Every month, Guitar Techniques attempts to answer guitarists' playing posers and technical teasers with expert and practical advice. Here's one about finding your ideal guitar sound, without spending a fortune on gear…
I'm pursuing an overdriven guitar sound that I have in my head, but the research I've done to date has got me nowhere.
I understand that players like Eric Johnson and Brian May searched around a lot before they found the gear that would give them their signature sound, but I can't afford to experiment too much at my current wage level. So buying tons of effects and different amps is totally out of the question.
Do you know of any shortcuts that would help me get closer to my ideal guitar sound?
We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't say that a great deal of an individual player's sound comes from his physical approach to playing the guitar, Pat. Subtle nuances with vibrato, pick attack, muting and so on all combine together to give that unique soundprint - and we're not just falling back on teacher rhetoric here as we've had it proven to us many times.
We've been fortunate enough to have been present where a single 'unplugged' guitar has been passed from player to player and each had his own distinctive sound without the aid of amps or effects. In much the same way, you could pass a pencil around a room full of people and get many different variations in handwriting.
Hopefully you get my point here, because now we'll hop off our soapbox and try to help you in a more constructive way!
The hardware that adds up to any player's live rig will comprise a guitar, effects, amps and speaker cabs, generally speaking. There are other peripherals, of course, like pickups, leads and so on, but the aforementioned have arguably the biggest influence over the sound that arrives at your ears.
Assuming that you have experimented with different guitars and found one that feels like home, that leaves us with the other three areas. Fortunately, effect, amp and speaker cab combinations are par for the course in digital simulators like the Line 6 Pod and others like it. You can also buy software that will do pretty much the same job on your computer.
What we're suggesting here is that you get hold of some sort of modelling device that will offer you the chance to test out a broad range of combinations within a single unit. If you hunt around on eBay or in the Guitarist reader ads, you're bound to find something like a used Pod or Vox Valvetronix, that will give you a lot of set-ups for a snip of the price that it would cost to buy the hardware.
Then if you decide a Fender Twin, Ibanez Tubescreamer and analog delay pedal are 'your sound' then you can start looking around for the 'real thing'. Or indeed buy a modelling combo that will similarly emulate your heart's desire.
We wish you good luck with your experimenting, but please take note of what we said in the opening paragraph of our reply and resist the urge to rely solely on gear for your sound. Just remember that the more you are able to do with your brain, muscles, tendons and your other biological assets, the less you'll have to rely on electrical paraphernalia for your signature sound!