i’m a consumer!

For the second time in my life, I am the owner of a nice Fender electric guitar. From 1984 to about 1989, I owned a cream-colored Stratocaster that looked something roughly like this. Alas, it was stolen.

Today, I found the guitar I’ve been looking for, an American-made sunburst Telecaster that looks something like the one I posted earlier. When I have time and inclination, I’ll post some pix.

Both Kathleen and Matt wrote about buying their MP3 players recently, and I’ve been thinking about how these experiences compare to buying a musical instrument, particularly an electric one. It feels like a much more personal experience, for lack of a better phrase, to me. An iPod is an iPod is an iPod, but different guitars, even manufactured from the same parts, can sound different than each other, so it’s important to plug it in at the store and give it a test run. Also, the way it feels in your hands is important. There are variations in the ways that necks are sized and shaped, although such things are reportedly standardized. The kind of wood from which a guitar is made (poplar, maple, ash) makes a big difference in feel and sound. Heavier woods resonate more and allow the sound made by the strings to sustain longer. Furthermore, a Stratocaster’s body is contoured to fit the human body: it’s scooped a little bit at the back to make room for your torso when you lean over it, and in the front it slopes gently to fit the angle of your strumming/picking hand. A Telecaster does not have this kind of shape, however, but it’s still very nice.

I consciously chose this guitar because I am no longer interested in learning to play notes a million miles an hour like I did when I was a fan of heavy metal. To me, Stratocasters are more associated with (male) virtuoso guitarists who love the spotlight and long for their opportunity to solo. I don’t want to be that kind of musician. I’m more interested in texture and tone, now, and my favorite bands have shifted significantly.

There’s a new book out entitled Trading Up: The New American Luxury, by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske, that argues that many brands of goods “are successful because they appeal not just to the material needs of consumers but to their emotional desires” (quote from 9/22/03 New Yorker). So when you opt for a boutique hair-care product instead of one from the grocery store, you are “trading up.” This accurately describes the way guitars are marketed.

I bought a mid-range priced guitar that explicitly says “Made in U.S.A.” on the head. Fender has a wide range of guitars to suit a variety of pocketbooks, but they make a big deal out of the differences between these guitars, not all of which are “Made in U.S.A.”:

  • Artist
  • American Special
  • American Vintage
  • American Deluxe
  • American
  • Classic
  • Deluxe
  • Highway 1
  • Special Editions
  • Standard
  • Squier

Note: these are not different models of guitars; these are different product lines, all made by Fender. I haven’t investigated each of these lines, but almost all of them feature a Stratocaster and a Telecaster. The prices range from under $200 to well over $1,000. Now, Fender could just make one Stratocaster and one Telecaster and make clear any technical differences between them. Apple certainly does this with iPods: does it go with a Mac or a PC? how big is the hard drive? Easy to answer questions. The language used to describe the different product lines above, however, is the language of the poet, not the engineer. Guitars produce sounds that are “spankin'”, “bell-like”, “punchy”, “crisp”, “warm”, “full”, “sharp”, “biting,” or “shimmering.” It’s a synesthetic orgy of ad copy.

At the store today I plugged several guitars into the same amp to hear the differences in sound. Frankly, whatever differences there might have been were inaudible to me. I did want to stick to the line that said “Made in U.S.A.” Go figure. I guess I wanted to trade up.

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2 thoughts on “i’m a consumer!

  1. You jest, but don’t think I haven’t thought of that!
    I’ve been seeing if I can’t replicate Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” from _Sister_. The problem, of course, is that SY often uses such radically altered instruments that there’s no telling what tuning they’re using. I remember, or misremember, reading once that a visitor to their studio picked up a guitar and discovered that all 6 strings were tuned to an A.
    However, perhaps the first new song I learn should be by Cat Power, since the dream that inspired this involved playing with Chan Marshall.
    Since the last time I seriously gave thought to this sort of thing there have appeared *many* new recording and amplifying tools that take advantage of the new digital processing power that has developed in the intervening years. The power of the personal computer has changed even the work that garage bands do. Fender, for example, has amps that feature an output that will go directly to your computer.
    Hmm. I wonder if you could record directly into an iPod.

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