I was listening to a radio show yesterday on NPR called “The Science of Wine” in which a panel discussion took place on wine and the wine industry featuring two long-time wine industry veterans, Kermit Lynch and Randall Grahm, and hosted by Karen MacNeil, author of the “The Wine Bible,” and a wine expert herself. In one section of the discussion, the Karen asked Kermit Lynch about the “boldness” of many wines today, and how consumers, especially American wine consumers seem to be bent on bold wine, relating that to the apparent loudness of today’s music. Kermit’s answer intrigued me in that he said something to the effect of “there’s a lot to be said about exquisiteness in wine,” and “listening to the ‘music’ of the wine.” That one phrase hit a nerve with me with respect to how I’ve chosen gear over the years. With gear – at least to me – there really is a lot to be said about exquisiteness.
By “exquisite,” I’m talking about a certain delicacy and dynamic range in which a certain thing – be it music or wine or whatever – communicates a fundamental “message;” but is also accompanied by subtleties and nuances that provide layers of sophistication and complexity, which we in turn perceive as “depth.”
When I heard that phrase above, I immediately thought about all the gear I’ve purchased over the years, and though I’ve spoken a lot about choosing gear based upon its versatility, overlaying that has been this sense that the tone that gear produces has to have complexity and dynamics, not just produce a “wall of sound.” A wall of sound – at least to me – is extremely boring at best, and an assault to my senses at worst.
To me, truly great gear evokes a visceral response which in turn compels me to describe it metaphorically and qualitatively as opposed to purely quantitative. The sound of truly great gear reaches into the depths of my emotions, beyond the reach of mere language. This is the exquisiteness of a great sound; and it’s probably a huge reason I don’t get into really high-gain, high-compression types of gear or music for that matter. On top of that, when it’s so loud and super-compressed you lose dynamic range, and lose a valuable tool that can help you take your listeners on a the musical journey with you. For thrash and high-gain metal, that might not make a big difference, but for the music that I love to both play and listen, namely classic rock and blues, dynamic range is ultra-important to getting a message across.
In 2010, I went to see the “Experience Hendrix” tour featuring Joe Satriani. What a show! But I have to admit that I thought that Satch’s tone kind of sucked; especially when he first hit the stage. His tone was SO compressed and his volume so loud that it was almost intolerable; plus the compression just made everything muddy. The front-of-house guys fixed it a bit, and Joe made some adjustments, but it still wasn’t very good. On the other hand, Kenny Wayne Shepard’s tone was freakin’ amazing! Sure, his volume was loud – hell! it was a concert – but his tone was sweet. For me, he stole the show.
Circling back to gear, I realized that even more important than versatility in my decision-making process has been the gear’s exquisiteness in tone; be it a guitar, an amp, or a pedal. Truth be told, versatility is a close second, and if the gear’s not all that versatile, I probably wouldn’t buy it. But as I said before, there is a lot to be said about exquisiteness in tone because that’s what gets me waxing philosophically. 🙂 When something has the effect of inspiring me, I have to have it; and I’ll pay for it. That happened with my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. I had heard lots of people talking about it, but I was naturally skeptical because that pedal cost close to $300. But once I got to audition one, I had to have it. Not only did its sound completely blow me away, but I pictured using it in all sorts of settings. I actually use it more than my chorus pedal, which is something I use a lot!
The wine discussion panel also touched upon things such as much of the public’s focus on specific varietals of grapes used in wines. I think it was again Kermit Lynch who talked about not really paying attention to that, but how many of his customers ask what varieties were used for a particular wine, which in and of itself is innocuous. But he did mention that that particular question was asked within the context of inferring that a blend might be of less quality, which he did say was rather irrelevant. That made me smile because I take a similar approach in my wine tasting. My thought is that if it’s good, it just doesn’t matter if it’s a single varietal or a blend. It’s just good wine.
That part of the discussion led me to thinking about how so many people focus on the components that go into different kinds of gear, and how that somehow makes the gear better. But let me tell you that a DigiTech Bad Monkey sounds a hell of a lot better than some pedals I’ve tried that are five times the price using NOS this and that, and high-end jacks and such! It’s a $35 pedal constructed with overseas parts, for goodness’ sake! This component craziness is also akin to those who claim they can hear the difference between one of those high-end, $200 power cords (yes, power cord), and a standard power cord. I myself prefer to use medical grade power cords only because of their reliability, but not because I believe them to create a better sound. Same thing goes with speaker cables. I just use good ol’ 12-gauge copper-core cables. I’ve tried those high-end $100-per-foot cables, and perhaps they might make a bit of a difference – in your bedroom – but when you’ve got your amp cranked up during a gig, the tonal impact is not going to be all that significant. Hey, for the believers, they probably have way better ears than I do.
The point of all this is that we can draw a lot of parallels between wine and guitar gear and music. And as the only way to determine if a wine is any good to you, you have to taste it; so it goes with gear as I’ve said many times before: The only way to see if something’s good is if you play it.