Whether you call it a lead, a cord, or a cable, that shielded wire that links your guitar to your amp—and your music to your audience—is a vital link in your tone chain.

As you hone your style over the years, you usually figure out whether you’re a Strat guy, a Tele guy, a Les Paul guy—or something that’s sort of a mix of those. You then focus on what amp is going to give you the best possible sound. Often it’s Marshalls or Boogies for you rockers, Fender Twins for the chicken-pickers, or something more out of the ordinary like a Line 6 DT50 might be your amp of choice. Then it’s time to pick out what pedals will give you the right je ne sais quoi.

Once you settle all that, what’s next? Whether you call it a lead, a cord, or a cable, that shielded wire that links your guitar to your amp—and your music to your audience—is a vital link in your tone chain. All things considered, you may never think much about it, but it’s as integral to your sound as your other gear.

Over the years, I’ve had guitarists tell me all they need is a cheap, knock-off model guitar to sound good—that all their tone comes from their hands. I’ve heard others say you’ve got to have top-notch gear to sound great. These are both valid schools of thought. I’ve also seen guys struggle onstage using haphazard, jerry-rigged, MacGyver-style setups. I’ve watched them kick crackling cables and shake connections to keep a signal running to their amp. Somehow, I can’t get behind that as an effective option.

If you’re the type of player who believes in having top-of-the line gear, it won’t really matter how spectacular and expensive your guitar, amp, and pedals are if it all travels from one end to the other through poorly made, subpar connections. A good cable doesn’t have to cost a whole lot of money, but the better ones do cost a little more. Buying a brand-name cable—ideally one with a guarantee—usually helps. I’ve purchased cables that had lifetime guarantees, and that’s quite a declaration for a cord. Of course I lost them or left them at a gig long before they ever had a chance to go bad, so who knows? Maybe someone is still using them today.

When buying a guitar cable, size does matter. Cables will always add some capacitance and a load to your guitar’s signal. The longer the cable, the more it adds. A little might not be too bad, but a lot can completely screw up the tone you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Most standard guitar cables are about 18’ long. Which makes sense, as my web research reveals that cable lengths of 20’ can begin to dull your tone.

And that’s even with a quality cable. Use an inferior cord, and you’ll more than likely start to hear some high-end loss in your rig. Your guitar may sound dull or muted, and undoubtedly you’ll start to pick up noise. I used to run a thin 40’ foot cable to my pedalboard and back through a multi-pin snake. It was a quick and easy setup, but ultimately I was playing music through 80’ of bad signal path. I was blown away at the amount of punch and high end I gained back when I changed my rig around and no longer ran signal out to the pedals. It made a gigantic difference.

On the flip side, if you have too much bright spikiness in your sound, or if you just want to mellow it out for a vintage tone, you may want to try a more old-school approach and dig out what I’ve always called a “curly cord.” They were very popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Hendrix used one, and so did many of the top artists of the day. You can see these curled cords (Pro Co Lifelines are one brand/make that’s been around for a long time) being used on reruns of the old Midnight Special TV variety show. I’m pretty sure that the guitar greats of that era would have used better cables if they were available, but this was the technology of the day, and it inadvertently helped shape their sounds.

Retro to the Max: Vox is one of several companies offering coiled guitar cables, which are making a comeback after being ignored for decades.

A respectable cable can cost a bit more than a generic one. I’m not recommending that you go out and spend $150 on an 18’ guitar cord (yes, they are out there). A true audiophile may argue with me, but personally I don’t hear $120 worth of difference between one of those high-dollar connectors and a decent standard one. You may want to go to your local music store to A/B them yourself. After all, Eric Johnson says different cables and even different types of batteries in his stompboxes change his sound, and you might find you agree with him.

The patch cables that hook all your pedals together should be given the same consideration as the cord that hangs from your guitar. Even if you’ve got the best cables money can buy running from your guitar to your pedalboard and from there to your amp, the audio will still have to travel through the dinky signal path between effects. My guitar tech goes crazy over this stuff. He makes sure that every cable is of good quality, and he will even shorten patch cables so the signal doesn’t travel even one gratuitous millimeter more than necessary between pedals.

