Can Your Gear Make You Play Better or Worse Howdy my fellow tone addicted friends! First a tiny jaunt down memory lane (not such a great memory btw). About six years back I did a toung-n-cheek blog on "How to Achieve Terrible Tone"; in this blog I described a band I ran into where the guitar player had in fact produced the worst tone I had ever encountered. I thought it was funny as all get-out. The guitar player had two clip-on tuners, plus two tuners on his pedal-board, plus one built into his amp ... yet he was terribly out of tune! His investment in gear was huge, his investment in learning to play was non-existent. He had a large pedal board with, among other things, several multi-effect DSP based pedals, and his amp had tons of on-board DSP effects and modeling ... and ... he had EVERYTHING on all the time! Oh, and he was playing an acoustic guitar. I believe I described the tone as something akin to "a flatulent Elephant expelling gas" ... and then apologized to elephants everywhere for the unkind comparison :-)
Seriously, it was awful. I wish I could point you to the blog, but we had to take it down because some idiot who owned the same amp somehow decided I was dissing THEIR amp ... and then somehow took it to ALL amps by that particular manufacturer ... and posted his thoughts to that manufacturers forum. Good God! Anyway, the point was: Dude really would have been better off investing his time & money in learning to PLAY the guitar ... not just adding more and more gear in hopes he magically turned great. BUT ... now I'm flipping the situation around and asking the rhetorical question: Can gear actually make you a better player? My feeling is a resounding "yes it can"! Let's talk about that!
As a pickup designer and builder, I always feel as though truly great TONE does in fact make you play better; well, if not actually better, at least it inspires you and makes you play longer and with more enjoyment, and that in turn will make you play better! Certainly the same can be said for speakers, tubes, pedals, and of course the actual guitars and amps we play.
Now a caveat: When you are first learning to play, what really matters is that you have a guitar that plays easily, intonates properly, and stays in tune.
As we become seasoned players equipment matters more. Once we have made it past the initial hurdles of learning the instrument fairly well many of us hit a creative wall. We become bored. In the best scenario, that's when we should be expanding our horizons and avoiding boredom by actually playing with other musicians in a BAND, but that's not always an option. And so, at this point maybe a new piece of gear will be just the ticket to re-light the fuse of excitement. Or, how about guys like me? We "old guys" who have left our regular playing days behind us to raise families, buy homes, build businesses, and so on. Oh yes, we still LOVE playing guitar, and pick one up every chance we get, but most of our "shows" are held in the family living room these days, often to an audience of zero! Well to me, and many like me, tone is paramount, and YES our gear choices are HUGE where tone is concerned. I have many fantastic sounding amps and guitars as well as some truly fantastic sounding pedals; and they all sound and feel different. A couple nights ago, after the family went to bed, I spent some time playing an old Burns guitar I had recently acquired and rebuilt. Guess what? I played some killer stuff that I'd never played before. Yes, that guitar was in fact playing me as much as I was playing it. And oh my goodness how many times has this happened? Too many to count.
Would "the Edge" have ever made a splash had he not discovered the Korg SDD-3000 digital delay? For that matter, would U2 have even existed? An excellent reverb or delay pedal can TOTALLY inspire you to play like never before. Would Peter Frampton have became a mega-star had he not gotten a talk-box? Would Jack White have created the sound of The White Stripes had he stuck strictly with more mainstream guitars?
Okay, I hope I've made my point. Gear can't replace practice, lessons, and paying your dues through actual gigging; but it CAN make you a better player by taking you to places you would not have otherwise went, and keeping you inspired and interested. I dare ya: Imagine St. Vincent if Annie St. Clark had NEVER experimented with crazy gear. It's impossible ... it wouldn't EXIST (at least as we know it)! Here is what I hope you take away from this: If you are a beginner, please focus on learning how to play. If you are a seasoned player, never feel bad about investing in gear that can take your playing to the next level, unless maybe it means you can't pay the bills!