The Never Ending Search for Tone Part III

Last week I talked about how I began changing my musical equipment from amps to guitars and even guitar components. I had also started writing and recording my own music which I had never done in the past. Finally, I had found solid state modeling amplifiers and with that, found tones which met the sound in my head. However, change was in the air once again.

I moved to New England in 2014. With that move also came all my music equipment including six guitars, two amplifiers, and recording hardware. However, my world was about to change when I got into a band. I auditioned for a band in 2015. One thing I noticed as I was learning songs for the audition was how similar my tone was to the lead guitarist in the band and how my sound meshed in perfectly. This was a good sign to me as it was rare that I heard tone similar to my own.

This was my first time ever auditioning for a real band and I was very nervous, so much so that when I plugged my guitar in for the first audition with the music composer/lead guitarist (Dave), I plugged the input cable into the headphone jack of my amp. I was stressed out as there was no sound when I started playing. Dave chuckled, did the head point movement at the input jack and everything was good, although embarrassing. Our tones meshed perfectly and I was asked to move on to the full band audition a week later.

I had been listening and learning their music, but playing with a recording was totally different than playing in a live band situation. However, once again, we synced up perfectly and the sound of a fully functioning band was an inspiration to everyone, especially those whose vision had finally been realized. The only issue I had was that my 75-watt Line 6 Spider IV was having issues being louder than the drum kit without breaking up. However, it was good enough, and I was officially invited to join the original classic metal band Chained To Insanity.

The first thing I did was find a more powerful amp to get over the drums. I went to Guitar Center and traded in my 75-watt single speaker combo amp for its big brother, a 150-watt dual speaker (2x12) Line 6 Spider IV combo amp. I figured it was the same amp and the foot pedal I used for the old one was compatible with the new one. Sure enough it worked, I was able to dial in the tones I was used to from the old amp and control everything through the pedalboard, life was good. However, during our first full practice I noticed that I was having some breakup at higher volumes. I ignored it thinking the amp just needed some break-in time. However, our first gig was only two weeks after I joined and I was concerned about the issue recurring at the show.

Our show was only a short set, but the breaking up was still present. I wasn’t sure if it was getting through to the audience from the PA, but to my ears it was not a good thing to have happening. I took it back to Guitar Center telling them of the problem. They hadn’t heard of this issue occurring in these amps as live gigging is what they were built for normally. My lead guitarist used a Fender Mustang IV in the band. It’s a 150-watt, 2x12 modelling monster of an amp. I decided to trade in the Line 6 amp and pedalboard, because I knew from experience that he had never had an issue with it performing live.

The Fender Mustang IV is an amazing modeling amp. It didn’t come with nearly as many presets as the Line 6, but they were enough to give you an idea of its capabilities. One of the really cool things about the amp was that it had models of all the previously made Fender amplifiers, ever. With each amp model comes a plethora of options that can be used to dial in the perfect tone from many stomp boxes, delay’s, modulator’s, the list is large. You can also literally dial in every aspect of the amp itself as if you were turning the dials of the amp physically. I used a U.S. high gain amp head model going through a 2x12 speaker cab which had its own parameters, then added distortion, chorus, reverb, and delay to get an absolutely monster tone, to me. Our next show was about a month after our first and the Fender worked flawlessly. Life was good.

As I started playing out more with the band, my playing style began to change subtlety because of the music I was playing. My stage presence/persona was also going through a massive change. I look back to the way I was on stage the first gig compared to now and it’s like night and day. With that, I bought a couple more guitars, guitars of heroes. I was on Craigslist and came across a Dean Dave Mustaine Signature, Zero for an insanely inexpensive price. The only difference was that the signature pickups had been swapped out for Seymour Duncan Blackouts which made it even more enticing, plus my wife loved the graphics. I went and played it and added it to my collection.

The next guitar purchased was an ultimate hero guitar for me, a Limited-Edition Epiphone SG Toni Iommi Signature. This was an exact replica of the guitar Tony uses in the studio. For those not familiar with my musical history, Tony was the one who made me want to learn to play guitar so many years ago. It was as if I had come full circle when it arrived as I had to custom order it through a local shop. Even though I had these two signature guitars, when I plugged into the Fender, it was still my tone that came out for the most part. The guitars definitely had their specific voices which I could hear easily, but it was still me.

One thing I was always curious about was how guitars were built. I have friends who are luthiers and guitar builders, one even builds custom guitars for Jackson. I decided to buy a guitar kit and build one. I bought a Les Paul style guitar from for around $200. The kit arrived and came with everything needed to complete the guitar other than paint and finishing supplies. I realized that the hardware and electronics were probably not the best quality material based on the purchase price. So, I went to Ebay and bought the gold hardware and electronics from an Epiphone Les Paul Custom.

The hardware and electronics went perfectly with my design idea, but the pickups wouldn’t work. I pulled the Bill Lawrence XL500L bridge pickup out of my Jackson Rhoads and a PAF neck pickup from another guitar. The most difficult part of the build was the electronics, specifically grounding. There’s nothing worse than playing a guitar that has a constant hum when not being played. However, once I figured that out, it was amazing. I can honestly say, there is nothing like playing a guitar that you have built yourself. Since I completed it over a year ago, it has become one of my main guitars for use on stage. I also have gotten so many compliments and have had such interest that I’m considering building more and selling them as a product. If people are interested in me writing about this building experience, let me know in the comments below.

As part of my growing with the band, I felt my tone needed to change as the band was getting more aggressive. As a “gear head,” I’m always reading about new amps, pedals, equipment, etc. I came across an amp head by Bugera called the Infinium Trirec which is a three-channel tube amp that has numerous tonal capabilities. As a metal guitarist, the “Holy Grail” of amps is the Mesa Boogie Trirec. However, used these amps cost around $1800 which was way out of my budget. The Bugera, brand new was $799, much better, however, still too much for my budget.

I did a ton of research on the Bugera and found a great comparison of the Mesa and Bugera together. I was amazed to hear the tonal differences and that the Bugera actually sounded better to me, for over half the cost. It was still out of my budget, but my wife surprised me for my birthday last year and found a like new used Bugera on Ebay at nearly 40% off original price. I found a used Marshall 1960A 4x12 speaker cabinet that creates an amazing tone with the Bugera going through it. However, the tone was still missing something. I hooked up my Danelectro EQ through the amp effects loop, dialed in the tone in my head, and we had lift off.

To complete my live rig, I bought an MXR noise suppressor and a Korg tuner. Am I happy with the current setup? I still think there’s a little something missing, but I can’t figure out what the final piece of the puzzle might be at the moment. However, when I mic the rig to the PA, it sounds amazing and I get nothing but compliments about my tone from fans and musicians alike.

One thing that took me years to learn about tone; you can have a kick ass amp, guitars, pedals, whatever, but the true foundation of tone is you, the musician. I’ve seen Joe Satriani play his instrumental, ‘Surfing With The Alien,’ using a $100 guitar and $50 amp and it still sounded fantastic. So, pick up a guitar, get out there, and find your own tone, it’s in you, waiting!!

-Scott Duncan - MU Columnist

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