Home > economics, music, philosophy > Toning it Down: Guitar Amps are not like Markets

Toning it Down: Guitar Amps are not like Markets

“Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!” –Walter Sobchak

I’m having difficulty with Jason Brennan’s attempt to make guitar amps analogous with markets. This is what happens when academics step outside of their expertise. They sound ignorant and alarmingly hypocritical:

We think markets are a bit like guitar amplifiers. Guitar amps have various knobs that can be put on different settings, and, as a result, make the amplifier sound good or bad. Similarly, markets might have a range of variables that can be put to different settings. Changing the settings might change the market from good or bad, or bad too good. Just as some guitar amps sound good only on very specific settings, some markets might be good only on very specific settings. Or, just as other guitar amps sound good no matter what the settings, so other markets might be good not matter what the settings.

What sort of classical liberal philosopher wants to give anybody the power to tinker with the alleged settings of a market? Brennan sounds exactly like the central planning technocratic he’s apt to critique. Or the “man of system” Adam Smith cautioned against in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Or the imaginings and machinations of economists F.A. Hayek warned about in The Fatal Conceit.

The quality of sonic output from an amplified instrument primarily comes from the player and the instrument itself. Not to mention one person typically uses one or more amps at a time, but not the other way around. As opposed to markets, which are organic makeups of millions of people scattered about and simultaneously acting on their own rational self interests based on the incomplete knowledge they possess at any given time in order to exchange goods and services.

In my experience as a musician, there’s never been an asymmetric situation involving an amplifier. It’s just a bullhorn for an instrument that can’t be played or heard well acoustically. Consider that there are only twelve notes on the sonic spectrum. So a D chord is a D chord, regardless of it’s timbre, who’s playing it, or which amplifier you happen to be using. All possible combinations of notes and chords are already known. There is no knowledge gap. An amplifier is not communicating information that would otherwise be unknown to certain people at certain times. The player controlling his/her instrument predetermines all of the inputs and outputs, which is far from being analogous to a market.

The advantage of a sensitive and true legendary tube amp like a Hiwatt is that it’s much more right hand responsive, meaning you can control the tone just by your attack. Start with bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, and just look at how eclectic this list of artists gets (which doesn’t even account for artists who use Hiwatts on recordings but aren’t endorsed).

Take producer John Shanks, for example. He has fifteen Hiwatts in his studio. They’re all over hits he’s produced for artists like Van Halen, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, and Goo Goo Dolls. That’s a pretty broad range of styles and sounds. Point being: “dialing in” an amp is an afterthought and largely a marketing ploy.

However, the ability to control or adjust tonality is for equalization purposes and typically more about which frequencies to roll off than on. Again, this does nothing to fundamentally alter what’s being played or heard. The inputs and outputs are both fixed and finite because the amp needs an external controller. Turning those knobs up to 11 won’t change the fact that a D chord is still a D chord. The notes are the notes. The chords are the chords. The analogy is false. So don’t touch that dial.

bassist meme

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  1. September 15, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks, Craig, but this is a misunderstanding of what we said.

    We’re not saying that we want technocratic tinkering. We’re just saying that markets might be good under some situations and bad under others. The people who want to ban markets in certain goods altogether are just overgeneralizing–they think that because markets are bad on some settings, they are always bad.

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  2. September 15, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks, Craig, but this seems to be a misunderstanding of our claim.

    We aren’t calling for technocratic tinkering. We’re trying to show critics of commodification that they are overgeneralizing. They argue that since markets in certain goods are bad (from their perspective) in certain conditions, markets in those goods are bad simpliciter. We point out that markets might be good (from their perspective) under other conditions, and so they are at most overgeneralizing.

    As for the guitar amps themselves, well, yeah, the Hiwatt’s a nice example of an easy to dial amp. But a huge amount of the timbre of a guitar comes from the amplifier selection, especially once we move away from purely clean tones. Even clean tones depend heavily on the amp and speakers, which is why a guitar sounds different on the clean settings of a JC-120, Fender blackface or Mesa Lonestar.

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    • September 15, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      I don’t take issue with the larger claim of the piece. People should be able to sell their kidneys or surrogacy or whatever in a safe, legal marketplace. No doubt.

      The thing that seems to be misleading is likening a guitar amp to a market since the nature of a guitar amp, even in the abstract, seems to be antithetical to the nature of a market. The amp needs an external controller, and all inputs and outputs are known and predetermined. A market is (or is supposed to be?) an organism that doesn’t require an external controller, all inputs and outputs are infinite and unknown, and all information/knowledge is asymmetric and dispersed.

      I just think it’s a poor analogy that undermines and/or distracts from your general claim. And I understand the impulse to want to talk about music gear too, believe me!

