As usual I’ve been watching some geeky stuff on the uTubez and, as always, one of the first videos that was recommended for me was something from That Pedal Show. This time it wasn’t a pedal thing, it was a video of Mick changing the saddles on his favourite Strat, Blue. As he was talking away to camera in an offhand way he spent several minutes philosophising about “taking out the middle person from his playing” and it resonated with me in a massive way.
Who is the middle person? Well, if you’ve not seen the video, Mick refers to the middle person as the person you become when you are not ‘just’ playing – so, that’s either rehearsing, practicing, teaching, or for me at times, assisting Brian and Jake with circuits. It’s easy to become a player that spends too much time listening, thinking about what you are doing and what you want to achieve, instead of just being the person in the middle of the event of playing music.
For me, the middle person is the perpetual show off, the professional tone chaser, the person thinking about his tax bill, booking the dog into the vets, what challenges the kids are going to present this week. Or, does this pedal work, does this pickup work, is my amp set up right, should the speaker cab be vertical or horizontal, why isn’t my wife dancing, why is the drummer so loud and everything else that flits through my mind when I’m playing.
When I play at home, the vast majority of playing I do is when the kids are working something out and I have to show them. Either that or I am playing the same riff over and over when setting the Leslie on the Terraform, or trying to be the player I was in the 90s. So, my playing is mainly the middle person. It’s not Jason the musician in 2019, expressing the sum of his (well in excess of) 30 years of playing. It’s Jason the guitar player who is achieving a separate goal from the one he intended to achieve when he first picked the guitar up. That goal was to make myself happy. To make myself smile. To express myself. To make other people smile. To simply enjoy the experience of making music with my friends.
Over the years I’ve played in lots of bands and in every one I had at least 2-3 moments during every gig where I could get lost and fully express myself as the musician I was at the time. Which, usually, means I walked away wishing I had done something different, been better, been more musical… you know what it’s like. There is always something.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m now an old git, or my ego plays a much smaller part in me being a musician, but I generally don’t give a crap what other people think of my playing. That may be because over the last few years I’ve become good friends with players who are literally some of the greatest players to ever walk the earth. I am under no illusion about my place in the world of music, I mean, I’m a good player, but you know, when you have sat down and jammed with players like Tom Quayle many many times, you know who you are.
Mick calls this moment in his playing life as being a “mid-life crisis”. For him it came to a head when sitting down with Ed O’Brien from Radiohead. As he is an artist for originality, someone who uses the guitar as a form of expression that only a few of us can ever truly achieve, it hit him massively hard. Due to this he has identified things in his life and they run parallel to things I’ve had in my life. Anyway, if you want to listen to what Mick has to say, the video is at the bottom of this ramble and I’ll get back to where I was going with this!
My middle person, I think, is generally compartmentalised these days. When I am playing for work, with the kids, or whatever, I am thinking about the stuff I need to think about that revolve around the mechanics of playing. Whether that be my technique, my tone or something else I’ve found I am completely and utterly disconnected from playing the guitar for the reasons the 7-year-old me first did it.
However, sometimes, when I am out with the band, that 7-year-old me surpasses the middle person and I am just playing, properly, without a care in the world. I know that I can only do this because I am comfortable with myself as a player, comfortable with the music I am playing and am 100% comfortable with the people I share a stage with. Because of this I can close my eyes and feel at one with my instrument. It stops being a PRS or a Tele, it just becomes an extension of myself. As long as I can stay in that state, I play at my very best. I take risks I never would at home, I play the runs I wouldn’t even think of, I find the chord inversions I never knew existed, purely because I am in it. Right in the middle. I can become in the middle instead of being outside being the middle person.
The middle person that Mick talks about was one that I knew existed, but also didn’t know existed. Having watched that video the concept of the middle person has come out and punched me clean in the face. It has given me some kind of revelation as to why I play differently at gigs than I do at home.
Here is the down side - I really need to find a way of letting ‘me’ out more when gigging, however - I know that I am lucky. I have great gear, I know I can play pretty good and I am lucky enough to play with outstanding musicians. I have the luxury of being ‘comfortable’ so I don’t have to think about that stuff. I know I am not about to be asked to play something that I have no chance of pulling off and I know that it’s unlikely my guitar is going to go out of tune just because I played it a bit bloody hard.
However, it has identified something in me that leaves me envious of Mick. A couple of weeks ago Lisa and I went up to TPS to pick some gear up and drop something off. As usual we had a cup of tea and a good chat (which lead to a conversation about how very English we were because we got into a lengthy discussion about how tea should be made which lead to Dan looking at us like we were insane) and during this chat Mick was talking about how, when he is gigging, he hates having to change stuff, patches and effects because it detracts from his playing. At the time I was saying that I don’t mind that because I spent so long as a FOH sound engineer, part of the deal for me (when gigging) is to have a produced/polished sound with various things happening at the right time. We don’t have a FOH engineer in the band I am in so I have to balance my levels for intros/outros/solos. I like to use modulation effects and I use many, many different delay patches, often within one song. So, even though I am using a fully programmable rig, I am always changing patches mid song and this detracts from my playing head space.
