I have a problem. An addiction, if you will. It’s plagued me with varying degrees of severity for the last 15 years, and although I go through long stints of being ‘on the wagon’ a relapse is never far away.
I’m guessing many readers of this blog share the same addiction. Most might not admit it, but it’s a widespread problem that transcends age, gender and musical preferences.
I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded Gear Acquistion Syndrome (G.A.S. for short). Perhaps you or someone close to you is affected by this debilitating compulsion to constantly seek out the latest piece of equipment in order to fill a void and find that sound which has as yet eluded them. Here’s a glimpse into the extent of my problem (excluding amps, cabinets, and double bass paraphernalia):
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: your gear matters far less than you think it does.
“Many bassists are consumed by their pickups, amps and EQs, but so much of that is bogus.” – Marcus Miller
I’m reminded of this almost every time I pitch up on a gig with a new piece of gear, assuming that at the end of the set I’ll be swamped by bandmates and/or audience members who can’t wait to tell me how great the bass sounded.
Reality check. It’s rare that anyone notices that you’ve put vintage pickups in your bass, traded your regular octave pedal for an obscure 1970s Japanese one or lugged that extra 1×12 cabinet to the gig. It’s even rarer that anyone cares (I say this as someone who has vintage pickups in his P bass, owns 5 different octave pedals and regularly regrets bringing that extra 1×12 to the gig).
What performers and punters care about is that you play the right thing at the right time.
Here’s the goal: You should be able to make the music that you play feel good regardless of what’s on your headstock. If you (or I) can’t fulfill our job description by playing in TUNE, in TIME and with an awareness of TASTE then no amount of true bypass circuitry will save us.
I’m not suggesting that you go on a gear purge and replace your current setup with one that’s a fraction of the price. What I’m advocating is making a realistic assessment of your gear needs as opposed to your gear wants.
What do you need from your gear?
Gear Priority 1: Your gear needs to work properly
This sounds condescending, but small faults are often ignored – you’d be amazed how many bassists are gigging away with wobbly input sockets, crackling volume pots and buzzing nuts (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Either treat your bass to a decent setup by someone who knows what they’re doing or learn how to perform basic maintenance on your instrument to keep it working properly. There’s a wealth of information on YouTube on how to adjust your truss rod, alter your action, check your intonation and clean your pots.
Gear Priority 2: Know the gear that you already own inside out
Learn what every knob, slider or switch on your bass, amplifier and pedals does and how you can use them to shape your sound for different situations. A wide range of tones can be coaxed out of any bass by simply changing the way in which you use your left and right hands.
“My philosophy is that most of the tone and sound comes from how the fingers are touching the strings, not by some secret EQ settings” – Mick Karn
Knowledge of how your technique affects your tone allows you to access a multitude of sounds from a single instrument before you even consider EQ settings – this is especially important if you’re frequently gigging with backline provided by other bands or the venue and still want to preserve ‘your’ sound when faced with unfamiliar amplification.
Gear Priority 3: Buy gear with your ears (and hands), not your eyes
Try not to get sucked in by the marketing strategies that manufacturers use to maintain the pervasive notion that different genres of music require particular brands of equipment. If you really understand the music that you have to play then you can perform effectively using almost any bass and amplifier combination.
“The first thing you should consider in choosing an instrument is feel – you want an instrument that feels good in your hands and on your body. Then find an amp that gives you a good sound for every technique you use. Don’t try to get your sound from the EQ.” – Victor Bailey
Price tags can also be misleading – the most expensive gear is not necessarily the best option. The best gear is whatever feels and sounds right to you, regardless of brand or aesthetic.
When I last bought a bass almost 5 years ago, I spent a long time searching for something that felt right, and ended up buying a bass made by a company that I’d barely heard of that looked nothing like any of the basses I thought that I wanted. Since then, I’ve tried roughly 30 other instruments and none have come close, even though many were in a much higher price bracket.
So if I know all this, why do I still buy new gear? Why do I persist in a relentless pursuit of tonal perfection through equipment? The answer is simple – I’m in denial. It’s much easier to spend money on new gear than expend time and effort working on my playing. The arrival of shiny new equipment provides an ego boost and a temporary placebo effect that convinces me that owning this piece of gear will solve all my musical problems.
So here’s my premature 2016 resolution: No new gear whatsoever for an entire year. Totally cold turkey. If you see me trying to show off ANY sort of new gear then please call me out on it – recovering gear addicts need all the support that they can get.