Next time you plug in, take a look at the umbilical cord that’s the lifeline to your music, and make sure you’re hooked up right!

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It’s well and fine to have a bag of tricky, fast licks that will impress other guitarists (and, of course, the ladies), but it’s a whole other deal to use that flash and technique while playing something people actually want to hear.

As a guitarist, I’ve been complimented more for being tasteful than I ever have for being speedy. Yet deep down in my psyche, I don’t always feel like I’ve really done anything worth listening to unless it was some intense riff that sounded ridiculously impossible and made every head in the room turn and mouths hang open. I always preach to students, up-and-comers, and fans that it’s not about being flashy, but being tasteful. Yet, I think it’s those wacko, out-there, speed-demon riffs that attracted most of us to be lead players in the first place. For us, if music were just about playing a solid, groovin’ part, we’d all be bass players!

It’s well and fine to have a bag of tricky, fast licks that will impress other guitarists (and, of course, the ladies), but it’s a whole other deal to use that flash and technique while playing something people actually want to hear. When I listen to vintage Toto, Steve Lukather shows he knows how to blend undeniably impressive chops with tasteful melodies and rich tone. Music lovers don’t really know or care how difficult the solo they just heard was to play or how many hours it took to perfect. If they can feel it and it moves them, you’ve hit your bull’s-eye!

In order to make your living as a musician, you don’t always have the luxury to pick and choose the quality of the project that’s going to pay your bills each month. I’ve been hired to cut demos of a lot of bad songs over the years, but I still managed to turn them into something listenable by laying down a groove and playing solid, tasteful solos. That’s really the foundation behind what we do. All of the flashy “soundcheck licks” or “NAMM chops” (as I’ve heard them referred to) are fine exercises to help develop your skills, but when it’s go-time, the refined, more musical parts always work best.

When you think of some of the great guitar music out there, you’re going to find a solid song with a catchy hook. The golden guitar era of the ’70s was full of them. The Doobie Brothers made a career out of playing songs with catchy guitar hooks like “Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin’,” and “China Grove.” When founding Doobie Tom Johnson described writing those songs, he said the riffs would come first and the lyrics were secondary. The opening to the song pulls you in and makes you want to hear where it’s going to go.

Another great example is Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. Although he’s mostly known for his vocals, he has the ability to lay down a guitar part that becomes an essential piece of the song, and his solos aren’t just an extended jam over the chord changes. There’s a true talent to being able to play a melodic phrase that is so identifiable, it merges with the arrangement.

When soloing, it’s good to think melodically and lay down something that compliments the song and makes sense within the structure of the changes. A guitar solo is a mini concerto within the bigger context of the song, and not simply a chance to show the world what you may be capable of pulling out of your fretboard.

You should be thinking, “What line would fit best and can I sing it?” A solo should take you somewhere. It should start where the melody left off and wrap up where the song is going next. Really, it’s a way to segue between musical sections, and an important building block in the song’s emotional structure. Also, you should always play every note like it counts. Kurt Cobain’s solo in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t difficult to play, but it fits all the major criteria of a great solo: It has energy, it’s melodic, and it fits well in the context of the song.

One of my favorite guitar solos of all time is Rick Derringer’s assault on “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.” Beginning high above the 12th fret, he hits you square in the face with an earsplitting, two-measure pentatonic marvel. Then he lets it breathe for a moment before repeating the line and embellishing it on the second pass. The solo clearly shows off his superior ability on the fretboard, but more importantly, it illustrates his sense of melody and drama.

It’s essential to let the song guide you stylistically and creatively. To me, there’s nothing more irritating than listening to a guitarist who’s main purpose is to show you how fast or even how “outside” he can play while ignoring what the song itself is expressing.

Well, to quote Rob Reiner playing rockumentary director Marty DiBergi in This Is Spinal Tap, “Enough of my yakkin’.” Next time you pick up your axe, think melodically and play your next gig with good taste in mind. But most of all, keep jammin’!

