More is more to lose (Part 2)

Editor's note: I used to blog about the guitar on a website called JoshGuitars dot com. That blog had thousands of subscribers and followers. I went through several major life changes in 2016 and decided to end the blog, delete all of my social media accounts, sell everything I own and disappear for a bit. I did it.

This post was originally written to my large audience of fellow guitarists. I wanted to restore three of these "minimalist guitarist" posts so that they'd be saved somewhere, as I still get emails about these three articles (More to lose Parts 1 & 2, Kemper workflow) nearly everyday.

If you don't know what any of this guitar gear-talk means, don't worry. You're better off. This post and the one right before it sparked a lot of controversy and created a lot of conversation within the guitar community as a whole.

It was actually reposted by several manufacturers of guitar gear and several recording artists. It was shared on a guitarist Facebook group and on guitar gear forums where it received very, very mixed reviews. I caused a huge stir.

Part 1 can be found here

Now that you know my full backstory, I want to tell you where everything came off the rails and why I'm writing to you now.

When you have a great job and you're at it for a little while, you get comfortable. You get so comfortable in your job and so in-debt financially that you simply cannot quit to pursue any other endeavor. It's like being lured into a trap.

Let me paint the picture: You're a 21 year-old kid and you have $30,000 in student loan debt, but you don't have to start paying on it until you're 26. Out of college you get offered $30,000 per year to do whatever.

It's more money than you've ever seen before, so you go out and you buy a $10,000 car. The paycheck is about a grand every other week, but rather than saving, you "build credit" by financing a new computer, a new stereo, and a couple couches and chairs.

Or if you're like me you buy some more guitar pedals, a new Stratocaster, a new Telecaster, even more guitar pedals, and a new amp. You get addicted to the rush of buying new things and the rush of sharing what you've bought with your friends online.

You run out of cash—no problem—Sweetwater, Guitar Center, Zzounds, Musician's Friend, and PayPal all offer you credit. And with PayPal Credit it doesn't feel like you're going into debt, because you're hitting the 'Buy With One Click' button—it's too easy to hurt anyone!

A year or two goes by, and your $10,000 car has got some miles on it, so you shell out for a $20,000 truck. And you've got your boutique amp, your custom made guitars, your custom pedalboard, everything handwired, vintage, or boutiquey. Your job offers you another raise, and with it you dive further into debt.

You're making a lot, but you're spending a lot more. That was me.

All of a sudden I'm 26 and the student loan people start calling twice a day. I'm everyone's go-to guy for a chat about guitar stuff—people are texting or messaging daily about your stuff—but I'm not happy being the gear guy anymore. I started to miss actually playing professionally.

I was deeply enslaved to consumer debt and I'd built years of bad habits with regard to spending. There I was, surrounded by things that were supposed to bring me joy, but those things weren't doing their job. Everyone coveted the stuff that I had, but the stuff that I had was making me miserable.

It may not be guitar stuff, but this is the story of millions of Americans—I'm not alone at all. Dave Ramsay said this:

"The typical American with a $50,000 annual income would normally have an $850 house payment and $495 car payment, with an additional $180 payment on the second car. Then there is a $165 student loan payment; and the average credit-card debt is about $12,000, making those monthly payments around $185 per month.
Also, this typical household will have other miscellaneous debt on things like furniture, stereos, or personal loans on which they pay an additional $120. All these payments total $1,995 per month. If this family were to invest that instead of sending it to the creditors, they would be cash mutual-fund millionaires in just fifteen years!"

So you're living paycheck to paycheck, spending nearly every dime on your debt but making little purchases here and there to pacify that discontentment with your inability to move out, move up, or move forward And all the while you're thinking, maybe this will bring me joy, maybe that will make me feel more secure.

And that's a funny thing, security. We buy guitars and say to ourselves, "I'll pass this on to my kids," "This is a great investment," "No matter what happens, I'll always have this," "I could always sell this if times are tough," or "I deserve a little treat for all my hard work."

