Alright music fans, how often have you heard something like this when discussing your favorite artists and bands? “Oh God, you like THEM?” “Pfft! You’re into THAT?” “Those guys suck!” “You call THAT music?”
Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because if you like anything, there’s a 100% chance that someone out there hates that thing you like so much and is willing to tell you exactly what they think.
Now, in the guitar world (and in other niche groups as well), people operate under the assumption that preferences (defined by Merriam-Webster as “something that is liked or wanted more than another thing”) can be either correct or incorrect. In other words, people like to be a-holes to people with different opinions than theirs. I don’t why humans do this; I’m certainly not exempt. I have a reputation among my friends and family for being a huge music snob, and I’ve been known to be relatively aggressive about it.
YOU ACTUALLY LIKE KINGS OF LEON???!!"
I know, it’s weird that humans do this to one another. I guess it’s just one of those things we like to do to feel superior or whatever. But whatever the reason, I see it a lot in this business:
“Oh man, you use THAT effects pedal? That thing sucks.”
“Dude, don’t get that. You should get a REAL guitar.”
“This was made in China? Pfft, no thanks. I only play American-made stuff.”
Probably one of my favorite cultural examples of arbitrary preference elitism (there’s your fancy catch-phrase for the day, kids) is the ongoing pissing contest between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. These two different enthusiast groups have been at each other’s throats or decades, each claiming that the one imaginary scenario involving fictional people doing stuff in space is somehow better than the other imaginary scenario involving fictional people doing stuff in space. And these people, if they had the means, would wage intergalactic war on each other to prove their opinion is “right”.
Ladies, ladies, calm down: you're BOTH pretty.
Personally, as someone who is an equal fan of both made up stories involving space people, I don’t really see what all the hubbub is about. Mainly because comparing Star Wars – a gritty, incestuous space opera about political rebellion and pseudo-eastern mysticism – , to Star Trek – the chronicled adventures of a diplomatic space crew with a lot of time on their hands – is like comparing apples to oranges. Sure, they both take place in space and sure, they both involve awesome, non-existent technology and crappy dialogue, but apart from that they are as different as anything. To state your preference exclusively for one or the other is fine, but to insist on the superiority of one over the other is somewhat nonsensical. So, what does this have to do with guitars, or musical equipment in general? So glad you asked, disembodied rhetorical device!
I witness this same weird elitist behavior on a daily basis working in a music store. Our customer base is made up of all types of opinionated die-hards, from the people who swear to the God of Rawk that the Gibson Les Paul is the one and only guitar worth playing to the people who would rather choke on broken glass than pick up a Gibson guitar of any kind. I’ve seen people who refuse to touch guitars that have a price-tag smaller than a grand. I’ve seen people who turn their noses up at Fender Blues Juniors and call them “pedestrian” and “bland”. I’ve seen people who explain their distaste for this pickup or that pickup as if they are likening it to a crime against humanity equal to the holocaust. And if they come across anyone with a differing opinion, reactions vary between complete disgust and utter confusion. Over, you know, pickups.
And it’s not just the customers: those of us on staff here more than occasionally catch ourselves doing the same thing:
Me: “Ugh! I would NEVER own a guitar with a tortoise shell pickguard.”
Ian: “What’s wrong with tortoise shell pickguards? They’re awesome!”
At which point I respond with a level of disgust reserved for things like hate crimes and bigotry and immediately put Ian in a headlock until he admits through gasping chokes that he’s wrong-er than me. Over, you know, pickguards.
One of the best examples of music-gear prejudice like this is the stark polarization in regards to Ovation guitars. That’s right, Ovation guitars:
With Ovations, either you love ‘em or you hate ‘em. There does not seem to be any middle ground on the subject, and each side of the spectrum is equally aggressively vocal about it. We get both kinds of people in here on a regular basis, and each side has a lot to say about Ovations. The people who hate them consider them to be an embarrassment to the music industry at best, and the people who love them speak of them like an exotic girlfriend held dear to the heart in memories long past. It’s weird. And uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, or even being somewhat irrationally passionate about it. If people didn’t have different tastes or styles or preferences, we’d all probably just be listening to rag-time music and eating Saltines. Life would be boring. But what isn’t okay is the human tendency to tear people down about their different opinions and try to elevate your opinion on no solid ground. Making people feel crappy about their own tastes is rather tasteless in and of itself.
Let me give you an example of something that happened rather recently here at the shop. We had a kid come in here a couple different times in one week, and each time he was looking at a particular Ovation guitar that we had for sale. You could tell this kid really liked it because each time he would try something else, he would play it for only a minute or two and then go straight back to Ovation and play to his heart’s content. Over the time he spent here in the store, it was obvious to us that he kept agonizing over whether to buy it or not. He kept asking Ian and I questions about it, wondering what our personal opinions were and if we recommended Ovation guitars for the type of stuff he likes to do. To him, it was if choosing this guitar was the make-or-break moment of his creative destiny or something. Poor kid left undecided each time he was in.
Finally, on the following day, he came back in and played the same guitar and thought about it for nearly two hours before at last he said, “I think I’m gonna get this one.” And sure enough, right before he came up to the counter to make the purchase, another customer who was in here at the time who had overheard his thoughts, immediately chimed in, “You’re getting any Ovation? Really? You can’t be expected to call one of those a guitar.”
And again, the kid was instantly thrown off. He moped back over to the other guitars and started himming and hawing about his decision all over again, doubting his own opinion because some grumpy passer-by who happened to be in the store at the time decided the kid wasn’t self conscious enough about his own taste.
Here’s what Ian and I ended up telling this kid when the other guy left (and anyone here on staff I’m sure will tell you the same thing): there is no right or wrong choice when it comes you what you like. There just isn’t. Reality is, everyone has different tastes and everyone has their own preferences when it comes to instruments and gear. Instead of internally panicking about whether or not other people will be able to take you seriously as a player if you use X or Y, instead ask yourself the following things:
- Do you like how it sounds?
- Do you like how it feels?
- Will this encourage you to play more?
- In the end, do you actually give a flying frak about what other people think of your instrument?
Here’s a hint: the answer to #4 should be, “Hellz no!” If you talk like that, which I doubt you do. But still.
Here’s my public confession: I actually do like Ovation guitars. Why? No particular reason. I just like how they sound. I like how they feel in my hands. I like how versatile they are. Are they the best thing I’ve ever played in my life? Can’t say that’s the case, but as a musician with songs to play and things to do, an Ovation is just as good a guitar as any. And no amount of grumpy old elitists with big mouths is gonna stop me from doing what I like and playing what I like. I recommend the same gear-head philosophy to anyone: if it works for you, it works for you.
Now I'm off to go belittle fans of Justin Bieber and Josh Groban to make myself feel witty and urbane. Stay excellent and have a good week!