Tim Ellison

Front-End Web Developer

Imagination and the Body

December 08, 2019

This year I made three big music-related purchases — and returned two of them. The one I kept was a new Fender Stratocaster; but I bought and returned a Fender digital modeling amplifier and an Akai Fire controller for Fruity Loops Studio. I love the Stratocaster, but the other two have been so dissatisfying. I can say that I was genuinely surprised by how much I disliked these two items — each time I’d researched and weighed options for months before hitting the “Buy Now” button — and I feel like there’s a lesson to be learned by writing about my experience here.

First, the digital amplifier. I already own a Fender tube amplifier but I don’t have any effects pedals, so I thought I’d spare myself the expense and buy an amplifier that has all the effects you could want just built in. The problem was that it sounded so digital. There was something missing from the sound, no matter how loud I turned it up or how I adjusted the settings. It felt like I’d play my guitar and then the amplifier would do a bad impression of me playing the guitar.

My experience with the Fire controller was similar. I stayed up late playing it and discovered that the feature I thought would be most interesting — being able to set your chosen key and scale so that you literally can’t hit a wrong note — was actually a pain. I would imagine what I wanted to hear but the machine kept me from playing it. And the sounds were so tinny and small and fake sounding — I had the same feeling as with the amplifier. I’m playing the instrument but what comes back from the speaker isn’t me. It wasn’t at all what I meant to say.

The other thing missing with the Fire was a physical connection between my imagination and the machine. When I’m at a piano or a guitar my fingers just know where to go. It’s one of the gifts that comes after stumbling around in the dark on these instruments for 20+ years — you just start to know the physical dimensions of the instrument to such a degree that you can close your eyes and feel you way toward the notes. Something about the size of the buttons on the Fire kept me making that connection, and though I know I could eventually develop a greater familiarity with it if I kept it around, I also know that that’s not a journey I’m willing to start at the age of 34. If I’m going to do something that crazy I should just start learning to play the violin.

Contrast those experiences with when I found my Stratocaster. I knew I wanted a new guitar (my 10-year old jazz guitar just wasn’t me anymore), so I started shopping with a budget of $1,000. I played probably fifty guitars, some way down in the low $100s, some double or even triple my budget. I soon learned that the cost, the reputation, and the look have nothing to do with whether or not a guitar is good for you. The only thing that matters is how it feels when you play it, whether your hand is the right size for it, whether it’s too heavy or too light, whether the frets are the right height, whether it smells good.

That’s how I found my $600 Mexican-made Stratocaster. The instant I played it I knew I could imagine and explore through this guitar. My body was so instantly connected with it, I could trust that it would never say one thing when I’d meant to say another. The feeling: freedom.

I’m gonna smash together some quotes from Robert Pinsky’s essay “Freedom in Poetry”:

“There are no rules. Or, you can modify that rule by observing that each work of art generates its own unique rules. Impulses, swerves, collisions, flights, descents, gags, indirections, surprises, exploding cigars, non sequiturs: all are allowed or encouraged, and all in some sense begin to create their own principles.”

And now comes an insight, something I didn’t expect to find as I wrote here on this topic: creative expression is an exercise in freedom. Our whole person — mental, physical, spiritual — stretches its wings and soars in the act of imagining and expressing what it imagines. That’s why the instrument — the guitar, the piano, the laptop keyboard — needs to be just right. Because the whole person, body and soul, has to be involved. And in expressing your freedom you establish principles. You produce not just beauty but truth and goodness, too.

Another insight: at this point in my life, it’s OK to spend a bit more money on quality, and it’s important to shop in-person rather than online because the most important qualities of these items can’t be found online. Cheap toys were fine before, but I know the difference now. I can feel the difference, and that feeling is what I’m paying for. Shopping is emotional, but so is ownership, and ownership is about presence. Seeing and feeling the item in-person is the only way to anticipate that feeling of ownership, of what it would feel like to imagine with and through that item. You can’t disembody the imagination.

Say it again, Robert:

“There are no rules.”

No rules, but we can dream up principles.