What are the secrets of good tone? Is there something that's more important than everything else? Well...
I like knowing the technical details in order to help explain the differences I hear... that helps me understand why I like certain gear (semi-hollow guitars, tweed- and brown-era Fender amps) and not others (blackface and Marshall amps). But it starts with a preference, not the other way 'round.
There's a lot of marketing hype out there, thinly disguised as "technical" info, designed to sway people who listen with their eyes. I've learned the hard way to take all of that with a very large grain of salt.
Similarly, I've stopped listening to people's endorsements and personal recommendations for new gear. For one thing, I'd go broke chasing all those leads. Fortunately, most of the stuff I hear about can only be auditioned by buying it, so I stick with the stuff that's commonly available and make it work for me.
Finally, there is no mojo. Some combinations of gear and player work better than others - I'll grant that. But a lot of people forget that:
- Gear can be tweaked and adjusted. I'm not talking mods here, just basic stuff like setting intonation and action on your own guitars, choosing proper string guages and pickup heights, and adjusting the controls! That last one is something that too many players seem to overlook - it's either instant gratification or the next purchase, and far too often the latter.
- The context is as important as the gear. This covers a lot of things that no one seems to mention when they discuss "good, better, and best" tone. Your instruments are tools, and you need to learn to use them to serve the music. Not only the notes you play, but also the volume, the touch, the dynamics, the tone, etc. ... all of that has to fit the track or the live mix. Too many players want the backing tracks/band to support them, rather than the other way 'round. And no "tone secret" is gonna fix that it you think the problem is in the gear.
The only secret that I really know is this:
When I have a choice, I go with the gear that makes me feel comfortable - it disappears from my consciousness and lets me concentrate on playing. I have good idea of what I'd like my instrument to sound like when I play, and have learned from experience to stay away from the things that don't properly support that vision.
I'm just glad I don't have to be like those studio cats who can be called on to cop someone else's tone and style two or three times a day. I have tons of respect for what they do... I'm just saying that I work within my own limitations and answer to my own vision.
To paraphrase the Beatles (and a book of the same title, written by George Martin): "All you need is ears."