Do pricey cables make a difference? Do original PAFs guarantee great tone? See Steve''s conclusions and share your take on these topics.
Let’s have some fun this month and do some myth-busting and myth-affirming. After playing guitar for as long as I have (insert old-man joke here) I’ve heard a lot of things: thoughts, theories, ideas, beliefs…other concepts. Some are true, some aren’t. Sometimes it takes digging in and trying something out before you realize the merit in it, and other times it’s not so cut and dried. Sometimes it ends up being a bunch of HS (that’s horse s**t to the uninitiated). Here are five myths that I’ve given the Fact or Fiction stamp on through my own experience. Maybe your answers will be different, or you have other myths lying around that need some examining. Either way, it’s time to dig in and see what’s up with the whole mess.
Myth #1: High-end guitar picks sound and play better.
My Take: Fact!
For years I’d heard about expensive and fancy picks made of milk proteins, stone or other snake-oil-like materials that touted their amazing tone and durability. Give me a good old pick from the jar at the guitar store and I’ll do just fine, thank you.
Last year I bumped into the owner of a boutique pick establishment and he told me of the wonders of using a pick that cost… $25! Having a bit of a good laugh, I did what most people wouldn’t do: I bought it just to say I did, much like the $12 mustard at Whole Foods. When it arrived in the mail, I had been playing with my standard F-style heavy pick, so it was a perfect time for a comparison.
Good grief! The first reaction was that I gained about three years of playing technique right out of the gate. What previously felt normal with my old pick, felt forced after using the new one. It slid off the strings cleanly, and notes had a clarity and attack they’d never had before. Besides that, the volume had increased a good 25 percent...from a pick!
But is it really worth spending that kind of coin on a seemingly small item like that? Well, a year and a half later that same pick is still my main pick and it remains nearly undamaged. Everyone plays differently, but this experience alone has made me a believer.
Myth #2: Cheap cables sound the same as high-end cables.
My Take: Fiction!
Garden-variety guitar cables were good enough for Hendrix, Page, Van Halen, and just about every other guitar legend. Who am I to think they didn’t kind of know what they were doing? OK, maybe there weren’t that many high-end cables on the market back then so I’ll forgive them for that.
After using my regular old guitar cable for years, I had been given a mighty expensive low-capacitance cable as a gift. What do you get the guy who’s already got enough guitars and amps anyway, right? Like with the picks, I swapped out the cable and the blanked lifted—simple as that. It’s a little humbling to admit, but the improvement in tone made it hard to go back to a different, cheap cable. If you haven’t already tried it, go ahead…you might be surprised.
Myth #3: Less gain makes your tone bigger.
My Take: Fact!
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the amp mod biz was in full swing and many extra stages of gain were being added to everyone’s Marshalls, I had my amp worked on to get more gain out of it. We had a stock Marshall 2203 in the studio (master volume 100-watt head) as well as my 1973 Superlead with the mods. After spending hundreds of dollars on the mods (yikes, this was a pristine Superlead too!), I was quite proud of my new baby. Well, it turned out that all the extra gain stages gave a lot of gain, but at the loss of clarity and, yes, bigness. The recorded sound was thinner and more compressed than the 2203 by a mile.
Need another example? That same 2203 could get a decent amount of gain and I always wanted the gain cranked. Brilliant studio engineer and robo-ear Eric Valentine would let me do a take with the gain cranked, then little by little he would scale the gain back until it was just at the edge of uncomfortable for me to play. He’d record a take and show me the difference. It was staggering. Not only was the tone bigger, it was more muscular, clearer, and better defined—and it sat in the track much better. For the past 20 years or so that has been the way I’ve worked. It’s made me a better player and the tones are definitely bigger.
Over and over I’ve seen people use more gain than they needed (me included) and every time if you just scale back a bit what you get is a boost in tone, even if it does take a little of the confidence away. But c’mon, be a man about it. Nobody ever said life was easy!
Myth #4: Tone is in the individual player’s hands.
My Take: Fact!
