I was doing my typical boredom-induced zombie scrolling deal on Facebook the other day and happened upon a Woody Harrelson meme that said, “When people who only play “original music” crap on my cover band” and has Woody drying his eyes with money. It made me laugh, but it also made me think of another post I saw a while back that argued that cover bands aren’t “local music.” Both of these polarizing posts kind made me question where musicians place their value in their music, and I just wanted to talk through some of the points here (especially after having a discussion with a friend who has very different opinions than mine).
I’ll start from my end because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I love writing music and creating riffs and songs, but at the basis of my playing, I just enjoy playing covers. They’re fun, they get people up and moving because they’re identifiable and it’s a relatively straightforward thing that you can build from with your own unique flourishes should you choose to or play it exactly like the records...the choice is up to the player. For me, I like playing it note for note with the recording. It’s equal parts nostalgia and the desire for perfectionism is a world that lacks it completely. My OCD makes me want to nail each note exactly how the pros did it, and when I finally accomplish it then I feel successful. That’s been a driving force and where the bar has been set for myself since I started playing. I’ve always played covers because that’s actually how I’ve learned a lot of theory is piecing it together how the pros do it, because I don’t have the focus to sit down and practice scales…I never was a “studier.” When I did learn scales, it turned me into a robot because of that cushy feeling of false safety; if I stayed in the box I knew I couldn’t play a dreaded wrong note. But, it led my lead-work to be…scaley? No emotion, just notes in the scale. So, I went back to piecing theory together from songs, and that’s how I’ve personally connected the dots. It can be considered derivative if you broke it down, but it works for me and makes me happy and I try to play to the song and the band as much as trying to stand out.
My buddy is from the opposite line of thought. He gets ultimate enjoyment from writing songs and riffs. His fulfilment comes when he creates a lead lick or catchy rhythm part that he wouldn’t mind hearing again. He knows a few songs, but 95% of the time he chooses to create something in a jam than to cover a song, it’s just not interesting to him. He’s very into unique tones and doesn’t want to sound like Angus Young or EVH or any of the classics. He wants to create his own sound and for lack of a better description, to leave his own mark on the world. It’s something that I never wrapped my head around as a teenager as we’d go to jams and he’d want to make something up instead of playing a known song (to him that was boring). As we got older we both realized that a lot of what’s so great about guitar is the ability to adapt, so we’ve made stuff work.
Fundamentally, going back to the meme’s as referencing (welcome to citation in 2018), who is wrong and who is right? The answer? Both are right and wrong. I know, that sounds like a cop-out but hear me out. There’s playing music for fun, and then there’s playing music to earn money (surplus income, or sole income if you’re a full-time musician). You’ve taken a lot of time to hone your craft, and exposure bucks don’t pay the rent, unfortunately. So, fair compensation for the service you’re providing is what’s needed. To that end, a musician must be willing to adapt to what the customer is expecting. Whether that’s a bar gig trying to help sell some food and beer for the venue, or whatever scenario arises. In general, however, people are looking for identifiable songs. I’ve had several friends who have gone to bars to find out the band was playing nothing but originals, and they ended up leaving. It’s just the society we live in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many of the famous acts played covers until they got their foot in the door and added in their own material along the way. I guess my point is that there can’t be a polarizing thought-process when it comes to music. Being part of a community means helping it grow, and admittedly it’s something that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own integrity to achieve either. My point is, even the biggest stars in music STILL play covers, because there’s something identifiable and nostalgic about hearing those notes, and sort of tying those nostalgic feelings to the personality of the artist covering them…sort of a way of the person covering the songs to express a bit of who they are and what they love.
In the end, what is the point of cutting down another musician? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cover band or an original band in the end. If you’re doing what you love, screw it, it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve seen discussions of covers being derivative, but that’s something that is defined by each player.
Playing music is the greatest, and surely, that should be enough?!
I’m a creature of habit, 100%. Borderline OCD makes me happy when things are “normal” and in a routine. It’s something I’ve noticed for many years that permeates through all of my daily life, down to food choices, what deodorant I use, all that stuff. When I go to one of our local restaurants, I’ll normally order one of the three or four different dishes I usually get. This same thing was overtly apparent after getting a Suhr a few months ago, then the PRS Silver Sky. My OCD kicks in, and when things are out of place, it’s just impossible for me to bond with instruments, pedals, amps, etc. A lot of it is expectation versus reality, then adding my desire for consistency it makes for a lot of gear flipping.
