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This topic aims to give your some solid guidelines to choosing you gear and finding your own tone. There are also several pitfalls to avoid, so hopefully this will help your find your own tone even faster. This has been written with a view to finding your on-stage tone, but most of it is readily applicable to home and recording use.
The first step is to identify your needs. Are you in a cover band where you need a wide variety of "typical" guitar tones? Or are you focussed on creating your own tone that brings out the messages about you as an individual and your songs? Whatever you're after, you own playing style will dictate your own tone to large extent anyway, so the job of the amp, speakers and effects you use is to emphasise the things that make you unique. Here are some practical examples:
We could go on, but it's important to know what's special about you and what you want to hear from your amp.
The next step is to listen to other players' tones, as much as you can. Even though you probably have in mind some idea of your ultimate tone, take some time to step back and listen to players' tones in different musical styles. There are a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, it's easy to be dazzled with your favourite player's attitude, songs and band image, and overlook that the actual tone is not really what works best for you. Secondly, some of the most distinctive and unique tones come from blends of musical genres, so one of the best ways to stand out is to not use stereotypical sounds. Think of the wide array of blues tones, from the raunchy Gary Moore to the thin/clean tones of Robert Cray.
What is the ultimate tone anyway? Amp companies love players who are ready to spend in the hope that the might get one step closer to some mythical ultimate tone. In reality, the ultimate tone is what works for you in the context of your music. Your tone needs to be pleasing to you and complementary to your musical style. That way it encourages your playing and thought, instead of hindering it. It also needs to blend well with other instruments in your band, and this can sometimes mean you need to find some acceptable compromises. For example, you might like the massive Pink Floyd style washes of sustained chords and long delays (echoes), but this sort of thing needs to be carefully mixed; it's not the sort of thing that can be easily ad-libbed if everyone on stage is trying to do the same thing!
Also think about the different tones you'll need for your music. Most players need at least a few different tones for their repertoire. For example, most players will want a fairly clean tone for chord work, maybe a crunchy rhythm tone for heavier backings, and a solo tone for single note work. An amp that doesn't give you all of these basic needs is never going to be right for you.
Now let's look at what type of setup you'd like. I've listed some typical semi-pro setups here and how they compare. Where there's a clear advantage, I've highlighted the best in green. There's also a jargon buster below the table.
Lets Go Shopping!
OK, maybe you don't need to go shopping, because you already have what you need. But if you've considered your options, you may want to try out some gear.
The most valuable advice I can give for trying gear is firstly to try it the volume level you intend to use. Lots of reasons for this, but in particular, you need to know that the tone you want is available at the volume you want. Secondly, take a friend with you who knows what YOU want and is not afraid to be critical of what they hear. If you've ever recorded, you'll know that what you think it sounds like when you play is often different to what it sounds like when you play back.
Amps and stompboxes are easier to audition because they're pretty much WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). If you want to audition modellers, you'll need plenty of time to adjust and compare settings. You can find manuals for most modellers online and it will help if you browse these beforehand so you have at least a basic idea of how to use the gear.
The factory preset sounds in most modellers are designed to dazzle you in the shop, and are rarely the types of sounds you'd use on stage. This means that tones are often drenched in delays, chorus and excessive overdrive levels. What you need to know is whether the raw tones give you what you want.
So edit a patch by turning all effects OFF (except maybe just a hint of reverb), then play with the amp and cab models. Each time you select a new amp, have a quick play with the drive level, because most amps sound their best at a particular drive level, whether clean, with a bit of break-up, or overdriven. Then just browse through a few different cab models to get a feel for the types of sounds you can get. It's not realistic to audition every tone possible (a modeller with 50 amp models, 30 cab models, 4 mic models that you want to try at 3 different overdrive levels is 18,000 different sounds!).
The aim here is to get a good idea of the overall tone quality, and whether it can give you your key tones, so spend more time when you find something close to what you want. By now you'll also have a good feel for the ease of use and display quality, so factor those into your decision as well.
Fortunately the quality of effects in all modellers today is at a very high standard, so the main consideration is to check your key effects. For example, you may want accurate models of some favourite stomp sounds like an MXR Phase 90, ADA Flanger, or whatever, so check those carefully. Modelled effects cannot be modded the same way that real stompboxes can.
The final consideration for modellers is: Does it have a global control of at least bass and treble (reverb is nice too). Because your modeller is likely to be used with preset tones, it's critical to be able to make fine adjustments to the overall tone of your amp at a gig. For example, a large venue with hard walls will sound brighter and have more reverb than a venue with curtains and people dancing up close to the band. It's not practical to change every preset in a panic before the gig. In any case, it's often something you will adjust occasionally throughout the gig.
