Written by Don from Millennium Bug.
Don can also be found on YouTube.
Calling all guitarists!
Without a great sound, your dazzling technique and mastery of repertoire mean nothing. Cover band guitarists in particular are often required to radically change their sound from song to song.
Don from Millennium Bug unravels the mystery of great guitar tone.
It’s a funny thing; electric guitarists seem to obsess over the tone of their instrument more than almost any other type of musician. Yet, they don’t always sound good. There are several reasons for this:
Great guitar tone is not just down to one ingredient
(e.g. a great guitar), it’s a whole chain of events starting at your fingers and ending at your speaker. It’s like cooking; change one ingredient and you may find you have to tweak the others.
The marketplace is overcrowded and confusing.
Many players know roughly what sound they want but are completely overwhelmed with choice when it comes to getting it. Some spend so much time trading gear that they never learn how to get the best out of what they already have.
There are so many tones to recreate – especially if you’re playing covers or a range of sessions.
So you need a rig that can get close to all of them whilst giving you the feel and response that allows you to play YOUR best.
Online forums and reviews tend to make the situation worse.
In the information age we are overwhelmed with opinions pointing us in several different directions at once. It’s very easy to become insecure about a rig that may actually be working very well for you. “Do I need a £3000 amp?” “Is my amp hand-wired and does it matter?” “I like diode-based distortion, is this bad?” “My pedalboard I love, but Moneybags666 says I need a stereo rack system or I’m not really playing guitar.”
It’s a wonder any of us get round to playing at all! I take nothing away from stereo rack systems by the way; they are pretty much a necessity for certain genres.
The most important thing to realise about your equipment and your tone is that it is a means to an end; not the end in itself.
If your rig is reliable, transportable and makes you want to play, that’s a good start. Or, if your rig sounds good in a range of styles, you’re doing better than most. Lastly, if your rig feels amazing under your fingers and responds in a way that inspires creativity, you’re ahead of the game. Don’t change it! Tweak it, by all means. We all have room for improvement and we all like to grow to accommodate new styles. But, don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong. Their needs, fingers, ears and wallet are all different from yours.
So here is some practical advice you can use to improve your current situation without spending money you don’t need to spend.
1. Start from the source
Every guitar tech has a story of a client coming in and saying “my guitar sounds bad, fix it” and then letting on that the strings haven’t been changed since the guitar was new! Fresh strings sound and feel better to most players – if your guitar isn’t inspiring you or doesn’t feel great, check them. If your strings are rusty, sticky to the touch or pitted where they press against the frets, no amount of eq’ing and no amount of Boutique Hand-Wired Vintage NOS Snake Oil will make them sound right. Importantly, you won’t necessarily want to pick up your guitar either. If your guitar feels and plays right, you will play better, which leads me onto my next point…
2. Get your chops in order
If your playing is sloppy and out of time, it doesn’t matter how good your tone is. Having good tone and poor timing is like training for a marathon by buying expensive shoes. To take just one genre as an example, some of the most revered rock guitar tones of all time are incredibly bright, verging on thin when heard in isolation (Van Halen I, Slash on Appetite for Destruction) but work incredibly well with the band. What makes those guitar sounds so powerful is context. An engineer can’t slot you into a mix and give your playing context if you are out of time with the rest of the band.
When people talk about EVH as having one of the greatest guitar sounds of all time they often forget he is also one of the greatest rhythm guitar players of all time. He has strength and technique that could make any guitar sound good, and one of the most effortless grooves in the business. Even his worst recorded tones are incredibly effective as a result.
3. Overlook nothing
Experiment with string gauge, picks, cables, brands of tube – everything – until you find what works. A different gauge or material of pick might require different settings on your amp or a different flavour of booster pedal to bring the best out of your playing. Thinner strings might thin your tone, or they might improve your accuracy/fluidity and actually sound better with your particular signal chain. Too many pedals in front of your amp will dull your tone unless you either buffer your signal or put them in a true bypass box. There are solutions to this dilemma ranging from a basic but effective £30 true bypass box with LEDs, through to a £100 buffer, right up to something like TheGigRig – which puts all your pedals in loops and allows you to program which loops you want active at any one time.
Experiment with the options that are available to you and find out what sounds and feels best to you. If you like a little bit of “tone suck” or high frequency roll-off before your amp, that’s fine too. Hendrix used curly (high capacitance) cables for exactly this reason.
4. Knowledge is power
If you have a basic understanding of tube amp maintenance and the way gain stages interact, you have a far better chance of getting a consistently good sound. If you spend a bit of time researching and playing around with amps you will begin to get a feel for how different designs work or don’t work for you. This doesn’t necessarily mean buying anything. You can get involved with “amp fests” on forums (just dodge the politics!), you can try the house amps at different venues or studios, or you can get together with other like-minded players locally and trade ideas. Don’t get too bogged down though; some of the best-sounding players I have ever heard know almost nothing about equipment but know exactly what works for them. No matter which approach you take, this is your goal.
To learn more about guitar amplifier design and basic maintenance, I recommend reading Dave Hunter’s book The Guitar Amp Handbook, published by Backbeat Books.
5. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
This is one of the most difficult things about being a guitar player. As a musician, it’s healthy to always strive for the next plateau. Particularly when there are so many styles and sounds associated with the electric guitar, it’s easy to feel that your equipment is holding you back from exploring some of them.
