Your “Merit” Entitles You to Absolutely Nothing

Hurt about “what passes for music” these days and how unappreciated your brilliance is?

First things first, the idea of art “selling on its own merit” is a knot of confusion I wouldn’t know where to begin untangling. It’s an idea based on an imaginary vacuum where a thing, any thing, in this case a specific piece of art like say a painting, can exist on its own, outside of all context. If art succeeded or failed “on its own merit” then a great painting (“great”) could just sit in a closet and people would be magnetically drawn to it and its greatness- by the power of its “merit.” If art should succeed or fail “only on its own merit,” then no one should post their art to social media, because plenty of artists globally don’t have that advantage. Good looking people shouldn’t be able to have their faces shown with their works because that’s hardly the art’s own merit, right?

It also supposes some direct relation between “merit” and sales. As if, all other things being equal (if everyone had to play by the same rules, no nudie stuff, all work was magically equally accessible, etc.), then work of greater “merit” would sell more than that of lesser. This is not the case. There is no direct relationship between these things.

Ah more merit talk. Art should sell on its own merit, right? So an artist shouldn’t buy ads, right? Hardly selling on its own merit. And so on.

TL;DR to all that- the “merit” notion is as Pollyanna as it is ignorant, and unfair to artists. It would make some sense in a world where everyone had equal opportunity, and where merit and sales had a direct relationship. Neither of those things are real.

Next, the whole idea of selling art, hate to break it to whoever is still in this merit wonderland (the more I talk about it the more irked I am with the whole idea), but the moment one decides to put any piece of art into the marketplace (up for sale) they have created a product. It can go on being art, but it’s now also a product, and products exist in a market and are subject to all the “unfairness” of markets. “Better” products lose out to lesser ones all. The. Time. For any variety of reasons, which boil down to marketing (an enormous umbrella of a term).

So what we have in the “merit” lecture is this high school fantasy: “REAL art should be made by REAL artists who should only care about REAL things and lets be real they really shouldn’t even be trying to SELL it anyway because can you really even sell anything without SELLING OUT…MAAAAANNN…”. Are you annoyed yet? You should be because this is one is the most annoying and patronizing attitudes anyone can hold, and at the end of the day it’s violent to artists, who are people, who need to live and for gosh sake should have the chance to make money over and above what they need if that’s what they wanna try and do. This is America for Chrissake.

Now from a pragmatic perspective, we all have to live with what we have presented to the world. If someone poses nude with their newest work each time they post in their store, well then they’re gonna be that artist who poses nude with their work.

If I was a gorgeous woman with an envy-inducing bosom and I showed it all off with every artwork, well that may put me at an “unfair” advantage to other artists in similar circles without the same assets. But 1) life isn’t fair and we have no obligation to shoot our own success in the foot for the sake of someone else’s arbitrary notion of fairness.

But more importantly, again, then I’d be the booby painter/sculptor/whatever. And it would affect people’s perception of me in all sorts of ways including ones I found unfair, unpleasant, and probably even hostile at times. Right or wrong, fair or not, I would be making the choice to live with that. And I would be volunteering not to be taken seriously by certain sectors of the art power structures, especially if you’re talking about “high art”/ “legit” art/ academia.

That was a lot, but to boil it down- 1) anyone lecturing artists (especially artists themselves) needs to check their privilege and their inherited bullshit philosophies, 2) fairness does not exist in art, business, or elsewhere so any preaching about fairness goes back to point #1, and 3) ladies and gentlemen do what you want with your bodies and your work, just don’t be naive about the world we are living in and the fact that you are marking and potentially pigeonholing yourself in ways both predictable and not by the ways you market your work.

What the Guitar World Needs Now (Is Love, Tough Love)

STOP PLAYING NOTES AND START PLAYING MUSIC, AKA the cranky music rant you didn’t know you needed.

I am soon to lose my mind over guitar posts and videos about how you’re “playing something wrong,” about “the right way to use scales,” about “unlocking the fingerboard.” My disgust surely marks me as a grumpy musician, bitter even! But that’s not what this is about.




Asinine guitar videos telling you about how “understanding” some scale or chord or for Chrissake technique (because music is something to be “understood,” with your left brain, right?) is going to give you the key to music- as if the door were locked.

Wanking fusionists with musical diarrhea for which there is no cure, passing themselves off as “masters” (masters of what? Musical diarrhea, that’s what. But mercy that shit comes so fast and free!)

