Friday, January 22, 2016

Lost In The (Guitar) Supermarket

A conversation from a week ago.

Me: "This Christmas I had a chance to experiment a bit with my brother's digital effects pedal. And, I have to say, I was mighty impressed."

Guitar sales guy: "Which line we talking about?"


He nods. "We've got them."

"I guess my one kvetch is they're maybe too powerful, too huge. A little box like that, you've got -- what -- 100 preset effects? Plus all the different synthesized amp models, plus all the variations and combos you can dial in after that. I can't begin to do the math."

"Steep learning curve."

"Exactly. And knowing me I'd settle for three or four favourite tones, and leave the rest in the cupboard. Anyway, so now I'm thinking about getting one or two basic pedals to start with, something simple to build skills. Like a looper pedal, maybe. Preferably with a metronome to help with timing."

Sales guy winces. "I've tried a few looper pedals. Brought 'em all back. It's probably just me, but . . ."

"You don't recommend them?"

Shrugs. "Zoom's entry-level pedal has a looper. Also a drum machine -- your dressed-up version of a metronome, basically."

"Yeah, I saw that on the internet."

"There you go. Why don't you take one home, play around with it? You've got 30 days. Keep the receipt, the packaging. Don't be too rough. You don't like it, money back."

I left the store in a state of disbelief. I had that pedal under my arm, of course. But I couldn't get over how times have changed. I still can't.

It's humble, but it's home.

Midway through my high school years -- the winter of '80/'81, probably -- my musician buddy took me on a tour of Winnipeg's boutique guitar shops. Every neighborhood seemed to have its own, with its unique emphasis on certain brands of amplifiers, pedals and guitars. My friend was an astonishingly fast and thorough study. I watched as he took various guitars off the wall and plugged them in to different combinations of equipment, all in search of a particular tone he was after.

Tone, I came to understand, was a guitarist's second-most coveted quality, following technique. In today's vernacular, you'd say tone is an integral element to a given guitarist's "brand." If a guitarist didn't have his own tone, he risked the unforgivable sin of sounding like a wannabe. "Nice try, 'Eddie.'"

Young guitarists serious about their craft spent a lot of time in a lot of different shops, playing with combinations of equipment, before laying down large sums of money on the outfit they finally ran with.
Veneration optional. Foxy sales assistant improbable.

Last week I wasn't in the store for more than 15 minutes. I gave the nice man $100. In return he handed me a clean shiny box and encouraged me to play with it -- at home.

There are good reasons behind the sales guy's tactic. The pedal is a low-net item -- if he's on commission a $100 sale is chump change. I'd also sent him all sorts of signals I was a "Beginner Guitarist," and an aging one at that -- why subject me, and the store at large, to the embarrassing spectacle of my experimentation with a product that would further out me as a noob and likely overwhelm me with options?

So "take it home and try it" was one shocker. The other came when I did as suggested. Caveats first: I understand this is not a "gig-worthy" item. It's built for home-use -- I get that. But this fact is in no way related to the quality of sound it produces.

I've generally assumed the so-called "rock gods" of my youth have stuck with the tried-and-true gear that brought them their fame and fortune -- vintage Strats, tube amps and the like. This may be true for an eccentric aural fuss-pot like Neil Young. But after taking this pedal out of the box and giving it some time, I can't imagine that RUSH or Van Halen or the various iterations of Pink Floyd haven't gone all-digital. It gets me wondering who might be the hold-outs. The Rolling Stones? AC/DC? Park four little guys on a super-big stage at the far end of a massive stadium with crappy acoustics, and ask the sound-guy: do you really want to pamper a temperamental tube-amp to coax out that sound everybody knows so well? Or are you maybe willing to just . . . click a pedal and play?

The final surprise, after sound quality, was price point. I have a vague recollection of my high school buddy's kit, and estimate its value might have been somewhere between two- to four-thousand bucks, 1981 dollars -- even with the Japanese knock-offs he played. He's since gone pro, and probably couldn't be bothered with any Zoom product, per se. But what if he'd had access to something like this at the age of 13?

Now I'm looking at my noob's kit. I've spent about $500 on the entire package, and I'm drowning in a sea of aural possibilities. Pass a bundle like this along to a kid with genuine ability and insatiable curiosity, and you begin to understand why North America -- indeed, the World -- is already way beyond "Peak Music."

Not that I'm complaining. I'm just all lost in the guitar supermarket -- like everybody else.

Further Reading: if there's one guy who found a tone and stuck with it through thick and thin until it netted him an unfathomable fortune, it would be Keith Richards. And, sure, he gave it some tweaks and variations, but it's always been that identifiable sound, in the reliable open-tuning he prefers. So maybe you wonder: just how much equipment did he have to amass to come up with this sound? Well, there's a book devoted to that very subject -- and it's a big one.


Trent Reimer said...

ReinXeed salutes you. (albeit with tube amps)

Darrell Reimer said...

I (and the invisible keyboardist) am gratified.