Just one more…pleeeeeeze!
We’ve all seen the memes on social media, haven’t we? And let’s be honest – there’s plenty of truth in them!
Many – if not most – of us guitarists seem to have an annoying tendency to want to amass a wide selection of instruments and/or effect pedals and/or guitar amps for personal use. This gear lust, which often leads to crammed living conditions, empty pockets, and considerable trouble with our significant other, is generally known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome, colloquially shortened to G.A.S. (or GAS).
It seems that GAS has become ever more prevalent over the last couple of (or three) decades, but the roots of this problem reach as far back as popular music and the advent of mass media.
G.A.S. through the decades
The early days
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the onset of GAS, but many people would agree that Gibson’s Nick Lucas Special signature model (first released in 1927) played a crucial part.
Nick Lucas (1897-1982) was an accomplished guitarist and popular crooner, whose biggest hits (in the late Twenties and early Thirties) coincided with the popularity of the radio and the wider availability of phonograph records.
The Nick Lucas Special was Gibson’s first signature guitar, laying the groundwork for the endorsement deals we’re familiar with these days. Apart from riding on an artist’s popularity, a signature guitar also tends to suggest to the guitarist that, were he (or she) to play this particular instrument, some of the magic (as well as the technical prowess) of the endorsing artist might rub off. In short, the message is ”buy this guitar, and you will become a better and more popular player!”
As most male guitarists not only care for their playing technique, but also for the opposite sex, becoming more popular always sounded (and still sounds) like a good idea.
The Fifties and Sixties – the guitar boom
During the first half of the 20th Century the guitar grew from a not-very-common, specialist instrument into a popular mainstream choice – not least thanks to Country music and the ”singing cowboys” featured on radio and records, as well as in the movie theatres.
But it was Rock ’n’ Roll that put the guitar in all its shapes on the top of the desirability list for masses of youngsters in the so-called Western World.
Yet, GAS wasn’t such a serious issue at that time, because musical instruments were outrageously expensive then, and some of the top US-brands almost impossible to get hold of in Europe.
Andy Babiuk’s fantastic book ”Beatles Gear” gives the reader a very good idea of how difficult it was for the guitarists of the late Fifties and early Sixties to even scrape together enough money to buy a single guitar (or amp). Owning multiple guitars was the privilege of the biggest stars only. Back in 1965 a new, baby blue Fender Stratocaster would have set you back around 3,000 euros in today’s money! This makes a current American Standard Stratocaster seem dead cheap at approximately 1,500 euros. And remember, back then there was no such thing as a quality (licensed) copy, and even substandard instruments from Eastern Europe weren’t really cheap (Harrison’s Czech-made Futurama cost him the better part of 1,200 euros in today’s money).
Still, young players were brand-conscious, at least to some degree, and lusting for the exact guitar they knew their idol was playing. Even if they couldn’t afford it…
They don’t make ’em like they used to
The transition of the plain old ”used guitar” to the ”vintage guitar” we all know today got to a start in the late Sixties, mostly fuelled by the two best-known brands – Gibson and Fender:
When flagging sales of the Gibson Les Paul prompted the company to scuttle the model in favour of the instrument we now know as the Gibson SG, nobody could have foreseen that the move would lead to the first run on a discontinued electric guitar model ever. Caused by the exposure given to the ”out of print” Les Paul Standard by the new wave of Blues players, spearheaded by Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton, many serious guitarists started actively searching for used Les Pauls. The fact that Gibson chose to reissue the Les Paul in the late Sixties, but failed to sense that the crowd lusted for the double-humbucker Burst (instead of the Goldtop and the Custom), quickly turned the original Standards produced between 1958 and 1960 into the stuff of legend.
Both Fender and Gibson became parts of large business conglomerates before the Sixties were over, and a feeling started to seep into the guitar community that the earlier instruments were of a higher quality than those produced under the new managements.
Big in Japan
The proliferation of reasonably well-made guitars from Japan – often dead-on copies of US classics – at reasonable prices was what truly kicked off the phenomenon we now call GAS.
For the first time amateur and semi-professional guitarists could afford to own more than a couple of guitars. Effect pedals, too, would start to benefit from Far Eastern efficiency and mass-production.
Many of the 1970s Tokai-, Ibanez- and Yamaha-guitars – as well as the earliest Roland/Boss-effects – are now considered vintage classics in their own right.
