645 words · 3–4 min

Be Opinionated!

The beautiful thing about instruments is that they’re equal parts tools, commercial products, fashion accessories, and works of art. When buying, building, or modifying an instrument, it’s important to acknowledge all those aspects and use them to evaluate what you’re aiming for.

There is an entire universe of variations on and approaches to every detail of the guitar, no matter how minor. Even tuner buttons can be found in a variety of styles, colors, and materials.

Don’t get me started on tone woods — alder, ash, swamp ash, mahogany, poplar, basswood… How are you supposed to choose when there are this many options, and little to no way of evaluating them objectively?

Be opinionated.

Make up your opinions out of thin air.

Sometimes it’s viable to evaluate all the choices and list their advantages and shortcomings — e.g. locking tuners are pretty much always preferable to non-locking ones — but most of the time, that’s not an option. In those cases, follow your gut.

I strongly recommend, in those cases, making up preferences purely based on vibes. It’s not only perfectly valid, but generally leads to greater satisfaction with your instrument.

Don’t have a preference for tone wood? Look at all the options and pick the one you like best based on how it looks, or the vibe it has in your head, or even based on how much you like the name!

Mahogany, to me, sounds like a wood that’s warm and rich and makes me think of lovingly hand-crafted instruments, so I like instruments that use it.

Is that a rational opinion? Is it based on any research, factual analysis, or experience? No! But it helps me choose, and it helps me love an instrument more if it uses mahogany.

Do things that help you love your instruments. Invent silly opinions.

Guitar-related decisionmaking is driven 80–90% by pure vibes. People love or hate design decisions and components because they either vibe with them or not. The remaining fraction of the reasons for a decision is split between feel (i.e. how well something works for your personal style, technique, anatomy, or even visual taste) and rational evaluation (i.e. comparing the pros and cons of various options).

Hop onto any guitar forum and you’ll see this principle in practice, although often thinly disguised under the pretense of “tone” or “sustain”. You’ll find hordes of people on Tele forums swearing that there’s nothing better than the vintage tele bridge — although objectively worse than compensated saddles, and arguably strictly worse than six-saddle bridges — because it gets the “best tone”; hell, I’ve even seen claims that vintage Kluson tuners improve the tone of a guitar while writing this book.

This is all bullshit, of course. It’s code speak for “I have a preference for this particular component that I cannot justify through rational means”. And you know what? That’s fine! Not only is it fine, I encourage it. Just don’t go start flamewars on forums about it, and try to steer clear of making claims about “tone” unless you’re talking about pickups (and mayyyyybe strings).

So, once again: be opinionated. Follow your gut, make choices based on the subtlest vibes. Pick one guitar over another because you like the pickup covers better. Pick a guitar over another because it comes in a prettier color. Form arbitrary preferences and act on them.

If you do this, you will not only have an easier time choosing — you’ll also end up with an instrument you love more, and you’ll run into plenty of opportunities to try stuff out and help inform the more rational opinions.

When it comes to instruments, however, the irrational opinions are just as important as valid as the rational ones.