I’m a creature of habit, 100%. Borderline OCD makes me happy when things are “normal” and in a routine. It’s something I’ve noticed for many years that permeates through all of my daily life, down to food choices, what deodorant I use, all that stuff. When I go to one of our local restaurants, I’ll normally order one of the three or four different dishes I usually get. This same thing was overtly apparent after getting a Suhr a few months ago, then the PRS Silver Sky. My OCD kicks in, and when things are out of place, it’s just impossible for me to bond with instruments, pedals, amps, etc. A lot of it is expectation versus reality, then adding my desire for consistency it makes for a lot of gear flipping.
I was very fortunate to find an incredible deal several months back on a Suhr Antique heavy relic, with three Thornbuckers in it. It was an incredible sounding guitar, and the neck felt great in my hands. I had it for about two weeks, to where I was enjoying it but there just wasn’t something quite right. At the time, I had it built up in my mind that “It’s a Suhr, it has to be something wrong in my mind, these guitars are supposed to be perfect.” I played it for another couple weeks and found myself still feeling like it wasn’t quite where I wanted it. Despite my better judgment, and complete lack of experience, I watched a couple of YouTube videos, changed to my favorite strings that I use on every guitar (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s, I’ve been using them for over a decade now), and adjusted the truss-rod and the saddles on the bridge. Threw a set of Dunlop strap locks on there, and sure enough, that’s what it needed. It came down to it being a comfort level thing, where those strings and the security strap locks give me mentally helped complete the puzzle.
The strap lock thing is entirely for a reason, and to this day I’ll put a set of strap locks on every guitar I ever own in the future. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I had a PRS Custom 22 in Scarlet Red. That PRS was a guitar that I had saved for over two years for, and it was my first genuinely nice guitar. I was in a hard rock band and did a lot of jumping around and carrying on, and we were practicing before a gig in a garage. We were mid-jam when I jumped in the air, and when I landed the back of the strap broke and my beloved PRS went flying and hit the concrete floor. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I was fortunate because it mainly took a 1’ chip of finish off down to the wood near the jack, but the back as absolutely scratched to death. I couldn’t repair the considerable chunk of finish that chipped off, but I was able to at least wax some of the scratches out of the back. No guitar to this day feels safe unless I have strap locks on it now. I soon stopped jumping around pretty permanently after that.
The string situation comes down to preference and comfort. I’m used to the tension and tone that the Regular Slinky’s (10’s) give me, and although I’ve played guitars with other strings that worked just fine, nothing quite feels like home like a set of Slinkys’. I’ve gone through the phases of trying heavier and lower gauge strings, and for me, heavier than 10’s make my carpal tunnel act up, and anything lower than 10’s feel like playing spaghetti. I’ve tried various brands, from NYXL’s, D’Addario’s, and even boutique strings, and though they all sounded good and played fine, it always comes down to a manner of familiarity and what my ears expect along with how the strings feel under my fingers. The same thing went on with my PRS Silver Sky, where I just wasn’t comfortable until I put my favorite strings on there, adjusted the truss rod how I liked it, and even adjusted the pickups down to better suit my tastes. After those small adjustments (and a set of strap locks), it immediately felt sturdier and like I was “at home.” It just proved that I’m horrendously set in my ways, sometimes to a fault. The irony is that I’ve changed “favorite picks” so many times that I can’t count on my fingers and toes (albeit most revolve around a thicker, JazzIII XL shape).
Am I weird and the only one who does this? Not sure. I guess one way to look at it is that I know what I want more-so than in years past. The same has occurred recently with pedals too. I’ve moved more OD’s and fuzzes and dirt boxes on and off my board for so long now that there were days when I had a board full of nothing but dirt, to try them all. Now, I’m down to 3 dirt pedals that have stayed relatively consistent on my board, and they’re about what you’d expect: Klone (depends on the board size as to whether it’s a mini or a large one), Tubescreamer, and a Bluesbreaker of some sort. I like them versatile enough to cover lots of ground, but not so much that they overlap a whole lot. The same goes for most of the rest of my board, and I think it’s what it means when people talk about finding their own personal tone. I still flip pedals, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I think in that situation, getting in the comfort zone can be kind of nice (especially financially).
A few days ago Brian, Alex and I were talking as Brian was thinking about video ideas for YouTube, and we were discussing guitarists who play live regularly but still get a few things wrong. Not necessarily in terms of their playing, but their approach to the instrument. Once I started to give ideas for subjects it occurred to me that I was just talking about me when I first started playing live, some 27 or so years ago (Man, that makes me sound old).
This conversation made me think about what I would say to myself if I had the opportunity to go back and advise the younger me with the benefit of what I have learned in the thousands of gigs I’ve done since…
- You aren’t as good as they tell you.