Here’s the bad news:

If you’re shredding a ton of notes, IT PROBABLY SUCKS. It’s probably the furthest thing from music.

What’s that? Oh, but you’re “expressing yourself?” Some people just do it with more notes? Hate to tell you, but it sucks. WE ARE MUSICIANS; WE SERVE MUSIC. Music is your boss. Not your feels or your ego. If it’s not your boss, go on playing. But don’t call yourself a musician.

If you’re thinking about music like a math equation, or thinking about how to impress your pretentious music friends, IT PROBABLY SUCKS.

If you are going out of your way to look or sound the right way for the hipsters at whatever bar is cool this week, whether in your music or dress or Instagram posts or anything else, IT PROBABLY SUCKS.

Here’s a list of do’s:


1) Play the blues. You must do this.

2) Play with conviction.

3) LISTEN TO YOUR OWN PLAYING AND NOTICE IF IT SUCKS. I don’t mean “isn’t perfect” sucks; that kind of thinking is what sucks. I mean, does it sound actually good? Is it music? Or is it just notes?


Please Share this, the world needs it and I don’t mind saying so.

Chasing Impossible Feelings, AKA Why I Can’t Live Without a Warlock

I’m trying to remember how many Warlocks I’ve owned.  I think it’s eight.  Having owned 86 guitars in my 32 years (really in 18 years, since I started at 14) that’s over 9%.  One out of ten guitars I’ve owned, on average, was a Warlock.  I’m just figuring this all out myself.

I’ve never played in a metal band.  I’ve never played in any band in which a Warlock wouldn’t look ridiculous.

The customer comment upon pulling out my first Warlock at The “B” String guitar shop was one of these two (both equally accurate): 1) “Warlocks are just metal as f***!, or 2) “Warlocks are just the most metal guitar” or both.  Either way, dude was right.  Look at this WOOK AT IT:

img_0931img_0930I don’t care if it’s electric blue, look how f****ng METAL it is!

Sometimes I wonder why I would ever have a blog about something as ridiculous as say electric blue battle axe guitars from 1989, but then, I remember that no one else is writing about them (that I know of- please lordy if anyone knows of blogs I should be reading, stop keeping them to yourself!).

And here begins much of the impetus behind this ridiculousness that is Guitars Ruin Lives), the persistent question of, “Am I the only one?”

Am I the only one who doesn’t play in metal bands, who would look ridiculous holding a Warlock on stage, and yet is obsessed with Warlocks and how mind blowingly awesome they are?

ASIDE: I am Facebook friends with Neal Moser, iconic designer and builder of B.C. Rich and later Neal Moser Guitars fame.  Neal designed the Bich, off of which the Warlock was based.  (Neal also designed the Virgin, which he fashioned after his imagining of the descending swinging blade from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”- how fricking metal is that???)  I recently asked him which Neal Moser model would come closest to the feel of the Warlock, and he said the Moser 6/10 (six or ten string), which is his perfection of the “Bich” model.  I dearly want a handbuilt Moser made just for me during Neal’s building career.  But it’s got to feel like a ‘Lock.

Which brings me to the REAL controversy of this post (A GUITAR GEEK ON THE INTERNET ASKED HIMSELF WHY HE LOVES WARLOCKS AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HE SAID!): Warlocks are belief-defyingly ergonomic.  This one in particular, a 1989 USA built neck-through, is the most comfortable guitar I’ve ever owned in terms of playing sitting down, and the most balanced in terms of playing standing up.  It is the most intelligent guitar.  The Warlock has its own wisdom.

Then there’s this- It stands on its own two pointy-ass feet, dammit.  While lesser guitars whine and clamor to be held by their precious bottoms, the Warlock stands alone.

But for real, why am I so crazy about these things?  No seriously I’m asking.

When I don’t own a Warlock, I get itchy.  B.C. Rich is a storied brand with a rich (yaaawwwwn) legacy…and at times with a poor one.  Neal Moser- come on!  This guy invented the BCR Virgin shape BASED ON THE SWINGING BLADE FROM EDGAR ALLEN POE’S THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM…IT DOESN’T GET ANY MORE METAL!!!  I’ve owned a Mockingbird and two Virgins.  But nothing touches the Warlock.  It lives in a metal kingdom all its own.  And what do I receive there that I find so breathlessly cravable?

It’s nothing more than a feeling (Boston be damned).  But good Lord, aren’t certain feelings hard to come by?  Don’t we chase not just products, or people, but entire chapters of our lives, capriciously throwing time and money out in pursuit of…yes, just a feeling?  AM I NOT WRITING A WHOLE DAMN BLOG BASED ON “RUINING” ONE’S (POSSIBLE) LIFE IN PURSUIT OF- WHAT ELSE- A FEELING?

A feeling you got maybe just once…or twice, if you’re incredibly lucky…because everything was just right in that time and place.  So irreplicably correct, in fact, that you didn’t even know how perfect it was.  You didn’t even know how much that feeling felt like that feeling until it was well over, looking back, and you could measure it against the infinitely less desirable banal feelings that come and go and annoyingly often stay with you, the stress, the blah, the ugh, the “do I have to?”‘s of life which- let’s face it- comprise the overwhelming majority of our lives’ time.

What’s that feeling for you?  Now, behind that- what is the experience that brought you the feeling?  I’m thinking about a girl.  You’re probably thinking of a person too- that one time- No…THAT time!;)- Or maybe a trip, a day, a hike, a waterfall, a scent, a sensation- where is that moment for you?  How do you miss it?  Do you let yourself?

Wouldn’t you give anything to recreate it?  That feeling?  That experience?  To go back and do it again for the first time, but knowing how infinitely good it was so that you know to savor and simmer in every soul-subsuming breath of it?

You’re damn right I’m still talking about Warlocks.  And girls (for me, whoever you’re into for you).  And the first CDs I ever owned as a twelve year old, listening to over a hundred times until all the instrument parts were etched on my psyche.

I actually do not own a Warlock at this moment.  I experience this absence as a palpable hole in the fabric of my life.  But right now I like it.  Because it gives me the chance to crave that outrageous sensation of the extended upper bout, the inevitably chipped points, the expansive resonance of a guitar that’s just unnaturally huge.  I want it, because I don’t have it.  I know what I am missing, because I have known it, and I miss it.  I like the pointy hole in my life.

And, I’ve got my eye on a fuschia USA Warlock.

“hi, it’s rock & roll…anyone seen my cajones?”

     Rock and Roll is supposed to be unsettling…threatening…even dangerous, particularly to “the way things are.”  Because no matter how things are, you better believe it’s not working for a lot of people. Even our beloved Beatles, now seen through the sanitizing lens of cultural selective memory, embodied this destabilizing thrust. Rock & Roll is not safe.
This is why I am no fan of today’s guitar scene (or modern rock, or modern metal, or modern country…). There is nothing of Rock & Roll to be found in our headphoned, YouTube stuidoed, backing tracked, boutique pedaled online musical monoculture. It is an insider’s game.
Rock and Roll is an outsider’s game.

Boy howdy, did Alex Harvey, Zal Cleminson (seen here as always in terrifying mime makeup) and gang understand this.  I’ll let the BBC do the explaining at the bottom of this post.

Meet some outsiders…be freaked out…love it.
And in case I haven’t been clear enough,
Guitars Ruin Lives.

Internet, Meet Raven (Misadventures in fancy, prejudice, synchronicity, etc.)

IMG_20170720_092205436Who likes a story?

This here’s a tale of love, frustration, and the rich rewards of a lifelong pursuit that turned up gold just when it seemed like the trail had gone cold.

Back in November I visited Guitars USA in Lexington. I’d been there once before for some unmemorable reason (I can tell cause I don’t remember it). The outing’s purpose may have been forgettable, but its destination was not. A beautiful, finely curated, drool-inducingly stocked music shop with a dramatic focus on really, really nice guitars. It was clean. It was gloriously air conditioned. It smelled good. It was the guitar shop equivalent of that new car feeling.

The second outing had definite purpose. Guitars USA’s annual Customer Appreciation sale is, as I now know, the stuff of legend. I turned out to buy a guitar at a silly, silly deal, from a brand I never saw myself owning. I’d been thoroughly schooled in the offerings of Paul Reed Smith by my friend Dustie Waring, a man of stupefying memory and talent as any member of Between the Buried and Me is required to be. Dustie is an uncommonly generous soul and his friends enjoy the benefits of the many blessings that his efforts have brought him (Dustie has his own signature US made PRS model).