It’s said so often it has to be true, right? Well, in this case, pretty much. True story for you. Back in the days when I taught guitar at a local store I had my ’73 Superlead (see Myth #4) at the store one day and a few teachers got around to playing it. We were all sitting around with the same guitar passing it back and forth. I was plugged in and playing, and we were all having a great time when one of the other teachers grabbed the guitar out of my hand and started doing his thing. Where the hell did all that gain come from? The amp took on a totally different character. It was more aggressive and biting, and the sustain was incredible. The other teacher got inspired and grabbed the guitar and started to rock it. Not so good. This time around, the chords seemed cloudy and undefined, and the sustain was rather lacking. We played for a solid hour and couldn’t believe how different the same guitar and amp could sound in the hands of three guys—try it sometime!
Another true story: 1985, Yngwie Malmsteen’s sixth ever show with Rising Force (Kabuki Theater, San Francisco, January 11). I was right up front and two feet from his pedalboard and Moog Taurus pedals. Just before the show was about to start, his tech came out and strapped on the famous “Duck” Strat and started to do a mini-soundcheck. It was loud as hell and one of the most garbled and distorted shit-tones I’d heard come from a guitar. It was out of tune, messy-sounding and not much better than a Gorilla Amp (with TubeStack™ technology of course)!
Right after that aural attack, he walked behind the wall of Marshalls and handed the guitar to Yngwie. Even though I couldn’t see who it was, it was obvious when the signature flurry of perfectly executed notes came screaming out of the amps like a banshee. This sound that was previously totally unacceptable was now glorious beyond belief. Night and day couldn’t be a better description. That tone held up all night and still to this day remains one of the coolest sounds I’ve ever heard.
Myth #5: Vintage PAFs are all killer.
My Take: Fiction!
Many of us have come to love the tone, feel and expression a real PAF can bring. Some of us are fortunate enough to own one or two of them. Others might have boutique versions of them and still wish they had the real thing. This isn’t a super secret, but not all PAFs were created equal. For those of you who wish they had the $5000 pair of pickups, this should make you feel a little better.
I used a PAF for years in a studio guitar (a mid-’80s Charvel Strat—talk about overkill!) that sounded fantastic. The pickup was purchased for a whopping $250, but there wasn’t a single pickup that we used that could replace it. In comparison, every other one sounded harsh or lacking in every way. That was a good one! The same guy that sold us the $250 PAF had been doing good business with them, and after being convinced that the studio guitar needed a backup I decided to go about buying a PAF for myself. At this point they were $500, which was more than most guitars I owned were worth. The good news was that he had a money back guarantee. I picked up the PAF from him and threw it in my Ibanez 550 RG (did I mention it was the late ’80s?). Once again, very proud of my new hopped-up guitar I brought it into the studio to do a recording. Not so good—flat and lifeless, and lacking in harmonics. We tested the output of it against the other PAF and they read very close…in the high 7s. We did some recording to compare the two, and it was again night and day. Since we were all studio geeks and heard the drastic difference we figured it came down to the guitars. Easy, we’ll just swap out the PAFs in the Charvel and they’ll sound the same. Wrong. Not even close. This PAF was clearly a dud—a $500 dud. I took it back.
Fast forward to the mid-’90s. I had a buddy in Seattle that was dealing with old pickups and had some PAFs around. After testing four or five, I found the one I liked and put it in my Les Paul Goldtop (‘73 Deluxe that had been routed for humbuckers before I bought it) and started to feel like I was getting a great, classic tone. It was certainly better than the no-name humbucker that was previously installed, but I wasn’t floored with it—keep in mind, this was the “better” one in the bunch he had. After playing for a week or so with it I ended up replacing it with a Duncan Pearly Gates that ate the PAF alive. Sure, I couldn’t say that I had a real PAF in my guitar, but I was able to have a few more guitars with fantastic pickups in them for less than the one piece. We’re living in the Golden Age of Gear, so you don’t have the real thing—there’s another pickup out there for you that just may surpass the old PAF.
That does it for today’s myth-busting, now let’s hear your myths…fact or fiction?
Steve Ouimette is a lifelong guitarist, gearhead and studio fanatic. He runs Steve Ouimette Studios and writes music for video games, film and television. You can find him online at steveouimette.com and facebook.com/steveouimette. BTW, he rarely Tweets…