The Never Ending Search for Tone

I’ve played several musical instruments throughout my life, saxophone, piano, kazoo; but none have stuck with me like the guitar. I started messing around with them when I was 14 and didn’t realize what I was getting myself into at the time.

In 1984, my mom helped me buy my first guitar and amp; an Aria Pro II ZZ Deluxe and a Peavey Backstage Plus. The reason I chose this guitar? It looked cool, what else? Tone, yeah, I guess it had that as well, but the only tone I really knew was the sound emanating from my favorite bands at the time like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Metallica.

I saw that several guitarists I liked started out using Aria’s, like George Lynch, Yngwie Malmsteen, and many others. So, it seemed I was starting at the right place. I hated the stock tremolo as it had a tendency of making the guitar go out of tune with extended use, so, I had it replaced about a year later with a Kahler and a locking nut, problem solved.

However, other than that, the guitar is completely stock and is still played from time to time to this day. The amp was awesome and lasted until the mid-2000’s when the reverb finally died as well as some broken wiring. However, the first couple of years I played guitar, I learned one thing, I liked my tone HEAVY.

In 1986, I had to stop playing for a time because I went in the US Navy. When I returned to home port in San Diego, CA in 1987, the first thing I did was buy a guitar and amp. I was on a fairly strict budget and living on the ship so I went on the hunt for something that would meet my budgetary and mobility needs. I found myself at Guitar Center looking at all the shiny instruments, especially the ones going up the walls.

My eyes found a Yamaha SE-250, pink with a pearl-blue underlay paint, single coil and humbucker pickups with coil splitting, and a tremolo with locking nut. I tried it out and it met all my requirements for the time. I also bought a Rockman portable stereo headphone amplifier. The two-combined sounded awesome. That didn’t last long as my tastes were changing.

I remember really liking the “blade” pickups in my Aria and found a DiMarzio Super Distortion blade pickup (X2N I believe) that had really good reviews, so I had that installed in my Yamaha. It didn’t sound quite the way I wanted, but it was better than stock. However, my taste in tone was evolving and as I left for my second tour in the Persian Gulf, I stopped by Guitar Center where they had a booklet for the Jackson Guitars Custom Shop. I felt I was at a point in my playing where I was good enough that I wanted something that was built to my specifications.

I played a lot of guitar when away from home port. When in Hong Kong, I came upon a guitar store that was selling guitar pedals REALLY cheap. I bought my first distortion pedal, a BOSS MZ-2, Digital Metalizer distortion pedal. The tone I got when hooked up to my Rockman sounded really great, nice and heavy, but it was still missing something…delay!

I bought a delay pedal and my tone was improving, getting closer to what I was hearing in my head. However, the entire time while over-seas, I was working very hard on my custom Jackson booklet. I had devised the entire guitar from type of woods, electronics, I even created a custom set of inlays for the twelfth fret marker. However, I had still had a few months left over-seas before I could turn in my booklet.

We returned to home port in 1988. I had been saving some money while at sea for a down payment on my custom Jackson as I knew it was going to cost well over $1000 for it to be built. I went to Guitar Center and started talking with the Jackson “specialist” about ordering a custom guitar. Ironically the salesman’s name was Wolfgang. He looked over my specs and asked if I would be interested in a used made in USA Jackson that met most of my requirements. I said sure and he pointed to the top of the wall up by the ceiling.

As most guitarists know who frequent Guitar Center, the top of the wall by the ceiling is where they keep the high dollar guitars so they cannot be played with by customers. I looked up…and there was the guitar I designed except for the fret inlays. Wolfgang got one of the huge ladders and brought it down from the wall. He gave it to me to try out on a mini Marshall stack.

First thing I noticed, it was heavy, around nine pounds. The bridge humbucker was a Seymour Duncan Full Shred designed by one of my favorite guitarists, Vivian Campbell of Dio at the time. I believe it was the first year it was ever offered, but it was in my booklet and was my first choice for a bridge pickup. I plugged it into the Marshall and the tone that came out was thunderous. I loved that when I would play it, the guitar was so solidly built, I could feel the vibrations of the guitar resonate through my body with each pick stroke. Wolfgang knew I was a metalhead, so he set up the amp for a ball park heavy tone that I could dial in as I was testing. I think I annoyed the staff and customers for an hour or more before I finally decided I had to have it.

It turned out that the original buyer had it custom ordered, purchased it and returned it only a week later is it did not meet his needs. Because of that, I was able to purchase it with a used discount and another 10% because of some buckle rash on the back. The price after discounts, $880. Now when you’re a low-ranking sailor in 1988, $880 is a TON of money even after putting down a decent deposit. It took me a few months to pay it off, but I visited it a couple of times a month, even bringing my Rockman setup to test with it and the tone was brutal. I finally made the last payment, took it back to the ship and it’s been my number one guitar ever since.

The three guitars and amps above, were used constantly until my job, marriage, and a playing plateau made me decide to stop playing for around five years in the early 2000’s. In 2008, I started playing guitar again, but my ear and tone had changed once again and I needed something different. I’ll leave that for next week. Thanks for reading!

-Scott Duncan - MU Columnist

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