You’re searching for the perfect sound. You want to play long improvised lines with ease. You want to have effortless high range, to play swinging phrases with a stellar tone, and to sound great on any jazz standard. And to get there you just need that perfect instrument. That vintage Martin Committee trumpet, that mint condition Mark VI, the perfect ride cymbal, that Slant Signature Otto Link, a Steinway Grand…
Check it out!
It’s the same horn that John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Mark Turner, and Seamus Blake play on:
“Look no further…” the only thing between you and the sound of your dreams is $10,000!
As you can see, it’s way too easy to get caught up in the quest for the perfect equipment.
It’s fun to search for and buy new instruments and it’s all too easy to envision yourself squashing any musical obstacle with this brand new horn.
Before you know it, you’re spending more time on eBay and scouring the internet then you are practicing and listening to the music.
But wait a second, is this new instrument really going to change you as a musician?
We’re all obsessed with equipment
Visit an online music forum, attend a music conference, or strike up a conversation with your fellow musicians.
It’ll only be a matter of minutes until the topic turns to equipment.
“What kind of horn do you play? Check out this new mouthpiece. Do you know what reeds Chris Potter uses?…“
I’ve been to master classes with master musicians – players who actually knew and played with Miles and Bird – and inevitably the first question from the audience is “What size mouthpiece do you play on?“
There seems to be a mentality of “If only I had that instrument, that mouthpiece, that cymbal, or that reed…then I would play the way I want to.”
You can easily get trapped into thinking that your equipment is directly linked to your musicianship.
However, the history of this music is full of players making great music without the “proper” equipment. Charlie Parker once played on a plastic horn and Lee Morgan borrowed trumpets for recording sessions, yet despite these obstacles they still delivered their musical message in an exceptional way.
It may be hard to believe, but equipment isn’t everything.
An instrument won’t replace time in the practice room. An instrument won’t give you a creative vision or a musical voice. An instrument won’t give you flawless technique.
And despite what some manufacturers claim, a mouthpiece won’t make you sound like John Coltrane on the the album Crescent.
However, a great instrument will make it easier and more efficient to create the sound you’re hearing in your head.
And a good instrument will enhance what is already inside of you.
How necessary is your equipment?
I’ve seen high school students struggling with $10,000 state of the art instruments.
I’ve seen great players walk into a jam session and tear it up with the same beat up horn they had in high school.
And I’ve also seen musicians that play on the exact same instrument get drastically different results.
Spend an evening at a jazz club like Smalls and listen to the sounds coming from the piano. Over the course of the night on the piano you might hear Dave Kikoski, Spike Wilner, or Johnny O’Neal, or a number of younger players sitting in at the jam session.
You’ll notice completely different sounds coming from that exact same instrument.
Well, it’s because the instrument doesn’t make the musician.
No matter what you do or what equipment you buy, you’re going to play with your sound.
And as long as you have a quality instrument that allows you to play freely and produce the sounds in your ear, the equipment won’t change your musicianship.
“You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.”~John Coltrane
Your instrument is really just a tool
Yes, a tool. I’ll explain…
A tool in any shape or form is basically a device that assists you in accomplishing a task. As a musician, your task is performing music for an audience.
Your instrument is the tool that aids you in creating sounds for the listener, however this tool won’t accomplish the task for you.
Remember, the instrument can’t produce music without the musician.
That wooden, plastic, or metal device that you strike or blow air into is just a tool. It simply responds to your direction by amplifying the time, sound, and feeling that you put into it.
You should find the best tool you can as a performer, but the solution to your musical problems isn’t going to be solved by an instrument or a mouthpiece.
What are you expecting the instrument to do?
So you’re combing the internet for that perfect instrument, the one that is going to turn you into a great improviser, but hold on for a second…
What are you really searching for?
Are you looking for a new sound? Do you want to play those high notes?
Are you looking for a short-cut for hours of practice? Do you want to be able to sound like your musical heroes?
These are things that all musicians are looking for as they strive to get better and a brand new instrument seems like a tempting solution to these problems.
In the past I’ve purchased a new keyboard because I thought it would make me start composing, I’ve ordered mouthpieces that I believed would make me play higher, and I’ve even tried horns that were supposed to give me a “jazz” tone.
If you’re expecting equipment to answer all these questions, then I’ve got news for you…
The truth is that equipment can only do so much. Even the best instrument in the world can’t change the musician that’s playing it.
If you want to change the sound that’s coming out of your instrument you should think twice about relying only on your equipment.
Looking beyond the instrument
The bottom line is that the sound that’s coming out of your instrument starts inside your mind.
If you want to sound better or reach a new level of musicianship, stop looking at the equipment. You need to begin by changing the sound of music in your mind.
Start listening to the players that you want to sound like. Transcribe the solos that speak to you. And take some lessons with the players whose sounds that blow you away.
Strive to get that “perfect” sound in your own ear.
In the practice room get back to the basics. Work on long tones, breathing, articulation, finger exercises, and the subtleties of time. Getting a good sound and excellent technique on any instrument takes hours and hours of consistent practice.
Find the best instrument that you can and get to work on becoming a better musician.
Remember, You are the first piece of equipment that should be improved before you look to any external piece of equipment.
And if you’ve done all this and you’re still not satisfied…
Then it just might be time to start searching for that brand new, perfect instrument that is going to solve all of your musical problems…