How many times have you seen that comment as part of an argument online and kinda rolled your eyes at it? Well, if you are anything like me, you stopped counting when you ran out of fingers and toes.
So, to counter that, here is a bold statement. “Who cares if the audience can hear the difference?”
OK, so let me expand on that a little. When I play live (and I’m pretty certain that this applies to everyone I play with and coming to think about it, everyone I’ve spoken too about it), a great guitar tone (or bass tone – or drum tone or whatever) is about one thing and one thing only, giving the person who is behind the instrument the opportunity to feel as comfortable as possible in order to play at their very best. The audience, generally, only cares about two things. “Is the band any good?” and “Do I like the music?”. We can do nothing about the second statement, but the first we have total control over - I doubt very much if the audience is thinking about the composite parts that result in that what they are hearing.
An integral part of any live performance is whether or not the band is any good. It’s extremely rare that a band will sound good to the audience as a whole if they sound simply awful (unless of course, their whole existence is that rough around the edges feel). I’ve seen some amazing bands in the past that have given me a terrible night because they sounded awful – and that could be the FOH mix, the individual instrument tones or anything else. I remember one night were an entire pub emptied within 3 songs because the band sounded awful. And this was the same band that went on to sell out endless world tours and go on to become one of the biggest and influential bands currently performing.
In order for the band to sound great, each person has to be at the top of their game and a lot of the time you can peel that back to ensuring that every person on the stage is comfortable and loving what they are doing and hearing. Have you ever been on stage when for some reason your gear doesn’t react the way you expect it to and it go on to ruin your night? I have, many times. That’s the ‘beauty’ of playing in bars and clubs, some rooms naturally sound amazing and some kill the sound. The key to this, for me anyway, is that in order to feel comfortable I have to be in the right ‘zone’. And that zone is all about my mental state and the relation between me and my gear. If I’m not comfortable, then I don’t play as well. My wife can spot it by the time the first song is halfway through if I’m not comfortable.
Quite often, either during a break or after the gig, people wander over to the stage area and say “You don’t need all that… etc etc” and then go on to say how good it sounds and how much they enjoy/ed my playing. This always strikes me as a little odd, surely the only thing they care about is if it sounds good. It shouldn’t matter if I have one pedal and a £50 guitar into a crappy amp, or if I have boutique level stuff from start to finish… as long as it sounds good as part of the end product. In order for it to sound good, then I have to be stood there and feel 100% comfortable and ready to melt some faces. I think this is key to this debate and a word I've used several times already in this piece – 'comfortable'. Is the player comfortable? and is the gear making them comfortable? I am fully aware that my epic board is somewhat of a comfy blanket for me, I rely on it and most of the effects on it are used once, which is a lot of money to spend on something that is only used in that way – but consider this. I am there for two reasons. Firstly, to satisfy my desire to play live and make music with my buddies, and to see the audience enjoy themselves. The one song that flies into my head at this point is “Runaway” by Del Shannon, latterly covered by Gary Allen – and the version we go is somewhere in the middle of the two. The intro to that is quite a specific tone, and it uses a one time only patch from the Mobius and Timeline (although the TimeLine is used constantly throughout the gig the Mobius only features in 4-5 other songs, 1 for vibe, 1 for tremolo and 3 or so with chorus) - does it make having a £450 pedal worthwhile? My answer is a resounding YES! On that song, as when I hit that big Am riff to start it, people jump up and start dancing. That makes me comfortable, that makes me happy and so I play better.
The main question I have to ask myself is this. Would it sound any worse to the audience if I didn’t use those patches and just got myself a crappy cheap trem pedal. Or not use those sounds at all and just use a normal tone. Well, it may well do… but the fact it’s all midi controlled so the tempo is right makes me a happy boy. There is no tap dancing, there is no tweaking of speed, it’s just there and I know that it’s going to sound killer every night (not taking into consideration if the room is awful). This means I can relax, concentrate on one of the most finger bending solos I have to do later in the song and not worry about anything not sounding the way I expect it to.
There are a lot of players out there who survive beautifully going straight in, or using cheaper pedals and everything else, but as a player I need to know what to expect when I hit that button. When I know what to expect, I relax, when I am relaxed I play better. And the only thing the audience does care about, I’ve found, is that I play to the best of my abilities every time I get up on that stage. It’s not about sounding the best because the £2K Klon has more mojo than the £150 Tumnus, it’s about only having to concentrate on the playing. For me, the Klon is excessive as I feel I don’t need it as the Tumnus does the trick for me every night, but I know many players that only feel comfortable when they have a real vintage Klon in their chain. Now, I can barely tell the difference when I play them side by side, so incorporated into a band mix I’m 100% confident I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and I would go as far as saying that they can’t either… the audience wouldn’t have a chance – but if the player is happy, and therefore playing their best because they are so happy, then for me – it’s worth every penny spent.