When I was 17 I was able to play virtually anything I wanted, I was in a rock covers band playing stuff that was designed purely to impress other guitar players. After a year or so, I thought I was brilliant because people kept telling me I was as I could play fast complicated stuff, but the reality of it was that I was just showing off. Playing for their appreciation and not caring one iota about what really mattered. I should have been more humble and understood that just because I played “It’s a Monster” as an opener, including the solo without warming up (see, still showing off), it didn’t mean I was good, I was just flashy. All style and no substance, or as my dear ol’ cockney Granddad would have said, “all mouth and no trousers”. Which leads me nicely too…
- Take some lessons and learn to read.
My biggest regret in life, thus far, was not sourcing a decent teacher and learning to read properly. I was proud of the fact “I’ve never taken a lesson in my life” and thought it made me a better musician. It didn’t, it just restricted the future me. In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure and honour of becoming good friends with amazing guitar teachers and the things I’ve learned from them, just in passing, have made me 100 times the player I was. Imagine if I’d actually had some proper lessons earlier in life…
- Listen to the rest of the band, ALL of the time.
This was the hardest learning curve of them all, and it’s something I struggle with now. I really wish I had got this into my head much much earlier. After all, being in a band is about creating and playing music with a bunch of like-minded people. Listening to them, bouncing off them, playing WITH them (instead of just playing with yourself – double entendre COMPLETELY intended) is everything. Be in a band, they are not there to back you up, you are an equal part in the end product.
- Gain. GAIN! Turn it the hell down!
The most powerful gain tones are not the ones with loads of gain, just the ones with the right amount properly EQ’d. You will probably need two distinct gain tones, one for rhythm and one for lead. How this is achieved is variable, either volume control on the guitar or via a boost pedal, but you know, your lead tone is gonna sound utterly horrible for rhythm. Usually. Also worth remembering the louder you play, the less gain you are likely to need. I expect there is a technical explaination for this, but I don’t know it!
- Practice the subtle stuff, it’s what will define you to your peers.
Especially vibrato and bends. Make sure your intonation is on point, make sure your vibrato isn’t crap. Because when you don’t work on either, you will sound bloody awful and to the guys in the know that are listening, you will be severely lacking.
- Don’t be afraid of new music.
When grunge hit I was terrified, my dazzling technique meant nothing to anyone, I got completely lost so I decided I hated it and refused to play it. What an idiot. Roll with it youngling, roll with it.
- Learn the neck properly
This is something I’ve been working on recently after a long discussion with Mr Tom Quayle on a very long flight. As usual, he was trying to help me and I was arguing for the fun of it, but he won in the end. He calls it fretboard visualisation. This is knowing what all the notes are on the neck, and how the relate to each other… this way, when improvising, you can move around the neck easier as you know where the sweet spots are. And not the complicated ones, ending a passage on a third, fifth or seventh of the chord you are currently over sounds so much better than landing on the root… so, this is directly related to breaking out the boxes I suppose, something else I was stuck in when I was trying to be me back in the day.
- If it’s being played properly, there’s no such thing as crap music
Kinda guessing that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the music I liked was great and the rest was crap when I was young. I don’t particularly like certain styles/genres of music still, but I listen to it often, because you absorb stuff when you listen to it and it will increase your vocabulary considerably when you are in full flow without realising it.
- If the crowd aren’t being responsive, it ain’t their fault
If the band is boring, make up to you to make it more interesting. Well, this is going to be a contentious one I think... As a lead guitar player, or even the rhythm guitar player, it’s kinda up to you to bring the colour to the songs. If you are working with a great bass player, they will do their bit, but if you are still banging out boring chords and predictable solos, then look at yourself before you judge your audience.
- Protect your hearing
Pretty certain I don't need to explain this any further...
- Carry spares. Of everything
I know, kinda obvious isn’t it. However, there was a time when I didn’t… turned out to be the worst gig of my life!
That’s my ‘have a word with yourself’ moment... For your amusement, the header picture of me is from 1992, and this is the 2018 version - and yes, I do miss my hair!
I’m a gear and pedal addict, and I’m always scouring the internet for whatever is catching my eye at the moment (Gibson SG’s right now in fact). I find it interesting when I see magazine articles or YouTube videos about someone’s rig rundown (or when you see some big name artist like Prince or countless others) and their pedal board was comprised of almost all Boss pedals.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it led me to thinking; do we obsess too much over gear? Why do some obsess over “boutique” gear while others are just fine with Boss or some other more budget-friendly brand pedals? Is our pursuit of tone out of necessity to achieve “the sound”? Personal enjoyment? Acquiring the latest and greatest gear? Is it a culmination of all of the above?