I was very fortunate to find an incredible deal several months back on a Suhr Antique heavy relic, with three Thornbuckers in it. It was an incredible sounding guitar, and the neck felt great in my hands. I had it for about two weeks, to where I was enjoying it but there just wasn’t something quite right. At the time, I had it built up in my mind that “It’s a Suhr, it has to be something wrong in my mind, these guitars are supposed to be perfect.” I played it for another couple weeks and found myself still feeling like it wasn’t quite where I wanted it. Despite my better judgment, and complete lack of experience, I watched a couple of YouTube videos, changed to my favorite strings that I use on every guitar (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s, I’ve been using them for over a decade now), and adjusted the truss-rod and the saddles on the bridge. Threw a set of Dunlop strap locks on there, and sure enough, that’s what it needed. It came down to it being a comfort level thing, where those strings and the security strap locks give me mentally helped complete the puzzle.
The strap lock thing is entirely for a reason, and to this day I’ll put a set of strap locks on every guitar I ever own in the future. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I had a PRS Custom 22 in Scarlet Red. That PRS was a guitar that I had saved for over two years for, and it was my first genuinely nice guitar. I was in a hard rock band and did a lot of jumping around and carrying on, and we were practicing before a gig in a garage. We were mid-jam when I jumped in the air, and when I landed the back of the strap broke and my beloved PRS went flying and hit the concrete floor. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I was fortunate because it mainly took a 1’ chip of finish off down to the wood near the jack, but the back as absolutely scratched to death. I couldn’t repair the considerable chunk of finish that chipped off, but I was able to at least wax some of the scratches out of the back. No guitar to this day feels safe unless I have strap locks on it now. I soon stopped jumping around pretty permanently after that.
The string situation comes down to preference and comfort. I’m used to the tension and tone that the Regular Slinky’s (10’s) give me, and although I’ve played guitars with other strings that worked just fine, nothing quite feels like home like a set of Slinkys’. I’ve gone through the phases of trying heavier and lower gauge strings, and for me, heavier than 10’s make my carpal tunnel act up, and anything lower than 10’s feel like playing spaghetti. I’ve tried various brands, from NYXL’s, D’Addario’s, and even boutique strings, and though they all sounded good and played fine, it always comes down to a manner of familiarity and what my ears expect along with how the strings feel under my fingers. The same thing went on with my PRS Silver Sky, where I just wasn’t comfortable until I put my favorite strings on there, adjusted the truss rod how I liked it, and even adjusted the pickups down to better suit my tastes. After those small adjustments (and a set of strap locks), it immediately felt sturdier and like I was “at home.” It just proved that I’m horrendously set in my ways, sometimes to a fault. The irony is that I’ve changed “favorite picks” so many times that I can’t count on my fingers and toes (albeit most revolve around a thicker, JazzIII XL shape).
Am I weird and the only one who does this? Not sure. I guess one way to look at it is that I know what I want more-so than in years past. The same has occurred recently with pedals too. I’ve moved more OD’s and fuzzes and dirt boxes on and off my board for so long now that there were days when I had a board full of nothing but dirt, to try them all. Now, I’m down to 3 dirt pedals that have stayed relatively consistent on my board, and they’re about what you’d expect: Klone (depends on the board size as to whether it’s a mini or a large one), Tubescreamer, and a Bluesbreaker of some sort. I like them versatile enough to cover lots of ground, but not so much that they overlap a whole lot. The same goes for most of the rest of my board, and I think it’s what it means when people talk about finding their own personal tone. I still flip pedals, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I think in that situation, getting in the comfort zone can be kind of nice (especially financially).
I’ve been trying to write this blog for over a week, and each time I sit down it just hasn’t clicked. I normally have no problem with just starting to write and letting it flow, but here lately it’s just not clicking. I read Jason’s blog last week, and in the midst, it dawned on me what my deal was. I’m suffering from a bit of a slump. Not in a pity-party kind of way, but more accurately a social media and gear kind of way. In the past few weeks I’ve been extremely busy with work, the kids, working on the house, and just things pulling from every direction it seemed. That’s not unusual and accurately describes life in general, especially as a parent. But it hit me too that I couldn’t really nail down the last time in the past few weeks where I was able to truly jam without interruption for more than a couple of minutes. The combination of lack of playing plus spending more time on social media trying to stay connected with the every-changing gear world, I realized that I was starting to burn out on guitar. Not playing, but all of the other facets of gear culture. Overexposure to it made uninteresting and not nearly as fun. I took a step back this weekend, worked it out so my mother-in-law could keep the kids for a couple of hours, and let loose for a solid two hours. It felt like the stress melted away, and my shoulders felt lighter.
