There are many factors that add up to achieving great guitar tone. So, where should you be spending your time and money to get the best return?
Most guitarists love to invest in guitars, pedals, and amps. I get it…there are seemingly infinite options, they’re loud, fun and exciting, and look great. They are the building blocks. However, once you have the basics in place, are there better options to consider?
Amps are great, but…
I’ve seen a number of guitarists give advice to focus on upgrading the amp more than anything else. If you’re playing a Line 6 Spider, then yes, there is a major advantage to looking for something new.
However, I am going to argue that your pickup and speaker choices have the greatest impact on making you sound great.
Yes, practicing your instrument is going to be the greatest investment you can make, but today we’re talking about gear.
I’ve spent numerous days conducting recording tests by swapping speakers and amps as well as A/Bing countless IRs and amp models in the digital world. Alongside others, I’ve come to the conclusion that the speaker/cab has a greater impact on tone than the amp itself.
Similarly, I’ve also owned and swapped many pickups over the years (tip: soldering is a great skill to learn). If you haven’t tried, you’re missing out on one of the easiest tonal transformations for your rig.
Let’s talk signal flow.
My theory is that whatever captures the source of a signal, as well as outputs the signal, holds the greatest tonal weight.
To better illustrate my point, let’s look at how a vocal chain compares to a guitar chain:
|Vocal Chords||Guitar Strings|
|XLR Cable||Instrument Cable|
|Mic Preamp||Guitar Amp|
(Technically the effects of a vocal chain are post mic pre, but you get the idea.)
When capturing a vocal, the microphone is absolutely essential. Tens of thousands of dollars can be spent to get it right. The PA can be just as important. If you’re using a garage-band budget system, much of the effort made sculpting the sound earlier on is wasted.
My point is: great mic & PA w/ budget console and effects > budget mic & PA w/ great console and effects
In the same way, a guitar with great pickups and speakers is a better investment than high-end pedals, and many times, your guitar amp. Guitarists spend way too much time and money trying to doctor up a mediocre source with expensive overdrives. If they ‘miked’ their strings with high-quality pickups, or spent the time trying different speakers in their current amp, they’d probably be happier with the result.
But what about the guitar?
To me, guitar quality affects more of the player’s performance. I see it as the “health” or strength of a vocalist. If they’re healthy and feeling good, then they’ll sing well. If the guitar feels great, frets are even, intonation is kept up, etc., you can expect a good performance.
Yes, there are many small factors that add up to the tone of a guitar, but what dictates the sound the most is its pickups. You’ll be surprised by how good a budget guitar can sound with great pickups. I promise that you’ll also be shocked by how drastically your amp’s tone can change by swapping the speaker.
The best news – they’re affordable.
It’s fascinating to me that people will consider spending hundreds of dollars on new overdrive pedals before considering changing their pickups. You’re much better off sticking with an everyday Tube Screamer and spending your money on pickups designed with precision like Lambertones.
Speakers from a company like Warehouse Guitar Speakers can also be incredibly cheap, but full of quality. I’ve used them numerous times. Learning how to try things out and sell them if they don’t work for your tastes opens a whole new world of flexibility.
Choosing the right speakers and pickups.
It’s difficult to know what you want until you simply buy and sell things. Reviews and sample clips are great, but everyone dials in their gear differently, so it can be hard to know what will translate to your own rig. Look for information that compares one product to another.
I prefer low output pickups because they are typically less compressed, which gives more flexibility and control in your pedals and amps. Speakers are truly a personal preference. They can work in one amp and flop in another.
Get those soldering irons warm and happy tone hunting!
What have been your favorite tonal upgrades? Let us know in the comments below!
You may also be interested in these resources!
- How to Build Creative Guitar Sounds for Worship
- Why You Should Stop Buying Guitar Pedals
- Guitar Technique: How to Play Faster and Cleaner with Benjamin Forehand
- Worship Guitar Tone Master Class
- Mastering Your Fretboard & Transposing Lead Guitar