Getting that tone.
When you first get interested in music, and if you are a fan of rock in particular, you have this idea of how you want it to sound. At the very beginning it is very aspirational. Perhaps you love Steely Dan and “Hey Nineteen”, or Pat Metheny, or Eric Clapton, and that inspires you to get into music.
At this point, you are infatuated with a style and a sound, and you have no idea how to get it.
If you are like me, and got into playing in the early 1980’s, you likely had a steady diet of 70’s classic rock, some 60’s from the British Invasion, and the rising of the “hair metal” of the 1980’s. Pretty much straight up rock, some heavy metal, and a good, crunchy tone.
When I first picked up the guitar (I had bought a “starter” guitar/amp from a friend who never really got into it), I was awful. Truly, abysmal. Part of that was the really shitty beginner guitars of the era, but a big part of it was just lack of experience. I quickly borrowed a better guitar, and bought a Crate amp that was OK to begin on, and found a guitar teacher.
Pretty soon, I was sounding better, and could bang out some recognizable tunes.
But, honestly, my sound and tone sucked. Thus started the first phase of my musical journey.
The First Phase - Chasing the tone dragon with equipment
Once you have a decent guitar, and a solid amp, you begin to work on your style, and with it, your sound. At first, you find a guitar player you like, and try to get as close as you can. For me, that was Michael Schenker. Straight up rock, the bulk of his work at the time was with UFO, and with his solo band, the Michael Schenker Group. It wasn’t a very technical sound. It was distorted, with a good mid range “honk” (it took me a long time to figure that out) and it wasn’t laden with heavy effects.
In many ways, this was a good goal. Some of the later heavy metal had phasers, chorus effects, delays, and other signal processing that were difficult to duplicate on a budget.
No, Michael Schenker got most of his tone and sound from a Gibson Mk IV Flying V, a wah wah pedal, and a wall of Marshall 100W power.
Simple, but in a bedroom, that is a wee bit much air pushing to get the “tone”.
At the time, there was an explosion of distortion pedals that could help, and I had several. DOD, Digitech, Boss, among others. They helped. But the amp was holding me back. My guitar teacher had a kick-ass little amp, a Gallien Krueger 250ML. It was a stereo amp, with 2 125W channels, and it had two 6” monitors, solid distortion sounds, and a luscious chorus effect.
Holy fuckballs, there is one in beat up condition on Ebay for $550. Unfucking real.
Honestly, once I bought this amp, I pretty much stopped using the distortion pedals. None of them sounded good compared to what the GK put out stock.
Of course, I did buy other effects, but for the most part, I got a good sound.
The Second Phase: Realizing that it is all in your fingers
At some point, even if you have signal processing in your chain, you begin to realize that with the tone adjustments on your amp, and on your guitar, choosing which pickup to use, and how you play, you can get most any sound you want.
At this point, you are no longer scouring GFPM (Guitar for the Practicing Musician) for how Warren DeMartini gets his sound, or any other player, because you know how to get it, or close enough for your purposes.
You also begin to realize that their tone is not your tone. You make peace with what you have in you, and life is good.
By this time, you likely have a few different guitars. Most likely a Strat (Fender or one of the other similar grade instruments), perhaps a custom guitar, or a Gibson as a main axe, and something different. A tele, or a semi-hollow body. You also likely have an acoustic as well, perhaps a 12 string to round out the stable.
Additionally, you have a couple of amplifiers. Perhaps a good combo. Certainly something with vacuum tubes in it (trust me, you will end up with one eventually, and yes, they are worth the expense and hassle).
And you begin to realize that regardless of what you are playing, what guitar, what amp, or acoustic, you will sound like yourself.
Congratulations, you have your own sound.
Sure, you might have some signal processing. You might patch in to a DAR system with all sorts of killer effects (DAR is a Digital Audio Recording system, like Garage Band, or Pro Logic), but at the head end of your tone it is you, and your fingers. As Poirot would say, it is the grey cells in your head that make all the difference.
You realize that if you want to sound like Clapton from The Blues Breakers, or Hendrix from Are You Experienced? or just about any of your heroes, you can get that sound (n.b. sometimes you will need effects, like playing a lot of Van Halen).
Then life is good. Music is fun again. And as your skills grow, your enjoyment increases exponentially.
Where I’m at…
Today, I have a single electric guitar. A Tom Anderson Guitar Works Droptop circa 1999, two hum buckers, and a 5 position switch that can split and combine the coils. I run GHS Boomer strings, 9 gauge.
That is plugged straight into the low impedance circuit of a Fender Super 60 all tube amp.
Additionally, I have a Line6 PodXT “bean” that at times I play through, but mostly, I just run straight into the amp.
It is enjoyable, and fun.