My Rig Resolution By Charlie Crowe

January 25, 2011
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As I write this, NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants, is gearing up for its annual gear-fest this week in Los Angeles.

I’ve been on the fence about going since September. I’m connected enough to gain entry, but the time, cost, and hassle of going is an issue.

With flight, lodging, rental car, food, merriment, etc., I’m easily looking at a grand. Plus, my wife needs to go out of town this weekend for business. Who’s gonna watch the kids?

Nashville also got hammered by a whopping four inches of snow. Not near what the Northeast gets, but there’s enough ice on the secondary roads to close schools. It’s thrown my whole week out of whack.

C’mon, man. Write it off. It’s a business expense. Hire a sitter for the kids. Maybe dump ’em at the grandparents.

Think about all the NAMM networking opportunities…the parties. The concerts. Mingling with the legends. The nurturing of new and existing relationships. Face time!

Let’s cut the shit—I’d be taking a hit.

Oh, I’m not poor. According to AMEX and VISA, I could jet to Vegas after NAMM and swing nude from the chandeliers. But I, like many others, could use more liquidity and less debt.

Shouldn’t that be everybody’s yearly resolution?

Besides, why subject myself to a four-day marathon of checking out gear that I may want but don’t really need? And if I did come across something that I just had to have…

Easily, another grand. Probably more.

I should stay home instead. Submerse myself in a self-help book. Maybe practice or write something.

Speaking of resolutions, I need to lose weight. At my age, eating after 9 p.m. is never a good idea. Unfortunately, I’ve been doing a lot of that lately.

These are just excess pounds from a holiday rampage of food and beer. And I’m still vain and shallow enough to want them gone by spring.

But this blog ain’t about girth weight. It’s about gear weight.

I’m facing the music and coming to grips with my longtime love affair with gear.

After three decades of gigging, I’m currently in a self-imposed treatment program to uncomplicate my rig and curb my gear enthusiasm.

You’ll know I’ve been rehabbed if you see me jammin’ on Lower Broad while rakin’ in the coin with only a Sears Silvertone and a Champ amp.

OK, maybe that’s a little extreme, but bear with me.

I love gear. I get excited about certain new gear. I read Guitar Player to keep up on what’s new in gear as much or more than reading about famous and up-and-coming guitarists and the gear they use.

With players, I’m more interested in their journey. How did they navigate life in order to become a pro?

With new gear, I want to know how certain amps or effects processors might sonically take my mojo to the next level.

I don’t pay much attention to new guitars. I love used guitars.

I want them worn in. Show me battle scars, cigarette burns, and buckle rash. If it has a pawn history involving heartache, loss, and substance abuse, that’s even better.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about guitar playing in the last 30 years, it’s this: You’re gonna sound like you sound through any decent rig.

In fact, I bet you could line up a couple of star guitarists, let’s say Neal Schon and David Gilmour, resurrect three dead ones—how ’bout Hendrix, Stevie Ray, and Dimebag—have each plug into a clean tube amp with a dirt box and some analog delay, and they would sound like, well, themselves.

Sure, there might be minor tonal differences due to heavily calibrated studio/stage rigs (not to mention the rusty chops of the dearly departed), but their trademark awesomeness would still be heard. The players might notice the difference, but I doubt the listener would.

In 1980, when Eddie Van Halen first graced the cover of GP, thousands of guitarists (me included) finally got a glimpse into this kid from SoCal, the “Eruption” solo, and his rig.

In a world still a quarter-century from Google and YouTube, GP offered the only exposure to the guy who revolutionalized rock guitar.

The interview covered the obvious fret-board tapping technique he popularized, as well as his formative years spent playing piano and drums before settling on guitar.

But what impressed me the most about EVH were his riffs, rhythm playing, songwriting, and sound. How did he get that excellent tone?

Was it his modified Marshall? His homebuilt Charvel? His wax-dipped PAF? His clunky pedalboard with a beat-up Echoplex and MXR phaser and flanger? The Variac?

