Search for the ultimate tone: Part One

A three part series on my strive for a great guitar sound.

Posted in Gear Tone Cables Pickups

Search for the ultimate tone: Part One - A three part series on my strive for a great guitar sound. - by Simon Campbell

I have spent 35 years in search of the perfect guitar tone. This series describes my journey to date and how I reached the conclusions about the gear and techniques I now employ. Grab a beer and let’s examine the humble guitar string to just before the amplifier…


[Editor's note: this article was written in October 2009 and I change my rig regularly. To find out where I am right now with video and audio content, I have created a new series of articles. Read parts, two, three and then part fourafter this one]



This is part one of three articles that describe the way I achieve my particular guitar sound. It may not be to everyone's taste but hopefully it will give you some ideas and pointers to develop your own unique tone learning from the tens of thousands of pounds I spent on getting here!

For those of you living the Isle of Man, I am giving a 'Tone Workshop' at Peter Norris Music on Sunday April 11, 2010 at 1900. I will be discussing and demonstrating all the stuff I talk about in these articles. If you fancy coming along book on the free workshop!

What is a great tone?

Naturally, it's down to your own ear, playing and the style of music, but regardless there are a number of fundamental issues you need to address that will affect your tone. Knowing what these are should assist you in the future.

My rig is a behemoth and you do not need this amount of gear to achieve a fantastic tone; in fact it can be quite counter productive.

The best tone I ever have is going straight from a great guitar, with lovely pickups, though a great cable, into a great amp which is powering a well designed cabinet loaded with superb loudspeakers; this what I use when I record, adding overdubs and effect later.

The question you all must be thinking is "why the hell does he have that huge rig"?

Well, currently I am playing in a three piece and I do feel that you need to give the audience varying tones throughout the evening to keep up the interest and reproduce as close a sound as possible to the recordings.

Also, using a pretty clean tone, a three piece can sound a bit empty; delay and reverb are very useful! Finally, the original material we are playing benefits from some effect from time to time. Most of the set however, I go basically straight into the amp. The challenge is of course is to prevent all the paraphernalia sucking your basic tone and thereby lies the problem.

Where do we begin? Well the first thing we need to remember is that everything in the signal chain, from the string to speaker, will affect the tone is some way, so lets start from the top...

Strings

Pickups are electromagnets and the output is directly related to the amount of metal that is waved around in front of the bloody things!

Some players choose to use heavier gauge string and tune down their instrument by 1/2, one or even two full tones. This retains the 'big' sound of the string but reduces string tension making it easier to play!

I do occasionally employ this technique but you do have to think of other members of the band, their tunings and requirements.

D'Addario regular light (10,13,17,26,36,46) are my strings of choice and for me is a good balance between the tension of the string and the tone. I use a set of 11's for my Gibson Flying V which I use for slide. These, with the pickups I use, give me a nice detailed and well balanced tone.

Pickups & wood

This of course is intensely personal but I found that under-wound pickups suit me best as they deliver more mids and highs; they tend to be clearer and more defined.

More windings give greater output, bass and thick mids but less top end. I think they lack in clarity and dynamics.

I regularly use four electric guitars: three made for me by the very talented Gordon Whittam (he is the Gordon of Gordon Smith Guitars in Manchester) and a 70's Gibson Flying V. Two of the customs are based around Fender Telecasters and the other based around a Fender Stratocaster. One 'Tele' has two humbuckers and a 'Strat' tremolo system, the other is almost standard.

All these electric guitars feature  Lindy Fralin's. He has good article on choosing pickups which is worth reading.

The wood, tremolo system, nut, tuning pegs and neck stability all affect the sound in one way or another. This is all down to taste.

In the custom guitars, I tend to favour 'light' woods (swamp ash) which provides a very good 'acoustic' sound. I personally think this makes the guitar 'ring' more.

Guitar electronics

Most people ignore this vital link in the chain. The potentiometers, cable, capacitors, sockets and switches used are essential to a great tone.

I have replaced all my custom guitars recently with parts sourced from RS Guitarworks. The 'bumble-bee' capacitors and CTS potentiometers really make a difference.

Guitar cables (high impedance)

Cables are one of main tone suckers and I spent literally years trying to find something that wouldn't change the sound of the guitar. My mate and 'tone guru' Rob Livesey. introduced me to George L's. The difference it truly amazing.

A tone control on a guitar works by slowly introducing a capacitor across the high impedance output of the pickups. The problem with any guitar cables is that they all have inherent capacitance. The higher the cables' capacitance and the longer the cable, the more it will act as a 'tone control'.

George L's cables have very low capacitance and therefore this does not have as much as an effect. The only way though is to plug one in and see!

I use these cable exclusively, in my rack wiring and everywhere in the signal chain. The other great thing about them is that they are solder-less and you assemble them with a screwdriver and a sharp modelling knife!

The length of cable and switching introduced into the signal chain (see below) is also a problem.

I have overcome this by introducing a very high quality, low noise buffer amplifier at the first point of contact after my guitar; the Ernie Ball volume pedal. This was installed and custom built by the very brilliant  Steen Skrydstrup.

Some people prefer to use a 'tube' based buffer amplifier that better replicates the input stage of an amplifier but I have found Steen's buffer works well for me.

Switches

Another classic tone suckers are switches. Most effects pedals have either electronic switches or employ an inferior design that do not truly bypass the effect. There is two ways to overcome this. Use:

I employ a combination of these methods.

Signal Path

The guitar goes into the Ernie Ball volume pedal with the buffer (see 'Cables' section above) and then out into a Fulltone Clyde Deluxe Wah. All Fulltone products feature excellent switches which truly bypass the circuit.

The signal then goes all the way from my pedal-board to the input of the Skrydstrup MR16 loop system. Now remember the signal has been converted from high impedance to low impedance via the buffer and therefore you don't get as much loss though the cables and switches. Even so, the Skrydsrup unit features gold plated relays inside and with all the effects out of circuit the signal goes through a minimum number of contacts. The output of this then goes straight to the amp.

All effects are on all the time and switched by the MR16 and each effect is wired into a send and return from the MR16 so it is only the effect (and associated cables) that are put into the signal path when required. Effects are sequenced so distortions are generally before chorus/tremolo effects. Get me so far?

Power supplies

These, and incorrect earthing, can cause nasty hum and effects to sound very odd indeed.

Mike Fuller, of the mighty Fulltone advocates the use of non alkaline batteries in his pedals and also in some - such as the OCD - increased voltage supplies which do change the sound of the units substantially.

I am not that anal (blimey) and use standard 9V isolated power from the  Voodoo Labs units which supplies all the 'foot pedals' in the rack with the notable exception of the Fulltone 'Deja Vibe' which is an old unit and requires 18V AC - very inconvenient!!

So, that's it...

The first edition: the
next one will be out very soon and will go from the amplifier to the microphone. The final part will feature a bit of history about what I have used and why I changed, my 'tone 'influences', detail on why I use the specific kit I have now plus old photos of me and my gear; the picture to the right is a little taster :-)

Of course, if you have any questions why don't you contact me or post a comment below!



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