The Headstock Placebo Effect

There’s an excellent podcast I listen to called The Skeptics Guide to The Universe. It’s published every Sunday and is a really great mix of science news, critical thinking, skepticism and geek humour. I discovered them in summer 2005 and have listened to every episode. I also regularly listen to The Guardian’s Football Weekly, Asymco/5by5’s Critical Path (which I listen to for work reasons but also really enjoy), Kevin Smith’s Smodcast output (especially Hollywood Babble On), Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and more latterly The Guitar Podcast. But The SGU is the podcast that I’ve listened to the longest and it’s an indispensable part of my week to get the new episode on a Sunday and  listen to it while doing housework etc.

A few weeks ago they discussed a study that some scientists did on violins. The SGU Host Steven Novella blogs about the study here. He writes

…a researcher had 17 professional violinists try to tell the difference among six violins – two Stradivarius, one Guarneri, and three modern violins. They were literally blinded to which violin they were playing (they were blind-folded). Seven stated they could not tell which one(s) were a Stradivarius, seven guessed incorrectly, and three guessed correctly. This is consistent with random guessing.

Now these were all good violins. The modern ones were worth (if I recall correctly from the podcast) around $10k, but the students could not reliably distinguish them from the Stradivarius (Stradivarii?) that of course are worth close to a million bucks.

This to me has an obvious relevance to Telecasters. Is a Custom Shop $3k guitar really worth more than a $1000 American Standard, a $500 MIM or even a $250 Squier standard? I think this is the viewpoint a lot of my geekier posts have come from. I think I can say with some confidence that an Affinity at $170 is a lot worse than a top line Fender Custom Shop guitar, but at some point on Squier/Fenders bewildering price spectrum I believe you will hit some kind of ceiling where the incremental value gained from spending extra money will be marginal. I just don’t know where that ceiling is. As Novella writes

…subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

… such as, I would argue, the brand on the headstock (Fender/Squier), the country of origin (US, Mexico, China) or even just the price itself.



There are of course many good web resources out there. One I quite enjoy is the Stratoblogster blog. It’s a quick fire blog with a high turnover of interesting guitar stuff, all overlaid with the author’s distinctive voice. I like it.

The Guitar Podcast

I’m a big fan of podcasts and have been listening to them since about 2005 — I remember when the Ricky Gervais one was free! They are a great way to consume information and entertainment when you are doing something else such as commuting, household chores, working out, shopping, whatever.

Since I started this guitar blog thing, I’ve also started listening to an excellent show, with the elegantly simple moniker of The Guitar Podcast. The show is hosted by Mr. Loren Hunt, a man who clearly has a deep knowledge and passion for all things axe. I started listening around the time he did a show about the whole Partscaster idea. I believe he recorded it as an entirely unscripted monologue while driving his car somewhere (talk about multitasking!) but that’s by the by, it was jammed full of useful nuggets of information. I know I’m going to have to go back and take notes.

Loren’s latest but one show (I am gradually listening back to all the shows I missed, there’s over 60 of them) consists of him responding to listener feedback and during the course of one discussion he began talking about the five ‘essential’ or ‘foundation guitars’ which were absolutely identical to the five I picked as the Guitarchetypes. It seems great minds really do think alike!

Loren is planning to unpack his view of these five guitars over the course of upcoming podcasts and I am really looking forward to them. Unlike me, he’s a proper gigging musician and a real guitar expert with a vast amount of experience. It’s going to be very interesting to hear what he has to say.

In the same episode, he also recounted his experiences with the custom made Ruokangas guitars. A Finnish outfit that I’d shamefully never heard of before, despite having lived nearly ten years in Helsinki. I guess at $5000 per guitar they’re just a bit out of reach for me. But if I ever win that Veikkaus Lotto

So there you go, if you’re really into guitars you should subscribe to this show. It’s available on iTunes. I hyperlinked to the website earlier on, but here’s the URL in full: