I’m one of those people that believe that tone is in your hands. I’ve been playing long enough now where no matter what guitar I pick up, I’ll sound like me – quirks and all. I saw Slash perform on HDNet last week and he switched between playing a Gibson Explorer and a Les Paul, and he still sounded like himself. Of course, the actual sound that he was making was different with the different guitars he played, but the style and execution were singularly Slash.
All this led me to realize that there are two types of tone: The actual mechanical sound your rig makes separate from a song, and the expressive tone that comes from making music. Some might argue that they’re one and the same thing, but I’m not so sure any longer. Along these lines, I’ll argue that the mechanical “tone” forms the foundation of your expressive tone. Get this right, and it’ll open up all sorts of creative doors, and this is where context plays a huge role.
Don’t know how many times and how much money I’ve spent on gear that sounded great on its own, when I tested it or listened to clips online, only to be a huge fail once I put it in my signal chain. That’s happened more with pedals than other gear, thank gawd, but I still have a milk crate with lots of very nice pedals that just don’t work with my overall rig. They sound great on their own, but within the context of my signal chain, they just don’t work.
And that’s why context is important. You never really know how well something works until you make a sound with it within the context of your signal chain. I say “make a sound” because you want to check the mechanical sound and see if it’s acceptable. Before I started doing simple mechanical tests on gears, I used to just try stuff out (playing licks and progressions and such), get excited by the sound of the gear on its own, buy it, then get slammed back down to earth when I put it in my chain. It’s probably a reason I have so many drive pedals that I just don’t use. But having learned that lesson, my initial test of gear involves putting it in my chain first, then doing simple, expressionless things like strumming a chord or playing a single note. If it sounds harsh or muddy with this simple stuff, then it just won’t work, and I’ll return the gear or sell it.
Admittedly, you can’t do that with everything. I took a big chance on my Timmy overdrive, but I spent many, many months listening to clips and reading posts and speaking with Paul Cochrane before I pulled the trigger to order one. But though I did take a chance, it was a fairly educated chance, so when I finally got it, I was pretty confident that it would work. Of course, there was a slim chance that it wouldn’t work with my rig, but it turned out to work fantastically well with all my pedals, amps and guitars; so much so that it’ll never leave my board.
All that said, if you just like to collect a lot of gear irrespective of its context within your signal chain, more power to you. But be forewarned that you may look upon your expanse of gear and realize, “Holy crap! I’ve got a lot of stuff that’s collecting dust.” For myself, I tend to be a lot more careful and measured about my gear purchases. I still get bad GAS, but mechanical testing helps manage that.
Didn’t Gibson just release a new Les Paul Standard? 🙂