Are You Tonally Dependant?
Can you play the same through anything, or does certain gear bring out the best in you?
As far back as I can remember I’ve been a slave to amps. If the amp isn’t setup to give back and “feel” right to me, my playing quickly descends into first-year status. It’s true, match me up with the wrong amp and I’ll be playing licks out of Mel Bay’s Guitar Method Vol 1 with great difficulty—and I’ve been doing this for 30 years!
There are players I know that can pick up any guitar or plug into any amp and they play exactly the same without any difficulty. I can vividly recall a brilliant, young guitarist named Nick Sterling plugging into amp after amp and ripping off the most insane licks with ease. It gave me the false confidence to plug in and try the same. With over half of the amps I was playing like my hands had been in the freezer for the past 24 hours. The same goes for another amazing player, Geoff Tyson. He is so non-dependent that he went out on tour with just one guitar and—get this—a Boss distortion pedal that he plugged directly into the P.A. for his entire guitar sound. And it sounded incredible. No amp, one guitar, one pedal!
It sometimes makes me wonder if I’m less of a player since I’m so affected by the way an amp gives back to me. And what does that really mean? Let me explain. The interaction between the amp, speakers, guitar, cable, and pedals makes up your tone. Of course your sound is in your hands, but we all know that chasing tone comes down to more than just the sound, it’s also about the feel. Ever watch a guitarist dance on his pedalboard throughout the night and, while you know he’s stomping on buttons, the tone isn’t altered much? It might not sound that different, but that pedal is giving him a feeling. It could be more sustain to get the most out of a note. It could be the way the pick feels like it’s exploding off the strings. It could even be as simple as a little more gain to give him a feeling of confidence, and that confidence translates to better playing and being “on.”
One of the most interesting debates I get into with guitarists is how they can love the same amp that I can’t stand and vice-versa. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot play through Mesa/Boogie amps. There is an inherent hardness to their sound that makes me feel like I can’t dig into notes. It’s almost like the difference in recoil between a normal hammer and a dead-blow hammer. Alternatively, some of my favorite local guitarists swear by Mesa/Boogies and cannot for the life of them play on a Marshall Superlead or JTM-45. It’s an interesting phenomenon that I can’t quite put my finger simply because you’d imagine we all are looking for the same things: comfort, playability, and tone. It makes it clear that everyone is built differently. It also makes me thankful that there are so many different options for us guitarists at this point in time. Never in the history of the guitar have we been able to create such diverse setups or have this level of options available. It’s a great time to be a player.
So the question, is are you tonally dependent? “My name is Steve and I play best through a late ‘60s Marshall Superbass with the bias just a tad hot, through a well-worn basketweave cab.” You? I’m curious so please share!