Evolution and Contradiction
This article is about how I've apparently contradicted myself as my guitar rig and playing has evolved. Yes, I'm happy with my tone now, but it took me a while to reach this point. Along the way I've made some decisions that might appear to be contradictory.
I started playing guitar in `99 after a roughly 20-year layoff. When I picked up the guitar again in `99 a lot had changed - technologically - compared to what I was used to in the `60s and `70s. During the first four years I flipped a lot of gear trying out all the cool new stuff, with a heavy emphasis on "flexible" gear (i.e. gear with lots of switches, knobs, options, programming, etc.)
After a while I started to realize that something was missing... The sound I was getting had more to do with the gear than with what I played. I found it difficult to get enough tonal variation by changing my pick attack - all the high-tech gear just homogenized the heck out of the sound of the guitar.
A perceptive friend suggested that I get away from the channel switching amps and the processors and try a good, simple amp. (He recommended the Vibro-King, for which I am eternally grateful.) In the end, I'm playing the same kind of rig I played when I was happiest with my tone in the `60s and `70s: a powerful amp with alnico 10s driven by a semi-hollow guitar with a minimum of effects. Come to think of it, even the effects - distortion, compression and echo - are the ones I was using back in the day...
Just to explain that I'm not totally living in the past: I can afford better gear now than when I was a kid (a result of having been in the workforce for thirty years), and my playing has improved dramatically (study and practice). But I am more comfortable using simple gear and getting the tonal variety from my imagination and my hands.
Ironically, other factors led me to shelve all my high-end tube gear in favor of a commodity digital modeling processor and a very unsexy full-range solid-state amplifier. Tube snobs will be rolling their eyes. Some of my own friends suspect that I've gone over to the dark side. To me, the important thing is that the lessons I learned about tube gear and its interaction with the player are transferrable to the new technology.
In other words, the "magic" isn't entirely in the gear. The magic is in how the player interacts with the gear.
I hate to say this in an article that seems to be so much about gear, but study and practice has done more for my "tone" than the gear. Don't get me wrong - my main rig fits me like a comfortable pair of slippers and I wouldn't give it up willingly. But I can, assuming that the guitar's properly intonated and the amp can do some kind of clean sound, get a good "tone" from just about any rig I play. The fact that I am as comfortable with my modeling rig as I had previously been with my high-end tube rig should attest to that. Because "tone" is just the icing - it's not the cake...