Ending the Guitar Tone Obsession

Do we guitarists obsess too much about tone? I’ve realised I certainly do. If I look back to the first 15 or so years of playing the instrument tone was the last thing I thought about. The gear I had was just what I can afford and I did the best I could with it. But thanks to the internet we can now all learn about the gear we don’t have, and how the gear we do have isn’t any good, despite it being perfectly fine beforehand.

I’ve owned plenty of guitar amps but only two during the first 20 years as a musician. This is partly because I went a long time between uni and a decade and a half later not playing live and mostly recording via a computer. The other reason being I didn’t see the need for a different amp. Only in recent times – perhaps with various forums and others to blame – that I’ve bought and sold so much gear.

My first amp when I was 17 was really my Philips boombox, a friend had showed me how you could get a cable from Tandy that would go from my guitar to the line-in connections of the stereo. If you turned it up loud it distorted too. Though my family weren’t too impressed with that as I stumbled through Whole Lotta Love.

Within a year I had a small Squier solid state combo. This was supposed to be a small practice amp but it had two volume settings – off and too loud. But I then bought a bigger amp from a mate of mine who’d gigged it around his six form. It was a Hohner Marlin 50C. It was a solid state combo with two channels (or at least a clean and drive setting), chorus and reverb. I knew nothing about hear back then so I never did use the effects loop – wasn’t sure what it did – though it would have been very handy at the time. And never realised I could have bought a very cheap footswitch to help me switch between clean and dirt – I used to run back to the amp and press a little button, same for the chorus and reverb. But I still have very fond memories of the amp.

It was the amp I was stood on playing Purple’s Black Night at full volume in our halls of residence one night for a singalone with friends when the porter gave me a bollocking. It was an extra seat in my uni room. It also occasionally served as a table for my kettle and coffee stuff. I used it a lot live at uni – including quite regularly at the Christian Union (don’t ask – I’m trying to forget them) where teaming up with a noisy drummer of like mind we completely Van Halened it all up contrary to the leadership’s wishes. It’s the amp that I used my forgotten school electronics skills on to replace knackered pots. And sadly it’s the amp that was falling apart when I threw it away when I was in my early thirties and moving down to that London from Manchester.

So not a classic amp in any terms. But I remember it doing the job, back then I was more interested in playing and impressing girls than “tone”. I don’t think I ever even thought about “tone” back then. My guitar gear amounted to an Epiphone 435i superstrat, Korg G3, Jim Dunlop Wah and the Marlin 50C. And that was all the gear I had for a decade. And it did the job.

Since then my gear list of shame has grown long. I’ve bought and sold all kinds of kit, partly because I like new toys, partly because I was chasing a tone that existed only in my head. Even with the right gear I would obsess over the settings endlessly. The temptation to fiddle is always there – especially with digital modelling devices. How many of us can say we’ve played through a POD for an hour without tinkering with the sound?

Well I’ve had enough of all that. Enough of seeing the vacuum tube as the holy grail. Enough of caring what other people thought of the gear I had, rather than what I thought. I’ve just spent an hour playing guitar. I had my POD HD500 running into the power amp return of my Laney Ironheart head. With the POD set to Stack Power Amp I selected the Plexi model, didn’t touch gain or EQ at all, added a reverb and then just spent an hour jamming. I didn’t even switch off the cab or mic modelling, I just played. I didn’t second guess what other people might have set it to.

By the end of the hour I thought it sounded amazing. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But what I didn’t do was worry about it. I just played with what I had. And the honest truth is I’ve not enjoyed playing guitar so much in ages.