Guitarist Series: Thoughts On Being Taught By Your Gear

Other instruments are not nearly as steeped in gear as the electric guitar. There are thousands if not millions of different options to choose from that range from the most basic to high end, extremely expensive pieces of electronics and they weigh in heavily in both how the instrument is learned and how it is played. In the past few days I encountered one of the more odd ideas revolving around various guitar gear. The other day, the new amp I ordered came in (a Dr. Z Rt 66 for you gear heads). I'm thrilled with the amp, but that's not the point of this post. It just so happens that it was while I was playing that I started thinking about this idea. I've heard it referred to before as "having your gear teach you" and I think, in a way, that's exactly what happens.

It might sound a little crazy, but I think playing this amp has significantly improved my playing, not just how I sound, but my actual technical skill, in only the few hours I've been messing around with it. Sure you could attribute this to the fact that I sat down and played guitar for 6 hours or so, but I think there is something else going on that relates to the kind of gear you play and technique.

Some equipment, amps, guitars, pedals etc, are what I might refer to as unforgiving in that they magnify every mistake you may make. Others are more forgiving but are also extremely transparent in that what you play is exactly what comes through the amp. These may seem like the same thing, but they're distinctly different in my mind as transparent is a good thing as it lets your playing come through, while unforgiving can actually make the instrument, (or amp) harder to use. Both are pretty much the opposite of a lot of guitar gear I've played though which has been relatively straight forward and forgiving to the player covering up some mistakes, but also covering up some of the nuances of the instrument and making everything sound more alike guitar to guitar. Which is better is probably a matter of preference.

The amp I just bought is very transparent in that it takes exactly what you put into the guitar, mistakes and all, and puts it out there. I won't say more than that because this I didn't intend for this to be a guitar gear review. I personally find this to be a good thing because it allows me to better express myself on the instrument and have more confidence in my playing and gear. At the same time though, it definitely took some getting used to. I found myself being extra careful to really play accurately, not hit other strings and be as precise as possible because this new the amp would reproduce all the tiny mistakes that other amps might cover up. The amp in a way, inspired me to refine my own technique. I also found that I was more open to techniques that I might not have used with other amps because they didn't translate well. You could say that the amp also inspired me to take my playing to the next level in a way that I wouldn't have done with other equipment.

I believe this is a good example of gear teaching the player. This is something that I think occurs somewhat with other instruments where the quality of the instrument might have a slight effect on technique, but not to the same degree as with guitar. I think guitar, specifically electric guitar, with it's massive diversity in what is available to buy, has this effect magnified to the point where your gear might actually be a major cause of what is holding you back or encouraging you in your playing.

Sure, except with extremely bad instruments, truly inspired musicians will find a way to make good music no matter how bad their gear is and there are plenty of examples of that being the case, but still this idea of the gear teaching the player is interesting as is why it doesn't happen as much with other instruments and I think that is part of why the electric guitar fascinates me.

Along with the sheer massive amount of technical data and diversity of the gear, different guitars/amps/pedals react differently in the hands of different players. Having the wrong gear might be what's holding you back. I don't think it's necessarily because an amp, guitar etc is not "good" enough for you, but more so because it simply isn't a good fit for your style and doesn't make your music come alive. I'm not going to claim that we all need to rush out and get the most expensive, highest quality gear available... that would be stupid, but at the same time, don't assume that all gear is the same, be cheap and go for the lower end merchandise even if you can afford better and assume that you can be just as good with any gear.

Instead, each player needs to find their own gear that feels good to them, but not be constrained by their own ideas about good or bad quality as a cheap amp might sound amazing in the hands of one person, but horrible in someone else's. As electric guitarists our instruments encompass more than just our guitar. Gear is very much a part of how we play and the kind of music we make, both good and bad. If you feel your playing is stuck in a rut or you forward progress has stopped, maybe you need some new gear that will better encourage development in the areas you need improving.

This goes along with the getting out of one's comfort zone idea, as creativity often comes from trying something new. Take some time to try amps and guitars that you're unfamiliar with as they might just expose areas in your technique that can use improvement and inspire you to get working. You never know, you might find some great gear you never would have tried otherwise, and it might just teach you a thing or two about your playing as well.

Plus, as with ideas about finding yourself through your guitar gear etc, this idea of having more and better quality guitars/amps/pedals as a way to improve your own playing, is a great excuse to spend more money on guitar gear.

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