But those purchases we thought would make us feel more secure are in fact bringing more discontentment, as we surround ourselves with things that don't add value to our lives or bring us joy. Discontentment is the opposite of security, it's insecurity.

You've got a couple of $4,000 guitars but you're scared you'll never be able to quit your job to pursue full-time music again, you'll never be able to retire, you'll never leave a lasting legacy, or do anything of any eternal value because you'll always be strapped to your 9 to 5.

And when your boss asks you to take on extra hours, work nights, go to this place or that, take on this responsibility or that, the only answer you can give is Yes because you know deep down in your wallet that there isn't enough to live on should you find yourself without employment.

The Bible says, "The borrower is slave to the lender" (Prov. 22:7) and right now you're feeling the weight of those chains. You're enslaved on multiple levels—to your spending habit, to your job, to your consumer debt, to whatever living situation you're unable to change because of the debt.

This isn't living. I wanted more and more, but found that having more just means I have more to lose.

Why am I writing this? I'm writing this because I see so many other musicians living that same life. I worked hard and rewarded myself, sure, but then I rewarded myself again and again. I justified my spending by saying these were investments in my career as a guitarist, but in truth, I was making it harder and harder to get back into full-time guitar work.

I owned the $7,500 pedalboard (real Klon, vintage 808, Strymon Trinity, RJM switcher, vintage analog stuff, H9s). I owned at least $15k in guitars and amps. I built my Instagram profile on the excitement of consumerism. Every time I bragged about a big purchase I would gain hundreds of followers and get hundreds of comments, likes, and reposts.

I fooled myself into thinking that, like buying all the guitar stuff, these likes and follows were helping me—I was 'networking.' All those likes and follows were from people who are as nerdy about gear as I am, but don't really care about my life at all.

And that's fine—I get that you just wanted to see gear pics. I get that it was my fault that I let the influence of those likes, comments, and follows, drive me deeper into my addiction to spending and acquiring gear. I enjoyed the popularity.

I'm also writing this because I feel like we're doing a disservice to a younger generation of guitarists. We're taking these young guitar players and we're telling them: Stop innovating, just imitate our gear and our tones.

We're telling the younger guitarists who look up to us—like I looked up to my early mentors—that they can't play a church service without some $500 supercomputer handling all of their intricately programmed and uniquely song-specific rhythmic delay presets.

And more than ever, I'm seeing church guitarists at each other's throats online. Guys questioning each other's choices, offering unnecessarily critical snap judgments, moving from questions like "Hey, why'd you put the reverb before the delay?" to comments like, "Signal chain WEAK bruh."

If you're reading this and you have no earthly idea what I'm talking about, here's a little backstory: Every church in America needs a rock band now, leading the ceremony (called praise and worship).

This need for so many musicians (and churches generally pay really well), along with the rapidly declining costs of great guitar equipment, has created an entire subculture in the guitar world: Church guitarists.

There's a whole separate phenomenon that I'm seeing within our community that I might write about in greater detail later, how this competitive culture we've created around church guitar is driving away women.

All the machismo and posturing has made for a toxic community to female guitarists. It's this constant competitiveness, territorialism, divisive one-upsmanship, and jealousy that's totally taken us over. I'll provide some examples:

About a year ago, I found the blog posts of an up-and-coming guitarist, from a giant church that I won't name. The blog is in a kind of question-and-answer style format. People ask this particular guitar player questions, mostly about what kind of gear they should try or buy and to what end, and he reposts the questions with his answer attached.

And he answers these questions in the least helpful ways. Extremely short. He often answers questions like, "Should I get a Holy Grail?" with stuff like "No just get a Big Sky." The Holy Grail reverb can be found for $80, whereas the Strymon Big Sky is sold for $480. "Should I get a Flashback?" "No. Timeline." Again, the Flashback is $150, the TImeline is $450.

