The Never Ending Search for Tone Part II

Last week I began discussing my journey of trying to find the elusive Tone as a guitarist. For many years, I had only three guitars, my main one being a 1988 USA Jackson; one amp, a Peavey Backstage Plus; and two pedals. When I say years, I mean at least a couple of decades. I didn’t play out much those days, maybe a house party here and there, but that’s about it. I did stop playing for about five years because of life and hitting a playing plateau I had been stuck on for a few years. However, around 2008 I picked up the guitar once again.

I had leant my Peavey to a friend on a long-term loan, so, my first order of business was to get a new amp. When I bought my first music equipment pieces, there was no internet, only magazines, word of mouth, and personal testing at music stores. Here it was 2008 and I had a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips. After a lot of research, I had narrowed it down to three small practice amps to personally test out; Vox, Marshall, and Peavey.

All the amps were either hybrids or solid state with a multitude of onboard capabilities to dial in many kinds of tones. It was especially important that the amp sounded good using headphones as it was how I intended to play most of the time because of my living in a townhouse and not wanting to disturb the neighbors’ small children. I decided on the VOX AD15VT for my new amp after a great deal of testing. It sounded really good with headphones, was relatively inexpensive, and had a great reputation with reliability for a small practice amp.

It took me about a year to get back to where I was previously with playing guitar. However, for the first time, I started writing my own music and lyrics. I also found Line 6 amplifiers and their recording equipment. Learning about how to do home recording really opened my eyes to a whole new realm about how to get tone. Line 6 (UX1 Interface) used Ableton recording software at the time. So many variables can change the way your tone sounds: room size, type of microphone, microphone angle, even the types of speakers in your cabinet and the type of wood the cabinet is made of makes a tonal difference.

It was during this time I had a great conversation with a young guitarist working at the music instrument section of Best Buy. He was only in his early twenties, but had been playing for several years; I was in my early forties. We were talking about equipment we used, tunings, etc. He was telling me how he played in drop D and was trying to dial in the tone of one of his favorite guitarists. I said why? I asked him, “Why don’t you just find your own unique sound? Everyone has one inside themselves.”

About a month went by and he said he had taken my advice and found his own tone and had made major advancements with his playing as it released him from the constraints of playing only the musician he was trying to emulate. It was really cool how even though our age was very different, music was able to level everything out.

I said earlier how I got into Line 6 products, it all started with the tiny Pocket Pod. Compared to the Rockman I had in the Navy, this was a rocket ship. That little thing had so many capabilities it was mesmerizing; from types of amp models to cabinets and speakers. However, once again, it wasn’t enough. I bought a cheap Danelectro 8 band equalizer pedal for around $30 and that changed everything. I had found a tone that worked for me at that time. The problem was I could only play it with headphones. I had tried to use the line out capability into my VOX, but it didn’t sound like what I was hearing with the POD alone. So, I bought a Line 6 Spider IV 75 Watts with an FBV Longboard to try and get the sound of the POD out in the open. It worked and I had a tone I was happy with for quite a while.

Around this time, I also started buying up different guitars. Many people criticize guitarists who have several guitars, but I now understand why a musician does such a thing. Each guitar has its own tone and with that its own personality. The wood, internal electronics, pickups, hardware, and even glues used make a difference in how a guitar sounds.

I had always loved Les Paul’s, not just because of their popularity among the professional world or the beautiful looks, but because of the man himself. I ran across an opportunity that I could not pass up to purchase a brand new 2009 Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plus for a ridiculously inexpensive price. There were several available, but one caught my eye, a cherry sunburst beauty that sounded really good. Not long after, I found Craigslist and found even more amazing guitars.

Within a year, I added a 1991 Jackson Professional Reverse Dinky and a late 90’s Jackson Rhoads to my collection. The Dinky was my first guitar with active EMG pickups and what a tone monster it has been over the years. The Rhoads was in really bad shape and needed a lot of TLC. However, once it was in working order, it really didn’t have the power I felt a Rhoads should have for its pedigree.

One of my favorite guitarists was Dimebag Darrel of Pantera, an amazingly gifted musician who was taken from this earth too early. However, his tone, for me, was astounding. So, after doing a bit of research, I found the maker of the bridge pickup he used for the iconic metal album Vulgar Display of Power and ordered one. The pickup was made in the USA by man named Bill Lawrence (RIP) who used a unique winding and potting method for these pickups which gave them their infamous tone. The pickup was the XL500L and when I had it installed in the Rhoads, it was an immense transformation. The tone went from something rather dull to a raging animal, so much so I named the guitar Rage.

Next week I’m going to finish this article and talk about the changes of going from playing at home to a live gig environment as well as, wait for it, MORE guitars, new equipment, and the adventure of building my own guitar. Please feel free to comment and share and come back next week for Part III!!

-Scott Duncan - MU Columnist

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