The quest for perfect tone is something every guitarist struggles with. Regardless of style, ability or whether or not you’ve sold out Wembley – getting the best sound out of your rig is important.
For the sake of this blog, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned about gear over the years. I’ve been buying, selling and collecting effects pedals since I was about 13. Since then I’ve learned a lot about the industry, tone and pretty much every variant of effects you can name. Whilst I certainly haven’t toured the world – I do consider myself knowledgeable in this field and am shameless tone-geek. Ergo, I felt I should note down some of my thoughts through this informal, long-form platform I’ve created. I could quite easily write a book on the topic; so this may be an ongoing addition to my site.
Tone itself can be broken into three major elements – guitars, amps and pedals. Whilst I will in due course cover all of these areas – I feel pedals is the most accessible place to start. Why? Because effects are the most inexpensive way to shape your tone. Sure, I could talk about neck profiles and vintage amps – but effects are a relatively easy addition to your ring. Rock music was transformed when Keith Richards played Satisfaction through a fuzz box… and these revolutionary little boxes are why I am asphyxiated by tone.
As my first article into this discussion – there’s a number of broad, slightly superficial points I’d like to address first.
Primarily, there is an unbelievable amount of bullshit in the guitar world. The misconception that you need certain gear to achieve good tone is a problem fuelled by internet message board. Albeit gear snobbery from wealthy players or bitter keyboard-warriors; too much of the guitar world is dictated by trends and money. So always remember to keep perspective. Consider what is best for you. Buying the most expensive flanger you can find may not be appropriate for the 30-seconds you actually use it. Likewise, don’t get fixated on what you are ‘supposed’ to want. No audiences in the world could tell the different between your AXE FX and that Vintage Dumble. In fact, out of a shit PA and after a few watered-down pints, the wonderful nuances of your hand-wired rig are completely lost. Therefore – don’t be afraid to compromise. Why tour with expensive, irreplaceable gear when you can find a middle-ground? MXR, Caitlinbreed, TC Electronic – all make quality pedals that capture the essence of vintage gear. Why risk your Echoplex on the road, when an EP-3 emulation can do the job for you? (and for a fraction of the space…)
Don’t get me wrong – I love vintage gear. Hell, if I could afford a RE-201, I’d bloody cherish it. But there’s a distinction that needs to be made about what is required. James Dean Bradield (Manic Street Preachers) argues that you should collect as much gear (i.e. –‘fucked up weird amps‘) as possible for the studio. Just looking at the production diary for Postcard From A Young Man will reveal the variety in his tonal palette. However – on the road, he emphases a need for something that works; a reliable workhouse rig; that gets your guitar into the ballpark it needs. (Skip to 4:20 *blaze it* on the video below)
In short – rise above the bullshit and go with your instinct. What you think is best, 9/10 times, is the case. (You are your own worst critic…) It’s not so much that boutique gear is bad (it really isn’t), but the stigma of buying certain gear often taints people’s choices. You only need to look at a page of Praise and Worship pedalboard* to see the abhorrent lack of individuality in certain tone choices. Don’t follow the crowd – and don’t be afraid to challenge the norm. I mean, come on, it worked for Jimmy…
*I’d link to Instagram if that were possible. Just lookups some #worship #tone tags and you’ll get the picture.
Another important tip is to – know your gear. It sounds obvious, but you’ll be surprised how many fail to get the best out of their rig. Honestly; three pedals you know inside out will invariably sound better than six you don’t. For a long time, my board consisted of an always-on boost, a dual-channel dirt pedal and a delay. I could get a plethora of tone out of this rig – yet it’s real estate was minimal. How? Because I knew my rig inside-out. I knew exactly how to dial in certain sounds, exactly how it reacted to volume and different settings. Nevertheless, I think the correlation with this and my previous point is important. I’ve seen so many cases of guitarists buying expensive, boutique gear because of what is said forums without understanding how to use them. It takes a long time to gel with gear, and it is unsurprising some artists still tour with the pedals they did 10 years ago. Perhaps we should all try and get the most out of your current rig before upgrading. GAS is inevitable (n.b I’ll devote a whole article GAS some day), but there is no need to waste money either. Experiment with whatever gear you can, maybe even mod something on the cheap. Some of the best tones come out of the simplest rigs – I’ve learned first hand how beneficial it is to downsize my pedal-chain. (Both in terms of fidelity and portability). Just don’t rush out to buy £3k’s worth of fuzz pedals because The Gear Page told you to. (There’s a joke about TGP asking you to jump off a bridge here somewhere...)
But let’s turn this all on its head. (Perhaps I am extenuating the guitar-tone bullshit myself!) I recently discussed compressors with a friend and stated that ‘justifying a comp pedal to bandmates is impossible…’. Certain effects, to the untrained ear, are invisible. You’re certainly insane if you think your drummer cares about your compression ratio. But maybe that doesn’t matter. I started this piece stating that your audience won’t tell the difference what gear you use – and that is entirely true. (within reason , obviously) However, you the player, will notice the difference. However subtle, the nuance of tone is felt in the fingers. Certain effects inspire different playability. A good compressor will even out your resonance and offer a new dynamic to your picking. Therefore – whilst a meaningless investment to the rest of the band – it allows you to find inspiration on the fret board.
… and how can I possibly deter that? For all the snobbery and nonsense gear encourages – musical inspiration is the very reason we play guitar.
Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make is that you should follow your intuition when it comes to tone. Don’t get distracted by all the prestigious bullshit about what you should and shouldn’t have. Don’t be afraid to try new things – and make your own choice in terms of gear. Only a developed ear and a close bond with your rig will ever sound good – and no amount of money can buy that. You are the only one capably of excavating the tone from your gear. To some extent, you can make anything sound good. (Ever see Seasick Steve live…?). Most say tone is in the fingers and I can’t argue with that. Nevertheless, The Quest For Tone is long, expensive and awfully frustrating. But it’s also one of the most exiting things about playing the electric guitar. Kurt Cobain styled a whole genre with his Boss DS-1 – what the hell is stopping you?