For reference, here is my rig and I’ve taken the liberty of adding up the total cost of it all new.
PRS Brent Mason signature.
’94 Fender MIM Strat with hand wired Seymour Duncan Antiquities
Line6 G30, TC Electronic Polytune 2 into One Control OC-10 looper that contains…. Wampler Mini Ego Compressor, Wampler Mini Tumnus, Wampler Paisley Drive Deluxe, TC Quintessence, Strymon Mobius (split into pre and post), Strymon TimeLine, TC Electronic MiniHOF, Wampler dB+… All wired up with Evidence Audio SIS/Monorail.
Amps and Speakers
Custom made 2x12” speaker cab loaded with WGS Reaper HP and WGS ET65.
Spare amp – Quilter 101 MR
Yep. That’s £7k of gear to play covers in pubs once or twice a week. But, let's face it – I could double that figure EASILY! Yes, I know, that original figure is insane. I really know it is, but it makes me happy and this is my only hobby and I know whenever I go out to make a noise I sound as good as I personally can - so in that regard, it’s worth it. All of it!
Quite often you will see a conversation on the internet - usually started by a meme - that ends up with a few people arguing that playing isn't all about the gear, it's about the player. But what happens when the gear transforms the player? Here is a short piece sent to us regarding this by a moderator of our tone group on Facebook, Andrew Gordon.
"Can a new guitar pedal really make you a better player?
If you had asked me this question two months ago I would have "No! Don’t be ridiculous!" But since finding a couple of key pedals that really work for me I appear to have levelled up in my playing. Now, is it the pedal that is making me play better or is it that I am playing more and understanding more and really starting to find myself as a player?
I think the answer is, in fact, both, but it may not have happened without that pedal.
Let me put some context to this, I play the guitar as a hobby and buying and selling gear has also been my hobby for several years. Of late I’ve finally got an interest in theory and becoming a better player than I currently am. I’ve been watching more theory videos on youtube than gear videos and really trying to implement what I am learning. I have hit a point where I feel I have a much better understanding of some of the theory and where and how I can actually use it. It appears that you really do get out what you put in and you would think at my age that this would be a no-brainer, but if I am being honest I let the gear chase get in the way of actually playing and getting better. I’ve not only seen this in myself but I have seen it some of my other “tone chaser” friends and even some in real life too! It’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important, playing.
It’s been quite a few years since I have been in a band and I am starting to feel now that it is really time to get something together not only to have fun and jam, but to keep getting better as a player and to also make my gear relevant apart from my love of it.
But how did a pedal bring on this realistic revelation?
It started with one video on youtube about one pedal and I watched it over and over and over again to point where I pinpointed the exact sound that I had been hearing in my head for the last five years or so, but I had finally heard it in gear. I have chased many different tones over the years but this one had always been what I thought was my “core” tone. A while back I found out that I am a better player on Telecaster, I don’t know exactly why or how this happened as I always thought I was a strat player and that was it. But again I was wrong. For some reason, I am more melodic, more honest and expressive player with better tone on a Tele. I ordered the pedal at my local store and waited for its release. Once I got it and plugged it in and dialled it in over a couple of days something had changed. I was playing better! I was sounding better too!
Now we all love chasing tone, I know I do but sometimes the chase is not as good as the results you can achieve. The truth is you need to chase gear to find out what makes you, you, and how you can get to the point where you are sounding and feeling your best. It can take some time to find the right gear, but you also need to put the time in getting to know how the gear works for you properly rather than just playing it for a weekend and then flipping it straight away. It’s kind of like finding your life partner, it takes time and effort and you do get what you put in. Happy chasing and finding the tone zone."
I've read this a few times and finding myself agreeing with it more the more I re-read it. The reason I relate to it personally so much is because the latest interpretation of my tone, from my gig board, has complete revitalised my playing. I use three gain stages on my board, the Tumnus and the Paisley Deluxe. I was previously using the Dual Fusion instead of the PaisleyDog, but needed some more 'grunt' so swapped it out when the PaisleyDog was released. What I found is that because the UnderDog side is more gainy, more aggressive, I was starting to dig into my guitar more and finding more inspiration when improvising with the band. Not only did this make me sound more convincing in being me, I was also setting up my rig at home to just play it more. When I do this, I found that because I relating to my tone that much more I was wanting to learn more about what I was playing... Now, I'm no slouch when it comes to music theory, but then again, Tom Quayle is one of my favourite friends so I am painfully aware that I actually know very little. The more I played, the more I was analyzing what I was playing and then looking up teaching sites to work out what I was doing... this then pushed me into new areas which pushed me into more and the cycle of learning is now at it's most prominent it's ever been. The more I enjoy my tone, the more I play. The more I play, the more I wonder how I can make myself sound more interesting. The more I make myself sound more interesting, the more I want to make myself sound even more interesting. So, as far as Andrew and I are concerned, that by way of inspiration to play, gear can and does make you a better player.
