Before I got into all the technology of music, all I had was my guitar and my fingers. I would practice for hours with a clean tone, working on scales and practicing solos. But the more gear I bought, the less technical work I have done lately. I now can put a ton of delay on my sound and make even the simplest of lead lines sound amazing. But have I lost the art of just playing well?
I recently picked up a guitar with no effects and realized how sloppy I was playing. There was no finesse, no singing quality. I could still play fast, but it wasn't clean and pretty. I realized that I have been using my pedal board as an excuse not to practice. I have been covering my flaws with a nice masking effect. And guitarists aren't the only guilty ones of this.
Drummers have enormous sets with way more cymbals and toms than they will ever use. They use a double kick pedal that really just muddies up their flow. Bass players have started using as much overdrive as guitar players (don't get me wrong, I like a distorted bass) and lose the ability to walk their instrument with ease.
We as musicians need to stop hiding behind our gear, strip our selves down on occasion, and get back to practicing. Work on running scales, nailing clean fills, or walking a fat bass line. Then when we put our effects back on, it will be all the better.