Axe Fetish

Sometimes we love our gear too much...

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Ultimate Guitar
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"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.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Xtinct Dark
    Sure a guitar is nothing more than a plank of wood, and it may be just a tool for creating music, but it can still look pretty, right? I am obsessed by the Hamer Phantom, mainly due to seeing Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest play that thing. If I have anything close to an idol it's got to be him, but whenever I saw that Hamer Phantom I used to think 'Damn do I want that thing badly'. Not because HE played, but because I find it such a pretty axe to see. Since a couple of years I've been building my guitars myself, and now whenever I see a Phantom I think 'Damn do I want to build that thing'. I tried once and failed horribly, but I'll make up for it someday when the time is right. Point is, a guitar is just a tool, but it has to be easy on the eyes to like it, I think. I'd rather have a piece of eye candy that's of average quality than a fugly plank with six wires slapped to it that sounds like an angel singing (or a devil screaming, or the pounding of creation's hammer upon the anvil of time). Gotta say you still make a valid point with your John Lennon Rickenbacker experience. It's the main reason I loathe signature gear. Don't try to be like your idol; there's already someone exactly like him. Try being like yourself and create your own style.
    Domguy99
    But the fugly plank's the most BR00TAL of either guitars! In all honesty though I think I would still prefer the ugly one, maybe fix it up and make it my own, and if worst comes to worst I could always just set it aside for recording.
    AVdub
    You are right... Loving an inanimate object is pretty stupid "However, guitars will not cheat on you, they will always love you back, they won't get jealous if you play other guitars, and if you part ways with a guitar, it isnt going to take half of your other guitars with it" So I guess its better than a lot of woman I know
    Juice Face
    There is nothing wrong with putting value to a guitar beyond just as a tool. We do it with everything. It's the human thing to do. I fail to see the point of this article.
    Babypapabear
    Now I need to take a piece of wood and make it sound like the railroad track, but I also had to make it beautiful and lovable so that a person playing it would think of it in terms of his mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good psychiatrist - whatever. You can't go to the store and buy a good ear and rhythm. Les Paul
    ppiluk
    The guitar world is far from unique in this regard.Most hobbies share this mentality.
    badfish_lewis
    Great article. I always loved Jeff Buckley's early 80's toploader telecaster. Even though I suspect Mr. Buckley didn't give a crap what guitar he was using, I still desperately want one. When I go searching through used gear at shops the guitar guys always ask why I would want a toploader and not a string through. It's basically because I want Jeff's guitar, nothing more.
    guitar/bass95
    Your point about signature gear is very valid. It's dumb to blindly buy a guitar just because your idol used it. Your point about "indie cred" is, at least in my eyes, incredibly misguided. I've never met or even seen online a guitarist who buys pedals because he want's to appear more hipster. The following point about going overboard with effects too early on is somewhat justified, but for the most part gear is just gear, and if you enjoy it, no one should tell you that you're wrong.
    TheChasing
    I dont know if anyone feels me , but i feel pretty much connected to my guitars .. every axe has its character in sound .. well and through sound i can (or try :lol: ) to express myself emotionally .. so this "thing" moves my feelings .. Thats enoug for me to get obsessed (in a good way) .. But in the end i think you are right (the golfer part) ..
    T00DEEPBLUE
    I see absolutely nothing wrong with getting emotionally attached to something that provides a person joy and meaning. In that sense guitars aren't just tools. Seeing them as shiny pieces of wood that make sounds is too reductionist and utilitarian for my taste.