Here's a real question on his blog right now: "What do you think of the Pro Jr., Blues Jr., or AC-15?" His answer: "I don't like any of those." Hmm, so are you saying that that kid should just wait until he can afford stereo Matchless DC30s before he can lead worship?

There's nothing wrong with having great gear or with spending money on your passion. What's wrong here is this idea that you're not able to serve your church with anything less than a $1,500 pedalboard and a $2,000 amp, and the implication that those things should take priority over your development as a player.

Here's a second example: This year, a boost pedal was released that claims to be for “players who feel a deeper sense of purpose than just being a guitar player” by a company that "exists to support your calling" (quotes from Jackson Audio's website, regarding the Prism pedal).

I’m under no circumstances questioning this company’s sense of purpose—if they say that their purpose is to support the calling of the “church guitarist” (a term they used in their demo video for the Prism) then I want to support them. After all, church guitar is where my heart is.

But here's the rub. Jackson Audio's website states that this pedal is "an essential tool" and will become a “cornerstone of your rig.” An essential tool for church players? for all players who take their calling serious? Well, if we all need it, shouldn't we all have access to it?

Yet this boost pedal is $260, while other boost pedals are around $50-80, with really high end ones topping out at about $130 (RC Booster, which, coincidentally, has the exact same feature-set as the Prism minus MIDI, but who has ever needed a MIDI-programmable boost? and also, the RC Booster has a wider EQ range. But whatever).

Again, there is nothing wrong with owning it, nothing wrong with spending that cash. What's wrong is promoting the idea that guitarists need this in order to serve their church. It's just a stupid boost pedal. You kick it on and you get louder. If your guitar sounds like crap and you kick it on, you'll just get louder crap.

Here's a third example of what I'm talking about: On Instagram, I spotted a picture of a really cool custom pedalboard build and I decided to find out more about the person who commissioned it. He had about $6,500 in great pedals arranged and organized perfectly. It was gorgeous.

But then I went to his profile and found that he was using a $150 guitar and $300 amp.

Now, I know for a fact that that guitar isn't staying in tune for a single song, much less the better part of a worship service, and I'm willing to bet that all those amazing pedals sound like the amp they're coming out of in the end. Make no mistake: If you start with crap and end with crap, the end result will be crap.

It doesn't matter what you string together in-between. An out-of-tune guitar into a buzzing amp will always sound like an out-of-tune guitar into a buzzing amp. Don't buy a Timeline and Big Sky before you buy a decent guitar and amp. Spend that $1,000 where it counts the most!

But I don't even need a guitar and amp to post pedalboard pics with the hashtags #SundayFlow, #Geartalk, #Gearnerds, #Gottone, #Cleantone, #Knowyourtone, #Pedalboardoftheday, #Bootsandboards—if I post my $6,500 board on a wood floor, with a pair of boots on, I can get one thousand likes easy!

Now, is there anything wrong with a budget guitar and amp? Absolutely not—I'm not being a snob here, don't mistake what I'm saying. I'm saying that fundamental to playing the electric guitar is having an electric guitar and an electric guitar amp, and that those two crucial items should take precedence over a tricked out, fully custom board.

I'm saying that fundamental to the playing experience and to your professionalism onstage is having a guitar that stays in tune and frets well up and down the neck—no buzzing, no weird intonation issues.

And I'm saying that fundamental to your professionalism onstage is an amp that delivers your guitar's sound—bright and clean and clear and loud with no weird humming, phase issues, ground issues, power issues—none of the issues that budget amps are plagued with.

Do you need a $2,000 Fender Deluxe? No. Do you need a $4,000 Veritas Texas Miracle? No. But I do think that your guitar should be the most expensive or highest quality link in the chain. Get a Fender Standard. Get it checked out by a quality tech every once in awhile.

It's ok to have a budget guitar and a couple of great pedals, but getting a guitar that stays in tune really should be every guitarist's number two priority, behind learning how to play on the guitar that you've already got.