There are two things to understand here; the first is that it may not be your equipment holding you back. It may be your setup, or your string gauge, or your strap length, or your practice schedule, or any number of factors far cheaper than the latest flavour of the month amp head. The second is that once you reach the stage where you enjoy your sound, and other people tell you they enjoy it too, you have already reached a zenith that eludes many players for their entire career. From this point onwards, it can be very difficult to improve one aspect of your sound without diminishing another. Consider tweaking the small things or adding a pedal or two before completely redesigning your rig. By the same token, the day something no longer inspires you to play, get rid of it.
6. Much of the music you love was created on equipment cheaper and simpler than that you already own
This speaks for itself really. If a simple guitar into a stock Marshall with maybe a few pedals is/was good enough for Paul Kossoff, Gary Moore, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani or an almost endless list of greats, the chances are you should at least try it. The reason for buying a boutique amplifier is because it offers the precise selection of sounds you need in a package you like; and maybe has tighter component specs, better customer service or a transferable lifetime warranty. Perhaps it is built better and has better reliability; perhaps not. Do not buy a boutique amplifier expecting it to sound “better” than a stock Marshall or Fender or Peavey every time.
Many of most revered circuits of all time were designed from radio manuals around off-the-shelf components; and these circuits are exactly what some boutique amplifiers set out to replicate and re-package anyway. On the other hand, if a £3000 Bogner or Friedman or Soldano does exactly what you need, every time, don’t feel the need to justify it. £3000 is cheap compared to a top-end violin or saxophone. These companies and others like them have no concept of planned obsolescence or under-engineering, and their after-care is world class.
7.Match your power to your audience
In practice, 30 to 50 watts is enough for most of us. A tube amp that can compete with a loud drummer and that begins to offer some sweet power amp breakup and sustain at stage volume is exactly right for many musical styles. Most players find that playing feel is the most important attribute and that on the occasions when they need more firepower or a better spread of sound they are being mic’d anyway. 100 watt amps aren’t necessarily about more volume. They are about firmer, more three-dimensional lows, greater clean headroom, and a different playing feel that may or may not be right for you. I love 50 and 100 watt amps for my playing style. And, I don’t have a problem turning them down, but I realise I may be in the minority.
It’s good practice to always carry an SM57 or equivalent mic, an XLR cable, a good DI box (for your acoustic) and a small microphone stand just in case. Mine live in a small flight case along with my spare tubes and fuses.
8. Don’t ignore digital modellers.
The world of digital guitar amplification is advancing very rapidly. Many top-level players have moved over to the Kemper Profiler or the Fractal Axe-FX II. Both of which offer more amp models than you could ever use, along with world-class digital effects and an incredibly realistic set of speaker simulations.
If you are plugging into a powerful PA or recording a lot, you might find that one of these one-box solutions gives you an even wider range of great sounds at controllable volume. And, allows you almost infinite control over the aspects of your signal chain that matter. On the other hand, many players have come back to tube amps having found they spent too much time tweaking in the digital world. Or, that they had hundreds of great sounds but didn’t like the feel. Some players find they only like two or three amp models for their playing style and decide they’d rather own those amps. Again, you have to try this stuff with an open mind and see if it’s for you.
9. Your speaker cabinet often has more impact on the frequencies you occupy than any other part of your signal chain
There are several factors at play here. The first, and most obvious, is that every speaker type and cabinet arrangement (open/closed back, 1×12″, 2×12″, 4×12″, 4×10″ etc.) has a different effect on the eq curve of your sound.
For more mids you could try a Vintage 30 or Greenbacktype. Recorded speaker comparisons like the ones on Celestion’s website can be very helpful here, as at this point you may be more interested in frequency content than playing feel.
Speaker breakup also plays a very important role though. If you are playing a 50 watt valve amp at reasonable volume into a 2×12 containing 25 watt Celestion Greenbacks, those Greenbacks are actually distorting some or all of the time, which changes the distortion grain, frequency content and feel/sustain characteristics of your sound. That’s why Greenbacks are often referred to as having a woody or “violin-like” quality under distortion.
Some players like their speakers to break up very little or not at all, so they might play a 40 watt amp into a pair of 200 watt JBL speakers for example. These players are probably getting the exact sound and feel they crave from their amp and pedals, and simply want their speakers to provide a loud, firm and relatively uncoloured platform for that sound. It’s a different way of working that might be perfect for your style, so give it a try.
Cabinet design also affects perceived volume and dispersion characteristics. An open-backed cabinet may have a looser low end and chimier midrange, but it will normally sound louder and disperse more for any given setting. If many of the sounds you crave were created using open-backed cabinets, this is something to experiment with. The particular warmth and compression imparted by an open-backed cabinet cannot necessarily be replicated via eq or pedals.
Finally, speaker sensitivity (measured in dBm) plays a role of varying importance.
Efficient speakers like Celestion’s Vintage 30s (100 dBm) will throw out more volume for any given amplifier setting. When the difference between a 100 watt amp and a 50 watt amp at full tilt is only 3dB, speaker sensitivity can be a real game-changer. The right speaker could make your 50 watter as loud as a 100 watter. Conversely, a lower efficiency speaker (not to be confused with a lower wattage speaker) could attenuate your 100 watter and make it more manageable on stage. In the days before master volume amps, speaker sensitivity was possibly even more important; it could mean the difference between running your Fender Twin completely clean or well into breakup. Even in the modern world of multi-channel high wattage amps with relatively clean power stages, speaker sensitivity can still make a huge difference to feel.