I have gotten a lot of emails lately asking for advice about how to get good guitar sounds. A lot of times they will say something like “I have all the same stuff as you but i’m not getting the same sound for some reason”. I try to tell them , nicely, that they can buy everything I have, but it’s not going to make them sound like me. If that was the case I would have all of The Edge’s gear. And all of Jimmy Page’s gear. and I would have bought the same microphone as Bono…
I can play through anything and still sound like me. I can play through a line 6 spyder amp and still sound like me. I don’t enjoy that, mainly because a modeling amp just doesn’t respond the way a nice tube amp does. But I can make it work.
I’ve never been much for tweaking knobs on amps. I don’t really understand what mids do. I still don’t know what a presence knob does. I just keep them turned off. I pretty much just plug in and play. In the early days that didn’t work out too well. Over time, however, my technique improved. That helps a lot. Then I started to try to find the sounds I heard in my head. These days, for the most part, I can just plug in and go. I’m really used to having to make backline work. I know what my pedal board and guitar sounds like. So when I plug in to an amp I’ve never used before I usually just plug in and start playing and don’t touch anything. If it sounds totally ridiculous i’ll turn a couple of knobs and act like I know what i’m doing until something sounds right. I know the characteristics of certain amps. I know that if I plug into a Fender Twin i’m going to have to turn the treble pretty much all the way off and turn the volume down to 2 or the soundguy is going to be a pill. I know that if I am playing with a Marshall with a closed back cabinet I’m not going to get the type of low end I prefer (I like open back cabinets) and i’m going to have to watch out for the (sometimes) harsh high end those things can give you. A big thing that helps is learning the gear you already have, instead of constantly buying new gear. If it’s not going to work, it’s not going to work, but if you can’t make a tubescreamer style pedal and a digital delay with tap tempo work, and you play modern style worship music, then it probably has more to do with you not understanding how to use what you have. So going out and buying a more expensive overdrive pedal (that is usually just a tubescreamer clone) and a fancy $400 tap tempo delay isn’t going to fix the original problem of you not knowing how to find the sound you think you want. It just makes you have less money.
I went years using the same few pedals. I learned them inside and out. Then, over time, I added to the sound I developed. I bought things that complemented what i was doing. I tried to find pedals that emulated things I was doing in the studio. I try (now) not to just buy pedals to buy pedals. That’s dumb. Then you have a pedal board full of crap you don’t need or use. That’s not to say I don’t have a shelf full of pedals that I don’t use much, or at all. I do. But I know what they do and If I need a freaky fuzz pedal, I know there is a ZVEX Fuzz Factory sitting on my shelf. If I have a pedal that just sits and doesn’t ever get used, I give it away or sell it to buy something else I need/want.
I think most people are more into gear than they are into playing guitar. It usually seems to me that the people that are the most obsessed with tone often times don’t have good tone.
Why Is that? Maybe it’s because they never hold on to something long enough to gain a consistent sound. If you have money burning a whole in your pocket it doesn’t mean you need a $400 pedal. Maybe you should fix up what you already have. If you have a nice tube amp, maybe you should find some NOS mullards and retube your amp. That will make a huge difference. Maybe buy some nice cables. Maybe pay off your credit cards that you’ve been abusing buying all the crap you don’t need.
A few other things that make a huge difference to your tone:
Have your guitars set up by an experienced luthier. Having proper intonation is a HUGE deal. Making sure your pickups are at the right height is really important. How high your action is also makes a difference.
Make sure your patch cables are in working order. You could have a short in a cable and not know that the cable is responsible for the weirdness you’ve been hearing.
Make sure your pedals are working properly. Same thing. If you have a dirty pot somewhere it could be seriously affecting your signal.
Volume doesn’t always mean more tone. Just because you crank your amp doesn’t mean you are getting better tone than the guy that plays at a lower volume. I promise.