Road worn

:: music, photography

I play the guitar. Something that has been fashionable for some time is what are often called ‘road worn’ guitars. In other words new (but vintage-spec) guitars which have been aggressed in various ways to make them look old.

This is, of course, because everyone wants to have put in the hours in sweaty clubs to have Rory Gallagher’s Strat, or Pearly Gates or Old Black, but not all of us actually have done that. So instead we buy beautifully-made simulcra which we casually place, next to our reproduction hand-wired Plexi stack with its oh-so-carefully torn speaker cloth, in our Manhatten loft or London flat. And anyone who doesn’t look too closely might perhaps believe that, before our second career in finance, we did indeed put in the hours in the sweaty clubs. Perhaps, in fact, we are Jimmy Page? Perhaps, after a few drinks and lines, we might even believe it ourselves? Certainly we would not want to be seen as the sort of person who owns a new Les Paul, still less a new Leica, because what sort of people buy those? Rich men (yes, men) who work in finance and who when the revolution comes will, if we are lucky, be the first up against the wall but will more probably be impaled on spikes to await being eaten by nameless tentacled horrors (if you still believe the revolution will involve people rushing around waving flags and building barricades rather than ancient horrors leaking in from other dimensions I have news for you: you’re in thw wrong universe). People, in other words, like us.

The people who buy these things are indeed richly deserving of their inevitable horrible fate. Malcolm Gladwell may be wrong about many things, but he’s right about the need to put in the hours: your guitar needs to be worn because you have worn it. But there is slighly more to this than there might first appear to be.

Something that musicians have understood for a long time is that certain old instuments and equipment really were pretty special. The Les Pauls that were made in the late 50s were pretty astonishing instruments, as were some of the amplifiers made in the following two decades. It’s not quite so acceptable to say that the loving reproductions (not the investment banker’s road-worn ones) that have been made since are, in many cases, as good or better than the originals.

Photographers have not really understood this yet, I think. We still believe that a sharper lens and more pixels are somehow going to result in a better photograph. Even those of us who prefer vintage equipment (whether it is in fact vintage or simply unchanged) have to argue that film has ‘more dynamic range’ or ‘more resolution’: perhaps, once, this was true. We need to grow up: would HCB’s pictures be better if he had had more pixels and a sharper lens? If you have Peter Turnley’s excellent book of Paris photographs do you really think the digital pictures – which unquestionably are sharper and higher resolution – are better than the film pictures in any way at all?

My old Hammond has noisy keyswitches in the same way that Tri-X has grain and old lenses have abberations, and that’s what makes them great.