The constant search for newer, better and more expensive gear is a common thing among guitarists. After all, we’d all sound miles better if we got that amazing new amp, wouldn’t we? Most definitely! But we’d only do it justice if we remortgaged the house and got that late ‘50s guitar to go with it. Erm, wouldn’t we? Justifying new purchases is something that comes pretty easily to many of us, but perhaps we should also be asking whether or not they’ll actually make us play and sound any better…
A 10” bass speaker is bubbling and humming away. But we can’t actually hear it, only see and feel its constant rumbles and vibrations. This is not a normal speaker, either: there’s no casing at all. Rather, the speaker itself is attached to a sturdy strap, which is in turn attached to a rather sad looking electric guitar. As the speaker rumbles away, this weird construct vibrates and wobbles in time. It’s kind of like a grisly medieval torture scene, because the odd guitar/strap/speaker assembly is also suspended in mid-air via some ropes, so it can swing freely.
There’s a method to the madness, though. Allegedly, you can use this weird technique to artificially age a brand new guitar 50 years in two weeks, imbuing it with a half century of mojo simultaneously. Instant old-school sound!
Oh, and yes, while we’re at it, we’ll get our amp’s caps replaced with gold-plated versions too! Just think of the coolness. This is gear that only works best under a full moon. Hmm, or should that be a new moon?
Besides premature midlife-crisis sufferers, high-end hi-fi disciples and qualified esotericists though, there’s no group more susceptible to this so-called Voodoo Gear logic than guitar players. There are actually guitarists out there who can apparently – and without a hint of irony or humor – identify what kind of batteries have been put in their FX pedals just by listening to the guitar being played. The question is: are you a Duracell or a Varta fan?
But is this really Voodoo? Does Voodoo even exist? Or is it just a brilliant marketing ploy that seduces us into buying and using “must have” bits of gear?
Whether the supposed Voodoo magic that surrounds our musical kit is really there or not is a constant source of heated debate. Just like the myth that has elevated vintage guitars from the 50s and 60s into ridiculous price brackets. Are they really as good as we’re all led to believe? And if yes, why weren’t they treated as such back in the day, when they were fresh and new and didn’t cost the same as a small house?
OK, these guitars were decent working tools that felt good, played well and got the job done just fine – but they were certainly not given the magical aura they enjoy today. It’s just that in the time since, we’ve got it into our heads that the decades of use and abuse have made them something special.
And when you listen really, really closely, you can hear it, can’t you? Something truly original and authentic. Or at least you thought you heard it. Was there something? Of course! When your guitar costs more than your car did, you’ve got to hear something. Anything!
On that theme, here’s a short clip of Joe Bonamassa – a man who knows more than a little about acquiring hugely expensive guitars! – explaining how he came to realize (via Eric Clapton) that the search for tone might not be exclusively about the gear…
Thanks, Joe! So how significant are the psychological effects associated with Voodoo Gear? Well, we reckon that those players who spend a lot of money on kit – because they can afford to – can satisfy their consciences relatively easily. And it’s because the belief is there that the better (read more expensive) their setup is, the more relaxed and better they will be in their music making. (For sure things are more difficult if you have to choose between eating lunch and buying new strings every time you break one. Does anyone excel at anything on an empty stomach?)
Just to not overcook this, here’s an aside from a friend of ours who spent years working as a technician with a high-end speaker manufacturer. How high end? Try this: a pair of these speakers can easily cost the same as a well kitted out new Porsche. So yes, we’re at the higher end of high-end here.
The Voodoo topic often came up in conversation with our friend, of course, because of the whole question of why you’d spend so much on hi-fi speakers. And the lack of understanding seemed to increase in line with the amount of investment!
This is normal, apparently. Because those audiophile customers who were prepared to invest such vast sums in their speakers could of course hear the difference they were paying for. These discussions resulted in the formation of a handy Gear Voodoo Discussions First Aid Kit, which has proved incredibly useful many times. It goes like this:
If you can hear the difference, you’re right!
Simple, really. Everyone’s free to buy what they want, or can afford. The reason for all this, after all, is to get the best possible result – and the best possible sound – you can that’s within your means.
Now, if we’re being objective, this can only be a good thing, because ultimately, we – you, me, us, the crowd – are the ones who also participate in the ego trip of the musicians we go to see. And, under controlled conditions, the sheer amount of money musicians have spent on their setups might make everything appear to sound better.
More often than not, though, the opposite will be true. The following scene will forever be burned into this writer’s memory:
Chris, a guitarist friend of ours whose talent, financial situation and love of rather expensive Voodoo-esque gear has led to a number of related jokes over the years, has regularly played an annual town festival with his band in our area. Chris always had the best of the best when it came to gear: a “10-Top” PRS axe, a boutique USA-made amp with only the most exorbitant tubes money could buy, and more along those lines.
Added to this setup was a 230-volt multiple power strip with silver-plated contacts – from a high-end supplier, of course – and the amp was fitted with no less than gold caps. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the PRS had been ‘authentically’ (yet artificially, of course) aged thanks to a highly complex and expensive process that would take the instrument’s sound to sublime levels, apparently. Like that one in the intro to this post, perhaps.
Anyway, in the practice room, Chris had a great, fat guitar tone. His hideously expensive axe sounded crisp and juicy, full of attack, and the amp complemented it perfectly, providing a wonderfully dynamic sound with next to no extraneous noise. Maybe it was just a case of him always playing out of his skin, or was the tone from his fingers too? Whatever it was, Chris was a big deal in our neck of the woods, and he always sounded hot!
But on the night of the big show, something was amiss with Chris’s sound. Did the FOH engineer have a bad day at the office? In the mix, the guitar was way too quiet, and on the odd occasion you could actually hear any six-string at all, it was thin, limp and fizzy. All this, Chris later told me, could have had something to do with the complex lighting system the festival organizers were using. Maybe he was right. Maybe not.
In any case, the hustle and bustle of the festival – the show must go on, right? – meant that finding the problem on the fly was difficult, and eradicating it during the band’s set was impossible. The guitar sound was so painful, it spoiled the gig completely. For Chris himself, the effect was worse: he was distraught for a long period afterwards, and didn’t play again at all for some time.
The bottom line is this: Voodoo or not – there are plenty of ways to spend money in the guitars and amps world, and you should probably think twice about whether those gold caps and high-end plugs are really going to be your cure for the dreaded “Equipmentitis” – we need to honestly ask ourselves whether, at the end of the day, this accumulation of expensive gear really brings added value to our playing and sound. Does it genuinely make us better than we were before? An exquisite rig certainly didn’t save Chris’s blushes.
Because this is the sad truth at the end of the day: the short-term self-pleasure that Voodoo Gear brings about is only useful to one person – the manufacturer of the miracle cure! Which really works wonders, by the way.
But ultimately, seriously, those who invest their time, effort and sorrow into their Voodoo Gear would probably benefit from putting the time into playing and practicing instead. Because that’s really what makes a rockstar out of you…
First published: September 05 2014. Most recent update: August 21 2015.