Old Gear Smell

The old stuff smells different. It just does.

Old guitar equipment, that is. I'm not talking about cigarette smoke and liquor, though those smells do indeed waft out of some old gear as it warms up, bearing witness that it has been baptized in bars. While those elements do have their own mojo, I am talking about the innate bouquet of old gear itself. When you fire up an old tube amp it puts out its own olfactory signature – an interesting sort of warm smell, the combination of hot vacuum tubes, transformers, and real incandescent pilot lights heating up old discrete components, cloth-covered wiring, tolex, and old time glues, 'til they out-gas their own special perfume. To an outsider it might just seem to be a musty smell, but to someone who has been playing guitar for a while, this is a familiar, comforting aroma. The modern reissues of old amps I've played, even the point-to-point wired ones, just don't smell the same. Sorry. Go get an old timer, turn it on, and let it bake in for about an hour to see what I mean.

Lynn's Guitars Used Gear Room, Broadway, Knoxville, TN, ca. 1974
The building is gone and the company is now known as Broadway Sound.

I don't suppose this is really a modern phenomenon. When I was a teenager there was a guitar store in my hometown that specialized in buying and trading used gear. They had a used gear room with a huge tumble of old amps, often thirty to forty at a time: tweeds, brownfaces, blackfaces, 50’s art decos, ‘60s Marshalls, Voxes, Gibsons. I bought my first professional tube amp from them, a ten-year-old Gibson GA-55RVT Ranger: Two 6L6s in push-pull. A nice smell. I'd traded a smaller Fender for it. That's a picture of the room above. The amps were usually piled right about where the crowd was sitting in this shot. We’d arrive on a Saturday morning, grab a cord, pull down a used guitar from that wall to the left in the picture, and spend hours trying out the various old dusty amps. As they warmed up, the amps would emit a subtle incense that whispered of the lives they had lived, but more importantly, of their construction and origins. You could almost identify an amp’s brand by its smell.

Then, to make the phenomenon more vivid, there were also the long teenage jam and rehearsal sessions in a father’s garage or at a summer camp. For some reason these always seemed to happen in the heat of summer and the oppressive summer heat would further amplify the familiar redolence gently drifting from the gear. We would often play for hours on end, from early morning until late at night, fueled by youthful adrenaline, experimentation, and pizza(!). Those were times of excitement, challenge, and musical exploration, from which emerged our first bands. If an amp wasn’t hot enough to exude this collection of scents by the end of those steamy playing sessions it simply hadn’t been switched on. Perhaps it put an ironic second spin on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But the smell of warm amplifiers pervaded the basements, garages, guitar stores, and backlines of my youth.

If we were to be intelligent about it, it should be understood that smells are extremely evocative in humans. The brain’s centers for smell and memory are very closely associated because they are both part of the limbic system. However, the olfactory center is also closely associated with the amygdata, which processes emotion, and with the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Thus, not only memories, but emotions themselves can be called up by olfactory stimuli. That adds up to a whole lot of association that triggers a whole lot of evocation when a scent is encountered by the nose and brain. It seems that smell, more than anything else, has the potential to trigger memories and emotions. Of course, for those delicious effects to return, one must accumulate pleasant memories and emotions associated with the scents, no? It is an agreeable side effect of experience and living.

So it was that this morning I found myself surrounded by a bunch of great old amps and an old Echoplex tape echo machine as I worked up some tunes for a new recording. Sure enough, as the old-timers warmed up, the unique fragrance that effuses from old gear soon wafted around me and reached all the way back into the historical recesses of my mind. It was a warm, welcoming balm, taking me back to many vivid memories, ranging from my early youth at the guitar store in Knoxville, Tennessee, to long practices with bands, miles away down long roads, and from there on through the years spanning the rest of my musical career. A cavalcade of each and every amp I had ever played and each band I had played in over the last forty years paraded through my memory. In the end I stopped rehearsing, sat back, and just bathed in the good memories for a while.

Mmmm... I do love the smell of vacuum tubes in the morning.