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One gig, two amp setups

When I was a kid growing up in Maryland, I loved going to concerts and seeing the big walls of amps onstage. You’d always see a towering stack of amps behind bands like Van Halen, Y&T, or Ted Nugent. Because I wanted to emulate those guys, of course I was motivated to buy the biggest, loudest amps I could find. In the late ’70s, I saw a magazine ad with Eric Clapton playing through three huge Music Man HD-130 amps. They stood taller than him, and a curly cord dangled seductively from the input of one of the heads. I had to have one. In the ad, his Gibson Firebird also gripped a cigarette between the strings and the headstock, and this looked every bit as cool as the guitar itself. (Fortunately, it didn’t encourage me to take up smoking.) While I was still in high school, I saved up my gig money to purchase a Music Man HD-130. The head sported EL34 tubes and it was my first really professional guitar rig. To mimic the Clapton ad, I bought two of the 4x12 cabinets and stacked the head on top. It was all about the look.

(Left to right) Roger Eaton, Derek St. Holmes, and Rich Eckhardt jam at the ReTune Nashville
Charity Concert, October 23, 2010. Photo by Dave Dudek

The 130-watt RMS rating was way more amp than I ever needed. In hindsight, I would have been better off with Music Man’s Series 65 head—the 65-watt version of the 130. But I was convinced louder was better, and if Clapton was using the 130, it was the amp I had to have. I’m convinced if someone had made a 500-watt amp, I would have bought it and wondered if a 600- watt amp wouldn’t sound better.

I’ve since learned you can do a lot more with smaller amps. Their power tubes overload more easily, and that breakup gives you a much fatter tone at the right level. Even though big amps look cooler than a monkey on a dirt bike, you rarely need enough volume to single-handedly fill an arena. On those gigs, your amp will be mic’d and run through the PA anyway.

A few weeks ago, while performing on a Nashville benefit show, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with my longtime buddy and fellow axe man, Roger Eaton. Roger has played with some of the biggest names in country music, including Barbara Mandrell, Joe Diffie, and Tanya Tucker. He showed up on the gig with an impressively compact rig consisting of an Ugly Amps 18-watt head and cabinet. The tiny, 2-channel Ugly had two EL84 power tubes and two 12AX7 preamp tubes, and it just plain smoked on the clean country stuff. Additionally, he brought a beefed-up Fender Princeton-style combo made by Rick Hayes at Vintage Sound Amps. It kicked out about 15 watts with a 12" Warehouse Guitar speaker.

Roger ran everything through an imposing pedalboard that allowed him to cover a variety of straight-ahead tones, as well as a few specialized sounds. He also brought an assortment of Clayton and KSM guitars—one of which was a custom-made instrument he’d just picked up on the way to rehearsal.

By contrast, I played a Les Paul Standard and filled the left side of the stage with a 100-watt Marshall JCM900 and a 4x12 cabinet. My Marshall’s previous owner was more of a collector than a player, and he’d only turned it on four or five times in 17 years. It’s one of the early 900-series amps that still has the warmth of the classic vintage Marshalls. I’ve only had this amp for a short time, and I’m still learning all that it can do. A rare find, it’s one of the best-sounding Marshalls I’ve ever played through.

But two guitarists can get onstage with substantially different setups and sonically complement each other, rather than battle each other for space and volume. Approaching the guitar parts with two completely different rigs, Roger and I knew it didn’t have to be the fight of the week: In this corner, weighing in at 122 pounds, 6 ounces, is the World Champion Marshall half-stack! And in this corner, at a scrappy 40 pounds, 1 ounce, is the legendary Fender Princeton. Ding, ding, ding—come out fighting and keep it clean, boys!

Roger and I took two different approaches to the same gig, and that gave the show so much more character and diversity than if we’d both played through the same make and size of amps and used similar guitars. The Eagles have a rule of thumb: If one guitarist is playing a Strat, the other should be on a Les Paul. By following this principle, Roger and I brought a lot of depth to the band’s sound. The show featured a wide variety of artists, and we covered everything from old Patsy Cline to Ted Nugent—and we made it work.

Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, consider this mix-and-match approach. It’s a great way to make your music sound as good as it can.

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As everything else progresses, we''re still using the same equipment of our predecessors

It has already been 11 years since we entered a new millennium full of promise and intrigue, yet I still don’t drive a hovercraft and we’re not all wearing the same silver jumpsuit with padded shoulders and a lightning bolt across the chest as promised in so many ’50s sci-fi movies. However, there have been a great number of advancements in gear and travel since the motion-picture industry tried to advise us about the future of our transportation and wardrobes.

