The Psychology of This Amp Goes to ’11’ & What You Buy When Buy a Guitar (or other gear)

If you’ve spent much time around musicians, be they bass players, guitarists, pianists/keyboardists, or even drummers, you’ve probably sat in on conversations that-to the non-musician, or new musician-revolved around stuff that you couldn’t possibly believe matters to playing music. Guitarists talking about what gauge pick offers the optimal amount of resistance for the most desirable pick attack, bassists swearing up and down that nickel-wound strings are too “jazzy” for the sound he’s going for, drummers who have sworn off birch shells because they’re only marginally as punchy as maple.

For a lot of us, there is no detail in the music equipment world not worth analyzing.

As with just about any other activity (“activity” is very weak word… just know I’m not trying to minimize the significance of the music community!) that has an enthusiastic following, manufacturers of music equipment have graciously given all of us access to more options than one lifetime would allow exploring. These options allow us to sculpt, in every imaginable way, our own musical identity, provided that we have both the cash to fund that identity and the gumption to pursue it.

Back in the 90s (when I entered the guitar world), there was a fraction of the STUFF that we now have at our fingertips. Everything from devices to clean underneath guitar strings, to strings made from cobalt, to guitars made from wood scraps, to the Ebow, to amps that double as analog to digital/USB converters is now available that scarcely existed even 15 years ago. Technology and capitalism have managed to make it all so.

In light of this enormous amount of STUFF, it’s incredibly difficult for beginners to wade through all the superfluous and move directly to the real stuff. On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy for the budding guitar player to be seduced by the overwhelming draw of all the gear and lose focus of what’s really, genuinely important, which is, has been, and always will be playing the guitar. 

There’s little wrong with loving the spoils of our hyper commercialized corner of the world. In fact, for many years, I made a decent living doing so (more about that on another day). Suffice to say, guitars, basses, drums, amps, and all that is a multi-billion dollar industry that goes out of its way-like all industries-to add as much allure to their merchandise as possible. It just so happens that the guitar industry is able to market a highly personal product. Not guitars and amps and beautiful paint jobs/finishes, not black market materials illegally shipped in from Madagascar. That’s just stuff. And the music instrument industry knows that.

They’re selling identity. 

At the outset, not unlike a teenager and his first car, what’s important to us? Color and body shape. That’s it. That’s why guitar shop employees will have the distinct, highly memorable pleasure of demonstrating guitar after identically built, identically setup guitar to new musicians, going over each dust fleck and possibly each nick before a decision is made. At the outset, this is what counts because we’re paying for the appearance of the instrument. Traditional psychology will tell you that the only reason we invest as much time as we do in appearances is what? Identity. A sense of uniqueness. Parts of who we are packaged into a physical thing.

For the sake of clarification, there is nothing wrong with this!

In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable (unless you’re the guitar store salesman, and its 5 minutes to closing time and you’ve got to be at a gig in an hour) aspects of being a musician. For better or worse, buying gear (to start with, for the color and the body) is an exciting experience, and rarely results in buyer’s remorse-assuming you’ve done your homework and thought about your purchase, and spent a little bit of time with the guitar or amp or whatever before making the decision to buy. Impulse buys, just like with any other purchase, frequently result in a sense of regret.

Back to the sense of identity, it’s why Nigel iconically felt compelled to persistently reiterate that his Marshall cranked to 11. This is as good of a demonstration as any. A room full of guitars for any practical reason? Nope. It’s not a rational, logical compulsion. It’s purely emotional, and something we’re (almost) all inclined toward at some point or another. With music gear, it’s because it’s incredibly fun. If that weren’t enough, consider the runaway success of such incredibly personal merchandise sold by Victoria’s Secret. Is it necessary to own $70 underwear? No. What’s being sold, in that case, is beauty. Again, not a long way from identity.

Ultimately, the point is that as anyone who has been in the guitar community for a while can tell you, all the gear in the world will not make you the next Steve Vai, Stevie Ray, or Jeff Beck. Enormous amounts of practice over long periods of time, a set of definite musical goals, and an unwavering passion for music, however, will help. Even if you’re plucking away at your $40 pawn shop special. Keep at it.