Nietzsche and Gear Lust

Nietzsche's "typewriter", the Hansen Writing Ball

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

From Nicholas Carr’s essay in Atlantic — Is Google making us stupid?

When I read this I was reminded of how much my playing has been influenced by the kind of music gear I have owned over the years. Imagine trying to learn pinch harmonic squeals playing a Fender Squier Strat with cheap single coil pups through a $50 Gorilla 1x8' combo amp. "How come I don't sound like Dimebag Darrel?!"

My first tube amp was a Laney AOR 30 combo. I vividly remember being blown away by the tone quality, playing the Sweet Child O' Mine riff and thinking "that sounds like Slash!" I remember spending days experimenting with my first Boss delay pedal. It released creativity I didn't know I had. I remember my first American Strat, and how my double stop blues bends finally had that chimey Stevie vibe.

Nietzsche believed that his typewriter influenced his thinking. His composer friend believed that the quality of his pen and paper had a similar influence on his musical thoughts. And I believe the same is true with today's music equipment. A high quality guitar and amp CAN improve your playing. If you are serious about your playing, they are worth the investment.

Of course, I have definitely been accused of Gear Lust, the compulsion to frequently purchase new music equipment in the never ending search for new sounds, new tones, and new ideas. For example, I have spent several years putting my latest pedalboard together, collecting just the right assortment of pedals and tweaking the signal chain back and forth, buying boutique cables and connectors, only to scrap it for the last two months because I'm now preferring the dynamics I get plugged straight in to my amp. And all this after buying a TC Electronic G-System a few years ago and returning it after a month because I thought the digital converters were sucking my tone.

Yes, it can go too far.

But at the same time, I have no doubt that the quality of my guitars, amps, and effects has played a significant role in my evolution as a player and writer. There are songs I would never have written if a certain chord hadn't sounded a certain way at a certain time. Sometimes I find new creativity in my soloing simply from the way my Marshall 4x12" pushes the air, or the way my TopHat tube amp sustains and feeds back.

And over the years, I have experienced how quality gear has influenced my desire to practice and improve. There are so many obstacles that cause young talented musicians to give up playing. Maybe they just never heard themselves sound as good as they really were because their gear couldn't make it happen? Would I still be playing now if I had just stuck with my Squier and Gorilla? I doubt it.

So this one is for the parents. Do you have a young player in your house? Support them. Help them get the gear they need to sound as good as they can. If you buy high quality used gear at a good price (not new gear at music store prices!), you can almost always get most of your money back on eBay or craigslist if the kid decides to quit. But don't let the gear be the reason that they quit.

And if you're a player, believe me when I tell you that high quality gear WILL make a difference in your playing. Spend the money. Get the good stuff. You won't regret it. But be sure to buy used gear. Almost all of my gear is used, especially the major components like guitars and amps. You're not a collector, you're a player. So let someone else ding that new guitar for you and save some bucks. When I buy used I shop Craigslist, eBay, and local used guitar shops, and I try to shoot for around 50% of the new price. It takes a little more time to find a good deal, but its worth it.


David Golden said...

hmmm... mixed emotions about this one. A lot of what you say is true, but a real musician is going to blow you away on any instrument they pick up. Junior may enjoy impressing his friends with the cool sounds his multi-effects unit can make, but he's got to find the discipline and hunger within if he's going to learn. How many great musicians speak with humor and love of that first cheap instrument they learned and discovered new worlds on? In my motely praise band I've started plugging straight into the amp too, not because the sound is so amazing, but I'm tired of tripping over the other two guys' pedal boards, and want to set an example that it's not all about the gear.

Ken said...

Well put. Buying gear to impress your friends is the wrong motivation. And worship is definitely not about gear. If you are seeing heart issues in your band related to gear, then I salute you for setting the right example! But even though I loved my first Squier Strat, my playing did see improvement when I moved up to a better guitar.

Anonymous said...

I beleive that your emotions can travel better when your not fighting your gear, and good gear lets you focus more on the music.
And i agree about the used stuff.
the only thing i have that was new is my amp, and it was a gift from my wife.
Ive gotten killer deals on guitars from pawn shops and threw news paper and creigslist.
even though i am still a weekend worrior when it comes to playing, my first real guitar was a gibson
L6S, and what a diffrence in wanting to play, wich made it less like practice and keeped me serching for those great guitar sounds i had heard and songs.

Ken said...

Totally. Good gear definitely enhances emotional experience and expression.

And you're right, it can make a difference in wanting to play and wanting to practice. I had a guitar student once who struggled for months trying to get good sounding hammer-ons. He had basically given up on them. Then one day during a lesson I took his guitar and adjusted the saddles on his bridge to lower the action. Suddenly his hammer-ons were ringing out and sounding great! All that time he had thought he just couldn't master the technique. But it wasn't him at all. It was his gear.