The Gear That Got Me Here

I have a longtime friend, Dave Fontana, whose father D.J. Fontana was the renowned drummer for Elvis Presley. I’ve been privileged on a few occasions to hear D.J. tell stories about touring with Elvis in his heyday. It would send shivers down my spine to learn that D.J., Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and the King would travel the country in nothing more than a roomy town car with Black’s doghouse bass strapped to the roof. As D.J. told me of his days on the road, I gained an appreciation for the bus I was tooling around the country in at that time. It was a beat up, 20-year-old, 35-foot Buffalo-style bus with a manual transmission that ground gears when you shifted. But it was home.

When I first left Maryland and headed to Nashville to make a name in the music industry, I brought a few basic guitars—a Fender Strat, a Gibson ES-347, a Guild S-100, and a Guild D-55 acoustic. Accompanied by a Music Man HD-130 piggyback amp, I felt I was ready to meet any challenge the music industry could throw at me. My go-to guitar in those days was a 1984 tobacco-sunburst Fender Strat Plus with Lace Sensor pickups. I worked hard on my tones and effects to get that thing to sound big and fat like a Les Paul when I’d cover the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” and to ring like a bell on Eric Clapton’s barroom standard “Wonderful Tonight.” I ran my Strat through the same Roland GP-8 effects processor I have in my effects rack today, and then directly into the Music Man HD-130 head and 4x12 cabinet. This was my stock rig for about 12 years. It followed me from my high-school block party and teen-dance days to club dates around Nashville and that first tour bus, where I would load and unload it myself to play county fairs, theaters, and festivals.

Once I started gigging heavily in Nashville, the workload became too much for the aging Music Man’s EL34 power tubes, and I started having issues with them overheating on me. Being young and poor, I couldn’t afford the hefty price tag associated with changing out tubes regularly, so I reluctantly switched to an ART solid-state preamp and MosValve power amp. I can’t deny that this was a durable setup, but I paid dearly for that durability with my tone. Although the preamp had both a clean and a drive channel, I kept it set to the clean channel and began a long-lasting habit of dialing in the smallest amount of overdrive with the effects processor to simulate output-tube breakup. After a while, I moved into a Groove Tube Trio preamp with the MosValve power amp. Although it didn’t sound nearly as full as a real class A tube amp, the GT allowed me to set three different gain stages and switch between them via MIDI. This let me get back into using some tube drive again and took me one step closer to the warmth of a real tube amp.

Rediscovering That All-Tube Magic
I continued to use my tube amps in the studio for recording, and that made me long for the days when I could get that sound again live. Meanwhile, my career as a touring musician was taking off and the conditions under which I traveled began to get more and more comfortable. With satellite TV, DVD players, and even a mobile internet connection, I found that living on a tour bus became quite easy. I knew it was time to get back to the best possible tone and start playing through a genuine tube amp again.

After conditioning my ears to the clatter of a solid-state amp, my new Kustom Coupe half-stack sounded incredible! But the switch back to an all-tube rig came suddenly, with little time to tweak my gear before the first show of a new tour. So I temporarily had a rat trap of cables hanging out the back of my rack. It took a few weeks of dragging my rack into hockey-rink dressing rooms to clean it up without missing a beat of the 75-city tour we were grinding through. Working diligently with my tech in the afternoons, cutting and soldering cables and connectors, while pulling off the show each night without any disruptions was a major task.

However, each night I was getting closer to the brass ring—real tube drive once more! It was worth every minute we spent on it.

Yes, a lot has changed in the world of touring since the old Elvis days in the ’50s. Today, you’re nothing if you don’t dangle a giant video screen behind you on stage. Your band will be scoffed at if your bus is the only one on the road that doesn’t have the coveted slide-out living room and Wi-Fi internet. And clearly you haven’t really “made it to the big time” if you still have to set up your own rig. But the one common bond that connects all of us to old-school guys like Scotty Moore, Keith Richards, or B.B. King is the tube amp. No matter how many electronic advancements are introduced to the world, electric guitar still sounds best when amplified by glass vacuum tubes and paper-cone speakers.

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