All of the half dozen-plus models I’d played were very good instruments. That’s a conservative assessment and a true one. Intonation, build, evenness of “speaking,” clarity, playability- they’re just darn good guitars. You can buy any of even their Korean models and while perhaps not unforgettable, they will be a much safer choice in terms of “does it work?” than taking a similar crapshoot of even US made models starting with F or G. They take quality seriously.

So where’s the “but?” I’ll tell you where the but is.

PRS meant to me consistently well made guitars. BUT- I just didn’t dig ‘em that much. I couldn’t go all in. Dustie plays the tar out of his; I know other people who use them to great effect. His even have matte finishes and black hardware which takes a little of the fancy off of these famously fancy pieces. Boy it was the fancy that bugged me. (This will be fodder for many a thought on Yes, I was victim (willing) of the “lawyer guitars” perception. You know, guitars made so beautifully and so expensively that only guys having spent their whole life chasing things other than musical greatness could ever afford them.

Furniture guitars- pieces better suited to a glass case than a stage, guitars you’re so scared to put a scratch on and hurt the value that you play ‘em like a china doll. Stevie Ray Vaughan wouldn’t have gotten far on one of these, I thought.

And lastly, worstly, the “Swiss Army Knife” guitars. No one wants a Swiss Army knife when they’re cutting a watermelon. Or gutting a deer. Or doing leather work. Basically ever. But, carry one in your pocket, keep it sharp, and it’ll tear through whatever you need it to. PRS are beloved for their ability to cover a lot of ground, but in my mind, covering none of it perfectly well. Give me a Les Paul so I can be like Duane Allman or Randy Rhoads, a Stratocaster like Ry Cooder or Ritchie Blackmore, a Telecaster, plus maybe a pointy Ibanez with the Steve Vai tremolo for that Slayer number you’re covering at the wedding gig.

So, wasn’t I supposed to be saying something nice about Paul Reed Smith guitars? Yeah yeah yeah. Here goes.

So back to November 2016 and Guitars USA. I catch a killer deal on a Paul’s Guitar, the production model of the company founder’s personal guitar. It was royal blue, it had a spellbinding quilted maple top, it had oodles of sounds. It wasn’t my ideal guitar, but it was far and away the nicest I’d ever come close to owning, and it was a no lose situation- either I surprise myself and fall in love, or it becomes part of some future good deal for me. In the meantime, I get the experience of playing a top shelf instrument and deciding whether all my silly fancy guitar baggage held any water.

In the long run the second scenario came to pass. My suspicions were softened but confirmed, I thought. Great instruments, but not something my 60’s & 70’s heroes would ever have played even if they could. Not to be written off, but not for me. Moving on, where’s my 1954 Telecaster, etcetera.

Despite the brevity of my brush with PRS through that experience, the real indelible part was the association with Guitars USA as a great place to visit and do business. Technician/Teacher Evan Bloom is a die hard PRS man as is owner Chris Gregg.  They live for PRS, and though they would’ve love to see me join the family they both understand you either connect with a guitar or you don’t. On I went.

Part of the back story here is I’ve owned something like sixty electric guitars in the past eight years (not all at once!). I’ve searched, tried, experimented, and tinkered always looking for something. I’ve found it, but only in pieces, and never in once place. I’d kind of given up. No instrument can do all things, and most don’t even do a few very well. To search for one that proved otherwise was looking more and more like a fool’s errand.

Fast forward to June.

I hear this wildly named PRS artist is doing a clinic at the shop. Boscoe France was news to me but Dustie assured me he was a bad man on guitar. I love the shop at this point and I’m always eager to learn and be exposed to new players, so down I went. Have you figured it out by now?

PRS representative Claiborne Lord was working the event. Clay is pleasant, down to earth, and knowledgeable- what you want in a sales man. He had brought his own arsenal of eye candy (that is a terrible mixed metaphor but it kind of works) to combine with Guitars USA’s stash. It was a formidable display of flamed top glory. I was excited, but not in a way that suggested anything was there for me. I saw the familiar fancy tops and now familiar body shapes and control layouts. I was there to support and I was there for the show (and Boscoe put on a heck of a clinic). I wasn’t there for guitars for me.

But…there was this one. It was black. It was plain. The simplicity of it acted as a silent roar amongst the din of shouts coming from the more glittery offerings. It had nothing to prove. Its awesomeness was not in question.

