Pete's 2 Cents

2 Cents

"Two cents" of guitar

Asked to write something for this webpage I could only come up with one single subject: the guitar... I can't claim having any skills on the guitar worth mentioning, but I think I do have some experience in guitar-tone. I improved on the motto to "try everything and keep the good stuff" by replacing it with "I like to avoid making mistakes by learning from others". Needless to say, there still have been plenty mistakes of my own my making along the way. And so, with this article I'd like to contribute to help others avoid my mine. Also, to put it into a guitar-analogy: it would be nice to help cancel out some of the humbug and myths like humbuckers do with hum...
Since tone is subjective and so many factors influence guitar-tone, it's sad but inevitable that the internet is filled with impolite debates, hypes and nonsensical noise on the field of guitar tone. And then there's commerce. Companies want to sell products and they can happily claim to produce just those products that give even the most average guitar-player all the mojo they need to feel like real rock-stars. And who would deny wanting to be a rock-star!

An enormous amount of factors influence tone... If I were to start all over again in a search for a rig that gives me the tones that I like, I would now stick to a few principles and points of attention I wasn't very aware of when I started.
  • First, the obvious: let your own ears decide what is a good sound; be critical
  • A common wisdom but still true: most of the tone is in your fingers. If you play like a damp newspaper, you're gonna sound like one, no matter how expensive your guitar/amp/effects.
  • Keep your setup as simple as possible. Guitar, cable, amp; less is more.
  • At what volume do you want to play? A (tube)amp on a whisper-quiet volume level is going to "choke" and will not reach its full potential; to say the least. Remember, by the way, to protect your ears, even a 5 watt tube amp can reach deafening volume-levels!
  • Related to the previous point: you may want to emulate a certain favourite guitarist, but that doesn't mean you should have the exact same gear that he uses; unless you are also going to play on comparable stage-sizes as he does.
  • Don't set up your guitar with cable-like string-gauges just because your favourite guitarist uses them. It's true that thicker strings usually give a better tone, but they are also harder to play; if thinner strings are more comfortable for you, I would go for those.
  • Buying unheard/unplayed = gambling. It may be inviting to order on the internet, but always try before you buy. To my surprise I found many reviews on the internet in which disappointed consumers told their stories about how the expensive products they ordered turned out not to sound as expected.
  • Guitars from the same brand and type can differ quite a lot from each other in tone and playability.
  • Be very critical with stories about vintage guitars. You may very well end up paying an enormous amount of money for a guitar that has accumulated a number of defects over the years.
  • Be equally critical with stories about guitars made out of special woods that are supposed to give you incredible tone. There are a lot of myths or at least exaggerations about this.
To stick with this last point for a while: I want to share a few thoughts on this. In a nutshell, regarding solid electric guitars: if wood has any influence at all, it is very limited. I know this is a bold statement if, for instance, a guitar-builder like John Suhr has a whole list of woods on his website, including descriptions of the way a particular type of wood influences tone1. Who am I to say that is nonsense?
Well, there are a few indications about the degree of influence on the tone. What I noticed when I bought a Strat a number of years ago, was that the best sounding one also had a major flaw: the neck wasn't resting properly on the body at on one side... Now if the influence of the wood would have been significant, there should have been a significant change in tone after I had the neck mounted properly. To my surprise it totally didn't seem to make a difference... By the way, the sound shouldn't have been very good in the first place, when the neck still hadn't been properly mounted, but right away it had been much better sounding than the other Strats that I tried.

Also, I noticed on John Suhr's website, after reading all his comments on which wood to choose, that he also tells a story in which he one time had witnessed Van Halen playing in the studio. Suhr writes that to his surprise Van Halen had "in every aspect his signature tone", although he had been playing a "headless, woodless Steinberger"2. It's good to read that in this little cameo, Suhr more or less undermines his whole list of wood-specifications and their influence on guitar-tone. Suhr concludes that much of the tone is in the fingers, implying that the lesser gods should stick with the prescribed tone-woods to get a good tone. Although a great guitar-builder, I think Suhr has let commercial motives outweigh the more obvious conclusion that wood just doesn't make much difference, if any.

Surely a guitar builder wants to offer his customers a range of options to choose from. And if you would visit the Suhr-forum, you will find a whole range of guitarists that each own quite a number of Suhr-guitars, discussing on tone-woods3. It's sobering to switch to YouTube and watch the film4 in which someone records the tone of a normal wooden (Ash) Strat, disassembles it; puts the same neck and all the hardware on an acrylic/perspex Strat-body and records the tone again. I couldn't hear a significant difference, although some YouTube-commenters seemed convinced they did. Let me just say there was so very little difference that discussions about the use and influence of alder, mahogany, swamp-ash or basswood seem laughable. Remember, on the forum people for instance claim to know that having a thin layer of maple on top of a basswood body adds boosts the high or middle frequencies... as if they could hear it. Bottom line: better put some time in investigating different pickups.

1.John Sur tone woods
2.BJFE: What is the best rig you've ever heard?
3.Suhr forum: A little advice on maple
4.Youtube: Does wood effect electric guitar tone (part 4)