Why streamlining your rig could help improve your guitar tone


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If you’ve got more guitars, amps and FX pedals than you can count off on all your fingers and toes, (1) congratulations, and (2) maybe you should consider thinning the herd slightly. Yes, that might sound like sacrilege here on the Blog Of Tone, but we’ve come to realize that – in some cases, anyway – less can be more when it comes to great tone, as one of our wizened hacks writes…

Mother Nature knows best. Everything has its place and purpose. Nothing’s wasted.

The remains of every lifecycle always return to her embrace. Nature’s first commandment is ‘waste not’, a sentiment that doesn’t easily jibe with our 21st century consumerism.

Her every process is subject to the dictates of efficiency. Form follows function. This dame don’t suffer fools, and we could a lot worse than following her example.

There’s a term for human inventions borrowed from nature — biomimicry. We see biomimetics in action in sports, racing, architecture, aviation, and even in medicine.

Learning from nature means keeping it simple. And, as everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Steve Jobs has pointed out, simplicity is where it’s at.

When it comes to conjuring tone, simpler is often sweeter.

Some guitarists would do well to seek inspiration in nature’s ‘as-much-as-needed-but-no-more-than-necessary’ credo.

Let’s illustrate this point with a little parable: once upon a time, in a land deep in the heart of Old Europe, a regionally notorious metal band played a gig.

I believe the combo was called White Noise.

The moniker was apt. As in the case of the famous Thomas Crapper, who made his name making toilets, there was an interesting bit of nominative determinism at work here as the breaks between songs were underscored by a cacophony of white noise, otherwise mercifully masked by the band’s mastodon grooves.

The blame for the noise pollution sat squarely on the guitarist’s shoulders. I happened to know this player. In his defense, he did attempt to dampen the din, but the one tool he had to dial down his extravagant rack system, a volume pedal, was on the blink when I caught the band’s show.

I could see that an array of 19” preamps featured prominently in his monster rack.

No, this is neither the rack nor the guitarist featured in this blog - but the idea's the same!

No, this is neither the rack nor the guitarist featured in this blog – but the idea’s the same!

He couldn’t be faulted for assuming that the downstream noise suppression system would tame the racket generated by daisy-chained amps. The many 19” digital signal processors probably didn’t add much to the noise, but the liberal lashings of effects washed out the signal so that even the trained ear could detect little difference between the various preamps’ shades of mud when he did his tap dance on a MIDI switcher.

In a bid to compensate for all the signal loss, he had dropped a parametric EQ into a signal chain that culminated in a solid-state hi-fi amp.

I kid you not; this axe-slinger was convinced that high-fidelity audio was the way to go.

The EQ had been designed for PAs, but it came at a bargain bin price so he somehow managed to work it into his guitar rack. And it did indeed work — somehow.

But that’s not the end of my sad tale: the unfortunate guitarist also felt the output of the SSH pickup combination on his Superstrat was a bit feeble. Active pickups weren’t as prevalent as they are today, so he asked a local electronics hobbyist to install some homegrown active circuitry.

It even worked — sort of.

Everything else between the guitar and rack was pretty much standard fare: a tuner, a wah-wah pedal, a distortion box and a phaser, the sonic seasoning du jour back in that day. The guitarist’s performance was a constant battle pitting relentless machine gun riffing against the onslaught of all that noise.

I suspect that Joe Shredder played a zillion notes per bar to keep his demons – manifested in the guise of that infernal racket – at bay.

Sometimes all your need is a great guitar and amp, with a good lead to connect them up. These are all the tools you need to rock so hard you can peel the paint from the walls!

Sometimes all your need is a great guitar and amp, with a good lead to connect them up. These are all the tools you need to rock so hard you can peel the paint from the walls!

Oh, and did I mention that when Super Rackman and I crossed paths on the club circuit he pitied me for my ancient beat-up Tele and my puny 12” combo?

I didn’t bother to point out that the guitar may be ragged and the rig lean, but my tone always rang clear. My band mates liked the way my riffs cut through the din, likening it to a bullwhip slicing through a ripe pumpkin.

And best of all was the BLESSED SILENCE between numbers. My gear was practically noiseless in the lull.

Far be it from me to demonize technological advances or disparage sound-sculpting tools of any stripe.

However, if Mr. White Noise had put just a little thought into his system, he could have come up with a fairly simple remedy for his sonic woes. One decent tube amp, one 19” multi-effects unit, a fuzz box and maybe a wah-wah pedal are plenty to regale audiences with excellent high-gain sound all night long, sans extraneous buzzing.