I tried to narrow it down to three types of players, in a very broad sense. This is a generalization, so in many scenarios it isn’t quite that static but more of a general observation than anything.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it” – These are players that love their tone just the way it is and has always been since they found “their sound” years ago. They have no desire to change it at all. Many times the players that fit this idea have great amps that they’re accustomed to and know every nuance about them, and every tone they can produce. There are likely a few base effects, maybe a boost or OD, delay, chorus, wah, or fuzz (among other things). In many cases it’s not a massive pedalboard, but in many cases the player has learned to coax the tones out of a smaller board of older pedals, and they don’t need any more than that. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, because it allows the player to focus solely on playing the instrument instead of twisting knobs and they know their tone and utilize every piece of gear with precision that fits the moment and what sound they need.
G.A.S. Hounds – (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) – These are the players that love to buy gear and search for new tones. There hasn’t been any official proof of why GAS sets in, but millions of players are stricken with the insatiable lust for “new” gear (new can consist of new-to-you, which is why the used market is massive right now). It could be the newest DSP delay that has been released with MIDI input, or a Distortion with active EQ controls and multiple gain stages, or a new Fuzz that’s supposed to be identical to one of the classic fuzzes Hendrix or Gilmour used. In many cases, it’s solely curiosity that drives players to want to try out the new gear.
New gear also can greatly inspire a player to try new tones and thus new ways of playing, which can be advantageous in growing their skill and finding their own sound. This works really well when a player is stuck in a rut with their playing, feeling like they aren’t progressing no matter how hard they try. There are many factors that could be discussed at a later date, but in general the GAS hounds are consistently on the chase for a new sound.
This leads to “flipping”, where a player purchases something (new or used) and in turn after playing it, “flips” it by reselling it in order to replenish the funds to put towards more gear. This is a major advantage to buyers and sellers in the used market, which is why it’s thriving so well. There are a lot worse things to do with your time and your money. Some people like to go bowling or play golf; G.A.S. hounds like to try new gear.
They just don’t care – There are a lot of players out there that don’t care what brand of pedal they playing, or whether it’s true bypass or buffered or if a pedal has the extra fancy functions. To them it is just a tool that they use to create music. It is like a carpenter who goes out and buys a hammer. He doesn’t necessarily need a certain brand name, just a good hammer that gets the job done. A lot of artists fall into this category. They know they need a certain sound, but they really don’t have the time, or care to compare delay pedal A to delay pedal B. They just need a solid functioning pedal that will get the job done and let them get their music out to the world.
So where do you fit in? Have you achieved your sound and are happy with what you have? Or are you the player that just likes to check out the newest offerings from the gear world out of curiosity? Or do you view pedals as just another tool in the toolbox, and it doesn’t matter what brand it is as long as it makes the sound you were hearing in your head?
The funny thing is, like most things in the guitar world, there is no right or wrong way to be. It really is about what makes you happiest, and what makes you want to pick up your axe and head to the woodshed.
When you think of tone, what comes to mind? For me it is all encompassing, from the wood the guitar is made of, the pickups, what type of wiring is setup, the string brand and gauge, to the cables, to each pedal and what it does to the signal, the pre-amp and power amp, the speaker, the wood that the speaker cab is made up. For me tone is the culmination of the effort you’ve put into selecting each part of your signal chain, and factoring in the tonality of your individual playing style and how it reacts to different gear.
I’m also 30 and a total gear nerd, and I love that stuff. My thought processes have changed over the years. When I was 15 and learning and playing punk rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine and Incubus covers, my friends and I always had the same frame of mind: Hottest pickups and amps you could get in your hands, and ALL KNOBS ON 10! Our guitar volume was either on 10 or 0, and there was no in-between unless by accident. At that point we didn’t even see the need to have a tone knob, because it was never below 10 (and we dreamt of custom guitars that included no tone knobs, just volume). This served me well for many years until I grew up some and learned the subtle differences just those two knobs make on you overall sound and some of the amazing tones you can get by adjusting them in small increments.
Today, I set my amps pretty neutral EQ-wise to be pedal-friendly, except for the fact that I add a touch of extra treble and cut the mids a bit to use pedals and my guitar to fill in those tone frequencies. I normally roll the tone knob back on my guitar to about 7.5-8 depending on the guitar at all times (more with Tele’s than my Les Paul), reserving that extra bit of top end for when I really need to get out front in a hurry, or if I’m in the middle of playing and it sounds too muddy I’ll roll it up without having to change anything other than my guitars. This works on the other viewpoint as well, so if I’m changing guitars and something is too bright (my Strat bridge pickup) I will roll it down a bit more. That’s how I approach the tone knob when playing personally, but it’s definitely not a hard fast rule.
When talking with Brian and Jason, they both still keep their tone knobs on 10 and never roll them down, though they do use their volume knobs pretty heavily. How do you use the Tone knob on your guitars?
For the sake of discussion, here’s Joe Bonamassa discussing how he uses the knobs. He forgot to add that the interaction with the pedals is a thing of tonal beauty as well: