"While the reverence given to guitars annoys me, I shall miss it," Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead said in an October 1995 blog post on Radiohead's W.A.S.T.E. site. He's referring to the 1989 Fender Telecaster that was stolen from him along with an entire van full of Radiohead gear at a show in Denver not long before. This isn't the only time Greenwood has commented on the rampant fetishization of guitars by guitarists. Even recently, in a February 2014 interview with the Quietus, he denounces the "totemic worship" of the guitar, and even says he would just as soon play the glockenspiel in Radiohead. While it's easy to take these quotes out of context and burn Greenwood as a guitar heretic, I think he's touching on something that we as guitar players tend to overlook:
The fact that the guitar is nothing more than a tool for creating music. We often lose sight of this, and it's easy to do so.I'm not entirely sure how far back the trend can be traced, but it does seem to be unique to the guitar, or at least to rock music - no one really cares what kind of piano Rachmaninoff played - although the Steinway piano John Lennon wrote "Imagine" on was auctioned off for $2,100,000 in 2000. My guess is that like many trends it rock music, this one has its roots in the hysteria of Beatlemania. Pop singers had always had hordes of admirers, but never before had musician-worship reached the heights of the near-riot of the Beatles' Shea Stadium appearance to name one example. The Beatles' personal assistant Neil Aspinall compared the sound of screaming fans at Beatles concerts to jet engines. By the time they stopped touring in 1966, Ringo had stopped even attempting drum fills since no one could hear them anyway.
As rock music continued to evolve, and the guitar moved more and more to the forefront thanks to the likes of Hendrix, Clapton, Beck and so on, and more and more young people (dudes mostly) started picking up the guitar, I suppose some of this hysteria rubbed off on the instrument making the most noise. Oh, and I'm sure Hendrix setting his guitar on fire and Pete Townshend smashing damn near half of the Gibsons, Fenders and Rickenbackers made in the late 50's didn't hurt - my guitar teacher used to joke that that's the only reason they're so rare and valuable these days.
Personally I'm guilty of having bought a Rickenbacker 330 (black "Jetglo" finish) so that I could be "cool" like Beatlemania era John Lennon. Quite literally, this was the extent of the logic behind my purchasing decision. I subsequently found the Rickenbacker to be a nightmare to play and sonically limited, and I've regretted purchasing it ever since (I'm a Gibson guy through and through). I've hemmed and hawed over selling it, but found myself unable to part with such a rare and nice looking guitar. Unfortunately, the fact that I find the guitar nearly unplayable doesn't make John Lennon any less cool. Simply put, I'm no more immune to guitar fetishization than anyone else.
However, I think the real problem with guitar fetishization - or rather, gear fetishization, since plenty of us have the same mindset toward amps, pedals, synths and so on - is that it's hard to deny that there's something to it. "They say, 'it's the guitarist, it's not the guitar' - bullshit, it's the guitar," Adam Jones of Tool said in 1994 on the Dutch TV show "Onrust!" He makes a valid point, although I would take it a step further: it's not just the guitarist and it's not just the guitar; it's both. Obviously your skills as a player matter immensely, but having the right gear as well truly does affect how you sound, or at least the types of sounds you can potentially make. I don't imagine Adam Jones could play a Tool show with a hollow-bodied guitar through a clean amp, and similarly if all you're hearing in your head are delayed guitar lines, you're probably going to need a delay pedal to make your music.
That brings me to my next point: no where is the phenomenon of gear fetishization more rampant than among the microcosm of pedalheads - and I count myself as one. I think one of the most dangerous rabbit holes to go down as a guitarist is that of YouTube pedal demo obsession. I've been there; sometimes we all want to be Andy from Pro Guitar Shop - my fellow pedalheads know what I'm talking about.
The big difference between fetishizing guitars/amps and pedals is that no one can actually see your pedals on stage anyway. When we buy sleek, shiny and most of all expensive boutique pedals with bonus features we don't need or necessarily even want, I can't help but suspect what we're really buying is indie cred - or at least we're trying to look cool to other geeky dudes with several thousand dollar collections of pedals.
When I turn on my delay pedal, I want it to repeat the sound I just played after an interval of time I input via tapping a tempo. That's it. Aside from that, I'm mostly interested in convenience features like the ability to save multiple custom settings to avoid having to bend over and fiddle with knobs in between songs. But usually they don't give you that without also giving you (and charging you accordingly for) countless other minute features that when combined, create an effect so elaborate you can make a whole song out of playing one or two notes to a steady rhythm.
It's not that you can't make music that way; you definitely can. It's that when you start getting into pedals, usually you become obsessed with features like these, and start replacing pedal after pedal with fancier and fancier ones, often upwards of $500 while the manufacturers laugh all the way to the bank. And not only that, when you go down that road, every song, every riff becomes a search for a novel effect or combination of effects, until playing a song becomes just as much work for your feet as your fingers and you've lost even the most basic pretence of jamming or improvising in the creative process. As the spontaneity of musicians playing instruments together in a room fades away, the guitar becomes the midi keyboard to the boutique pedals' Ableton or Logic - and I love electronic music, don't get me wrong, but to me the purpose of using pedals is to expand the sounds a guitar can make without sacrificing the manual human input of a bunch of dudes (or chicks) playing instruments together in a room.
As guitarists, we should be deciding what guitars, amps, pedals and pedal settings to use much in the same way that a golfer chooses which club to take a shot with - the gear that allows us to replicate the sounds we hear in our heads, rather than the gear that allows us to imagine we're Jimmy Page, or whoever else. Never forget that all we're doing, as David Gilmour puts it, is bending little bits of wire on a plank of wood.