So, what is it that was burning me out? I don’t want to get back to that state again, and my goal is to cut it off at the pass and recognize the signs before it gets to me. For me, the overexposure to gear culture and the constant chase just wore me out mentally. Chasing tone is a self-imposed deal, so I’m not expecting any sympathy. It’s so easy to hop on Facebook and talk on whatever group you’re into at the time (there are hundreds to choose from, one for just about any sub-faction of gear you can imagine) and see what the current trend is. Most of it reflects the constant chase for the next tone (more on that later), some questions, some jokes, incredible or cool videos that keep your attention for 3-4 minutes. Then it’s on to the next group… and it’s the same stuff. There are the hardcore collectors of individual pieces of gear that are fascinating to watch, but then at some point, it becomes “Okay, we get it.” This is not a dig at collecting at all. It’s just the realization of what the gear community is in general. Mix in some of the things Jason mentioned in his previous blog, and things can get ugly, very quickly. Bad attitudes, light-hearted people trying to diffuse the situation, and the agitators, who have nothing to do with the argument but feel they need to interject something witty to get involved or push some more buttons for entertainment. The internet (and Facebook especially) is a fantastic place to meet great people all around the world, but it also becomes a soapbox for people to yell their ideas out to the world. Here lately it seems like people are actively looking to be ticked off or offended. Some days it’s, and everyone gets along, and some days it seems like someone collectively peed in everyone’s cornflakes that day.
Now, back to the constant chase for tone I mentioned earlier. I’ve chronicled my quest for tone starting early in my guitar-playing life, and it kind of arced to a peak the past few years and is slowly arcing back down to less desire to chase tones and acquire new stuff at the rate I previously had been. Along with the social media overexposure of talking gear day in and day out, I’ve come to learn awhile back that no matter how expensive the pedal, it’s not going to change the way I play *usually*. Again, (in general) a lot of the pedals I’ve tried from all manner of builders have been excellent, but it got to where it was more of the same with slight variations than something overtly new and exciting. No matter what pedals I play through, I still sound like me. It’s been a bit refreshing as it’s eased the GAS off a bit, but it’s also very enlightening how much time I spent twisting knobs instead of learning and playing the instrument. It was very apparent when my buddies and I got together for a jam a few weeks ago, where I had forgotten more than I care to admit…but my TOAN WAS SICK! Yes, I sounded great, but some of the theory I knew before had a lot of dust that had to be cleaned off, and some I forgot altogether. That was officially the day that it hit me that no piece of gear makes up for skill and knowledge of what the heck you’re going to play, and how well you adapt and improvise using the experience you have. That same day, I let someone talk me into unnecessarily selling a piece of gear before I honestly had time to bond with it because it didn’t fit a “traditional mold.” I ended up repurchasing the guitar back from who I sold it to and love it even more now than I did before. I know that sounds cliché to let other’s play so heavily on how I feel, but I’m truly guilty of it, and I dare say that many others are on social media as well. How many times has someone bought a pedal or guitar or amp off a recommendation from a friend you trust, only to find out it doesn’t gel with you and your playing style and rig? There’s a large element of “keeping up with the Jones’” that happens a lot in gear culture, and the desire to like what’s currently popular despite it not hitting the spot. The idea of such a popular pedal means there shouldn’t be a reason not to like it, but sometimes it’s just simply the case.
I know this entire article seems a bit cynical, but it’s the side-effect of doing something you love to the point where you don’t necessarily love it as much as you did before (or that’s what it was in my case). Yes, there are incredible new offerings by a multitude of companies that are still pushing the boundaries, and it’s not knocking them at all. For me it’s more so the need for a hard reset, disconnecting for a bit, reassessing what’s real and enjoyable in life outside of Facebook. I also have been letting the race of the gear culture pass by a bit before jumping back on the freeway to chase again (so many euphemisms in this article). Yes, there are pedals that still interest me, but I'm gear-fasting a bit to try to hone my craft instead of covering it up with effects. For me, disconnecting from social media this past weekend, cranking my amp and genuinely practising and learning some new songs was a bit of a therapy session for me that was much needed. It made me value what gear I love, sold off ones that had been sitting for a while, and gave me a bit of a renewed interest in learning and growing in my guitar knowledge again. It’s like I spent so much time wanting to play and not being able to that social media and gear flipping filled that void for a bit, but it’s not substantial or sustainable. But the feeling of picking up that slab of wood with strings on it and the joy it brings will never go away.
