Here’s how the average guitarist’s brain functions in response to being unhappy with tone … Problem: Weedy tone.
Guitarist’s brain says: “Buy a Les Paul.” Problem: Wooly tone. Guitarist’s brain says: “Buy a Strat. No — a Tele. No, wait…buy both. And a new amp, just in case.” One simple problem. One $2,500 solution.
Many guitarists, particularly those who love vintage instruments, believe everything affects the sound of those great old guitars we love so much. One longstanding claim in particular is that the finish affects the tone, with nitro finishes being at the top of the tone heap and poly finishes at the bottom because of their supposed blanketing effect.
It’s easy to test whether a 12-watt amp with an efficient speaker can be louder than a 20-watt amp with an inefficient one. Simply plug in both amps with their respective speakers, plug in your guitar, bang a chord and measure the results with an SPL (sound pressure level) meter. Debate over. The bantamweight wins.
Until I had to move to England, it was easy to justify having lots of guitar stuff as (A) I bought it years ago, (B) I didn’t spend that much buying it in the first place (my entire outlay was probably equivalent to a single nice vacation) and (C) storage wasn’t a problem, as I was a homeowner with a garage that managed to contain everything except the car it was intended for.
We are the storytelling species. It’s part of what creates and shapes our humanness. But it’s not just ourselves we surround with stories, it’s things as well. Stories enable us to humanize objects and thereby imbue them with greater personal value. When it comes to our guitars, the story behind each forms part of what we guitarists call its “mojo.”
I recently looked over all of the guitar gear I have, even though half of it I don’t even own anymore. It’s easy because I long ago started keeping a list that details each piece I ever bought, when I bought it and how much I paid. Besides being useful for insurance purposes and satisfying a neurotic compulsion to document my goods, the list provides a database of my gear history.
A pack of cigarettes ranges from about $5 to $15, depending on where you live. Let's take $10 as a nice median number. If you smoke even half a pack a day, that comes to a bit more than $1,800 a year. Cut back on your smoking and you can put that money toward a nice Les Paul.
When I went shopping, I might as well have put on Gucci sunglasses and stuck a Chihuahua named Sprinkles in my tote bag. I was one of those bedroom guitarists who are the delight of the high-end guitar store. I would not even think of buying a budget instrument made overseas.
Instead of six lovely, parallel pairs of strings running from tailpiece to headstock, it was as if the creature from Alien had mistaken my guitar for John Hurt and had just eaten its way out of the f-hole. There were strings everywhere. The bridge had launched itself toward the tuners while the black “R” tailpiece was now, more accurately, tailpieces.
The Peter Green/Gary Moore 1959 Les Paul is perhaps the most famous example of bad pickups gone good. This is the guitar Green bought when he replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and which he later sold to blues great Gary Moore. Its tone is unique, and hence has been sought after for decades.