personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

In the fingers of the beholder

Posted by r on January 25, 2012

(edit cleanup 3.19.13: Relatively personal and/or perhaps pointless musings on the myth of “pros play pro instruments.” Extremely short version: goddammit, I love cheap guitars and/or the thrill of getting “pro grade” results from bargain-basement gear in general. But if you know me at all personally, you probably knew that already.)

Last week, as part of my lifelong desire to learn how to play a fretless bowed thing at long last, I rented a violin. It seemed in some ways like the best option for someone at my stage of the game. The world of the stringed instrument is uniquely infuriating for those of us who have always had “easier” instrument choices.

It’s not that buying a guitar, or a piano, a drum set, or anything else is particularly easy. You will always need to do your research, and that research is seemingly endless. But in those worlds, at least there are unique signifiers of quality that you can learn to readily identify, and there are also brand names, and you can pick up a few things relatively easily even as a complete outsider to those instruments that would help you make an informed buying choice.

Gibsons and Fender guitars are considered good, but are quite hit-and-miss, and as a general rule probably overpriced. A drum set with floating tom mounts is probably pretty nice. More lugs are generally better too. Machine-cast cymbals are to be avoided. Short spinet pianos are lousy. Solid tops are good to have on an acoustic. Active pickups and floating tremolos on electric guitars are for wankers. Yamaha makes a generally-pretty-good everything (but don’t buy a Yamaha piano unless it was late enough to be made for the US market). So on and so on and so on.

You can take little pointers like this and minimize your chances of making a gear-buying mistake, even if you know nothing about playing the instrument you’re buying. There’s pretty much bugger all to go on like this if you’re buying a violin. Brand names don’t really exist. The brand names that do exist are probably to be avoided, as it’s surely a sign of a shit-shoveling factory operation.

You can spend a hell of a lot of money on a violin… but you might be just as well off buying a $100 pawn-shop treasure or violin from China. But wait! Most of those $100 Chinese and pawn-shop violins are shit! You won’t know until you hear the tone. You can’t hear the tone until you can really play. You can’t hear the tone unless it’s been set up properly. You can’t set it up properly until you buy it.

And your bow might be the problem if the tone isn’t there. But you can’t know if your bow is any good until you play it, until you hear the tone. You can’t know if the tone of the bow is any good until you can really play, and until you know your instrument has good tone.

And you can’t know you have or do not have the tone until your strings are just the right kind of strings, and everyone likes different strings and they all cost $50+ a set, and you won’t know if the strings you picked out are any good until you know your instrument and your bow have the tone too.

Shoot yourself in the fucking head, basically. Or rent a violin until you “know better” (meaning you begin to hate the tone of the beater you’ve rented),  then go through an endless chain of violin and bow purchases until you find the tone that you’ve decided you’ve been looking for since you started playing, which will take basically the rest of your life.

Again, this is the sort of thing guitarists go through too. The forumites love to call it GAS– gear acquisition syndrome.

I used to have thousands of dollars worth of tube guitar amps and really only one electric guitar. Now I have a few guitar amps, only one of them tube, total value maybe a thousand bucks, and a ton of guitars, each one worth maybe $250 tops– save for a few special examples which I actually never play because I feel guilty playing “liabilities” at this stage when my pawn shop treasures give me so much pleasure.

It’s a funny thing; there’s a real subversive buzz that comes from picking up a guitar that you paid $75 for, and being like, “Holy shit, I only paid $75 for this, just listen to the Professional-Quality sounds it can make!” This is the opposite, of course, of all those guitarists who feel dirty unless they have Gibson or Fender USA on the headstock.

There’s another popular saying among forumites, which is ironic considering that it is invariably found in threads where some dude posts for validation on this crazily expensive gear choice or that: “Tone is in the fingers.”

This is true, and yet it’s not (especially where instruments like pianos are concerned). A good guitarist can make a guitar picked off the Wal-Mart front aisles sound like a million bucks. And s/he is also likely to sound better using whatever hoighty-toighty vintage thing s/he probably prefers to actually play professionally.

Could that artist still make a whole record to be enjoyed by thousands with the Wal-Mart First Act special? Undoubtedly. Further, between the nature of the electric guitar chain and the enhancements available in the studio, nobody listening would ever know the difference, including the gear nerds… unless this factoid ended up on the Wikipedia page for that artist, and then suddenly that exact model of Wal-Mart electric would probably be worth five times what it originally cost.

The supposedly timeless records of rock have largely been made using shit gear, being abused well past its intended usage. Brian May’s guitar tone on the 70s studio records came from a transistor radio pulled from a boat. The guitar tone on “Sunshine of Your Love” was recorded using Fender’s bottom-of-the-barrel practice amp– in fact, using a then-“obsolete” version thereof, which probably would have been worth about $10 used at the time (now, of course, worth many hundreds). Nobody really seems to know what amp and guitar Jimmy Page used in the studio for the mid-70s Zeppelin records, but nearly everyone seems to think it was almost certainly “shitty” gear straight from the pages of 1960s Montgomery Ward’s catalogs.

Naturally, these same artists used Professional Gear when they performed live (save for Brian, who used the same homemade guitar he’s always basically used, a story onto itself). It wouldn’t have been rational to take this kind of gear on the road– or to visibly give away your mystical studio secrets to arena-sized crowds, or to look like anything else than a rock god who can afford walls of Marshall stacks.

There are lots of expensive acoustic guitars available. You can easily spend thousands on a Taylor or Martin, brand new, and many weekend warriors do this to bolster their self-esteem, even if they can only play a few cowboy chords. The most I’ve ever spent on an acoustic guitar was the $700 I spent on my USA-made Guild in 1993. I liked that guitar a lot at the time, but I’ve come to like it much less. It’s too boomy on the mic, and increasingly too hard to fret for my lazy fingers.

I then heard about the “legend” of the 70s Japanese guitars. They were all Sleeper Killers… especially those red-label Japanese Yamahas of the early 1970s. Hey, did you know Elliott Smith played one? Not that I ever really cared much about him.

I found a Japanese Alvarez from about 1975 in a pawn shop. I liked its tone a great deal and paid about $100 for it. Its tone was more to my liking than the Guild. Its playability, not so much so.

Then I found another pawn-shop treasure, a 1972 Yamaha red label acoustic. For only $130– a no-brainer, those things were selling for $300+ on eBay! Brought in some cash, got them to knock it down to $120 plus a free hardshell case. Sold the Alvarez for a break-even price, set the Yamaha down for a while, and when I got it out for the Xmas project I found I hated the way it played too. But damn, did it sound good.

I picked up a Samick acoustic this weekend from yet another pawn shop. It was recent production, within the last few years; it was only a $220 guitar brand new, strictly “beginner” stuff. But it played like absolute butter.

Did it sound as good as the vintage Japanese acoustics? No. But it sounded damn close, even with dead strings– and I knew it would still sound much better on mic than my Guild (which I’ve still kept around).

For $80 in cash, it came home with me. Some “lucky” person will soon end up with my “rare” Yamaha red-label. Sorry, Elliott Smith. Maybe if you’d had an easier-playing axe, you wouldn’t have had to stab yourself.

And I’d be willing to bet that, especially with my “amateur”-grade mics and recording technique, my $80 pawn-shop treasure would be absolutely indistinguishable on record from a $3000 Taylor to the average listener– even if you A/Bed the damn things side by side.

Tone is in the fingers– and in the mics, and in the plugins, and in the ears of the creator, and in the writing that underpins everything. It has never been cheaper or easier to be a musician… at least, if you’re not playing violin.

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