October 18, 2022

Guitar Amps and Epistemological Failure

Despite being guitar amp philistine, this video by musician Jim Lill riveted me.

Stiff, crisp, sweet, juicy, saggy, flabby, compressed, tight, punchy, midrangey, bright, classy, dark, harsh, fizzy, robust, dynamic.

Online guitar amp aficionados use these adjectives as tokens of expertise and, unless you have far better hearing than me, they are full of baloney.

It may even be that the subtlety of the distinctions amplifies the mystical power of these expert adjectives. I can’t distinguish any difference between amp rectifiers but the guru hears flabby not juicy and the precision of the description further validates the guru’s access to arcane knowledge.

How does a decades-old, energetic community with no institutions or credentialing manage to develop a cult of expertise untethered to reality? This is all the more impressive given that the superstition costs people hundreds of dollars and hours of research time scrutinizing minuscule amplifier differences.

These ideas jump to mind:

  • Amp production combines two distant types of expertise–acoustic and electrical. Acoustic experts take liberties when they explain electrical details and electricians take liberties when they explain acoustics.
  • Amp manufacturers bundle features of amplifiers together in ways that make it cumbersome to experience them independently hence all the experiments necessary for the video.
  • Music evokes so much emotional and social energy that amp manufacturers can charge much higher prices for claiming to sell amps that elicit that energy better than cheaper amps thereby encouraging manufactures to obfuscate how amps work.

All this is not to belittle the amp lovers. Lill’s video displays how different configurations of amp features dramatically transform a guitar’s tone. But amp experts clearly deluded themselves or else enjoyed their expert voice enough to speak with unfounded authority. The faux experts guide purchases, gatekeep opinions, and enable grandiose corporate marketing. Hopefully Lill’s video puts a chink in their armor.

PS: Lill’s video also demonstrates exceptional non-academic scientific method but that is a post for another day.

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