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Tone Tips from the Road: Simplicity Can Be Simply Superior

Chuck Berry changed the course of electric guitar and was a major influence on the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix—and he did it without a single pedal.

A Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne combo and a Mesa/Boogie TransAtlantic head that can quickly be plugged into the combo speakers for tonal options or to function as a spare amp.

Fewer pedals equals purer tone with my Pedaltrain Nano pedalboard, which sports an Electra Dyne footswitch, a Korg Blackout tuner, and a Line 6 G50 wireless receiver.
I’ve always really liked guitarists who can plug straight into the front of an amp and play great music. Chuck Berry changed the course of electric guitar and was a major influence on the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix—and he did it without a single pedal. Brian Setzer can cover swing, rockabilly, and big-band jazz armed with only a guitar, an amp, and a Roland Space Echo. AC/DC’s Back In Black is one of the top-selling records of all time, and Angus Young doesn’t use any effects at all.

There’s nothing wrong with using effects, but there is something wrong if you can’t sound good without them. Effects can create a mirage that leads you to believe you’re playing in a more polished manner than you actually are, so it’s good to be sure you can play well with a basic guitar rig. There are also several logistical advantages to having a downsized guitar rig.

Less gear means you can locate and troubleshoot a problem more quickly, and it also means there are fewer links in the chain that can break. Another added bonus of having fewer pieces of equipment is that your setup and teardown time is greatly reduced.

There are so many stompboxes and effects on the market, and they do everything from making slight changes to your tone to making your guitar sound like a completely different instrument. Like a lot of players, I go through phases of using effects to create ethereal delays, swimming reverbs, lush choruses, funky envelope filters, and pulsing modulations. New sounds can inspire new music, and that’s a good thing. However, nothing is more vital to having good tone than being in tune.

Of all the pedals on a board, the most important pedal to me is the tuner: You can have a high-dollar boutique amplifier, the most expensive guitar in existence, and a mound of all the best effects—but if you’re out of tune, you are not going to sound good. When you shop for a tuner, there are a few things to consider. One of the first things I do when I try a new tuner is listen for how it affects my tone. Even when a tuner is off, it can muffle some of the highs. I need a tuner to be as transparent as possible. I have spent a lot of time finding guitars and amps that sound great to my ear, so the last thing I want is a tuner that alters my tone. I generally look for tuners that have a true bypass switch, which helps make the pedal more transparent. I also make sure the tuner’s needle or strobe does not behave erratically. The Korg Blackout is my favorite tuner because it is tonally transparent, built with rugged metal jacks and switches, and has a large, easy-to-read display. Since the tuner is the only pedal in my signal chain, I can easily switch between using my Line 6 G50 wireless and a cable. The G50 has a great feature that emulates the sound of using a cable, as well. Having a streamlined pedalboard allows the tone of my guitar and amplifier to shine through without encountering any tone-diminishing roadblocks.

Recently, I’ve been using a Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne combo loaded with two 12" Black Shadow speakers. Most of the time, I leave the Electra Dyne set on the Low channel and use my guitar’s volume knob to blend between rhythm and lead sounds. The great thing about using your volume knob is that you don’t have to run back to your pedalboard to step on a boost pedal for a solo.

Onstage, I keep a Mesa/Boogie TransAtlantic as a spare head on top of the Electra Dyne in case there is a power surge that blows the fuse in my combo. Also, the TransAtlantic is great for getting a wide variety of tonal options that suit the occasional nights when I play for several acts. Besides being a nice backup rig, this two-amp setup also expands my tonal palette. I simply re-patch the instrument, footswitch and speaker cables from the Electra Dyne to the TransAtlantic, and I’m all set to go in a matter of seconds.

I encourage you to take only an amp, a guitar, a couple of cords, and a tuner to your next show or rehearsal. If simple guitar rigs work for Chuck, Brian, and Angus, they can work for you, too.