Voodoo Gear and the price of your individual sound


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Voodoo (1 von 1)-13

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?

If you absolutely can't wait half a century for your guitar to acquire its mojo in a natural way, then there are people who will do things like this for you. Two weeks in this baby and your guitar will be beaten to hell and back! But will it make you a better axe-slinger? The jury's out on that one...

If you absolutely can’t wait half a century for your guitar to acquire its mojo in a natural way, then there are people who will do things like this for you. Two weeks in this baby and your guitar will be beaten to hell and back! But will it make you a better axe-slinger? The jury’s out on that one…

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.

The question of whether Voodoo Gear exists is moot. What's for sure is that many of us guitarists have an unquenchable thirst for new toys as and when(ever) we can get our hands on them! It's the Voodoo sufferers among us who then stick their new pieces of kit through procedures like the one in the picture.

The question of whether Voodoo Gear exists is moot. What’s for sure is that many of us guitarists have an unquenchable thirst for new toys as and when(ever) we can get our hands on them! It’s the Voodoo sufferers among us who then stick their new pieces of kit through procedures like the one in the picture.

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.

Bow down to the fabled gold caps! Or don't, it's your choice. They might look amazing, but is anyone really going to notice if you get these put in your amp?

Bow down to the fabled gold caps! Or don’t, it’s your choice. They might look amazing, but is anyone really going to notice if you get these put in your amp?

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.

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Leave a comment

Ian on September 5, 2014 Reply

Screw the speaker strapped to your guitar just get a Primevibe! By the way I love my Tubemeister 36.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 7, 2014 Reply

    Ha ha, thanks for the tip Ian! 😉 And for the support – enjoy your TubeMeister…

michahael on September 5, 2014 Reply

The emperor has a new set of clothes…..

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 7, 2014 Reply

    He does indeed!

Alex on September 7, 2014 Reply

Don’t agree. My view:

1. Not all expensive things are voodoo
Dismissing all expensive (and what exactly is expensive; is a tube head about 500$ expensive) things and the buyers is as wrong as the other way around (hence stating cheap gear does not sound well). Unfortunately you have to find out yourself which are working and which not (because enough are snake oil as in all industries).

2. Good gear makes you sound better
There is no doubt about that as well. Even when Clapton sounds great through some mediocre gear (and in the video I haven’t heard he was using bad gear; it just wasn’t vintage, boutique,…), he sounds even better when he uses great gear. And some good gear is expensive (some isn’t).

3. Of course gear does not compensate ability to play
This is the most ridicolous point of them all. Not only it hints that players who play expensive gear are playing bad (sorry George Lynch, you are out now) but it misses the point completely.
A better player always sounds better than a bad player. Of course! But this doesn’t tell anything about the effectiveness of his gear. So again the better player sounds better with the better gear then he sounds with bad gear. And even the bad player sounds better with better sounding gear than with bad sounding gear. Of course this does not compensate for playing (in)abilities. So what is the point?

4. Of course can surroundings kill your sound…
… no matter how good or bad it was before. If the sound guy is not good, the surroundings (room etc.) are bad it can kill your sound. But it does it anyways. So what is the point. Start with bad sound from the beginning so you won’t be disappointed (and sound bad even if the sound guy is good)? Really? It’s the sum of all parts that give the resulting sound. From player to guitar to amp, … to mix and room.

So all these arguments actually aren’t really arguments for or against expensive gear but are missing the point. And of course they are, because an argument that on such a general level, that all expensive things are bad (and your range was from vintage guitars, boutique amps, electronic parts to instrument treatments) needs to be faulty…

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 8, 2014 Reply

    Hey Alex, geat reply – probably the most detailed we’ve ever had!

    Yes, we did have to stay a little general with our post (word count limit, etc.) and that meant a few of our arguments were black and white, and not as compley as they are in reality. Of course having good gear can help, purely from a motivational side if nothing else. Having the rig of your dreams certainly inspires you to play more, and should make you get better too! The more you practice, after all…

    And you’re right about the Chris story too – it could indeed have been the surroundings that killed his guitar sound at the gig. But the point there also was that the best gear didn’t save him any more than a $100 Strat copy and start amp would have.

    But, we disagree with you on your point 2. Eric Clapton sounds like Eric Clapton whatever he plays – Custom Shop Strat or $100 copy. So do all the great guitarists. The tone is in the fingers as well as the instruments, and you can always appreciate it’s them playing. At least, we think so anyway 😉

    Ultimately, for normal players, we recommend you play the gear you’re happy with. Because only then will you be truly happy with your guitar playing and sound – and screw what everyone else thinks! 😉

    Thanks for reading, and hopefully we’ll see you again in our blog comments soon!

Alex on September 8, 2014 Reply

Hey guys,

🙂 wasn’t aware that this would be the longest comment till today. But hey, someone had to do it 😉 Anyways, after rereading my original comment it sounded a little harsh which wasn’t intended…

Cool we agree that at least us mortals can have more fun with better gear (and might it be for the placebo effect). I guess we are agreeing to disagree on the Clapton point though. Having heard him on Soldanos, Twins and different boutique amps, I very much heard different sounds from the same fingers. Of course his fingers could have been in Soldano mode on the Soldanos 😉 But until I have a spare Mr. Clapton to proof I guess we will have a different opinion here. (btw, same goes for Gary Moore and many other GREAT players. They all sound very much different on different gear, even if “their” characteristics will remain (e.g. bendings, how the hit the strings etc.).

So before I endanger my own record setting reply I better stop now…

Ciao Alex

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 9, 2014 Reply

    Ha ha, no worries Alex! After all, life would be no fun if we all agreed on everything! 😉 And you make some geat and valid points. There might be some little differences between Soldano Clapton and Fender Clapton… 😉

    You’ve definitely given us food for thought for some future blogs too, so cheers for that. So keep reading, and hopefully see you in the comments section again soon…

trashawk on October 27, 2014 Reply

Eric Clapton sucks

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 27, 2014 Reply

    Ha ha, he’s certainly an acquired taste 😉

Victor Johnson on December 28, 2014 Reply

that’s a great blog ! I learned a long time ago that Tone is mainly in the player , years ago I was watching a band , the guitarist was playing a Gibson 335 thro a Fender amp he was sounding great !! At the end of the gig I asked if I could have a play !! The guitar felt lovely well set up nice low action , didn’t sound the same as where I was standing out front tho !!! Sounded like !! I sound … But I stilled liked it ! Mostly tho I think it’s in the amp !! To me my GM sounds awesome what ever guitar I take out with me

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on January 5, 2015 Reply

    Thanks Victor, and interesting to hear of your experiences too! We think it’s a combination of all those factors really, and as long as you sound like you want, you should be happy. Oh, and of course if that involves using one of our amps, even better 😉 Have fun with your GrandMeister!