Experience teaches that there are two important questions guitarists should be asking themselves:

“What’s the most important tone generator for conjuring my sound?”

And: “What can I do without?”

There are oodles of good amps out there, including end-to-end solutions like the GrandMeister, which comes with all the bells and whistles. In a self-contained machine like this, you can be sure that all links in the signal chain are well-matched.

Modern do-it-all amps are not only easier to use and transport about than the racks of yore - they're also far less likely to result in the kind of cable salad seen here. Don't forget, each extra cable is another thing that can go wrong with your rig during a show...

Modern do-it-all amps are not only easier to use and transport about than the racks of yore – they’re also far less likely to result in the kind of cable salad seen here. Don’t forget, each extra cable is another thing that can go wrong with your rig during a show…

In life and in art, less is often more.

The shortest path from your fingers to the hearts of the audience is direct: just ask AC/DC’s Young brothers or The Stones’ Keith Richards.

And guitar greats like David Gilmour, U2’s The Edge and Steve Lukather – who do ladle on the effects with gusto – do so with a tasteful touch. When Luke lets it rip with a scorching, FX-laden solo or The Edge piles on cascades of echoes, their timing is so tight and their tone so sweet that none of those many notes seems extraneous.

The soul and substance of their guitar sound always remains intact.

In fact, these three guitar gods are known to use ridiculously elaborate systems that require painstaking planning to put together and skill to manage – but even such jumbo rigs work well when their components are chosen wisely.

Gilmour, The Edge and Luke weren’t born with a gift for conjuring great tone; they invested a lot of time and even more money in acquiring their skills. And countless gigs afforded them all the opportunities they needed to perfect their rigs.

These guys are at the lofty peak of the pyramid, and few of the many of us on the lower tiers can afford to buy and maintain such a system, much less employ a system administrator whose only task during shows is to monitor the complex rig and troubleshoot it on the fly.

Even Luke, whose behemoth racks may have been large enough to be seen from space, has downsized his rig in recent times, plugging straight into the amp with a few stompboxes in the chain. And his tone — bigger, badder and bolder — rocks even harder than it did in the technology-obsessed ’80s, when his gear acquisition syndrome peaked.

What the story in this blog stresses is the importance of efficiency in our setups. Whether you've got a big rig or just a battered old Tele and a scruffy old 12" combo, having only the gear you need to get the best tone to your ears is something we can all learn from Mother Nature's example.

What the story in this blog stresses is the importance of efficiency in our setups. Whether you’ve got a big rig or just a battered old Tele and a scruffy old 12″ combo, having only the gear you need to get the best tone to your ears is something we can all learn from Mother Nature’s example.

Incidentally, Lukather’s stagehand back in the day, Bob Bradshaw, built a thriving business on his knowledge of racks.

Bradshaw’s professional MIDI loopers, footboards and controllers were ingenious, ultra advanced devices. They were also as expensive as a six-week cruise on a luxury liner or an economy car.

That kind of rack is priced well out of reach for most.

And even the few who could afford to splurge on a refrigerator-sized stack of gear are likely to be put off by the hassles of carting, operating and fixing it. Truth be told, most of us can live without that particular elephant in the room.

Simple (relatively speaking) systems such as the TriAmp Mark 3 come pretty close to matching an elephantine rack’s versatility in shaping sound, and they’re a whole lot more affordable. Amps of this caliber are also more manageable.

Said TriAmp Mark 3, for example, delivers delectable fundamental sounds that can be garnished with effects that may be controlled on the fly right along with the amp. Even the most eccentric sounds are attainable in a few minutes with surprising ease.

Every additional piece of equipment, connector, cord or power supply factored into the sonic equation is another potential trouble spot (as we wrote about in more detail here previously).

These things can break, wear out, malfunction, buzz or suck all the life out of your tone.

If it’s not in your signal chain, it can’t mess with your mind or muddle your performance. There’s a lot less that can go wrong in a leaner rig.

Perhaps you may want to step back and reassess your equipment:

  • Is any link in the chain noisy?
  • Does everything work the way it should?
  • Does every flavor on your tonal menu hit the spot?
  • Are you making strides on the path to efficiency?
  • Or did having countless options throw you off track?

Do you have a sound-sculpting strategy that works for you? If so, we’d love to know your secret, so let us know in the comments below…

 

First published: February 06 2015. Most recent update: September 03 2015.

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