Three Steps to Becoming Holy Grail Gear
By Chris Loeffler |
There comes a time in most players’ lives where practice begins to yield incremental (but the most important!) gains in perceived progress. For some, that may come after mastering modes and scales, for others, that may be the moment they can chunk their way through a four-chord progression. At some point, they realize they don’t sound like their heroes, or at least they don’t sound exactly like that one song they heard on the radio. That’s when a Google search happens and forums like Harmony Central come in to play.
The amount of gear that is available, both current production and used, can easily overwhelm someone who is just dipping their toes into expanding their gear arsenal and, just like many look to Amazon reviews to help make a purchasing decision, they look to the people and tones they most admire to discover their first steps.
Early in this journey, they discover a special, mojo-ridden pocket of the ultimate sound they are looking for is tied up in Holy Grail gear. This is the stuff that is synonymous with some of the biggest players’ sound that fetches 4x-10x what a similar piece of gear is available for new at the local Guitar Center or mom and pop music shop. With such a high price tag and relative inaccessibility, the romanticism of these pieces quickly become a psychological “last step” in attaining the perfect sound for many players.
How does a piece of gear become one of the most sought-after pieces of life-changing musicality? Let’s take a (mostly) serious look…
It must be unavailable.
No piece of gear worth its salt will capture the minds and hearts of many musicians if it is readily available. Making music is often a personal thing; anything that is so common that it can be picked up at Amazon seems too common for a crowd that prides itself in deep cuts and bands you’ve never heard of. If a piece of gear is highly available, it is more affordable, and players can quickly buy or demo it to see how much of the magic they were seeking came from the piece of mythical gear versus how the result of the tasteful, damn fine professional performing through it. The Boss DS-1 is 40 years old and (arguably) unchanged since its inception. The pedal has been featured on thousands of albums and has had some tenure on the majority of guitar players’ signal chain… and it can be bought new from any major music retailer for $50 and sells used for around $30. Guess what isn’t a Holy Grail piece of guitar gear…
It must have been a commercial failure.
Just like monkeys and humans live side-by-side, there is a glut of vintage gear that has been in production for decades that exists alongside newly released designs. One of the biggest contributors to the aforementioned unavailability is the lack of success a piece of gear originally enjoyed when released. Whether it be form, function, or aesthetics, something about the Holy Grail generally didn’t find hold with the audience of its day. This means not as many people thoroughly explored the possibilities of a particular piece of gear to find its niche, and not as many people experienced one personally to be able to say, “eh, it’s 98% the same as X.”
Someone made a masterpiece with it.
This unavailable, unloved piece of gear that seemed destined to fade into obscurity gets rescued by an artist or album that manages to tap into the zeitgeist and defines a sound that enters the lexicon of music for that era. Some player finds a reason to latch on to that piece of gear, whether out of love of the obscure or a unique connection they make that the mass market missed, and that piece becomes associated with a sound. Examples abound, from The Edge taking the FA-1 from a rare Boss failure to one of the most sought-after vintage pieces of the 00’s to Brian Eno’s Low contributions making the short-lived EMS Synthi AKS one of the most expensive used market keyboard/synthesizers around. Arguably, there is nothing offered in these products that isn’t met (or exceeded) by decades of technological advancement and the accompanying cost savings, but they have an emotional hold that exceeds circuits and logic.
At the end of the day, what’s important isn’t what is the best technical execution of a piece or gear nor how great something sounded in the hands of its iconic performers. How you feel, as a musician, when you play and hear your gear, is what matters. If the mojo of your favorite artist or the knowledge that no one else in town has one is what makes for a more pleasurable experience, you’ll be a better player. A Holy Grail piece of gear doesn’t guarantee you will sound any better, but if it fills a psychological or emotional gap that improves how you show up to your instrument there’s nothing wrong with a little magic dust! -HC-
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.