First, let's get the technical stuff out of the way: There's a thing called the Fletcher-Munson curve that describes the way our ears hear different frequencies at different volumes. You can read more on this by searching the web, but the critical thing for setting up tones is:
Your tone will have more bass and more treble at higher volumes and more middle at lower volume
Most of us are not able to set up our tones at gig volume levels, neighbours being neighbours. So if you're setting up tones at low to medium volume levels, you need to dial in tones that are a little muddy and hollow (lots of mids, with no boomy bass or sharp highs).
Just like my advice above for testing tones in the shop, start your tone building with just an amp and cab model. This will be the core of your tone, and no amount of effects can fix a rotten core. Once you're happy with the basic tone, add effects, probably starting with overdrive before the amp, because this will interact with the amp overdrive, and you will often want to find a good balance between stompbox gain and amp gain. Then add pretty much whatever you want.
It's worth recounting some history of the legendary Tube Screamer overdrive pedal. This pedal is not massively popular for the tone it produces on its own, but because it boosts the mids and pushes amps into overdrive in a very pleasing way. In particular, the lack of bass allows you to get overdrive tones with plenty of saturated mids and highs without the flabby bass that often comes with lots of gain. Treble boosters (which pre-dated the tube screamer) work on a similar principle: more highs, less lows. You can take this even further with high-end modellers now: If you can modify tones both before and after your amp model, you can use the EQ before the amp to boost the frequencies you want heavily overdriven (eg mids and/or highs) and then use EQ after the amp model to get the tone balance you want (eg you could boost the bass here to compensate for bass cut before the amp). This gives a level of control and flexibility not easily achievable with real amps, and is really worth experimenting with when you get to the fine-tuning stage.
It's also common to be deceived by overdrive levels. It's possible to use massive amounts of overdrive at low volume, but this is often impractical at stage volume. At best you'll just have no dynamics, and at worst you'll have uncontrollable feedback and won't be able to use the patch. So set the overdrive level to the lowest possible level that still gives you the tone you want. You'll find this translates to much better clarity when you get to the gig.
It's also important to continually check your different patches against each other so they have roughly the same volume level (at you normal picking strength) as well as having roughly the same tone balance. That way, you know you'll be in the ballpark when you get to the gig, and that if you've got it a bit wrong, you can use your global tone controls to get through the gig. This leads nicely into the next step ...
Refinement. After each gig, make a mental note of what things you need to change. Common adjustments are overdrive levels, tone balance, and volume levels between different patches. You'll probably find a natural tendency for "volume creep". This happens when you notice that one patch is a bit quiet, so you save it again with more volume. Then you notice that another patch is too quiet, and so on. It ends when your cleanest patch can't get any louder, or causes digital clipping (that's bad) if you try.
So your cleanest patch needs to be the benchmark for you patch volumes. This is because the cleanest patch has the highest dynamic range (the volume difference between the start of the note and the sustained part). All digital modellers have a maximum level beyond which digital clipping produces a highly undesirable "crackling" type of distortion. So set your cleanest patch below this level, playing as hard as you would normally do on stage in a moment of inspiration. You can now set your other patches to similar loudness levels. You're likely to find that the more overdrive you use, the lower the volume setting will be for that patch.
If you have a modeller, you'll need to get to know it in detail and this will take some time. The manufacturer's website will usually have good support material, such as manuals, FAQ and maybe a knowledge base. There is also likely to be a link to support forums, which you can join and ask your questions to other users.
If you've never used forums before, you might want to consider how and why they exist. It's generally uneconomic for manufacturers to provide effective support to every user, so a forum allows users to support each other.
If the support forum is on the manufacturer's own website, treat it as such and avoid references to competing products by name. Instead stick to the topic of their products and questions you have about them. A small number of manufacturer hosted forums delete questions that put a negative implication on their products, so its best to avoid these.
Popular products have their own independent forums, and these are generally better for more open questions and comparisons between competing products. They also have forum moderators who will ensure posts meet fourm guidelines. Some general observations on forums are:
I can't dial in your tone for you, but I hope these guidelines are practical and helpful to you in finding your own tones. I'll add more stuff to this as I think of it, but for now, I'll leave you with an anecdote:
I've often been asked by kids "Who's the best guitarist in the world?" This is really a silly question, something like: "What's the best colour?" So I'd always answer "Santana", and watch their surprise, until they'd come back with "But what about <name of their favourite awesome technical monster player here>?" Now I get to make my point: "How many players do you know who can only play one note, and you know straight away who it is?"
The point is about individuality and being true to yourself. So please think about that while you dial in your tone. You can learn a lot by dialling other players' tones, but that can sometimes take you further away from you.
The postscript to my anecdote is that now I actually DO think there was a best player in the world! His name was Chet Atkins, and he stands out to me because listening to him play guitar, it seems the music just pours from his fingers. He had a knack for letting music happen, while other players make it happen.