File this under Yet Another Candidate For A Saying To Be Known As “Baruth’s Law” After My Death: Enthusiasm for the accoutrements of a particular practice or discipline burns brightest in the third-rate practitioner. Consider, if you will, auto racing. I have never met a front-running talent who truly cared in any way whatsoever about the brand, layout, “DNA”, or “heritage” of the car he was driving. Nor are these people historians of their sport. The people who make history rarely read it. Conversely, any time I meet someone who blabs on and on about their intimate connection with Porsche or Ferrari or Shelby, they are absolutely garbage behind the wheel. To some degree, I can personally attest to the way this process works; I started off as a Volkswagen fanatic ham-handing my way around Ohio roads, obsessed with the difference between 8-valve and 16-valve GTIs, but I ended it as a fellow who can match data with any but the very best racers and who is also entirely indifferent to the particulars of what I’m driving or where I drive it. Achievement in a subject is the mortal enemy of contentment within it.
Music is not an exception to Baruth’s Law — in fact, it aligns with the Law so closely that we can use it to detect a flagging of ability in musicians. It is no coincidence that men like Slash and Jimmy Page become progressively more obsessed with their guitars as their musical drive and creativity gradually fades. The Jimmy Page who recorded the “Stairway” solo with a beat-up Telecaster in a hallway is not the same fellow as the Jimmy Page who used a TransPerformance-equipped Gibson Custom Shop R7 Goldtop to play the Zep reunion show thirty-four years later. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. John Mayer was obsessive about his gear from the beginning, featuring a Novax Expression on the cover of “Room For Squares” and then moving to an intimate relationship with the Fender Custom Shop before developing the love-it-or-hate-it Silver Sky with Paul Reed Smith. Those exceptions, however, are few and far between.
What causes the death of enthusiasm as proficiency increases? I suspect that it is a variant of the old “familiarity breeds contempt” trope. As kids, we want to believe in the superiority of a particular car, bike, or guitar; as we actually learn to operate these devices we begin to see them as tools with limitations to be overcome. You start by pulling Excalibur from a stone, but after ten years of close-quarters combat you find yourself cursing the thing for having too shallow of a blood groove. About twelve years ago I caught the gig of a very talented seventy-something bluesman who had made his name playing Les Pauls but who on this particular evening was sporting a beat-up PRS CE bolt-neck. “Why aren’t you playing the Les Paul?” I asked him. “Don’t you miss the tone?”
“Ah, fuck tone,” he spat, “the Gibson is too damn heavy for my old shoulder. And it never did sound that good anyway.” Which made me wonder: If equipment doesn’t matter, and tone doesn’t matter, what’s left? The answer, of course, is production.