I know this might get me in hot water with some musos out there, and that’s all right – as an old drummer I used to work with would say… “take it for love.”
I guess I should start out here by explaining the title for those of you that are unfamiliar. I know that – at the very least – my guitarist friends will probably be well aware of the concept of G.A.S. so this is for the rest of you. G.A.S. is a phenomenon in musician circles known as “Gear Acquisition Syndrome.” It is the tendency for a person to become so focused on the chasing down and buying of gear that they can forget that they actually need to stop shopping and learn to actually play the instrument. Let’s be honest – most of us only need a very basic instrument/amp/effect/whatever combo before we have gear that is better than we are. At this point you should… just go play. And then keep playing – without worrying about the fact that you don’t have a Gibson Les Paul in your hands… but I’ll get to that later. For now just know that G.A.S. deserves its own 800 hotline, because once afflicted with this common malady it will cause the affected musician to spend money they don’t have on gear they don’t need to make sounds they’ll never use.
And NOW…a sea story:
A few years ago a newly-formed Brass was scheduled to do a concert for a group here in Valdosta, and since we knew the folks relatively well, we asked if we could use this as an opportunity to audition a new trombonist that had expressed some interest in joining up. We were (sort of like now) desperately wanting that low voice in the mix and a bone would be THE ticket to filling out the lineup.
So the day of the rehearsal came, New Jack showed up, and the setup began. I can’t speak for Cleve, but personally I was ants-in-the-pants excited to have a new guy and a full horn section to play with, so I was all smiles as I tried to feel out this dude and figure out what sort of experience he had, sound he was looking for, and whatever. You know – breaking the ice.
I started noticing a few bars into the conversation that New Jack was sort of giving my horn (I was playing on my raggedy old student model tenor, “Sybil”) the side-eye, and when he took his next turn in our little chat he asked me “What are you playing on there?”
I didn’t think a whole lot about it as I replied “Oh, this? It’s a student model, nothing special.”
By now I’m noticing the disdain on his face and the sneer that’s appearing at one side of his mouth.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, “I was looking at it trying to figure out if it was a Ref 54, but it’s just a … Yamaha.”
And just like that the tone in the room changed – not for the better, as you might have gathered. I admit I was a little taken aback by the amount of snobbery – the elitism that just oozed from the guy’s demeanor and comment. I had no words ready for that exchange; I DID manage to nod slowly and smile as pleasantly as my now aggravated noggin would allow me to.
With that initial interaction done, the rest of the evening was spent with me using a good portion of my concentration to not turn what was supposed to be a fantastic first meeting of a full Brass section into a bloody cutting session. For you non-musos reading… no, I’m not a fledgling axe murderer. This is what I’m referring to.
I honestly don’t remember how the rest of the night went… I do know that we didn’t care to acquire a trombonist at that particular juncture, but what I DO remember is that the interaction was the first time I was made aware that some people equate musicianship more with the instrument that they’re holding than the skill in the hands holding it. This mentality, in my opinion, is a critical error. It not only encourages you to be a musical Captain Ahab, chasing that “white whale” instrument that is INVARIABLY expensive and – in many cases – unattainable… no, it not ONLY does that, but it also blinds you to a lot of flaws in your technique that will make that “just Yamaha,” “just Epiphone,” “just (insert the name of your axe’s beginner model here)” sing twice as sweetly as the guy next to you playing the bajliion-dollar gold-plated pro-model UnicornFart U-47 that he got because, well, he just couldn’t get all that pent-up artistry to EXPRESS itself through that piece-of-junk no-name thing… even though he worked out on it at least once a month! It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools, is all I’m saying here.
Case in point – me. At that point in time I didn’t (still don’t, honestly) have a lot of knowledge about the upper-echelon saxes that were available to me starting at the low-low price of $4000. Since that day I HAVE had the opportunity to get in a good long tryout with that model Ref 54 that New Jack wished I’d had in our meeting that day. Honestly, I was really excited to try it out! I mean, it IS one of the benchmark horns of the industry, after all. Used by legends and gigging pros all over the WORLD. So I brought in my trusty Berg, threw it on that piece of Selmer sweetness, and prepared to level up on a bona-fide piece of sax HISTORY – all of that craftsmanship, all of that legendary tone, all of that MOJO being held in my hands!
So I blew my first line through that sucker and guess what?
Go ahead, guess!
I sounded just like me. I think I might have literally heard this in my mind.
No Coltrane, no Bird, no Brecker… it was still the same old me that I’d been hearing all these years. I was holding a multi-thousand dollar piece of brass that was heralded the world over as one of the de facto standards of the biz, and what came out of the big end of it was just… Julian. What was I looking at dropping four grand on? A stencil on a bell? A name? I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t willing to go into debt for what I was hearing, so I put the horn back on the stand, thanked the shop owner, and hit the bricks.
I have to admit it… at first I was disappointed.
As time went on, though, and I thought about that experience, well… it’s been profoundly liberating. It should be to all of us musos because we enjoy talking about our craft like the art that it is… we use words like “warm tone,” “feeling,” “technique,” and “magic” when we talk about what we or our bands do. Sure, most of it is scientifically explainable and duplicable, but WE like that one percent “something” that puts the “art” in the craft. It should be of comfort to us, then, to know that this one percent doesn’t come from these things of wood, steel strings, and electronic doodads. It doesn’t come from a specific arrangement of brass, mouthpiece, and reed… the BIG magic comes from the hands that hold that gear, from the minds that dwell on technique and focus on proficiency, and from the heart and soul that uses that training and focus to create and express feelings that go beyond where descriptive words can lead you. The magic is in YOU, it’s expressed through your God-given talent and it will shine through ANY piece of kit you’re playing no matter what model or brand is stenciled on it. And THAT, dear sir/ma’am, is MAGICAL.
So go forth, music-wizard! Work on developing that inner muso-magic (mugic? No… no, never mind) that you already possess! That’s something that you can have for no money down, zero dollars per month, and – fortunately for us – it’s the ONLY thing that is absolutely indispensable in this line of work.