Instead, we're building this culture where those priorities are not the highest, where you need all these accessories in order to serve your church. I'm not knocking Strymon—I've owned the Timeline and it was amazing. I'm saying that that $450 computer of a pedal is a great thing that no one needs in order to lead worship. But that's not our culture.

Fourth and final example of this: I got a message a week ago from a kid who said, direct quote, "Why don't you use Strymon like everyone else? I can't afford a Timeline and I saw that you don't use one, so I'm wondering how you get by without it." How can I get by without it? As someone who came up before the Timeline existed, this kind of broke my heart.

I got by with just one delay pedal for nearly 10 years before Strymon released the Timeline. I remember the day that Strymon released the El Capistan and I was stunned by it—no way I could ever afford that, I thought. Heck, I remember when Strymon was Damage Control and that old home-plate looking Timeline was released!

Here's how I get by without a $500 delay pedal: I don't preprogram delays. I have 4 presets on my DD-20—I don't use them. I don't treat delay as an instrument unto itself. I don't write a delay feature, I use the hook to explore the neck of the guitar.

I reject the idea that I need an individual and unique delay patch for every song—no one in the audience can tell that you're using an analog delay patch as opposed to a digital one. I leave the "ambience" and swells up to my keyboard player. Only one of us has a built-in sustain pedal and it ain't me.

Quarters is quarters is quarters is quarters. Digital, analog, tape—those are settings that can enhance the sound or convey a particular feel (dark, washy tape delays being ominous or brooding) but again, no one in the crowd (except fellow guitar nerds) will pick that out from all the other sounds that are going on.

Buy a Boss DD-5 and blind A/B it in a full band mix with any other delay on the market. I dare you. Each time—in a full band mix—you'll prefer the brighter delay. I promise. That's because the brighter delay is actually audible. It occupies its own space in the mix, where the dark washy delays get buried in the midrange goo of keys and other guitars.

Then I recommended that this kid should try reducing his delay usage to principles rather than parts. Become a better guitarist than effects-pedalist. Here's a principle: Dotted eighth delays convey a rhythmic, marching feel—they're triumphant (think U2 in Where The Streets Have No Name).

Here's a part: The Edge sets his Memory Man to a high mix, about 10 o'clock on the time knob or 120 BPM, with the tone rolled back a hair from midnight and the modulation just barely there. See the difference? A principle drives you to feel and to think creatively, whereas copying a specific pedal setting for a specific part is just, well, copying.

You can actually even get by without a delay pedal (gasp!) if you play awesome, supportive chords and write beautiful melodies. People don't really care about your delay settings—they want to hear a guitarist. Most of them don't even care about your tone. How many amazing guitarists in history had awful, awful tone? I can name a few.

Further, use rhythmic moments in the music to dry up and drive the song—tonally speaking, you're the only person in the band (other than the drummer) who's able to do that. Think of ways you can substitute rhythmic picking for rhythmic delay. Explore some less conventional delays. Don't rely so heavily on tap-tempo—use your ears.

That was my advice to this kid. Basically: Forget all the accessories and be a guitar player. Use your ears, not your eyes—not some YouTube tutorial—to write your guitar parts.

Can you see now why I'm writing this? Can you feel the awkward weight of want and restlessness and consumerism on our consciousness as a community of church guitarists? As you saw from Part 1 of this blog post, I've been at the center of church guitar culture for 15 years and I've never wanted out of it like I do now.

In the last 6 months or so, the bickering between members of this community, the snap judgments people are making, their unsolicited opinions, and my constant comparison to others, and all my endless pining over stuff I don't have has driven me to despair.

All my unchecked consumption, all the gross consumerism, going into debt to try to find joy, going into debt to chase likes and follows… It's all led me to this point of frustration, and I see the same exact behaviors in the people I follow and the people who follow me, my fellow young, church-going, praise-and-worship guitar players.

