Guitar players love gear. A new guitar is a wonderful thing, often a great inspiration, and new toys are endless fun. (I have several new additions to my pedalboard and howling, chirping, and whooshing sounds are becoming a regular part of my live sound after years of just plugging straight into the amp).
There are also many players that insist on a certain rig to get their tone. I certainly have favorite combinations of guitar and amplifier, but it depends on the gig. With the DI3 trio it’s my Epi and Princeton. Playing lead with my singer-songwriter friends it’s generally the Strat and the little Marshall combo (the clean channel has a nice tight sound that gets along really well with acoustic guitar and keyboards). Around Nashville at jams and sessions it’s usually (of course) the Tele and one Fender amp or another (I have to say that the Princeton usually wins, but my 2X12 DeVille moves a whole lot of air when power is the goal). Different sounds for different applications. But yet, as different as these combinations sound from one another, I always get MY tone.
So how does that work, you might ask? How does a Telecaster sound similar to a semi-hollow Epiphone? The answer is, it doesn’t…different combinations of wood, string tension, pickups, and electronics will always sound different. But the constant is, of course, me.
I played classical guitar seriously for years…I still love a nylon-string and I have had a rekindled interest in composed music recently. My main classical is a handmade spruce top instrument with a big, thick sound…but it’s completely unforgiving. Spruce guitars are clean and well-defined, and that clarity means that every string squeak or imprecise landing comes through. There’s nothing to hide behind, and the fact that you generally play alone just adds to the feeling of being completely on your own and exposed. No matter how well-made the guitar is, you’re still dependent on your hands to produce a good sound. It’s about precision to a certain extent, at least as far as keeping the string squeak under control and not letting notes buzz or ping. But the longer I play (and the further I get from the conservatory mindset of technical perfection as the constant goal) the more I find I’m focusing on pure SOUND. Consistent good tone, yes, but also tonal variation and shading. Sometimes even ugly sounds when the music calls for them. (I love ugly tone on electric guitar…”skronky” playing is a whole lot of fun and is very communicative when approached tastefully). My favorite thing about my classical guitar is not necessarily the richness of the individual notes but the overtones the whole instrument produces. And I’ve come to realize that I hear and accentuate those harmonics on every instrument, from that beautiful handmade classical to the little Harmony parlor guitar I paid 35 bucks for. Those ringing harmonics are a part of my sound, and more a byproduct of my touch, attack, and approach to fingering than the specifics of the instrument.
Transfer this idea to electric guitar. Again the harmonics come into play (I’ve found that with properly applied effects I can even create layers of sound and the illusion of multiple parts, or at least a tone that takes up more sonic space – useful in a power trio). But even taking that out of the picture – back to plugging straight into the amp – the way my fingers approach the strings has a huge impact on tone. There’s physics involved here – the shape of the fingers affects the transmission of mechanical force to the strings, whic affects in return the resonance of the instrument. My hands are shaped and proportioned in a certain way, as are everyone’s, and those proportions vary. The style you play affects this too – a straight-ahead jazz player is likely to use not just a different rig but a different hand position from a blues-rock player. I do vary that position and attack when changing styles or instruments – but it’s still MY hands, my touch, my vibrato, my pick attack. All of these things are essential parts of producing a sound.
I was in a recording session recently at a studio that had a rack of guitars sitting out in the tracking room, and it was great fun to pick up different instruments and explore. I had used a nice Gibson SG on a track, and upon hearing the playback the producer said to me “only you could make a Gibson sound like a Fender”. It was a compliment (sorry, Gibson purists): he meant that my sound was coming more from me than from my choice of guitar. There’s also a story, which may or may not be true, about Van Halen’s first tour opening for Ted Nugent in the late 70’s. Ted was so impressed with Eddie Van Halen’s sound that after soundcheck he plugged into Eddie’s rig…and of course, he sounded like Ted Nugent. Pat Metheny tells a story about being on tour in Eastern Europe and having to use borrowed gear of local origin for an impromptu TV performance. Upon seeing the broadcast he was amazed that even without his own rig, he heard his sound. Van Halen and Metheny are, of course, hugely influential players and masters of their instrument…but the point is that part of what makes them who they are is the recognition that they produce their sound by being who they are.
This is a great point to keep in mind. We’re all going to have our favorite setups…some guitars just have SOMETHING that we can’t define, or just make it easier to play well…but if you think as much about your hands as you do about your gear, I’ll bet you’ll get more out of your rig no matter what it is.