sound…
But there’s also everything in between, from the starter model on through. If you’re so inclined, you can pick your favorite brand before you ever play their instruments, and you’ll find something great in nearly every price bracket. There are masterpiece Craviotto and Doc Sweeney kits, and perfectly playable Catalinas, Exports, Silverstars that are JUST FINE.
The nuance is there, BUT:
The little details – or even some of the big ones – aren’t that big of a deal. Can the person at the back of the audience tell the difference between a Jazz Bass and a P Bass? Does the ’68 Ludwig sound like a drum? Does the ’96 Sunlite?
We all love it, and there are differences among instruments (mostly to us, and to microphones), but unless it sounds terrible… Maybe we (I) shouldn’t worry about it so much.
I call the selection an illusion because it feels like there’s always another piece – something new to experiment with, something else to add to the collection – but I’d be willing to bet that majority of us haven’t made the most out of the gear we already have… Or really need the piece of gear we’re lusting after.
It’s A Poor Craftsman That Blames His Tools
If you were in the coolest place, with the coolest players, the best case musical scenario you can possibly imagine, and everyone wanted you to get in on the jam…
Would you turn it down because of bad gear?
If you had the privelege to travel the world, and have the cartage gods supply your instruments, would you cancel the gig over a pingy ride cymbal or a little fret buzz? As long as it doesn’t ruin the show, isn’t completely unplayable (and I mean completely), the only thing to do is make the best of it – and make music.
Daniel Glass recently did a podcast about this very subject, talking about some of the trials of unpredictable instruments, and aside from the truly horrific, the idea stands: it’s a poor craftstman that blames his tools. Even if the sound isn’t ideal, even if you have to make some concessions or play your rehearsed parts a bit differently, the show must go on.
On the same token, beginners should follow the same principle. You don’t need fancy gear to learn how to play. You don’t even need to think about it until your instrument can’t do what you want it to do – or falls apart.
Nice gear sounds nice, plays nice… But it won’t make you any better. Only practice and study and jamming and vibing and immersing yourself in the craft will do that. The gear is absolutely secondary.
Again this idea – the craftsman and his tools… The instrument is a tool and a tool alone. As Victor Wooten would say, you’re not supposed to play your instrument… You’re supposed to play music.
Listen Daniel’s podcast here:
I don’t need to belabor the point. It comes down to perspective. Gear is wonderful and exciting. Getting a new piece can spark inspiration or expand you palette of sounds…
It’s also a whole lot less important than #GearLust would have you believe. The instrument you play doesn’t have all that much to do with the music you make.
So, keep lusting away if you must. Keep building the collections…
But always remember that the player makes the gear, not the other way around.