What is it about classic or vintage gear that just oozes mojo? In general, many of the circuits aren’t made of magic unicorn dust or rainbow farts and hen’s teeth; just electronics soldered together that culminate in a particular circuit. These parts aren’t necessarily designed to be used with music-related devices, but over the years that’s what’s been adopted by the industry and progressed even further into modern technology. So, what is “mojo,” and why does it play such a huge part in our gear selections? It dawned on me the other day as I was taking stock of my gear, looking at what I would be willing to move (for space and to have a bit of extra spending cash), and things that I immediately will not sell in any way, shape, or form. I think it comes down to mojo, which is a combination of several factors. It made me start looking at WHY I’m keeping the gear I’m keeping, and so easily “thinning the herd” so to speak on some other things.
Several of my friends and I were discussing vintage gear in a group chat, and lust for various pieces of classic gear that are essentially unreachable in our lifetime (financially). The more I thought about the cost. However, I started questioning why I would want something so freaking expensive? One part is nostalgia and kind of a hive-mind of what we grew up around. Many of the older guys we idolized in high school always lusted after vintage instruments, and I think it keeps being handed down through the generations. Again, it goes back to reflecting gear communities and the thought processes behind them (even pre-internet days). 1958 and ’59 Les Paul’s are considered the holy grails of the Gibson world and the idea of playing or owning one seems incredible. Same with an original ’57 Strat, or a ’68 Fender Paisley, or whatever you’d like to use as the defining unobtanium, magic instrument of love and lust as your example. Many were lucky enough to be around to experience those instruments when they were new, but as time goes on fewer players are around that have owned yet alone played a true vintage instrument. But that’s the thing; many people still lust for them despite having never laid their hands on one. Why is that? Well, mojo of course!
The IDEA of holding an instrument that old would feel like holding an ancient relic from civilizations long gone. I’ll admit that I don’t know a load of vintage instruments, but I’ve heard a lot about them lately. Paul Reed Smith did a live video in the U.K. when people asked why a vintage Strat was so great, and his answer was “Because those guys knew what they were doing.” It’s apparent because the designs haven’t changed much at all in over half of a century. At the same time, I’ve also seen many people saying that many of those old instruments are inconsistent and that some are magic, but some don’t click for lack of a better way to describe it. Despite the proposed inconsistency, some are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to own a piece of history. I suppose it’s about collecting anything, preserving history for future generations and all that. It’s also a very cool talking point to be able to show off that cool, now-rare gear. The same goes for pedals. The Klon Centaur is probably the most famous of all of them, and despite being a relatively simple boost and overdrive, it’s an item of lust for MANY people (and a point of contention for many more).
These pieces of gear fetch massive costs in the used market, and subsequently, many companies have tried to take the tried and true formula that players lust over and create a modern, relatively affordable (comparatively) version for the current generation that captures that nostalgia and inherent mojo. Some get excessively close in recreating the feel and response and tone of the originals, some take them to new extremes and approach the old as a springboard for creating something grounded in nostalgia, but with modern amenities. It’s the reason why we (Wampler) have two variants of klones, as well as dozens and dozens of other companies as well. It’s the same reason so many places make strat and tele-style guitars. Are the tones quantifiably different? In some cases, yes, in some cases no. There are many people on the internet that would argue that other companies than Fender make a better strat, while many believe there’s nothing like the classic. Are vintage tubescreamers from the early 1980’s completely better than the ones available today? Likely not. There may be a 5% difference or so based on part tolerances and a wider variance in manufacturing, but they’re subjective… and that percentage factors in when you’re looking at substantial differences between the costs. At that point, it’s just a personal decision as to how much that sound and difference means in monetary value. Is it worth *paying* for “mojo”? That’s up to the person making the payments!
I’ve got a few pieces of gear that are purely sentimental and will be intended to be heirlooms for my kids because they are either unique and quirky, have some form of emotional connection (such as my first MIM Strat) or completely special (gifts, etc.). In the end, it comes down to the tone and how it feels to play it for each person. For me, mojo is that smile I get when I plug into a piece of gear, and it sounds great, responds great with the rest of my rig and does EXACTLY what I’m hoping it will do. It’s the feeling of nostalgia, how playing through a piece of gear makes me feel connected to an era, or a guitar hero that I’m a massive fan of. It’s not quantifiable magic, but it hits the spot for me, where it may not do anything for anyone else. That mojo is self-driven, and I’ve bonded with pedals and guitars that were considered “budget-level,” along with not falling in love with pedals and guitars that are obscenely expensive and theoretically there was no reason NOT to love it. In the end, I can’t say that for me, mojo can necessarily be bought. It’s just the right time, the right feel, the right tone, the right look that grabs my attention when I plug in.