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    • September 16, 2015 at 9:44 am

      Apparently you left this comment on my brother’s FB wall: “The objection rests on a misunderstanding of our argument and an apparent lack of familiarity with guitar amps.”

      I’m a professional musician. You’re a professional philosopher. I’m not pretending to be an expert in your discipline. You’re not an expert in mine. In this matter, the lack of familiarity with guitar amps is on your end.

      I spoke with my peers (other professional musicians and technicians) just to make sure that I wasn’t taking crazy pills in thinking your analogy was false. Based on the unanimous peer reviews, I am correct. You aren’t.

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  3. September 16, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Craig, you may indeed be a professional musician, but I think you and your peers’ objection to my claim here is absurd. Obviously, a great many things contribute to the timbre of a guitar, including the “fingers”, strings, pick attack, pickup type, cable used, signal path, pedals, amp circuit type, and speakers. Obviously, the amp matters a great deal, which is why, e.g., Eddie Van Halen sounds different through different amps, or, to put it crudely, why a Mesa sounds so distinct from a Marshall, and why when you and I switch from one amp to another with a different timbre we sound different. And, obviously, I’m right about the dialing in the amp thing. Take a Mesa Mark I, turn up both the gain and bass, and turn the treble down, and you get mud. Turn the treble and the bass down, and you get Santana. Take a Marshall Plexi and turn it on, and you get the Plexi sound.

    I can’t see how you or your musician friends could possibly disagree with any of that.

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    • September 16, 2015 at 10:28 am

      Maybe another way of putting it: You know how Brian Wampler makes all those “Amp in a box” dirt pedals? There’s a reason he makes separate emulators for the Triple Rec, the Orange, the Plexi, the Soldano, the AC15, etc, rather than just one generic pedal called the “Amp in the Box” pedal. There’s also a reason Line 6, Axe FX, and Kempler make 100s of different amp profiles for their simulators rather than just one. It’s because different amps sound different.

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      • September 17, 2015 at 11:16 am

        It’s certainly your perogative to think our objection to your analogy is absurd. But we (that includes people who work on amps for a living) find the analogy itself absurd. People with expertise in this field offer a legitimate critique of your analogy, and your response is that you’re “obviously right”? Not even an inch of wiggle room to allow for the slightest possibility that you may possess a knowledge gap in this particular area? No intellectual humility at all, like that Hayek guy talked about? Fair enough.

        Guitar amps are a series of tubes on a circuit board, which requires an external controller. The only sensible analogy to make with a guitar amp in the realm of political and economic philosophy is that of a centrally planned distopia in which a strong man controls all inputs and outputs.

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        • September 18, 2015 at 11:33 am

          Jason Brennan decided to take to FB with this post: https://www.facebook.com/jasonfbrennan/posts/10201054855449196

          This was my reply…

          Hey there. This is Craig. My brother let me on his account for a one time comment. We could have continued the discussion we had going in the comment thread of my blog post, or yours. You could have emailed me. You could have mentioned me by name in this FB post. You could have @ mentioned RvW so the band got a notification. You could have @ mentioned Spatial Orientation’s FB page for the same reason. But you didn’t. That’s not you. That’s not your way. Instead you try to land the equivalent of a passive aggressive sucker punch like an insecure child playing keyboard commando and seeking validation from the self congratulatory how-dare-anybody-piss-inside-the-tent echo chambered circle jerk of an epistemically closed off bubble that is the community of online libertarianism. That goes for you too, Jason Kuznicki. In fact, the next time I’m anywhere near the DC area I’ll be more than glad to include you on my guest list so you can come talk some of that shit to my face.

          In the interest of correcting some misnomers, here we go… My name is Craig Schlesinger, not the RvW bassist. I actually do way more music than that, but it’s not relevant. I did not claim that Dr. Brennan defer to me as a pro until after he made a couple of comments on my blog post, I responded, then he posted (on my brother’s FB wall) that I have “an apparent lack of familiarity with guitar amps”. Only then did it seem relevant to remind him that “I’m a professional musician. You’re a professional philosopher. I’m not pretending to be an expert in your discipline. You’re not an expert in mine.” I also explained that, much like an academic, I consulted many peers who are either professional musicians, sound engineers, producers, amp technicians, or a combination of the four before posting a critical response. He never replied. Instead he made this FB post. And as for Guitar Center, I can’t think of a worse place to learn about guitar amps. Also, Daniel J. D’Amico (btw, whattup man, it’s been a minute!) seems to be the only person in this thread that understands where I’m coming from without being all thin-skinned about it.

