We fired up our sixth season of Nashville Star
on NBC this month, but I began my somewhat obsessive gear tweaking about two months prior to the downbeat of rehearsal one. Last year I loved my tone, the sound men loved it and the producers were happy; so why can't I leave it alone? Is it insecurity, perfectionism or anal retention that will not allow most guitar players to stop jacking with their gear?
Sometimes I hear other players' rigs and think "That's what I'm going for... that's better than my tone." Other times I read a stupid article like the drivel emanating from my own Mac and I begin to question every link in my tone chain from my fingernails to the batteries in my tuner. I begin to not trust my ears. It happens, you know. Guys sound great one day and terrible every other time. Does anyone else think that Van Halen went from having the greatest rock guitar tone ever to sounding like he's playing though a busted POD? Ironically, for those early records Eddie scraped by on his wits and created the perfect beast but once he had unlimited money and free gear he sounded like a bad imitation of himself. I tell you, something made the roar of an angry God sound like a kid at Guitar Center. Examples like this scare the shit out of me and make me wonder if I am doing more harm than good by tweaking my gear.
But tweak I must, so I loaded in to the rehearsal hall a day earlier to try out different amps, cabinets, guitars, and pedals in hopes of finding the winning combination. I had hoped to have the hall to myself so I could blow full volume for hours. Regrettably, a full staff of stage hands, PAs and producers were there and I couldn't bring myself to torture them with my seemingly endless (A) (B) checking. I never play anything interesting when I'm checking gear; big open G chords, a stupid boogie thing in A or E, just stock, dumb licks. The unwillingly captive audience really took the fun out of it for me, and I didn't go nearly as long and loud as I wanted to.
I began by plugging straight into two Peavey Classic 30 heads. These are great sounding, reliable amps. I love them, not as much as I love my ValveTrain amp which I use in the studio, but I'd rather leave the Peaveys at Nashville Star for ten weeks and have the ValveTrain for sessions where every nuance is really under the microscope. These are the concessions you have to make.
I then went into both heads in stereo. With the exception of a little chorus swirling back and forth and some ping-ponging delay, it wasn't really all that stereo; in fact, this made my tone washy, unclear. For country music, a Tele should be sharp enough to poke your eyes out, and this was not the case. Brian Nutter, the other guitar player in Nashville Star, ran mono. Maybe it's the greener grass syndrome, but his rig sounded bigger and clearer than my rig. I'm easily influenced so I immediately went down to one amp and left the second for backup, in the event I blow something up.
I had reworked my pedalboard with a bypass switching system to take things out of my signal when not in use. Paradoxically, I found the switching bypass sounded muddy, not like my tried and true guitar-cable-amp line up. I quickly began ripping out the bypass switches and went back to running guitar-pedals-amp and found it more clear. This may not have been the case if I wasn't using really well-made true bypass pedals (homebrew), and solid, short cables (Dimarzio). I considered running my swirly effects and delay through the effects loop, but I was so ear fatigued by this point that I called it a day and got out while I could still stand it.
That's how my rig stood as we shot episode one. Everything sounded good... I think. The next day I went off with my smaller pedalboard and played a road gig with Randy Owen and fought my tone the entire time. I either liked the clean and hated the dirt or vice versa. I got home this morning and, right before I began typing this column, played the CMT Fan Fest in Nashville with Megan Mullins. Because pedalboard A lies locked up at the Nashville Star
set and pedalboard B sits stuffed in a bay of Randy's band bus, I went to today's gig with just a tuner, overdrive and delay. I plugged into some beat, old Peavey Classic back-line amp they had a the festival.
I dug the tone.
Fat, full, clear... nothing to over-analyze, closer to what I grew up on. Not an amazing array of tones, but they felt good and worked for the songs.
It made me think again about Van Halen's early tone. He was pound-for-pound the greatest rock guitarist ever and possessor of the perfect rock tone. His tone was no accident; he heavily modified his guitar during a time when people pretty much played things stock. He jacked with his amps and cabinets until he found his brown sound. He was just a kid and couldn't have really known what he was doing. He had very few gear options, but he was a genius and knew what he wanted.
I wonder if Eddie ever digs his old rig out of storage, plugs in and marvels. Probably not; if he did, he would eBay all the gack he has on stage with him today. Which forces the question; why did Eddie's tone turn to shit? Hearing loss? Too many options? Lack of his former confidence? Obsessive tweaking? I don't know, but it scares me.
John's new book, Guitar and a Pen, has just been published by a division of Warner Books and is available at Amazon.
John Bohlinger is a Montana native and former Ivy Leaguer who was close to earning a Ph.D. in psychology when he dropped out to pursue a life in music. "The psych background comes in handy when dealing with the music business" John quips. Over his fifteen years in Nashville, John has toured the world, holding down the guitar/mandolin/pedal steel end for over 30 major label artists; he currently leads the band for the hit show Nashville Star, which has moved to NBC. John's songs and playing can be heard in several major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com