Was it all of those things combined? His…rig?

For me, the most revealing part of the interview was when he talked about touring with Ted Nugent.

Even obscenely confident, crossbow-totin’, wild-boar killin’ Ted was impressed and intrigued by Ed’s sound. So much so that he asked EVH if he could plug into his rig.

Ed let him.

Guess what? According to Ed, Ted sounded just like Ted through Ed’s rig.

So why do many, if not all, players constantly obsess over reinventing or supplementing our rig?

I don’t have an answer. I’m looking for help, therapy…an epiphany.

Maybe it’s pure seduction, courtesy of Madison Avenue.

How can I resist the temptation when that new pedal is so shiny and hyped with adjectives like “beefy” and “transparent”?

Be still my loins—check out that rack-mount effects processor with the blinking lights and glowing testimonials by the pros.

Oh my balls! What about that wicked boutique combo with point-to-point solder joints? One knob, one speaker, one hundred watts. Only $2800!

Maybe I can get that Dumble amp if I take out a second mortgage. Robben Ford and Eric Johnson use that amp. If I could swing that purchase, my tone would make any listener feel as though their ears had been kissed by God.

It’s never-ending.

I am a hopeless prisoner of new gear marketed to insecure pickers.

The marketing department knows me better than I know myself.

Design sexy gear and promote it with airbrushed photos of slutted-up babes. It’ll always get my attention and occasionally, my money.

I still achieve vintage wood when I see stacks. To this day, if I’m exposed to a wall of Marshalls book-ending Ampeg SVT bass cabs, I’m that much closer to a rock ’n’ roll stroke.

But let’s be reasonable. That’s a warm and fuzzy look from the ’70s. Even back then, a mic in front of a great singer’s throat was the loudest thing coming out of the PA.

If a guitarist knows what he’s doing, he can deliver the goods with one speaker. There’s no need, other than visual, for a picker to hump a mega-watt stack to a gig. It teeters on the red Corvette/small penis thing.

I’ve been there and honestly miss it. There’s really nothing like standing in front of a stack that moves enough air to power a blimp.

But over the years, I’ve heard “Turn down” and “Too loud” as much or more than “Great song” and “Good job.”

My wish for this year is not unrealistic like, say, world peace. But it’s close.

I wish all aspiring bands would commit to minimizing the backline gear and maximizing their monitor system. Some are already on board. Many are not.

This is the 21st century and it doesn’t cost thousands to put a band on an in-ear system. But it’s all or nothing. Every band member must commit or it will be audio chaos.

Once speakers are reduced to bare minimum on stage and “in-ears” replace the antiquated wedges, then the sound engineer can deliver a great mix through the PA.

The “too much stage volume” excuse for a shitty mix will be a thing of the past.

OK, back to my main point. Guitar gear. Too much time is wasted belaboring the latest and greatest.

It’s all about touch. The way you finger the fretboard and the attack of your pick and fingertips is the foundation for 6-string glory. Add to that the volume, tone, and pick-up selection on your guitar.

The physical collaboration between you and the instrument will sum up your sound. Like a singer, your voice comes from within and is then accentuated by technology.

So hone your tone. Develop it. Embrace it. Don’t dwell on perfection. Flaws reflect soul. Own your style like a bald spot, crooked teeth, or a lazy eye.

Oh yeah—write often. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble onto something special and unique.

Like a great guitar song!

That’s what breaks through, anyway. I’m still trying. Are you?

Meanwhile, because I just can’t help myself, I’m thinking of designing my own overdrive pedal. Think I’ll call it “Blistered Taint.” It will sport a rare, German-made, fire-breathing tube formerly used in WWII military radios and appropriately housed in a flaming-red stainless-steel case.

I’ll suit up Jenna Jameson in a bomber jacket, mirrored aviators, and camouflage panties to promote it. This life-changing pedal will “street” for $199. Whaddaya think?
 

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