In the concert film that also works as a documentary about the Rolling Stones, Shine a Light, Keith Richards talks a lot about guitars. Typical of that guy, am I right? Hasn't he got anything to talk about aside from work?
I always figured that these dudes who were dinosaurs of the industry even before I was born probably had rooms full of instruments. I figured they're like my grandma. The mere fact of being alive that long means they just sort of attract stuff. Stuff builds up around them like the echoes of their personality in the debris that piles up around them. Like anyone else, you might be able to tell a thing or two about Keith by the stuff that ended up accumulating around him. Thus the idea that the Grandpa of Rock and Roll guitarists probably had rooms--houses--full of guitars.
It turns out no. Not all of them anyway. Or that's what Keith claimed. In Shine a Light, he said that he doesn't get all these cats who have whole trucks full of guitars. He only has a few guitars and doesn't get a new one very often. He prefers, he said, getting his older ones repaired. There's a reason he likes these guitars. Probably lots of reasons, and the reasons are his own. The reasons are because he likes them. These are his guitars. He knows how they feel, and he likes how they feel. He's not going to constantly shop for new ones.
It made me respect Keith a little bit more.
I've always liked him as a Rolling Stone, but that's when I started to like him as a craftsman. There are many approaches to caring for your tools, and I appreciate Keith's approach. He has just a few guitars--"Not that many guitars," as he puts it. He takes care of those ones because those are his tools.
Can you imagine how valuable those things will be when (if, let's be honest) he finally dies? That's nuts.
The moral of the story is Keith Richards might be one of the biggest rock stars in the world. He fills stadiums with his buddies and plays concerts for world leaders. He may be all that now in his day job. He may be that.
He's still just some dude messing around on the guitar.
The dude's really still just a guitar player. I bet that when he was a teen or a twenty-something he'd wander into pawn shops. He'd ogle the NICE Fenders, then settle for the cheaper one, but the one that played_,_ but he really wanted the nice one. He probably shopped for hours, picking guitars up and trying them out till he found the one that rocked. He picked it because it felt right. I bet that if you took him guitar shopping tomorrow he'd fuss around with the Fenders for hours. Eventually he'd find that one he liked the feel of, but he'd need to handle them all.
Because that's how it is, isn't it? A musical instrument is a relationship for life, if you're doing it right. And it's a relationship. It's possible, I suppose, to just look up the kind of guitar that your favorite musicians play. I mean, Herman Li plays an Ibanez. Jimmy Page plays a Gibson. Santana plays Santanas, because they made a guitar for him. You can always just order the same kind of guitar that your musical idols plays. That's an approach. I hear that a lot of the kids were doing that back in the '90s with their Air Jordans. And maybe that guitar is the one you need.
It might not be the guitar for you, though. There might be something uncomfortable about the neck, or the height of the frets, or the way the body rests on your leg. You don't know until you go pick it up and start messing around.
Because you're not shopping for just some guitar.
You're shopping for your guitar.
The thing's got to feel right. You need to go and feel it.
Now, go back over this story about electric guitars and replace all the references to guitarists and guitars with references to your instrument. Not everyone is guitar. I play keyboard myself. But the story applies across the orchestra. You can't just buy the "best" on, or the "coolest" one and expect it's the best or coolest when you haven't handled it yet. It might not be the best or coolest one for you. An instrument falls in the category of things that you need to live with. Things like cars or jackets or recipes for Borscht.
In addition to that, a musical instrument is a conduit for emotion. And, I don't know, maybe you want "this isn't the most comfortable instrument to play" to be part of the emotion you convey. That's an angle too. Jack White did that, and look where it got him. It's not a bad idea, I suppose. I don't think it sounds very comfortable.
The lesson's the same from Jack, though. He didn't just use his connections and find an uncomfortable, red guitar that didn't work very well. He shopped around for a guitar that he "liked," the dislike of it was a feature and not an accident. He had to shop to find it. He had to play guitars in pawn shops and thrift shops and music stores. He had to pick them up and mess around in order to decide that this is his guitar. Because he needed a red guitar, back when he was in White Stripes. The internet was right there. Not quite as ingrained as it's become now, but it was still right there. But he decided he wanted to take his hands and his ears to the shops with guitars. He decided it was important to pick them up and play them, because he knew what Keith knew. He knew what Santana knows and Jimmy Page knows and Herman Li knows.
Choosing an instrument is committing to a relationship. It might not be the most important relationship of your life. But it might be. The best way to discover that is by picking up a guitar and messing around with it.
Or a violin.
Or a ukulele.
Or a bass.
Or a harmonica.
And so on. And so forth. Into the future.