          So let me try this again, in this space…. Even after reading the analogy in Dr. Brennan’s original post, the next logical statement from my amp expert peers is: “Likening a guitar amp to a market is a poor analogy since the nature of a guitar amp, even in the abstract, seems to be antithetical to the nature of a market. The amp needs an external controller, and all inputs and outputs are known and predetermined. A market is an organism that doesn’t require an external controller, all inputs and outputs are infinite and unknown, and all information/knowledge is asymmetric and dispersed.” Tweaking with an amp’s settings are not analogous to the settings Dr. Brennan mentions with respect to markets. Name dropping a slew of different amps and other gear doesn’t prove anything. This isn’t about a ten watt amp breaking up at a lower volume than a fifty watt amp.

          This is pulled directly from my comments in the thread from my post, since Dr. Brennan thinks this an “absurd” claim: “It’s certainly your prerogative to think our objection to your analogy is absurd. But we (that includes people who work on amps for a living) find the analogy itself absurd. People with expertise in this field offer a legitimate critique of your analogy, and your response is that you’re “obviously right”? Not even an inch of wiggle room to allow for the slightest possibility that you may possess a knowledge gap in this particular area? No intellectual humility at all, like that Hayek guy talked about? Fair enough.”

          Once again, guitar amps are a series of tubes on a circuit board that amplify sound waves, which requires an external controller. All the different models of amps and pedals and processors and whatnot are not the issue here and have nothing to do with the amplification of sound waves. None of that does anything to fundamentally alter the sound waves. Adjusting the timbre of the notes has nothing to do with the nature and function of an amplifier. If it did, the notes you play would sound like completely different notes. The D chord is still a D chord.

          The only sensible analogy to make with a guitar amp in the realm of political and economic philosophy is that of a centrally planned distopia in which a strong man controls all inputs and outputs. But I’m probably wrong since Dr. Brennan is obviously right because… he says so. I’m wrong about almost everything; however, this is one area I know.

          Either way, I’m including a link to my blog post so all of you can come read the post and thread for yourselves so there are no more misrepresentations and misunderstandings. In fact, you’ll see that I indicate that I am all for legal markets in organs, surrogacy, and whatever else. Also, please do not reply to this comment and bug my brother. If you want to continue to slam me, please do it in the thread we already started from the blog post, the SpatialOrientation.com FB page, or send your hate-hate-hate mail to SpatialOrientation@gmail.com, or troll me on the Twitter machine: @spatialo, or on IG: @spatialorientation.

          Love,
          Craig Schlesinger

          https://spatialorientation.com/2015/09/14/toning-it-down-guitar-amps-are-not-like-markets/

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  4. September 18, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Hi Craig,

    Sorry to make you so angry. I’m just exasperated at this.

    But I’m going to keep arguing because I think you’re just wrong.

    Take your D chord comment. That’s wrong. Many Line 6 amplifiers have built-in harmonizers and pitch shifters. They can take a D chord and convert it into something else. E.g., you can convert a D5 into an Em7 two octaves higher. Many also have auto-strum or other weird features, so you can play one note (say an A), and it will play an A minor arpeggio.

    If you don’t find the analogy illuminating, that’s fine. I’m surprised it went over so well with audiences so many times. When I first presented it to Peter, I meant it to be a private thing for me, not something we’d put in the book.

    The simple point is this: Some amps sound shitty on some settings and good on others. Some amps sound good on all settings. Some amps sound shitty on all settings.

    Similarly, some markets are morally shitty on some settings and good on others. Some are good on all settings. Some are shitty on all settings.

    That’s it.

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    • September 20, 2015 at 11:25 am

      Hey Jason. I’m glad we’re back to first names. Seriously. No anger here, was just calling it like I see it. That and I’m a sarcastic asshole artist. But I thought it in poor taste that somebody as brilliant and accomplished as you chose to carry it in that manner… and I’m not tossing out those compliments to shine you on either. I’ve been an avid BHL reader since day one (literally) and will continue as such. I own three of your books. Ethics of Voting is actually on loan to a drummer friend of mine right now.

      As for threatening Jason Kuznicki, come on dood. I’m not even sure I could kick my own ass. I invited him to come heckle me at a show in person with no cover charge. Plus that was a lame and generic joke, and it’s not exactly like bassists are hard targets to nail either.

      How do you know a guitarist is at your door? The knocking keeps speeding up.
      How do you know a drummer is at your door? Somebody has to deliver your pizza.
      How do you know a bassist is at your door? He’s been creeping behind that pizza guy but doesn’t know when to come in.

      Another drummer friend of mine sent me a meme a while back that still cracks me up. WordPress won’t let me paste in the comment thread, but I embedded it in the blog post under all the text. Just scroll up a bit to check it out.

      Like

  1. March 25, 2016 at 1:18 pm

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