It wouldn't be so bad if this were happening across the board but I live in two worlds—I've played the blues gigs, the coffee shops, and bars—and I can honestly say this rabid behavior only happens within the P&W community. Between guitarists who—supposedly—are called to a higher standard.

We, more than anyone, should be pursuing humility and kindness, devaluing the pursuit of possessions, living simply, living generously, giving open-handedly and without reservation. We should be taking care of our earth and really exercising discernment when it comes to our waste and our global impact. We should support ethical companies.

So I want to make a change. I want to set a solid example. Here's what I've done so far and my plan for the future: 

I've made a plan to pay off all of my credit cards. I budgeted tight to pay off my student loans this year and my car will be paid for next year. I've made a commitment love people and use things, because the opposite is what got me here.

After talking all of this through with my friends and family, I've decided to pursue a minimalistic lifestyle and take a minimalistic approach to the guitar. I'm rejecting debt (again, no debt is good debt).

I'm also rejecting the rat race and the corporate ladder climb. I'm rejecting job addiction and workaholism. I'm rejecting the stereotypical American trophies of personal success: the cars, the houses, the clothes, watches, jewelry, whatever.

I'm rejecting possessions that don't bring joy or add value to my life. I'm rejecting the notion among guitarists that you need a custom built $3,500+ pedalboard to play a worship service. I'm rejecting the gear lust that follows every casual scroll through my Instagram feed.

I refuse to think that a minimalistic setup is "less than." I've spent the last week minimizing and reducing my crap, I've sold over $2k in guitar gear already and expect to sell $7,500 more in the next few weeks. I think I'm going to scale back and go direct with a multi-effects unit.

I've also gone and donated over 200 articles of clothing, 30 pairs of shoes (yes, 30, I had 30 pairs of shoes?!), over 200 books, and I gave away 4 guitars (sold a fifth one). I recycled 7 computers this week, along with an iPhone and 2 old iPads. I cleaned out all my closets.

In a year I'll be debt free and in a position to pursue full-time guitar work again, for the first time in 7 years. I'll also be one-year into living a well-edited, well-curated, minimal life. A life that rejects frivolous or mindless spending. A life that asks, "How's this going to add value or bring joy?" before every purchase.

I've found that my passion is playing the guitar, not collecting guitar stuff. A lot of these guys you see on Instagram with $20,000+ in gear, who never take it out of their basement and gig with it—those guys are not working, professional guitar players—they're guitar collectors.

Collecting is fine if that's your hobby. If you get joy from amassing a collection, chasing rare items, whatever. But the working guitarist shouldn't be expected to keep in stride with those types of guys. We shouldn't want to. I don't want to carry all that to a gig, and I wouldn't be able to pony up another $20k if it was stolen.

Surely I'm not the only one who's felt that expectation, the expectation for all guitarists to keep up with the collectors and to have the rare or vintage items? surely I'm not the only one who's seen that view perpetuated in my comment section.

Please hear my heart here. I'm not bragging on my newfound minimal life—I just want to change the world, starting with my world, which includes my heart and my wallet and my friends and you, the worship guitar community that I'm so deeply involved with.

I want to become a resource on the minimal lifestyle, on chasing your passion, on working toward your financial future, on simple living, on mindfulness, and on simple but artful guitar for the church.

My band's drummer and I talked this morning. He's a total pro and one of my favorite people to play with. I told him about how this constant consumerism and this predatory culture among guitarists in the church is getting me down and he gave me the best advice I've heard to date.

He said, "You never sounded better than that time you were having some problem, and had to ditch your pedalboard altogether. You just took a couple loose pedals into your amp. I think you should go back to that. Just say screw it, play what you enjoy playing, be who you are and let other guitarists do with that what they please."

Thank you for reading my story. I'm a professional guitarist who took a break for a few years to try a day job, bought a bunch of dumb crap and found that having more meant having more to lose. I'm in the same boat as so many of you—in debt and under the influence of a toxic consumerist culture. I'm here to lead the way out.