It may seem strange to some readers to find an article touching on metaphysics in a magazine on guitar making; it will also seem perfectly appropriate to others that such a topic be included.
The metaphysics of the guitar has to do with “that extra something” that’s intangible and possibly even indefinable. Some guitars have it. Some don’t. It is variously called “the magic,” “the soul,” “the allure,” and so on, even though these terms can be elastic and elusive. None of this is exactly news to anyone who knows the guitar.
I’ve thought about this. It seems to me that there are at least two components to “the magic.” The first one has to do with whether a guitar has sufficient “extra oomph” (by whatever standard one wishes to define it: tone, warmth, exquisiteness, subtlety, etc.) to warrant one’s falling in love with it. No mystery in this. This happens at the level of performance/attributes that can eventually be discerned and identified, even if at first the instrument seems magically beyond words. It really isn’t: the words can/will sooner or later be found.
The second component is surprisingly interesting. It is that the player is a participant in the guitar at the level of quality, whether he or she knows it or not, or even wants to be or not. How is this so? Well, the fact is that what one sees and hears and thinks is as much a question of how one thinks — and one’s level of development, education, and imaginative capacity — as it has to do with the qualities of the object that is perceived. By this I do not mean seeing imaginary qualities; I mean being open to appreciating the same kind of intangible yet real qualities that a book might contain and which would be totally unavailable to someone who cannot read. This is not a tricky intellectual concept. It is no different from saying that a beginning-level (fill in the occupation of your choice here) will not have yet become as perceptive, experienced, discerning, and knowledgeable a person as someone who had been doing the work for some time. Metaphysically, the potential knowledge, attitudes, and skill levels already exist “out there” somewhere, in the ether of possibility, waiting to be accessed and taken on by the person in question. It’s just that he or she just hasn’t gotten there… yet.
A well-made handmade guitar, then, from even a semi-sophisticated point of view, would be seen as exactly what it is: a repository of embedded or “frozen” information. By this I mean the skill, time, patience, effort, energy, experience, acquired wisdom, intent, judgment, intelligence (including emotional intelligence), and design work put into it by the maker. That’s the guitar’s soul. If you are uncomfortable with this term, try value, skilled man-hours, or a lifetime of work experience; they fit equally well, although in my opinion these are narrower. Either way, the well-made guitar contains these things, even though they might not be seen with the naked eye. They are there nonetheless because the maker put them in there.
By the same token: what of a stock, ordinary guitar? It is something that contains much less actual information because so much less actual effort or information has been expended in its production. The main effort will have been expended, instead, into organizing the tooling and the work force. In purely mechanical terms, the work of creating such a guitar has been automated, made full of repetitive operations, and done by workers who are forbidden to vary or change the smallest thing. And that is such a guitar’s soul, too.
These things are obvious to some people, but not so obvious to others; guitars that look and sound profoundly different to members of the former group will look and sound pretty much alike to the latter. And this, really, is the crux of the matter for most of us:
items that are rich in contained information or quality, and goods that carry little or no information or quality, often look very much the same on the surface level.
This is just as true in a guitar store as it is, in its own way, at a debutante ball, a used car lot, or on the floor of Congress.
But there is a way of knowing whether such things are comparable or not — and it’s a satisfactory way. For thousands of years, Knowing Things has been done with reference to the traditional hierarchical structure/existence of things in the world. Here, in normal everyday life, everything is understood as “belonging’ to either the mineral, vegetable, animal, or human/spiritual realm. And possibilities of knowing are set within each level or category. Bear with me a second here. E. F. Schumacher, in his book A Guide for the Perplexed, uses the example of an ordinary book to illustrate this point. To wit: to a mineral, a book would be absolutely meaningless. To a plant, the same book might signify merely a shady area in contrast with a sunny one. To a frog, the book might signify a flat surface to sit on, or a color. To an illiterate savage the book might signify nothing more than something to burn for heat or material to roll cigarettes with. But to a literate person, the book can be full of knowledge and insight. Same book; totally different experiences of it depending on the observer and the level he/she/it is operating at.
Just so with the guitar: some people will recognize that certain guitars, as man-made objects, contain more information than others. Being information-rich makes these guitars more valuable to any person operating within a set of perceptual values that are informed by a capacity to appreciate intangibles — such as symbolic language, which every article in this magazine is made up of, and use of which is the cornerstone of human intelligence. Without literacy, as I suggested before, this entire issue of American Lutherie would probably be seen as great cigarette-rolling material. Or worse.
Many other individuals, however, will see all guitars as containing basically the same amount of information (i.e., same amount of materials, same parts and components, same basic look) modified principally by category (solid top, upgrade to rosewood, etc.), quantity (more extensive inlay work), accessories package (comes with a factory-installed internal pickup), and membership card (it’s a Martin), and they will be unable to understand different levels of inherent value outside those assigned by marketers and market forces. Unless there’s openness of mind somewhere along the line, there will be no more possibility of meaningful discussion between members of these groups than there would be between, say, an NRA member and a gun control advocate. Or, to use a more pertinent example, imagine a discussion between an art lover and someone who doesn’t “get” that a work of art could be worth more than the bronze, marble, clay, or pigment and canvas it contains, plus a certain per-hour rate for the time it took to make it. There are people like that. I know; I’ve met them. They aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re simply people you can’t talk with. (Learn more).