It’s been a little over a year since I started playing guitar again. It’s been quite an effort, albeit a very enjoyable one. I’ve re-learned how to play, and I’ve learned lots of new things to play in the process. I’m pleased with my progress, though there is always room for improvement. But, despite all that I have achieved in this time, something has always been missing — something which was stopping me from getting full benefit of playing guitar again — and I’ve only just worked out what it is: it’s how the guitar sounds.
In the 80s, I was very much into tinkering with music gear. I had a soldering iron, and wasn’t afraid to use it. I read practical magazines about electronic music, which gave me plenty of ideas for experimentation. I modified the electronics in my guitar, made effects boxes, and built a demo recording set-up. When I had consolidated all the best bits, and got tired of wiring it all up at rehearsals, I made an all-in-one unit, called the Noisewarp.
Any shortcomings in my electric guitar were more than made up for in the sonic box of tricks I had created. You’d rarely hear the guitar played clean. More often than not, two or three effects would be running at any time. Experimenting with a large palette of delicious sounds proved to be an inspiration for writing and recording music. The act of discovery was a catalyst for creativity. And the more gadgets I collected, the more ideas they generated.
Years later, when the equipment had become neglected, I sold or scrapped Noisewarp’s various failing components. As I’d lost my guitar combo some years earlier, I had to play unplugged, or through the stereo. Eventually, I bought a second hand multi-effects box with the basic pedals. But it didn’t sound great, and it didn’t get used very much.
When I was making electronic music, I bought a combo for gigging: a Roland KC-350. It’s billed as a keyboard amp, and, at 120W, powerful enough for a full ensemble of weird and wonderful sounds from a computer DAW and midi controllers.
In the years to come, I tried to jump start my guitar playing with new guitars and gadgets. I swapped my basic effects box for a super-duper digital box. While there were a lot of new sounds to play with, they didn’t seem to inspire any experimentation.
In 2019, the penny finally dropped about amps. By accident, I read about the Rec Out / Phones socket on the Boss ME-70 effects box. I learned that it was designed to recreate the sound of a guitar cab, and that this modified sound was duplicated on the output jack. Suddenly, the sterile fizzing sound was gone, and it sounded like it was supposed to all along.
I traded the ME-70 in for the updated ME-80, offering better quality digital sound, even more effects, and enabling settings to be refined in a computer. But, I was still struggling to get really good tones from my gear. It was all a bit hit-and-miss.
I read a couple of interesting articles by sound engineers on getting the best from your amplification, before thinking of swapping it for something else. The articles planted the seed that it was possible to make dramatic improvements to the character and quality of your sound by thoughtful use of your amp’s tone controls.
Then I compared a premium valve combo with the corresponding simulation (using the Boss FX through the Roland). The valve combo easily won, sounding clean, warm, smooth, and full of character. I attempted to recreate the tone of the valve combo using the EQ on the Roland and the Boss combo emulator. Half an hour later, I was there. In a blind A/B comparison, the Boss/Roland might have even sounded slightly better. The improvement was striking.
So, there is a massive difference between different types of combo and amplifier/cabinet, which dramatically changes the character of the sound. And it seems that we can’t take EQ for granted. We need to learn how to analyse our tone, listen to how EQ affects the sound, and not be afraid to experiment. We may actually find that we already have really good gear, if only we knew how to set it up well.