A beautiful tool, but not the right tool

Fair warning: this post isn’t all that much about woodworking.

This morning I was playing a little guitar before work. With three small kids in the house, my episodes of rocking out have grown few and far between and my gear collection has slowly dwindled.

There are reasons for this.

  • Kids are hard on instruments.
  • Kids don’t really like loud sounds
  • Kids turn knobs on guitar pedals with wild abandon

I like to let them explore music and sometimes this means letting them engage instruments in a tactile way. It’s sort of like when a kid meets a puppy for the first time and you stop them from yanking on its ears too hard, but you really have to let them figure some things out on their own. The really good guitars are up high, but they get at the others from time to time and I try not to be too precious about it.

And knobs on pedals. Forget it. Your settings are no longer your own.

This has taught me one important lesson: I don’t like having a whole collection of guitars in cases or pedals in boxes.

Maybe this is spillover from my woodworking revelations but I’ve begun to be uneasy about having a whole pile of gear that I’m not using. I realize that this will not be the same for others. If you’re a studio or regular touring musician you often need a catalog of gear to work from. If you’re a collector it’s nice to have a wide array of examples in your collection. If you’ve just got a lot of money and you like to rock out in your studio apartment there are worse ways to spend the money.

I am none of the above. I’m just a dad who has to re-tune my guitars constantly from the “creative” alternative tunings my kids invent and who is surprised every time he steps on a distortion pedal and finds that the knobs have been turned up all the way. Surprisingly, this has lead me to really dial in “my sound” with as simple a signal chain as possible and it has also allowed me to be honest about what is not “my sound.”

I currently have two electric guitars. Both were built by me to my own exacting specifications. Both were finished just how I want them and have top notch hardware and pickups. One is perfect. The other is probably going to be up for sale to fund a new midi lathe (see how I worked woodworking in there).

I have spent the better part of the last month trying to answer the question why?

Why does my Jazzmaster feel like a perfect extension of my hands, soul and body while my Strat feels alien to me? Why can I always get the sound I want out of the former and I always feel like I’m copping someone else’s sound with the latter?

They are both excellent guitars, but the one I connect with is the one that disappears when I pick it up. The one that acts as a conduit for my musical ideas. The one that requires little translation. The one that gets out of the way.

I think it’s the same with woodworking tools. I’ve had the opportunity to use some absolutely wonderful tools that I just haven’t bonded with. They are beautiful, functional and perfectly capable, but they felt like someone else’s tools. When you find the tools that disappear when you use them – the ones that get out of the way – those are the keepers.

That is rare and special knowledge. It is something like enlightenment.



One Comment Add yours

  1. This reminds me of the way I approached music gear after falling hard for Phish. Trey and Mike play the same guitar the entire show. Sure, they use different pedals but I’ve never seen a guitar tech run out at a Phish show, which was a complete revelation. It’s similar to when I first read ATC. You’ll also note this pokes into the rest of your life too: bikes, yard tools, clothes, etc. It’s good for the soul. Rage on.


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