Musical GAS: How Many Guitars Do You Need?

Most guitar players are aware of a phenomenon called G.A.S.  That is an acronym for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. It affects lots and lots of guitar players and keeps Guitar Center in business, I suppose.

There are lots of theories about it. Some people think it comes from the pure pleasure of playing a fretted instrument. Music is calming and allows for expression, after all. Instruments vibrate against your torso or lap. A good guitar player spends hours with his/her instrument. And, of course, there’s always a chance that playing a better instrument will make you sound better.

My brother thinks that a guitarist with lots of guitars is like a woodworker who has lots of chisels. An artist needs different guitars for different purposes. That may be true of the pros, like George Benson. See a snapshot of his line-up of guitars, below.

George Benson's guitar rack, backstage
George Benson’s guitar rack, backstage

I remember going to a Simon and Garfunkel “reunion” concert in early 2002. That was in the wake of the destruction and loss of life at the World Trade Center in New York … and at the Pentagon. The Everly Brothers were there, “dreaming” too. The audience was on its feet  through the entire concert, and  almost everyone was crying, remembering a time of greater innocence and hope, I suppose. Other than that, what impressed me the most about the concert (and I’m a huge Paul Simon fan) were the guitar “runners,” who quickly stepped up to Paul Simon between songs and handed him a different, perfectly tuned guitar for every song.

Since then, I’ve tried to find out more about Paul Simon’s guitars – He used Guilds in the 1960’s, and Yamaha’s in the 1970s. Then he went to Martins, and even collaborated on a Martin signature model, the OM42PS. I think there’s an Ovation and a Gurian in there somewhere too.

The unending quest for a better instrument is particularly hard on those of us who play multiple instruments, I have G.A.S. and M.A.S. too, since I also play the mandolin. Confession time: I have 6 guitars, 2 mandolins, 2 banjos, 3 dulcimers and 3 ukuleles. I do think each one has a special purpose.  But would another one do?  Probably.

G.A.S. has put strain on many marriages, when the guitar-playing spouse is forever on a quest for the perfect (or perhaps just slightly better – and always more expensive) guitar.

I’m pretty sure George Benson and Paul Simon have GAS … and plenty of money to support their habit. But I think the old bluesman Robert Johnson just had one instrument. And what about Lightnin’ Hopkins? He probably had just had one guitar, along with the one set of bottle caps nailed to his shoes for percussion.  How about B.B. King?  Is there more than one Lucille?

B.B. King and "Lucille"
B.B. King and “Lucille”

Is this G.A.S. like buying a grand pianos and displaying it in a mostly unused living room? I once had movers who refused to move a piano for me until I played them a song on it. Apparently, they had moved lots of big, heavy pianos for people who didn’t actually play them. I think people with unplayed grand pianos love music, and appreciate the beauty of an instrument, and wish they could play. I’ve been invited to dinner at a mansion or two, for the sole purpose of playing someone’s unused grand piano … and I’m not a good piano player.

Let’s get a consensus on the mystery behind G.A.S./M.A.S./B.A.S. What do you think is the root cause of Guitar Acquisition Syndrome? Is it just a natural part of the hobby or art? Are fretted instrument players compulsive and obsessive?  Or are they just loving collectors?  Is it part of the never-ending quest to be a better player, which is inherent in any musical art? Is it like collecting art … only you don’t have to leave it on the wall? Is it pursued as a substitute for hours and hours of practice? Is it something like the need for a new car – you just get tired of the old one? How many guitars do you have? Are you able to trade in or sell your old model when you get a new one? Some people don’t seem to get this affliction. Why not? Is it simply lack of disposable income? Have you been to the Guitar Collectors Forum at http://guitar-collector.org?  Post your comments, below.

– By Susan Jelus

One thought on “Musical GAS: How Many Guitars Do You Need?”

  1. As an owner of too many guitars, banjos, and saxophones, plus multiples of other instruments, I can describe a couple reasons for having more instruments that I technically need.

    I like having instruments that I can play at gigs that require the best instruments I can afford. I also like having instruments I can keep in the back seat of my car or throw in the minivan for trips to the beach or whatever. For one thing, I hate getting out of practice just because I have to take a trip out of town. So right there, I have a five-string beach banjo, and a five-string open-back banjo with professional features. But I occasionally get the urge to play real Bluegrass in a real Bluegrass setting, and my open-back banjo doesn’t substitute for a tone-ring, resonator-backed, single-piece flanged banjo. So, I need. two 5-strings minimum, but I can almost justify having a third.
    Ooops, the same thing applies to six-string guitar. Although I get by pretty well with just one 12-string guitar. And I never know when somebody’s going to need a bass player at the last minute.
    Plus I do switch up instruments. I have owned and sold two 6-string banjos. Though they served my purpose for a time, they were not as playable as my guitars, and they technically SHOULD have been – after all they had guitar necks. Just not enough quality control. So I upgraded once, getting the 6-string that is now my “dragging around/open mike/busking” model, and it still wasn’t satisfactory. So when the chance to upgrade to a pro instrument with a little bit of cash and a lot of elbowgrease arose, I took it. Plus there’s the five-string one daughter took off to college and I haven’t seen since. And the bass and mandolin that another daughter took to Indiana. So I replaced those with equivalent less-than-professional instruments, but when other family members try to count up how many banjos, say, I own, they always the MIA instruments as well.
    If I was a pro whose life depended on being able to get certain specific sounds and whose budget supported that, I might have REAL GAS, like the guy who has a D-18 and a D-28 that he trades off for different songs. For me, it’s about having instruments that I’m not afraid to take onto a festival stage, and also having instruments that I’m not afraid to take camping. And since I trade off on 5-string banjo, guitar, and 6-string banjo all the time – that’s six instruments right there, not counting the instrument of which I have onesies or twosies. In cases like that, there’s nothing redundant about owning an Appalachian dulcimer AND a hammered dulcimer, AND a bass guitar, AND a mandolin. None of these instruments play or sound remotely alike. I guess I don’t have Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, I have Sound Acquisition Syndrome, and that’s not the same thing. :-)

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