The Guitar Gear Hype Machine

(C) 2010 Hank Wallace

Let’s peek into the mind of a dreaming guitar company marketing executive:

“Stoning Roll Guitar Magazine has just determined that the new Super Mega Cool guitar is the best instrument ever made in the history of time! As a result, our exalted governmental music czar, Dr. Himmy Jendrix, has decreed that, from this time forward, the only guitar that shall be manufactured will be the Super Mega Cool. It is, after all, the best guitar ever made, so who needs all that other stuff?”

Reading the music trade publications, you’d think that this is a recurring dream of every marketing manager of every musical gear company. Every ad screams that each product is the BEST, in the history of time no less. Marketing suits actually expect that this hype will gain them permanent market share, and that their customers are not quite bright enough to catch on.

As a result, we at Atlantic Quality Design are finding that people disbelieve most any product claim, even if it is backed up with numbers, videos, sound clips, blood, sweat, and tears. This means that any true innovation is held suspect from the start, regardless of its merits. Guitar players are so tired of reading product marketing hype that they have become numb and deaf to all marketing communications, including the truth. For an innovative company like ours, which does not produce me-too products, this is a problem!

Now every new innovation should be tested in the marketplace. However, claims that are true are true, and deserve acceptance. In the musical equipment industry, it rather appears that any new idea is dissed without inquiry, as if people have been lied to so often that they think 99% of product claims MUST be false. This is unfortunately not far from reality.

It’s fascinating to watch how customers respond to hype. We’ve written several articles on this site attempting to dispel the silly dogma that pervades the industry. Occasionally we receive notes or calls from musicians or manufacturers defending silly dogma. Customers want to believe that there is a holy grail of tone, that there is some magic combination of equipment and techniques that are ‘it’. Musicians want to follow a simple formula to get that great sound. If they just match those tubes, or buy that amplifier, or cryogenically freeze those speakers, Stevie Ray will come back from the dead and cheer them on!

There was a gullible 5-year-old kid in my neighborhood when I was young. This kid had watched some cartoon about a super vitamin pill, a pill that would make you strong, like Popeye’s spinach. We had so much fun with that kid, promising him a vitamin pill (which was just a Sweet Tart candy) in exchange for doing something stupid. We could get him to do anything for that vitamin pill.

Musicians are at times much the same. They will do ANYTHING, and spend any amount of money, or believe anything in the quest for that killer tone.

That’s a problem, because it makes one susceptible to marketing hype. The suits at the large musical equipment vendors know this, and they play musicians daily. And it only takes 5% of us falling for the bait to bias the whole industry’s attitude. For example, here is a sample of the current marketing hype that some musicians buy into:

  • Copper grain structure — Irrelevant. We design cables into industrial systems which are much more demanding than audio applications, and we never consider the copper grain structure of the wire. Any reputable wire supplier will provide the proper material for the cable ratings. It’s impossible for a user to A/B test grain structure without an electron microscope.
  • Cable directionality — Nonexistent. We have a term for the sound of a cable that is directional with an AC signal (music): Distortion! Audio cables are NOT directional. If this were the case, ALL wire and cable would be marked with an arrow!
  • Shields attached only at one cable end — Useless. Shields should always be attached at both ends of a guitar cable for maximum noise rejection. This also eliminates any third wire, making the cable thinner and more flexible.
  • Noise draining — Fantasy. This is not an engineering term. Must be similar to the ‘grid leak drain pan’ tube joke from the 1960’s.
  • Guitar cable ground loop — Doesn’t exist. Between a guitarist and an amplifier there is no such thing as a ground loop. There is no loop in the ground conductor!
  • Cable break-in — Hype. We tested a cable for 40 hours and there was no change in specs or sound. This is hype, and if a cable does change characteristics after being played for 40 hours it is junk!
  • Oxygen free copper — Please stop! See our article about this.
  • Silver solder — Waste of money. It provides lower resistance, yes, but is unnecessary in high impedance, low current audio applications.
  • Subjective audio terms — Marketing mumbo jumbo.
  • Shielded power cables — Unneeded. The 1000 miles of wire on the power grid leading to your gig is not shielded. The wire in the building is not shielded. Why waste money shielding the power cable running from your amp to the wall socket?

There are so many examples of this that it’s hard to know when to stop listing them. Some are truly hilarious. Each one is a lie or half-truth told by a vendor to a customer. Many companies engage in this simply because their competitors are doing it and they must stoop into the mud to fight it. But they end up muddied in the process — further confusing the customer.

Older musicians are so sick of getting burned on this type of hype that they resort to believing nothing. This is not good for anyone.

What if a product feature sounds too good to be true? It might be hype, but it might also be true. There are many engineering concepts that are routinely applied outside of the music industry, but ignored within. From time to time a smart engineer takes one of those concepts and applies it to musical gear and a seeming miracle occurs. But that’s only because the people in the industry were unaware of prior innovations. Engineers have been modeling circuits for decades, but this technology has only come to musicians in the last 15 years or so. You need to investigate intelligently to determine what’s true.

The information we publish is true and reliable. We are not beyond human error, and if you detect such, please notify us. But if you read that our ZEROCAP cables do not contain a buffer, believe it, even if that is not your experience with other products. If you hear a sound clip comparing A and B, believe it. We recorded it under the conditions published with no tinkering.

What can you do to avoid being deceived?

  • Get educated. Read, read, read. But read only authors you trust. And know that the information in print publications is NOT always accurate because the musician editors and musician authors are susceptible to hype as well. If you have a technical question, ask someone who is not a musician. Certainly there is a smart engineer in your family, church, or circle of friends.
  • Learn some technical matters. A little electronics and math are not going to kill you. There are plenty of online electronics courses that you can view for free.
  • Refuse to accept the hype. If you smell hype coming out of a company in the industry, send them a polite note about it. Those marketing suits do have ears, especially when they hear NO SALE.

I was speaking with a well known pickup designer about cable capacitance and related matters. We were talking about the effects of various technical tonal factors and how guitarists are unaware or uncaring of such things. He said to me that he is very careful how much technical information he publishes on his pickups because if he explained how things really work he would be, in his words, “CRUCIFIED!” How true, but how sad that we, as musicians would rather believe the hype than the facts, if we think it will get us closer to some long sought tone.