The Eighties finally ”sealed our fate”, when it comes to GAS.
Many large brands started to release official (=licensed) copies of their own instruments in the 1980s, with the rest following suit in the following decades. Brands like Squier, Epiphone, or Sterling make it affordable to hoard instruments that offer at least some of the clout of their famous, upmarket brethren.
The Five Types of GAS-sufferers
We are all different – we don’t all lust after the same guitars, and we don’t all accumulate gear for the same reasons or in the same way.
I think one could divide us Gassers up into five basic categories, according to how and why we ”simply have to have that guitar”.
1. The Fan
The Fan is a hardcore follower of one (or two) Rock bands (or guitar gods), and he (or she) focusses on acquiring as much of the gear used by their idol as humanly possible. The Fan hopes to come as close as possible to their idol’s famous guitar tone, and he/she wants to feel (and look) the way his (or her) idol does when playing those classic riffs and songs.
2. The Nostalgist
The Nostalgist comes from a similar place as the Fan, having a clear vision of what it is he’s looking for. But, instead of trying to relive a certain band’s or player’s tone, as the Fan does, the Nostalgist wants to reclaim the (his/her own?) past. The Nostalgist longs for the classic looks and tones gleaned off vintage equipment, the sounds of a cooler, more vibrant place than the current here-and-now. Some Nostalgists also buy all the stuff they wanted, but couldn’t afford to get, when they were young.
3. The Hunter and Gatherer
The Hunter and Gatherer simply loves to get new toys, especially when he can claim to have ”snapped up a real bargain”. These are the guys that constantly trail the Internet, on the lookout for something, anything really, that might whet their considerable appetite. Very often it doesn’t even matter if it is an instrument (or other piece of gear) the Hunter and Gatherer really ”needs”; as long as it’s cool and ”a bargain” it’s a viable acquisition.
4. The Specialist
The Specialist has a strong focus on one, two or three specific pieces of equipment, that he (or she) simply cannot get enough of. These are the guys who seem to have a perfectly good reason for buying several dozen Telecasters, or a whole flock of Fender Tweed-era amps – or maybe they zone in solely on gear manufactured during one specific year…
5. The Pragmatist
The Pragmatist comes over as very reasonable, even though he’s an addict like the rest of us. The Pragmatist tells his wife that he doesn’t yet own an archtop guitar with DeArmond pickups, but that he needs just such a guitar to complete his ”colour palette” or ”toolbox”. Some Pragmatists – like professional guitarists, studio owners, or guitar reviewers – can make a real art form of their Gassing, meaning it takes the unsuspecting wife years (if not decades) to see through this charade.
Naturally, things aren’t always as clear cut in real life as they might seem on paper. Most of us GAS-sufferers tend to display a mixture of two of three of the above GAS-categories.
”You can’t play more than one guitar at a time!”
Does owning more than one or two guitars have real advantages? If you ask me, my answer would be a resounding ”yes and no”!
The ”yes” part of my answer has to do with the fact that playing guitar (or bass guitar) is always a tactile experience. Different instruments have different neck profiles, they have different overall dimensions, different actions, different fret sizes, different fingerboard radii, and they simply smell and feel differently.
This is probably the main reason why we don’t all play Line 6 Variax guitars. They might be decent instruments with an astonishingly realistic array of different tones, but they completely lack the important tactile element that is so crucial in inspiring you to come up with different licks and different ways of approaching the guitar as an instrument.
A big, fat Jazz box will make you play noticeably differently to a sleek Strat or SG, and the same holds true for the differences between, say, an ES-335 and a Floyd Rose-equipped Metal axe.
On the ”no” side of the equation, buying a new piece of equipment will surely inspire you, but it won’t automatically turn you into a ”better” guitarist. Even though it’s hard to admit, only regular practice will move you forward on the long and winding road to improvement.
Damned If You Do…
In a way, we’re extremely lucky these days. There has never been a better time to be a guitarist than now. There’s an abundance of cool gear available, and much of it at rather reasonable prices.
The downside to this is, of course, that it’s so much easier to become a gear addict, because the price tag doesn’t necessarily act as much of a threshold, anymore.
Still, I tend to see the positive side of things, because the affordability of decent equipment makes it much easier for guitarists these days to try out different stuff on their way to finding the gear that’s most suitable for the music they make.