Tone sculpting has become a bit of an art, and many players pay so much attention to all facets of their board and guitar. Every link in the chain adds up to the overall tone you’re going to have coming from your amp, and small adjustments in your chain can make a big difference e in the long run.
Picks – There are thousands upon thousands of options for picks, ranging from extremely cheap budget picks all the way to expensive boutique picks that are worth almost as much as some pedals are. If you’re ever looking for a quick adjustment in your tone for something different, try a different pick shape or material. Different material will have a different tonal result on your pick attack, the harmonics and even feel of your playing. Metallic picks (using coins, etc) will have a brighter, chimey-er tone, where using some wood picks will yield a much darker tone. There are a plethora of options in terms of the material used to create them, so do your research and find which material yields the tone you’re looking for. Different thicknesses will make a large difference as well. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to for you to approach your tone differently. Also, if you don’t normally use your fingers, try it! Your fingers and fingernails have their own unique tone, and can resonate differently than a pick can. Switching up your right hand technique can really help you break out of the box tonally and technically.
Cables and Buffers – These are a foundation part of your tone, so great cables can make a huge difference. Again, there are a plethora of options out there for soldered and solderless cables, along with varying ends and methods of creating those cables, along with shielding options and types of outer casings for enhanced durability. The key to finding a great cable is finding a set that creates minimal signal degradation. The cheapo $5 patch cables can suck some tone and cut your high end, which after going through several of those cables will yield a more muffled, dull bypassed tone. Buffers also play a huge part in keeping your tone pristine. Buffers alter the impedence of your guitar signal, which helps it travel through your board easier. Just remember that some pedals (fuzzes and wah’s) aren’t fans of buffers, so place them before it. The best judge of whether you need a buffer or not is to take a short guitar cable (10’) and plug directly into your amp and play. Now plug into your board and see if the tone sounds muffled or like a blanket is lying over your amp. This would be due to signal loss from not having a buffer or needing better cables.
Speakers and Speaker Cabs - Of all of your tonal puzzle pieces, these are literally the devices that project your sound into the world, so choosing the right speaker for the application can play a huge role in turning great tone into STELLAR tone. There are more options than I can possibly put into a single blog, but there are hundreds of speakers from various companies that can accentuate the amp it’s paired with, and subsequently the pedals and guitar that are running into it.
The key to finding the perfect voicing for the sound you have in your head is realizing what you’re intentions are for the amp you’re using. If you want clean headroom, your speaker choices can differ greatly from an amp that you’re intending to use as your dirt tones. Choices can be affected by what configurations you have as well, so a single 1x12” cab will sound different from a 2x12” and a 4x12” (or 4x10”, or countless other options). Having a cab that holds more than one speaker is beneficial because it allows you to mix speakers to fit the perfect application. One speaker may be designed for more aggressive lows and highs with less emphasis on mids, where you could pair that with a more mid-focused speaker to fill out your sound tonally.
When choosing your speaker, you need to pay attention to the outputs on your amps and what ohms they can put out, as well as the speaker and make sure they match up. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, the easiest method is to email the company and let them know what amp you’re using and they can recommend the right product and ohm rating for you. Your amp can sound completely different based on whether you’re running at 4ohm, 8ohm and 16ohm and doing the research between the various options and what works best for your amp will yield some really fun and great sounding results.
Along with proper speaker choices, deciding on the right cab (as mentioned above) will play a part in your overall tone. Horizontal cables vs. vertical cabs can make a big difference on the tone you and the audience are hearing, along with which way the cab is facing and whether it’s tilted, off the floor, or even facing a different direction. The last thing the front row of a gig wants is to have your speakers blaring directly in their faces. Tilting the cab back (on combos) or getting the cab off of the floor will help diffuse some of the sound and disperse it into the air instead of directly at the audience’s faces.
Mix it up a bit – Do you normally run your delay into the FX loop? Try placing it before your dirt pedals for a completely different set of tones. There are typical “guides” and thought processes that come to mind when laying out a pedalboard, but when it comes down to it there are no rules, and what’s right is whatever sounds best to you. Experiment with signal chain order, especially stacking different pedals into each other to see what sonic tones you can coax out of something that would seem so unorthodox.
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.