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Tone Tips: Gear Doesn’t Matter … Except When It Does

When it comes to rig longevity and working with what you already have for inspiration, Tom Morello epitomizes the set-it-and-forget-it approach to developing one's signature sound. Photo by Ken Settle

Before searching out gear to find your tone, take inventory of what you already have.

Recently Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave/Prophets of Rage guitarist Tom Morello was a guest on Red Bull TV's Gearheads. Tom is known for his outspoken views and opinions on many subjects, and in the episode, he had an interesting take on guitar gear and its importance in making music. “My take on gear is that it does not matter at all, ever, in any circumstance," he says. It should come as no surprise that his statement caused a bit of a stir in the online guitar community. In one forum, a 15-page thread resulted with guitarists attempting to make sense of Tom's statement—with more than a few comments pointing out Tom's heavy use of a Whammy pedal. So this month, let's delve deeper into when, and if, gear really matters.

Tom's moment of clarity. I've read in previous interviews with Tom that he decided at an early point in his career that he didn't want to “chase tone." He came to a personal realization that the time, money, and effort spent trying and buying different gear would be better spent actually playing guitar and writing songs. One day at rehearsal years ago, he set the controls on his Marshall amp and his effects to where they sounded best to him, and he's used the same equipment and settings ever since. I think that's kind of extraordinary for a guy who is known as a sonic manipulator. Essentially, he just learned to maximize the potential of the equipment he had!

Later in the episode, Tom backed up his point with a story about Rage Against the Machine having to rehearse on rented gear in preparation for a South American tour. He said they sounded “horrible" and he initially questioned if the band was, in fact, gear dependent. But he realized they weren't and explained why: “If we had had this gear that we sound bad on today, we would have written different songs that sound great on this gear."

There are many examples of stellar guitarists who used simple setups that didn't vary much over the course of their career. Stevie Ray Vaughan is one. Though he experimented in the late '80s with various amplifiers and a few pedals, it was his battered Strat into a wah, a Tube Screamer, and Fender and Dumble amps for much of his career. Stevie milked every last ounce of tone he could out of a fairly basic setup. And to Tom's point, had Stevie's main rig been a Les Paul and a Marshall, I have no doubt he would have succeeded. He simply would have written different songs that sounded great with a Les Paul and Marshall!

In some ways it actually behooved them to limit experimentation tonally, because it made them more easily recognizable.

So, gear doesn't matter? Tom and Stevie are alike in that both can be considered stylists—unique guitarists that are also primarily songwriters. For them, maintaining a consistent tone was all part of developing a signature voice. In some ways it actually behooved them to limit experimentation tonally, because it made them more easily recognizable. When SRV comes on the radio, his signature playing style certainly stands out immediately, but I would argue that his tone is just as significant when it comes to recognizability.

Many of us guitarists—even those of us who have solo albums or have recorded albums with bands—are not career stylists, per se. The vast majority of professional guitarists seem too eke out careers in music by being sort of musical handymen. I spent much of the '90s teaching lessons, playing cover-band gigs, performing in pubs with acoustic duos, and doing whatever sessions I could get. Sound familiar? I needed an acoustic for the duo gigs, a few electrics, and the requisite amps and pedals to cover the tones for the cover bands. So gear mattered, to some degree.

Later, like many of the friends I came up with playing in L.A., I eventually graduated from local gigs to being a touring sideman with major artists. When I toured with Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell as a guitarist in his solo band from 2007 to 2010, we performed many Audioslave songs. And since part of my job was to replicate—to the best of my ability—many of Tom Morello's signature parts, it required me to have certain gear like the aforementioned Whammy pedal. The same goes if you have the stage-left guitar gig with, say, Don Henley. You had better have a doubleneck 6/12 electric guitar, because you're going to need it for “Hotel California." See my point? If you're a stylist, maximize your tone and keep it simple. If you are a jack-of-all-trades, get the gear you need to do the jobs you need to do. Just don't let it become an albatross or obsession.

I'm known as kind of a gear hound, but I really admire those who maximize the tones of the gear they have available to them. Striking a balance is the name of the game, and honing your playing skills should always come first. Until next month, I wish you great tone!