Guitar Problems and Psychology (sort of)

I’m taking a sharp turn to left-field this week. I want to talk about the squishy stuff in your head. Yeah, psychology baby!

Well, not real psychology, obviously. I’m far from qualified to help you with any issues other than guitar-related ones.

So this is Mostly Guitar-Related Barely Psychology. And I do mean barely.

Will I help? Maybe not, but it’s interesting, and being aware of the weird things our brains can do might (maybe) help just a bit.

From a guitar repairer’s point of view, there are two interesting phenomena that we often see. These are a bit like two sides of the same coin and they can impact how we approach or complete instrument repairs and how we deal with our customers.

From a player’s point of view, you might find it interesting; maybe even useful. Mainly because it’s about you.

Do you listen too much or not enough?

Gradual acclimatisation

You’ve probably heard of the story that if you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly increase the temperature to boiling point, the frog won’t jump out and will boil to death. Ewww! The story goes that just popping a frog in water that’s already boiling will cause it to leap out immediately. It’s the gradual rise that’s the secret — Froggie doesn’t notice that.

Well, as far as frogs and biologists go, that idea has been pretty much debunked but we all experience similar froggie-failings all the time.

If something happens very gradually, we often don’t notice it until it’s sticking out like a sore thumb — if we even notice at all.

As an example, from time to time I’ll see a guitar with frets worn to nubs; the kind of wear that causes awful fret buzz and choking when it’s played. When I point it out, though, the owner is surprised. When I fret a note and it zings and buzzes, I get raised eyebrows and confused looks.

This isn’t that the owner is inattentive or isn’t knowledgable enough to spot a problem. It’s just that it occurred so gradually that they’re used to it. Every tiny step along the way wasn’t noticeable and so they acclimatised. It didn’t register as an issue. It’s just ‘my guitar’.

We all do it with different things. Suddenly we realise the lawn could hide a family of tigers and we barely registered a ‘must cut the grass’ along the way. Maybe the build up of winter dirt on the car only becomes obvious the first time the sun shines through the windshield and we realise we can’t see where we’re going. And, let’s not even talk about ear hair. 😉

We’re rarely ‘mindful’ of the things we see and use every day. Sure we plug in a guitar and jam a few tunes but we rarely sit down and really listen to it.

And so, things gradually change and we don’t notice for ages. Or at all.

Obsession

Ok, before we start, let’s be clear that obsession (obsessive feelings and behaviours) can be a very real mental health issue and that’s definitely NOT what I’m talking about here. I’m using the word obsession very much in the vernacular, non-clinical, sense. Same goes for any other word I’m about to use that could be misconstrued as some sort of diagnosis.

I’m talking about when a player hears something SOOOO much they fixate on it to a degree that might be hard to ever fully address.

Say you’ve noticed a bit of a zing when you play a particular note on a particular string.

Hmmm. It’s not exactly a buzz and it’s not incredibly intrusive but it’s just annoying.

You play it again. Maybe again. You really listen to that frustrating noise.

Again.

And again.

Grrr.

You try to put it out of your mind but, gah, that run in the song you’re playing uses that note and… GAH!

You bring the guitar to your repairer and they listen intently. They suggest something that should help and you go away, relieved.

But, when you collect the guitar, you play that one note and… Wait… Is it still there? What’s that you can hear? There’s still something. Isn’t there?

The thing is, the obsession with something like this can sort of ’integrate’ it into our mind and memory. In the opposite of the not-noticing case above, we over-notice. To the point that we can’t not hear it. Even the tiniest amount of the noise we’re intently listening for — something that someone else wouldn’t notice or hear — sets us on edge. Something that, in another time, we ourselves wouldn’t notice or hear is screaming at us. It’s pulling on a thread to our brain, right to the memory of the noise we’ve obsessed on.

A story to illustrate:

A customer dropped a guitar to me asking me to set it up with particular emphasis on intonation. He played mostly open chords but he couldn’t get it to sound in tune.

I did some work and gave him a call to collect.

When he collected, he (rightly) played the instrument to assess it. But he wasn’t happy. He’d play a chord and say it sounded out of tune. He’d play each note of a chord, one after another, and complain that the intervals sounded bad, even the individual notes. I tried playing the same chords on the guitar and the owner still heard them as out of tune.

I’d been pretty careful with the setup and was a bit confused. Personally, I couldn’t hear a problem and I knew that I’d checked things to the best of my ability.

I connected the guitar to a tuner and asked him to play each single note in a number of different chords.

They all played in tune.

Now, apart from the issues that can come of playing intervals, some of which could be dissonant, I suspect the issue here is that this player had lived so long with tuning problems that he was almost ‘programmed’ to hear them when he got his guitar back. Touching on the ‘mindful listening’ concept mentioned above, he was doing that but his sound picture had been skewed by concentrating so long and intently on a problem.

The problem

The ‘gradual acclimatisation’ thing isn’t really a big deal. It’s mostly surprise and (very occasionally) a suspicious look like I’m trying to up-sell someone on something but, mostly, it’s all good.

The obsession thing, though, can sometimes be hard for a repairer AND a player to work through. It’s often difficult to persuade someone that the problem they’re hearing might not actually be a problem. Or might be there, but not to an extent that it’s intrusive. Or that something they hear cannot actually be remedied any further. Once we’ve got a particular bit between our teeth sometimes it can completely ruin our enjoyment of an instrument.

Not all of these situations can be demonstrated or worked around as easily as connecting a tuner. Sometimes playing another guitar can help to show it’s not just this instrument that has the ‘problem’ but, that’s not always a runner either.

It can be a delicate situation and anyone who repairs instruments for a living has probably tried to work through this with a player more than once.

What’s to be done?

Tricky. I don’t really know, to be honest.

Be mindful but not too mindful.

Yeah, great advice, I know. Sorry.

Consider to what degree the issue you’re worried about is actually a problem. Would someone else in the same situation think this is a problem? Of course, this latter is troublesome because it’s not someone else’s guitar we’re talking about — it’s yours.

Maybe, if you spot something that you think is a problem, get it sorted quickly. Don’t wait for it to burrow into your brain. Because, if it gets too far in, it might become impossible for me or any repairer to address the issue to the point that can make your brain happy.

And I want your brain to be happy. 😉


P.S. I think it’s pretty obvious that these ramblings are not meant to constitute any form of psychological advice. I’m not qualified to provide any sort of help in that field and what you’ve read here is only my opinion of a very narrow issue relating to guitars. Let’s face it — nobody should take actual psychological advice from me. If you feel in need of any assistance, or if you have any concerns about mental health, please speak with a psychologist, or ask your doctor for a referral. The one bit of advice I can be pretty certain about is that it’s good to talk. Be well.