Zen and the Art of Guitar Maintenance

It is the age old argument: does the gear make the player, or is tone all in the hands? It is, undoubtedly, a divisive issue. One that spreads across Facebook pages, guitar magazines and even into this blog. For some, gear is essential. A quick look at reverb.com will show you the going price of a Dumble Overdrive Special is currently £94,753. A cursory glance at a reissue ’59 Les Paul will set you back £3,609.48 for a used 2013 model. Eye-watering amounts of money is asked for these pieces of gear but, it is argued, that it is a fair price to pay for ‘The Pinnacle of Tone’. It can be argued that the prohibitively expensive and exclusive pieces of gear, like the aforementioned ’59 VOS Les Paul, amounts to no more than ‘rich dentist’ showboating. More of a ‘look what I can afford’ statement, than a’ I’m going to record the best sounding album with this’ one. Regardless, there are people out there who pay a decent amount of money to get everything in their signal chain right: mahogany body for sustain? Check. Bone nut for tone and stability? Check. Fuzz Face clone with NOS diodes? Check. The list increases with other specifications like brand of valves and other modifications. The point being, even if you don’t earn vast amounts of money, if you are into tone, you will spend disproportionate amounts of money on gear and spend a lot of time focusing on what is the optimum configuration for your signal chain.

On the other side, we have the people who claim that tone is all in the hands. To the people in this category, gear, ultimately, doesn’t matter. If your pentatonic runs are smooth and soulful, then it doesn’t matter whether it has been fed through £100 worth of gear or a £100,000 worth of gear. As long as the essence of the player is flowing through the setup, then the price is superfluous. It is at this point that I would like to say: I know I am creating two extremes. Tone purists, unless wholly deluded, still know they need to practise. ‘Tone is in the hands’ players still require and amp and cables and, of course a guitar. Then they might chuck in a tuner and a little bit of distortion.

What has caused me to muse on this is not another argument on growing tech vs classic vibe (Kemper vs Fender Blackface reissue etc.), but a text dealing with philosophy and motorbikes. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, is a text that deals with, what Pirsig calls, ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ modes of thought. The romantic mode of thought, in the book, is presented in the form of people who are concerned with the experience of riding. These people use the machine but fear it for their lack of knowledge and their ignorance.

Classic riders, according to Pirsig, are those that are concerned with facts, reasons and laws. The literal nuts and bolts of the bike. One could see romantic vs classic, as art vs science.

‘This is the source of the trouble. Persons tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is all about’ (Pirsig 67).

Pirsig’s philosophy is that experts like mechanics, can frequently mess up a machine that is attuned to you. Therefore, you should make yourself familiar with the repair  of your machine to ensure that you remain attuned to your machine and vice versa. Myself, I like professionals. The work they put into learning how to adjust every minutiae of the guitar (or bass) is admirable and if I had their level of knowledge I would like to make a living from working with guitars. However, there is a certain truth in Pirsig’s philosophy.

Having agreed with Pirsig on his idea that science and art should meld and understand each other, I have to draw a line in the sand with regards to the extremity of the maintenance argument.  The reality is that if you can find a good professional, then you should both be able to communicate with each other correctly. If the professional is right, then your needs can be expressed through his/her expertise.

To bring the argument back in line with Pirsig, what he advocates is that the romantic’s should cease to see the components of machinery, as so much boring technicality. Instead, the romantic should see the art in each component, and strive to understand it. I started to play guitar at age 14. Once I had played my first set of strings rusty, I took my guitar to a well known instrument shop that, for the sake of discretion we shall call ‘BassBass’. I paid £17.00 for strings and a restring. I got home and tuned to standard E, these were the days before I discovered the glory of drop-tuning. I tuned the low E fine, then the A, then D , all OK. But then came the G. It wouldn’t tune properly. My novice brain eventually figured out that it was tuning down instead of up. The repair guy had restrung it the opposite of the conventional way. Same with the B and, just to kick uniformity in the nuts, the high E was strung the conventional way.  I paid £10.00 for a shoddy restring job.

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that I have been back to that well known music shop many, many times over the years and received stellar service. Though, undoubtedly, that restring was a fucking hatchet job.

Back to the narrative: I struggled on for a week, always tuning down on the G & B. After that I thought ‘fuck it’, took the strings off and attached some cheap Asda strings (oh the shame). I broke the high E by turning it way too tight, and it snapped across the back of my hand, creating a huge cut. Still, I didn’t give up. I read up on restringing techniques: putting pencil shavings in a miniscule amount of vaseline to lubricate the nut, restring every second string first in order to keep the neck relief right, and so on. That is as far as I got for years. I believed that was the extent of what I could do. ‘I should focus on the art of the guitar’, was my mindset. Except, it was hard to focus on the art of guitar with string buzz, or a loose output jack, or a dead 9th fret on the A string. So I started to get further into the technical side of guitar repair. I started performing my own setups and I am adept, though by no means expert, at soldering connections. Pirsig’s hypothesis is correct, for me. If I understand the reason behind every nut and bolt, then I can adjust them to the tone I want, it becomes an extension of my playing.

There is another tenet of Pirsing’s philosophy that is important: that of the idea of Zen. When discussing Zen with a friend, the following exchange occurs:

‘”Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really,” I expound. “It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test is your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems into the machine itself.” … “the material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right”‘ (Pirsig 159).

I believe that this idea is vital. The guitar is just a guitar, and if a cheap plank feels right, then it is right. Jon Spencer, he of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, famously plays rusted guitars that cost him $17.00 a piece. Yet, to him, those guitars are right.

The main argument I am grasping at is, no-one has the time and many don’t have the means to try every guitar or bass there is. The ‘off-the-shelf’ holy grail may never come. Whilst many guitars will never gel with you, regardless of tweaks and mods, there is the possibility of understanding your machine and adjusting it to you. So that, when you do play, mechanics are almost an afterthought as you and your instrument are fine tuned to each other and you play in perfect synchronicity with each other.


Works Cited

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. London: Corgi, 1974.



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