It’s a GAS, GAS, GAS

I’m obsessed with electric guitars. Oddly enough, when I was a gigging musician, from about age 16 through 30, I didn’t much care what guitars I played. I was broke, and I didn’t want to worry about my guitar getting stolen, drenched in beer, or falling victim to the other hazards that came with being a would-be rock star.

But a few years ago, I found I was spending a lot of time playing for my own amusement. The battered, Mexican-made Telecaster Deluxe from my glory days had some issues, and I decided that I would spec out and build a custom Stratocaster. I had acquired a severe case of what is known among my fellow guitarists as Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS.

The obsession is part romantic and part technical. There aren’t many more powerful icons of the cultural confidence that defined 20th-century America. And if you’re at all mechanically inclined, you can take guitars apart and hot-rod them. Speaking of hot rods, car enthusiasts are probably the best comparison. Electric guitars are still largely defined by the midcentury modern aesthetic and the electrical innovations pioneered by Leo Fender and Les Paul in the fifties and sixties. I don’t think it’s an accident that the emergence of the electric guitar coincided with the golden age of the U.S. auto industry.

And the jargon of gearheads and GASers isn’t that far apart. Not that you asked, but my Stratocaster has staggered 18:1 locking gears, a TUSQ nut, 6105 frets, and a 10-to-14-inch compound fretboard radius. It’s got Fender custom shop “Fat ’50s” pickups with the Gilmour mod wired to an S-1 switch on the volume knob. It’s got a Gotoh 510 three-spring, two-point trem with a stainless steel block. I finished the maple neck myself with Tru-Oil and gunstock wax, and the alder body has a reliced nitro finish done by MJT Guitars in Missouri: Lake Placid blue exposing a three-tone sunburst.

If I’m being honest, I also have to admit that as I barrel into middle age my guitar obsession is fueled by nostalgia. This is depressing, and for reasons that go beyond contemplating my own mortality. On May 2, Gibson Guitar, the legendary maker of the iconic Les Paul, declared bankruptcy after years of spectacularly bad management. The Guitar Center retail chain is also facing imminent bankruptcy.

The fact is that the electric guitar is losing its cultural significance. Last year, the Washington Post ran a lengthy feature about “the slow, secret death of the six-string electric.” The problem is generational. While vintage guitars command more than six figures and baby boomers decorate their law offices with $10,000 objets d’axe, kids just aren’t playing guitar. They make dance music on their laptops, which seems to obviate the thing I liked about rock music when I was their age. Whether I was in a garage with my friends or playing to 2,000 people, it was a communal experience.

These days my guitars never leave the basement. My communal experience consists of a couple of online friends who share the affliction. One—call him Ian—is from the Sacramento area. I have never met him. But after I built my Stratocaster, I spent a lot of time discussing with him exactly what guitar I wanted to buy next. That was before an aging car and various other expenses intervened.

This past Christmas, my wife handed me a guitar case. Inside was a used, semi-hollow, red Squier Esprit with two humbuckers. It’s probably 10 years old, though it’s modeled after the Fender Esprit, the signature instrument of legendary blues guitarist and George Harrison sideman Robben Ford. The Squier Esprit was a budget model that didn’t sell, but it became collectible after it acquired a reputation for quality comparable to guitars that cost 10 times as much. Suffice to say, it ticks all my boxes.

Ian and his guitar-teacher brother had tracked down my wife and sent the guitar as a surprise. He bought it at a pawnshop years ago and wasn’t playing it, and he knew I’d enjoy it. The guitar came with a nice letter from the two of them. It seems making a gift of guitars is something they do regularly—though usually to more deserving and younger people—for no other reason than they think it makes others happy.

They’re not wrong. The guitar sits by my desk and not a day has gone by in the last four months when I haven’t been humbled by the gesture. I’m still obsessed with guitars, but the gift seems to have cured me of GAS, for which I thank Ian. Maybe the demise of the electric guitar is overstated. A lot of guys my age covet guitars. How many of them actually love guitars enough to give one away?

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