In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll talk about 5 steps to getting better tone from your rig.
Most of us are obsessed with our tone on some level. How do we get a better tone? Is it our gear? What changes do I need to make? What steps should I take. This week I throw out a few quick ideas that have helped me along the way.
While everything I write here is just my opinion, many of these opinions have been formed from hard learned lessons. So lets talk about getting better tone in 5 simple(ish) steps:
1. BUY A TUBE AMP
There’s just no way around it… tube amps sound better than solid stage amps.
Cheap amps, or amps with a lot of on board effects may have a certain appeal, but you’ll get the sound that comes along with it. Tube amps haven’t been replaced by digital because tube amps still sound better.
Note: I do like the Vox Pathfinder 15 (solid state) as a practice amp, but its for a very specific use, and I understand and make no excuses for its limitations.
2. MAINTAIN YOUR CABLES
Recently I received two free cables with the purchase of a pedal. When I plugged one in to try the pedal with another pedal, I thought my new reverb pedal was defective. It turns out that it was a cheap cable that was that cause of all the horrible noise I was hearing. Cables are the carriers of your tone. It doesn’t matter how nice the rest of your gear is, if you use cheap or poorly made cables, they will ruin your sound.
When I realized how those cheap patch cables affect my tone I remembered how long it had been since I’d first bought all the patch cables I used, and how a few of them had already started to go out, so replaced them with Lava’s Tightrope solderless cables. The tone has been great and I’ve been really happy with them. Once I built the first one it was pretty easy from there on out. Some people don’t like the design or idea of solderless, but enough pro players I know use them to convince me that they’ll hold up, especially with how quickly I’ve been soldered cables go bad.
3. EFFECTS LOOPS
If your amp has an effects loop you should give it a try. A lot of folks will talk about “tone suck” and make efforts to remedy it with things like true bypass switches in their effects pedals. Well, a few years ago I got an amp with an FX loop so I gave it a try. The difference in clarity and tone quality was night and day! What made the difference? Why was it better? All of my effects were true bypass, wasn’t that supposed to solve the problem?
Turns out that true bypass may be one of the most overrated things out there. Between my guitar cables and the patch cables on my board, I was losing a lot of signal. The FX loop made it so I was only running between my guitar and a few gain pedals before I hit the amps pre-amp tubes, which in a sense acted as a buffer before sending the signal back out to my delay/reverb effects.
Beside tone quality, you’ll also get tone clarity because if you run your amp a little dirty cause you won’t sending your delay or reverb effects into a distortion, but sending a driven signal into your delay/reverb like you would on a pedalboard.
4. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
I don’t know how many guys I’ve seen have a really nice guitar or a bunch of really nice (see expensive) pedals only to run it into a low quality amp. Maybe they have a really high quality amp and guitar but run cheap (low quality) pedals in their chain and it kills their sound.
I knew a guy who was really proud of all the money he’d saved because instead of buying any effects pedals he bought a Vox solid-state amp with on board digital effects. It sounded somewhere between blah and bad, and then when the effects were turned on it sounded even worse.
They would have been better off going with out effects in the short term and buying a decent amp like a Vox AC4 or Fender Blues Jr. (the Blues Jr. gives you a lead boost and reverb). If you try to be frugal get a good deal then that’s awesome. If you try to be cheap, then your tone will sound cheap.
5. BUFFERS ARE YOUR FRIEND
Like I said earlier, true bypass might be the most overrated thing out there. The issue isn’t whether buffers are good or bad, but whether the buffer in your pedal is good or bad. So if you have a bunch of lower end, or mass produced buffered pedals in a chain, then you’ll lose some tone because that many low grade components will affect your tone. But that doesn’t mean that buffers in general are always bad or that true bypass is always better. (see #3 for how I discovered this fact).
If you’re running a few gain pedals, a modulation effect, one or two delays and a reverb (all TB) in your chain, you will still have tone loss (sometimes referred to as “tone suck”) from you signal loosing strength over the length of your cables.
I take a middle of the road approach to the whole issue. High end builders like Pete Cornish use buffered in/outs in his pedals. Analogman offers the option on some of his pedals as well. Strymon gives you the option to choose between the two on many of their pedals. So I see buffered as neither good or bad, and generally look at a brand’s overall build quality.
To fix tone loss I run a buffer at the front of my chain like a Boss Tu-2 or Ibanez TS9. Then I run a Little Black Buffer at the very end of my chain. The LBB is made my JHS and it really helps. See demo of it HERE. This gives my tone the boost it needs to stay crisp and clean.
While how you play will have the biggest effect on how you sound, you can take a few steps to make the process easier. Remember one of the maxims of this blog: its better to have less gear if its better gear.
Until next time.