Gearheads: Let’s Care More About "Something More Human"

What type of bass do you play? Do you know what the best amp out there is? What’s the best mic for live vs studio? Carbon fiber vs pernambuco bow. What’s better, the Realist, Fishman, Underwood, or …?

It’s good to know how to get a good sound out there, but we shouldn’t spent time on things that are not perceivable to the audience. My wife is not a musician, but she appreciates music and attends concerts with me. I can spend a ton of money on gear and she couldn’t tell the difference. She can however, easily spot a good musician or performance from a mediocre or bad one.

At a certain point, are we taking away from developing as a musician by spending time studying up and talking about gear? As a whole, we’re not as bad as guitarists by a long shot, but we do get caught up in all of that “stuff”. But at the end of the day, we don’t want to be gearheads. How many us know guitarists that talk all day about guitars, but have thought to ourselves, “if you knew as much about music as you do about gear, you’d be the Yo-Yo Ma of guitar.” To add more flavor to that analogy, here’s a past article about Yo-Yo Ma’s perspective on his highly coveted $2.5 Million US Dollar cello.

Even while Yo-Yo Ma is playing on a grand and majestic Italian cello, worth
millions and with a distinguished pedigree, secretly he is hoping you won’t
notice it at all. “My personal goal is to transcend the instrument,” he says, so
that when you listen, it’s about the music.

Of course, if you do want to transcend your instrument, it helps to have
access to a really, really good one. Or two. When Ma tears into the Lalo Cello
Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood this afternoon, he’ll
be playing on a cello made in 1733 by the Venetian master luthier Domenico
Montagnana that is valued at about $2.5 million. He also performs on the
so-called Davidoff Stradivarius. Named for a former owner, it was also played by
the legendary British cellist Jacqueline du Pre (the instrument is now owned by
a group of investors; the Montagnana belongs to Ma). He calls the Strad
“innately gorgeous,” with an extremely refined sound, but says it is not as
forceful or versatile as the Montagnana, which he can use for rough-and-tumble
modern works as well as pieces from the standard cello repertoire. “You can ask
a lot of it and it keeps giving,” Ma says.

The Montagnana’s secret weapon is its powerhouse C string, the
lowest-pitched of the instrument’s four strings. Its sound and color are what
attracted Ma to begin with. He grew up with two violinists and a soprano in his
family, so he was “heavily into hearing treble,” he says. Ma chose the
Montagnana in the 1980s precisely because its strength was its bass.
But Ma
doesn’t get mystical about this cello, or speak, as some musicians do, about the
instrument as an extension of his soul. “It’s an object – a great object, an
artistic object – that you build a relationship with,” he says, “but if you’re
going to care about something, I want to care about something that’s

That said, a bit more fetishizing of his instrument might have come in
handy that infamous fall day in 1999 when Ma stepped out of a taxi on 55th
Street in Manhattan and left the Montagnana in the car’s trunk. Some three hours
later, after much hand-wringing and an intensive search effort that involved the
New York City Police Department, the cello was safely recovered in Queens – in
the trunk of the taxi. “I was just really absent-minded that day,” Ma says. “The
sad thing is that when my daughter loses something, and I look at her and say,
‘You can’t do that,’ she looks at me and says, ‘I come by it honestly.’ And
there’s very little I can say!”

Boston Globe 8/3/2008

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