Most of us guitarists suffer from an affliction called GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. That means we are buying gear nearly compulsively – more and more often than we really need. I am definitely no exception here. We often spend more time shopping and searching for gear than playing guitar – it’s like an addiction: difficult to stop and expensive (though I have not yet discovered negative effects on my health, but my wife tells me “one more guitar and …”).
What do we basically need to play guitar? One guitar, one amp, a guitar cord, and a pick.
Now when I look around my house – and I’m pretty sure I’m not the exception – I see a lot more than that. Do I really need all the gear I have? How do I justify buying even more?
I can think of a number of reasons for this behavior.
- I sound bad, I suck! Remedy? A new amp/guitar/effect will help me get the sound I’m hearing in my head!
- I want to sound like Santana, so I’ll buy a PRS Santana, a Mesa Boogie amp, a Fender amp and a couple of effects. One year later, my Santana days are over and now Steve Vai is my hero. That means, I’ll get an Ibanez Universe guitar, the Carvin Steve Vai amp and an Eventine harmonizer.
- I want to be as versatile and flexible as I can, I want a huge variety of different sounds because I play/enjoy a lot of different styles, play in a Top 40 band, or I’m a studio musician. Thus, I need a Telecaster and a Fender Twin for playing country, a Les Paul and a Marshall for rock and a Gibson ES335 and a Roland Jazz chorus for jazz.
- I just like guitars and gear – I collect them.
I don’t know about you, but #s 3 and 4 definitely apply to me and I had a time when # 1 was also an important reason. Maybe there are some points above where you nodded your head and said “Yes, I can relate to that, I had the same experience” and maybe you shook your head after some points and thought “This is stupid.”
Here are some of my thoughts concerning these points:
A good guitar player still sounds good even with a crappy guitar and a cheap amp. A number of years ago, I went to a guitar workshop and as I had to go by train, I took a cheap Squier Strat with me. All the people at the workshop plugged their guitars into Marshall combos. The guy in charge of the workshop was a Canadian studio musician – sorry I forgot his name.
To make the story short: he made a point of playing every guitar that people brought to the workshop and he sounded great with each one, even playing my cheap Squier I always had thought unable to produce a great sound (this was the last in a row of experiences that cured me from thinking along the lines of #1). He did this to show exactly that: the sound is first and foremost in your hands, not in the gear.
So … if you think you sound bad, do some self-evaluation before you run out and buy new gear. Get the opinion of other people, have a friend play through your gear. Is it really a new amp you need or more practice (no doubt, new gear can motivate one to practice more …)?
Of course, a good amp and guitar supports the player, but the basics are in one’s hands.
I’d go as far and say that 80 to 90 % of a player’s sound comes basically from his hands and not the gear he’s using. Case in point, a couple of years ago, Eddie Van Halen and Ted Nugent met backstage. Both were interested in the other’s gear and so they switched guitars and amps. Eddie took Ted’s Gibson semi-acoustic and Ted plugged Eddie’s Kramer Strat into Eddie’s Marshall. Both were surprised that Eddie still sounded like Eddie and Ted still like Ted – of course there was a small difference to their usual sound but everybody could tell who was who.
It boils down to the fact that you can buy the same gear your hero uses and still not sound like him or her. If you don’t play similar licks and phrases, the same gear won’t help you. Furthermore, you might copy the sound, but you can’t copy tone. Tone is the sum of the equipment, the licks and phrases and the playing technique of the player (his vibrato, the way he bends, slides, picks, where he picks, with how much strength and so on).
Another thought is – do you really want to copy somebody else? Sound like somebody else? Or would you rather be you?
So when somebody asks me, how he can sound like Nirvana, I of course can ramble on about the equipment Cobain used, but would it help? Could you afford all the stuff Kurt had (or Steve Vai has)? Is your technique the same as Kurt’s? Chances are, you won’t sound like him.
I can give you some advice on what to buy to sound close to a famous guitarist, maybe even without spending thousands, but keep the above in mind.
Ok, if the gear is only a small part of the sound, why then do some players change guitars so often? Why do studio musicians come to some jobs with a whole van filled with gear?
Their basic tone is the same, no matter the gear. But of course, different gear provides some variations in the sound of an artist (the 10 to 20% missing from above) – for obvious and not so obvious reasons.
Listen to Cream and Eric Clapton. He plays Gibson guitars (sometimes an SG, sometimes an ES335). Then listen to a 70s recording of Clapton or Derek and the Dominos, a Fender Stratocaster is used here. You can still tell it’s Clapton, but the sound is (slightly) different.
The blues can be played with a Stratocaster (SRV), a Telecaster (Albert Collins), a Gibson Les Paul (Gary Moore), a Gibson semi-acoustic (BB King) or any other guitar, but the sound will be different.
On the other hand, there is certain gear that lends itself better to certain styles – a Marshall amp has a lot of “bite” and is ideal for rock, but because of this “bite”, it’s not very suitable for jazz.
But don’t forget to experiment. The most unlikely combination of gear (people tell you “You can’t play country on a Les Paul, you won’t sound country”) might be exactly YOUR sound, a sound that distinguishes you from the masses.
Players also experiment and find that they are more comfortable with a certain guitar when playing a certain style. This brings us to another point.
Different gear might make you feel different. You might feel more comfortable with a certain amp/guitar, you might feel more “country” and unconsciously use more typical country phrases when playing a Telecaster as your subconscious associates this instrument with country. It affects your playing and the way you sound.
Another aspect is the discussion solid state amps vs tube amps. Solid state amps have come a long way and there are some good enough that the listener would be hard pressed to notice the difference to a tube amp. But those amps feel different for the player, they don’t respond as well as tube amps (more on this in a later column).
So, different guitars and amps might mean more difference to the player in a certain situation (“Guitar XY feels better when I play the blues, but guitar Z feels better for rock” – or as Laura and Lee would say: “The Blue guitar sounds better for Blues, and the Red guitar is better for Rock’) than to the listener, who might not even perceive a big change in your sound/playing.
Therefore, #3 might be a valid point. Just ask yourself if you really need all the stuff you have or plan to buy in order to get all the variety you need.
What can I say concerning #4 – there’s no hope for a cure. If one likes collecting gear, how can you argue against that? He even admits that he doesn’t need it all.
Ok, that’s it for this time – I guess next time I’ll ramble a bit about effects generally before starting to write about the different effects and what they do. And I plan to write about how to choose the right amp for you … hmm, don’t know yet, maybe you will tell me. I hope you give me some feedback, and if you want to comment on what I wrote or argue some points, please feel free to do so.
About the Author
Stefan has been playing guitar on and off for about 20 years, with 10 years of teaching privately and one year in the professional program of the “Future Music School” in Aschaffenburg, Germany. When playing guitar Stefan usually plays a lot of blues and blues-influenced (classic) rock, but when writing songs, he ends up writing rock and even pop songs.