Tone - Guitar or Amp?
One really enlightening aspect of working at a music shop is being able to observe patterns or trends common to most musicians in terms of their buying habits. Since all of us here at the shop are musicians ourselves, more times than not we are much like our average customer (as if any of our customer's are average) when it comes to how we buy. Recently, we all had a discussion spurred on by an observation that is both obvious yet rarely fully examined. The observation is this - as guitar players we love to buy guitars, but how much of our tone comes from the guitar? Could it be that we would be better served expanding our amp collection instead? It was a great discussion among some true "gear addicts" and we feel that there were some pretty interesting points made.
Why the obsession with guitars?
What a stupid question, right? As guitar players, there are few things more satisfying than pulling the trigger on a new guitar. For this reason, we amass huge collections in most cases. There is something truly magical about the curves and lines of a finely made instrument, a magic that someone who does not play will never fully understand. We appreciate the subtlety of a hand-applied lacquer finish and the seemingly flawless attention to detail that only a master is capable of when it comes to fretwork. You do not have to justify the value of such things to us. We are totally on the same page, as evidenced by the fact that most of us own no fewer than 5 guitars.
The purpose of our discussion was not to downplay the importance of the guitar in our music or even to try and curve the obsession with acquiring more guitars, anyone who plays will tell you that is a fruitless task. We simply wanted to examine how much impact the guitar has in the grand scheme of things. There were some very interesting takes on the subject.
How much of the tone is coming from the guitar?
Every guitar sounds different, not only from brand to brand, but from guitar to guitar. All of us have played that guitar that just had the "it" factor. You could play 10 more that were identical, yet this one just had something extra. It is this fact that keeps us buying guitars. With that being said, the very basic elements of most modern guitars are pretty similar. Most guitar bodies and necks are constructed of some type of hardwood. The frets and bridge assemblies are made of some sort of steel or alloy and most pickups are still copper wire wound around plastic bobbins containing magnets. Honestly, this formula has not really changed much in almost a century. It is how these elements come together that makes one guitar different from another. The purpose of pointing this out is to demonstrate that the difference from one guitar to the next is really more in the realm of nuance than a "night and day" comparison, at least when all things are considered. Though Fano is a completely different animal than a Suhr, the basic elements are the same and in a very general sense they both sound similar.
When we speak of guitar amplifiers the equation is quite different. Though the basic elements (cab, chassis, speaker) from one amp to the next are pretty similar, there is a pretty big difference from a sound standpoint. It is fair to say that the difference in some amps is more of a night and day comparison than that which we find with guitars. For example, a Dr.Z EZG-50 and a Mesa Dual Rectifier have almost nothing in common when it comes to tone. The EZG-50 is a very clean and extremely linear platform which, unless almost completely dimed, will not overdrive without the use of a pedal. The Dual Rectifier on the other hand is capable of very large amounts of gain even at relatively low volumes and with very little signal needed. These two great amps could not be much more different. The difference between the two definitely goes beyond the realm of nuance.
If we plug any two guitars into either one of these amps, the character of each amp is going to remain pretty much the same, no matter how different the guitars are (remember we are speaking in a very general sense). The reason for this is though the guitars are different from one another, their disparity is not as influential on the overall tone as the differences between the two amps. The amps have a more drastic effect on the tone than the guitars by far. It is difficult to quantify such a difference, but between the guys here at the shop we would say it is as much as an 80/20 ratio in terms of what is shaping the tone the most. To clarify that is 80% amp and 20% guitar. By any stretch that is a significant difference.
Are you "bottlenecking" your tone?
With such a huge amount of our tone coming from our amps, it is crazy how many of us guitar players neglect our amp collections in order to buy more guitars. It is not uncommon for a player to have 10 guitars and only one amp. That may not be that big of a deal if the amp is exactly the sound the player is shooting for. However, if this is not the case, then it really does not matter what type of guitar they add to the collection, the improvement in tone may only be marginal. Inversely, if the player had 10 different amps and one good guitar, not only would we all want to come over and hang out :), but relatively speaking, he can probably dial in just about any tone he would like to. The whole point of this discussion is not to get people to stop buying guitars (trust us, that is the last thing we want), but to make sure that your whole setup is balanced and that there is not a "bottleneck" effect going on with having 10 great guitars and 1 "okay" amp. If this is your problem, don't be embarrassed, we can tell you for sure that you are not alone :).