Do you want good tone?
David Torn (a.k.a. splatt) recently posted this thought-provoking question on The Gear Page:
do you want
a) good tone, or.....
b) exceptional (ie, personal) tone?
I'm not even sure that such a thing as good tone exists in isolation. What works for one musical context is not necessarily even appropriate, let alone good, in another context.
I want my instrument (and by instrument, I mean guitar and amp) to be expressive in the sense that I can use it to convey nuances of expression. I don't care so much about the broad-stroke notions of tonal balance, distortion and effects. I don't (any more) take an analytical approach to tone. What I do care about is that the gear supports what I'm trying to express musically. I want my strings to sing sweetly when I caress then gently, and to scream when I hit them hard. I want to hear every note in a chord. I want to be able to totally change the sound not just from chorus to verse, but from note to note. And I want to be able to do this with a minimum of technology, because I've found that a "less is more" approach works best for me.
Fender, Marshall, Vox, Univox, Silvertone, Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Agile, ... it doesn't matter. I prefer a simple amp because it's easier to set up and utimately less distracting. Every kind of amp has its own voice which is neither good nor bad. The same for guitars. The combination of guitar and amp is a voice to be explored: mined for the sonic treats it'll reveal with a little bit of persistence.
The funny thing is, now that I've put a lot of thought and effort into my gear I've come to realize that what really matters the most is what I play and how I play it. Don't get me wrong... a great instrument is a personal joy. However, I can pick up just about any decent instrument and be comfortable with it in the space of a few minutes. I won't necessarily play my best, in the sense of a well-nuanced performance, but the music will all be there and it will be unmistakably my own.
Whether a listener would hear that as exceptional, average, or lackluster is another matter entirely.