This was confirmed for me at the weekend when I was visiting an old friend of mine called Ray, who is a “strat into a deluxe and nothing in-between” type player who uses the volume control on his guitar (and the internal preamp on his Clapton Strat) to give a wide range of tones… when I see Ray playing, which I do often and have done for almost 30 years, I’m always slightly envious about this, but it’s just not me. I like to have different sounds and different textures. How can I bridge this gap?
I am left in a bit of a quandary. I want those moments in my gigs where I am at one with my guitar to get longer. I want them to be more of a standard than an exception, but how can I do that? I can’t have both. I can’t have the control of soundscapes and also get lost in what I am playing with my friends. How can I achieve that? Do I need a tech to do the patch changes? I can’t justify that for many reasons – mainly because we are just a crappy pub band but most importantly it would take away the freedom I enjoy of trying to catch the bass player out by playing stuff he’s not expecting, but I can’t do that without bringing in the correct patch for it. I need to find a way to change my playing so there’s less tap dancing and more playing.
My new Telecaster has an onboard preamp which enables me to increase the output of the guitar radically if I need to. So this could mean that I may not have to worry about as many patch changes, I don’t know… actually, I do. Knowing myself as I do, finding out what that preamp can do will open up a whole new world of potential of effects and tones I didn’t have before which will lead to more patches changes to manage them and utilise it properly. Maybe I just need to try to go out with a single dirt box. And a compressor. And a delay. Oh, can’t go out without a chorus or vibe… and then I’ll need to control it. Shit. I’m back to square one. Can I press hard reset and start again please?
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’m a gear and pedal addict, and I’m always scouring the internet for whatever is catching my eye at the moment (Gibson SG’s right now in fact). I find it interesting when I see magazine articles or YouTube videos about someone’s rig rundown (or when you see some big name artist like Prince or countless others) and their pedal board was comprised of almost all Boss pedals.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it led me to thinking; do we obsess too much over gear? Why do some obsess over “boutique” gear while others are just fine with Boss or some other more budget-friendly brand pedals? Is our pursuit of tone out of necessity to achieve “the sound”? Personal enjoyment? Acquiring the latest and greatest gear? Is it a culmination of all of the above?
I tried to narrow it down to three types of players, in a very broad sense. This is a generalization, so in many scenarios it isn’t quite that static but more of a general observation than anything.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it” – These are players that love their tone just the way it is and has always been since they found “their sound” years ago. They have no desire to change it at all. Many times the players that fit this idea have great amps that they’re accustomed to and know every nuance about them, and every tone they can produce. There are likely a few base effects, maybe a boost or OD, delay, chorus, wah, or fuzz (among other things). In many cases it’s not a massive pedalboard, but in many cases the player has learned to coax the tones out of a smaller board of older pedals, and they don’t need any more than that. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, because it allows the player to focus solely on playing the instrument instead of twisting knobs and they know their tone and utilize every piece of gear with precision that fits the moment and what sound they need.
G.A.S. Hounds – (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) – These are the players that love to buy gear and search for new tones. There hasn’t been any official proof of why GAS sets in, but millions of players are stricken with the insatiable lust for “new” gear (new can consist of new-to-you, which is why the used market is massive right now). It could be the newest DSP delay that has been released with MIDI input, or a Distortion with active EQ controls and multiple gain stages, or a new Fuzz that’s supposed to be identical to one of the classic fuzzes Hendrix or Gilmour used. In many cases, it’s solely curiosity that drives players to want to try out the new gear.
New gear also can greatly inspire a player to try new tones and thus new ways of playing, which can be advantageous in growing their skill and finding their own sound. This works really well when a player is stuck in a rut with their playing, feeling like they aren’t progressing no matter how hard they try. There are many factors that could be discussed at a later date, but in general the GAS hounds are consistently on the chase for a new sound.
This leads to “flipping”, where a player purchases something (new or used) and in turn after playing it, “flips” it by reselling it in order to replenish the funds to put towards more gear. This is a major advantage to buyers and sellers in the used market, which is why it’s thriving so well. There are a lot worse things to do with your time and your money. Some people like to go bowling or play golf; G.A.S. hounds like to try new gear.
They just don’t care – There are a lot of players out there that don’t care what brand of pedal they playing, or whether it’s true bypass or buffered or if a pedal has the extra fancy functions. To them it is just a tool that they use to create music. It is like a carpenter who goes out and buys a hammer. He doesn’t necessarily need a certain brand name, just a good hammer that gets the job done. A lot of artists fall into this category. They know they need a certain sound, but they really don’t have the time, or care to compare delay pedal A to delay pedal B. They just need a solid functioning pedal that will get the job done and let them get their music out to the world.
So where do you fit in? Have you achieved your sound and are happy with what you have? Or are you the player that just likes to check out the newest offerings from the gear world out of curiosity? Or do you view pedals as just another tool in the toolbox, and it doesn’t matter what brand it is as long as it makes the sound you were hearing in your head?
The funny thing is, like most things in the guitar world, there is no right or wrong way to be. It really is about what makes you happiest, and what makes you want to pick up your axe and head to the woodshed.