journalist, musician, guitar geek

Opinion

Gear Acquisition Syndrome and Me

Although my blog posts are few and far between (usually during a rare lull in writing/university/band activities), it suddenly struck me that I’d never done a full-length piece on an affliction which affects the majority of guitarists: Gear Acquisition Syndrome, often shortened to G.A.S. The term, or so the legend goes, was originally coined by Walter Becker of Steely Dan in a 1996 article for Guitar Player magazine. His original definition described an insatiable need to acquire more and more guitars, all of which sound essentially the same but feature marginal technical alterations so as to render them desirable, hence the original acronym Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Over the years the virus has spread and now affects all manner of instrumentalists, as well as the possession of all possible aspects of gear.

Aside from the financial strife induced by the condition, the least desirable characteristic of G.A.S. is the lack of actual playing, songwriting and practice which occurs as a result of trying out so much new gear. And with the renaissance of the YouTube gear demo, bolstered by the likes of ProGuitarShop, the temptation to purchase and subsequently test a new product with your own rig can often be far too much to bear. Of course, whatever ends up being acquired is often quickly sold on as it doesn’t quite “gel” with any number of factors (guitar, pedals, amp, playing style, colour scheme etc.). This leads to a constant desire to achieve that “perfect” rig, a state of acceptance where you, as a player, are happy with your sound and what it says about you.

ProGuitarShop: dangerous for your bank balance and time-keeping abilities.

 

G.A.S. affects people in different ways. Personally, I reached a stage where I was satisfied with my guitar and amp some time ago, although this is more likely due to my notoriously cheap-skateish nature rather than a divine sense of contentment. No, my vice lies with effects pedals, as anyone who’s seen my pedalboard will testify. I don’t even buy anything particularly expensive; there are some absolute bargains scattered across my collection. However, to obtain these great deals, as well as research what makes the pedals themselves any good, I have spent countless hours scouring the ‘net, whether that be Google, eBay or the Harmony Central Effects Forum, the latter of which providing the biggest G.A.S. injection of all (no sniggering at the back please).

In addition to the somewhat localised nature of my G.A.S., it tends to strike only at particular times. Boredom is an obvious catalyst, as is listening to new bands and wanting to, ahem, “borrow” a few of their aural tricks. However, if I want, and I mean really want something, I will somehow manage to incorporate that particular sound into a new song, before I even have said sound in my arsenal. The tone I’ve conjured in my head will be so indispensable to the composition that I simply won’t be able to play the next gig without it, or so I tell myself. This has resulted in audience members commenting that they can’t take their eyes off my feet as I tap-dance my way through myriad different noises. My response is that the actual guitar playing doesn’t bother me so much any more; my main worry onstage is coordinating my feet so as not to fall over when switching pedals on and off.

My pedalboard: great sounds, but a logistical nightmare to navigate.

 

Still, considering the relative cheapness of my addiction, I don’t have that much to complain about; I’m not blowing my cash on vintage Les Pauls every month, partly because I’m a poor student and partly because I’m more of a Strat man myself. And, true, some aspects of my ‘board have stayed fairly constant over the years (despite buying a number of potential “replacements” which subsequently failed to stand up to their predecessors). But still, there exists that sense of utter frustration when you buy one thing to replace another thing only to discover that there was really nothing wrong with the original thing. By all means, I can simply sell the new pedal (in this case) and keep the old one but that means more time spent on eBay, more lost parcels courtesy of the Royal Mail and, ultimately, less playing time.

It’s for these very reasons that I admire players like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello; now there’s a man who has steadfastly, perhaps even stubbornly, stuck to his gear-based guns and kept the same amp and almost the same pedal setup for nigh-on twenty years. Then again, I’ve hardly been complimentary of Morello’s actual songwriting in the last ten of those twenty years (see, for example, my review of third solo album World Wide Rebel Songs) so perhaps keeping his rig the same has limited his creativity in the process. Hmm.

Tom Morello: keeping it simple.

 

Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for that kind of approach and I believe that all G.A.S. sufferers could learn a little from Morello’s anti-consumerist philosophy. After all, undisputed guitar god Joe Satriani, despite a gargantuan range of signature products, has famously said that “tone is in the fingers, effects just do the colo[u]ring”; nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the closing video clip below, where Satriani plays 80s classic ‘Surfing with the Alien’ through a guitar, pedal and amp combo that couldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred pounds, yet sounds almost indistinguishable from his thousand dollar rig. And if that doesn’t make G.A.S. sufferers shut down the computer and pick up the guitar, I don’t know what will.


TC Electronic: Saviours of the stompbox?

Winter NAMM 2011 had a whole host of stompbox highlights, including Strymon’s latest mind-bending venture with the Timeline as well as some welcome additions to Malekko’s diminutive (in size only) Omicron line. However, the announcement that has me most excited comes in the form of TC Electronic’s TonePrint series: five new digital stompboxes (plus two analog drives), each with a generous number of modes, true bypass plus stereo ins and outs. On paper these are already impressive specs, especially for the price (around £100-120) but the clever folks at TC have one more trick up their already considerably lengthy sleeve: the TonePrint itself.

TonePrint is, essentially, an additional preset for each pedal which can be downloaded from the TC Electronic website. Each of the five pedals in the TonePrint series offer USB connectivity and, as a result, users have the ability to alter the default sounds hidden within the unit. Like all other presets, TonePrints can be tweaked by utilising the pedal’s individual controls but the base sound is entirely new depending on what has been downloaded to the unit.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this innovation however lies with who created the TonePrints. TC have managed to convince a number of pro guitarists to contribute their own settings, including the likes of muscular death-shred merchant John Petrucci, Doug Aldrich (you know, from Whitesnake) and Bumblefoot (“Guns N’ Roses”). While I’m sure there are thousands of people desperate to experience Bumblefoot’s “evil chorus”, this still doesn’t explain why I’m so excited for the TonePrint series. In fact, my real reason for writing this article is not because of what TonePrint will bring to the pedal arena but what it might stop.

Signature pedals: with an oversaturated signature guitar market, evil heads of marketing lured previously virtuous guitarists into giving their name to a product that people, quite simply, step on. Digitech grabbed Brian May, Eric Clapton and, erm, Dan Donegan while Dunlop have been churning out endless variations on the Cry Baby with Kirk Hammett, Slash and Jerry Cantrell models among the company’s most recent innovations. Even the dead aren’t safe from this insatiable cash-grab as both companies snapped Jimi Hendrix up for a couple of much-needed psychedelic treadle-based units.

Fortunately, should TC’s TonePrint format gain momentum, there’s a real chance that signature pedals could finally be resigned to the wastepaper bins of Digitech’s heads of department, where they belong. We could be spared from the tedious fanfare that surrounds the release of one more digital modelling pedal that the namesake artists would never touch (see Zoom’s artist series). No more would Zakk Wylde be able to promote his tepid approach to “brutal” riffs with yet another signature wah/overdrive/chorus (delete as appropriate). With TonePrint as the default configuration, artists could share the sounds they want to share and we, as guitarists, could make use of the sounds we want to hear. It’s a heart-warming thought and, for that at the very least, I thank TC Electronic (although not for their decision to leave tap tempo off the Flashback Delay). Here’s to forward-thinking and progression!

Then again, I hear that MXR also unveiled another game-changing product at NAMM.