I plucked at it unplugged- hard to tell much in that environment other than it was a solid piece, and more lively than most. On I went to watch the clinic, still no thought of making the guitar move of a lifetime. Boscoe showed off his pedal steel licks (I’m stealing those!), his slide prowess, and his pretense-less country charm. An honest humility shone through his informal presentation that rang louder than any crazy technique some YouTube guitar king in the world could’ve thrown at me.

Boscoe has played the same green Paul Reed Smith since he bought it new in 1997. As conversation turned from guitar playing in general to his guitar in particular, an important philosophical priority sifted to the surface. Guitarists are notoriously fickle when it comes to their gear. They own more guitars than they can play and don’t get to know their newest amp or pedal even halfway before they’ve decided “it’s just not what I’m looking for” and their on to the next one. G.A.S. is what it’s called- Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Like so many of the dysfunctions we joke about as people, our nervous humor betrays our deep sense that something’s not right and we just aren’t willing to address it- or don’t know how. Whether he meant to address that particular phenomenon or not, Boscoe said something next that hit me right in the gut. It’s something I’d been saying to myself for years without having the words. It was a lot easier to hear from someone who’s not me.

“Concert violinists don’t have a dozen violins they play on stage. They have one.”

Each guitar differs not only in sound but in feel. Micro differences in the size of the frets, the space between the strings, the placements of knobs and a thousand other factors more and less noticeable mean that each guitar your hands touch is literally a different instrument. While it might be nice to have the right guitars on hand for both “Sweet Home Alabama” and for “More Than A Feeling,” how are any of us who are serious about playing our instruments well ever supposed to get any damn good when we’re changing horses every other song???

Boscoe spoke straight to my deep musical longing- to connect and commit to one instrument, get to know it inside and out, until it becomes, as he said, a part of me.

From the acquisition of my first electric guitar at age 16 (black Gibson SG Special) to the onset of guitar-swap fever at age 23, I had only one electric guitar. I never thought about having others. I never thought about what I was missing. I never wondered which one to practice on today. I just had my guitar. MINE.

All those sixty plus guitars between now and then, I’d been searching for the same thing. My guitar.

The clinic ended and a time of informal chummery and picking began. No thoughts of buying anything more than a set of strings. I figure what the heck. Pick up that McCarty and plug it in. It’ll be fun.

I did so. It was over.

Between hearing the “speak” factor of notes all over the fingerboard on my own (well, combined with the unrelated shredding of Gary Hawkins next to me- who picked up his first PRS that very night:) and eventually swapping licks with Boscoe himself in a fancy-free rendering of the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky,” I realized I’d found it.

By accident.

Like all the best things are found.

I may not have owned it yet, but it was mine.

I look forward to many years of music making with this guitar, Raven, the most worthy of partners.

Greatest thanks to Dustie for laying the groundwork, Boscoe for inspiring me to make the connection, Clay for bringing it into my sphere (and for checking out my silly blog), Chris for working with me and Clay to make it happen, and above all to Antonina Whaples for helping me see and believe in my own value as a person, a guitarist, and as an artist- as one deserving of such a refined tool.

Me and this guitar are on our way to becoming great friends.

You’ll be seeing us.

On being Insta-Amish, getting the most twang out of your Warlock, and Shelton does The Byrds does Dylan

Josh tells you what to expect from this thing as we catalog life with guitars beyond the stage and screen.

Full discussion here, including Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” complete with Clarence White pedal steel licks on Josh’s all purpose metal guitar.   

Guitars Ruin Lives.

So, Guitars Ruin Lives is a thing now.


This project is the tip of an iceberg-sized preoccupation with the way musicmaking in general and guitar playing in particular is presented in this day an age- a “performance” of microscopic proportions, the narrowing of a life-sized craft into Instagram clips and click-track powered YouTube pornography (I mean literally, the term “guitar porn” exists for a reason).

It is a manifesto against the prevailing unspoken ethos of photoshopped, botoxed noisemaking in the era of The Voice and Facebook Live.

Music doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Concerts don’t come from a box.

Making music is not a hobby for the musicmakers.

And life with guitars isn’t pretty.

I promise you engaging original content about the inner workings of the best guitar players I know, thoughtful commentary on guitar culture as it has, does, and will exist, and no shortage of fresh guitar playing on display from me and my friends.

Welcome to the anti-guitar culture guitar culture blog which, to quote the radio man from O Brother Where Art Thou, I predict you gonna enjoy thirrly.