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Sunday, March 2, 2008

My thoughts about guitar gear

At my last gig many people came to me, asking questions about my gear, amplification, sound, and so on. After this being such a important topic for the folks, I decided to put my opinion about it here. Would be nice if you'd add yours as well, Sean.

First of all, I find the almost religious "must have company XY" idea ridiculous.
I need a Mesa Boogie because Petrucci plays them. - Well, Alex Lifeson uses Hughes & Kettner, so shouldn't I start over with that company then? - No! Petrucci is the best guitarist, he's right! - Nah Alex is the sound genious! ...
How often have I heard such debates, but in the end it never helped them guys to find a good solution.

There is no 'ulimate' amp or cabinet for a specific genre in my opinion. The more important point is that one should have an idea about how his / her instrument shall sound.
There is no need to pay § 3.000 + for the perfect Engl amplification, and in the most cases it doesn't make any sense to throw away all the money for having the great label in one's stage background.
In the end, if you do it the total other way round, people are curious because they hear a very fine guitar tone and see a top and cabinet they've never seen before, you saved lots of money and, at some times, are the topic of the evening (therefore, you playing must be well too, of course).

So, how did I assemble my gear?

The most important thing is that you must be aware of the fact that you are handling electronic stuff; it helps to gain little knowlegde about that, and you gotta be open minded.

Spend good money for the little things, like cables. Purchasing the expensive cables really is worth the price. Buying the instrument cables you see in the studios is a very big improvement in sound, it helps more than anything else. Cheap cables damp a lot of the frequencies your guitar sends out, no good, make sure everything gets through.
Unless you're running over the the stage on and on, avoid fm transmitters. The quality of them is limitted by the fm specifications, and they add noise, unwanted frequencies and interferences. And the good ones really cost some money.
Don't use old cables. They lose quality. I'd say don't use a cable longer than 2 years. you step on them, accidentally put a cabinet on them and then push the it, etc; things that happen to cables. They get damaged.

Next are cabinets.
Do not purchase one. That is a total waste of money!
I like the sound of Engl cabinets, but I'd be the total fool if I bought one. I looked inside one and checked what speakers they use. It's the speakers that make the tone, not the wooden box.
It got myself two of those and built the wooden box myself. Amount of money I saved: 600 € (At a power of 120 Watts)

Amplification and tonal control:
This one's a bit tricky. The combination I chose is indeed weird. It is a mixture of up-to-date-processor-techonlogy and the good-old-valve-world.
Here it comes to the point, where the musician needs a vision.

I have a very old bass top that was crafted in the early 70's, a Dynachord Bass King T, with the power of 40 watt rms. Sounds ridiculous, eh?
I can tell you, this thing is awesome!!!! I never had the oportunity to use its full power. (indeed, I'd be deaf if I ever had tried to!)
They still trade them at e-bay for 300 to 400 euro, so get one! It is good old simple but powerful and fine sounding analog technology, run by 2 EL34 valves.
The people in the audience all wonder what kind of top that is, with only 3 dials on it. Hehe

3 dials? WTF???

yeah, modern technology! The rest is in the effects processor.
The modern ones all have the option of amp / preamp / speaker simulation.
Here it is the point where your vision has to kick in.
Get a mid price processor you can handle. The better ones have a valve added, which is quite helpful, because the valve eliminates the digital sampling artefacts. You definately can hear the difference (when using good cables).
But, well, there's need for your creativity. If you use the factory default sounds, you won't be happy. (If they suite you, you don't have a vision for your guitar tone...)
Shamelessly turn the knobs, learn their functions and create a sound (or many) that blasts you through the window. Don't be afraid, the cable will bring you back to the ground. :D

There's one thing you gotta maintain on stage: no cell phones closer than 2 meters to your top...


guitarsean said...

Wow Ray, I think you covered most of it. But I'll throw in my bit. I agree with everything you say. Don't throw your money away on a name. Figure out what you want to sound like rather than always trying to sound like someone else. I've had similar reactions at gigs as well, people are surprised I get my tone out of the rig I have. I've never used a 4x12. Too much to bother moving and I think the sound gets grayed out. I use a 2x12. I'd say I've heard good 2x10 and 4x10 cabs too. Take the time to fiddle with the knobs. Ray and I both use multi effect units and I have owned a dozen different ones in my life. There are 2 rules for multi effect processors: 90% of the factory presets are useless and expect it to take quite a bit of time to get it 'just right'

Related to the money issue, don't feel obligated to spend a fortune on a guitar. I have purchased almost all of my guitars used. Get one that feels good. If you don't like the sound change the pickups. Most pickups run in the $50-$100 range for the non-boutique kind. The first thing manufacturers skimp on in cheap instruments is electronics. New pickups and a good wiring job can be like night and day.

stringray said...

Good arguments, Sean!
Indeed, 2x 12 " is great, anything else would be overkill. 2x12" usually makes 120 watts, 4x12" is 240 Watts. Only situation I had use for 240 watts is when I'm next to full runing engines of an airplane... :D

You throw in how to select guitars, that's where I want to give a cent as well.
Buying a guitar is purchasing wood. Playability of course is the main topic when checking out guitars, but the wood is too important for being unmentioned. Check their sound unplugged! The better tone it has in nature, the better it is amplified. Electronic parts can be replaced, I agree.
But I have to admit that I'm too much of a snob to look for used ones. 95% of the ones I checked out haven't been treated good, especially the fretboards. Most guitarists don't care a damn for fretboards, and I hate wrong treated fretwoods... it is so easy to maintain the wood, but mostly I experience too dried out wood or too oily wood. Normally it is too late to get that undone, as the wood became simply too old over the years to bring it back into good condition. Guess I have to lose money here... :S

BG said...

He he.. Since I'm not a musician I have almost no idea about the technical side of playing I don't "get" much of what you are talking about.

Anyways, it was nice to see your first blog entry. Great work Ray!

guitarsean said...

True, ray, guitar wood is important to a degree. I think there is a bottom limit to price. You may find a $150 guitar that plays nice but it won't hold up over years of use. On the other end I just can't justify $2000 for a Les Paul.

I agree with your comments on tone. Every electric guitar I've purchased had an unplugged tone I liked or a certain feeling of resonance in my body. Same with acoustics. If I can't feel the notes in the guitar I'm pretty sure I won't like it plugged in either.