My One And Only

Now before we get started on this thought stream I must say that I have suffered from severe GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) for most of my life, I’m not suggesting for a second that we shouldn’t all have many more guitars than we need, but…

Thoughts of guitar monogamy have been brewing in me since interviewing the Telecaster master Jim Campilongo about five years ago. We spent an afternoon talking about his playing, his influences and of course, his gear. Jim plays a Telecaster, pretty much always the same one (a beautiful ’59 Toploader) through a Fender Princeton (1966) amplifier, no pedals. Jim is one of the finest guitar players around and so to witness his superb playing was no surprise, but his manipulation of tone was off the scale. He knew every nook and cranny of the sound of this guitar and amp combination and knew exactly how to effortlessly draw out a fat jazz tone, a biting Buchanan twang or a thick crunch and everything in between!

For a few months after this meeting I played nothing but my Telecaster and my Princeton and I found that while I never got to the tonal depths that Jim reached, I found tones I never knew were there before and was able to manipulate my tone to match sounds I had in my “musical mind” (or whatever you want to call it) far faster and more clearly than I had before.

That got me thinking about other guitar players I loved and how most of them had an instrument that we associate with them and their sound. And I wonder how much of their sound comes from their guitar and amp choices and how much is down to really getting inside the sounds they can find in those combinations. Think about the Stratocasters players with great tone; Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, Steve Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour, Buddy Holly, Yngwie Malmsteen… these guys all have incredible tone and buckets of personality, and sure they have different amp and effect combinations, but I’m certain that a lot of their “tonal personality” comes from really getting to know their instruments.

Take a look at Jeff Beck playing live, he’s always tweaking his Volume and Tone knobs and often it’s so subtle I would never have known had I not been watching, but he knows, and he knows his instrument so well that he can manipulate it “just so” and make it sound how he wants to hear it. You see this kind of thing in many of the great players, and it’s worth noticing, thinking about and seeing where it takes you.

I think the minor tone tweaks over a number of years can really help a player define “their” sound and perhaps hearing the same sound consistently over many years help define the sound one hears in our “musical mind”. I suspect it’s a two-way street and that both parts assist the other’s development.

While it’s certainly true that a lot of tone “comes from your fingers”, the older I get, the more I think that getting to know a few guitar and amp combinations really well is far more rewarding than being a complete gear slut. 

So this year I have pretty much exclusively played my Suhr Classic (Strat style HSS guitar) other than for sessions or lessons where a specific sound was required that I couldn’t draw from it. And I really feel I have learned an incredible amount about my tone, what sounds I can get from the guitar, and my fingers are better able to make the guitar sound different without touching any settings – I don’t really understand how that works but it does! There’s something in my subconscious that is helping my fingers create the tone I want to hear, regardless of the rest of the chain.

I’ve been finding the same with amps too, I’ve been using the Kemper Profiler a lot the last six months but found that manipulating just a few profiles and really getting inside them is getting me deeper than flicking through lots of different profiles looking for different sounds. My ‘real’ amp of choice has been the Lazy J20 and again having just one plugged in at the studio and always going to that first has really helped me get inside it and get more tones out of it that I would have been able to before. 

With all that said, when I got my ’70 Les Paul Gold Top out in the studio last week, I was in heaven. I’d forgotten how nice it felt under the fingers and also loved and how thick and woody it sounded, very different from the Strat style I’d gotten so used to. 

So maybe I’m not ready to become a one guitar guy just yet, but I do think there is a lot to be learned about tone from guitar monogamy and it’s something I plan to continue exploring in the coming years.

Food For Thought