Tone, My Gear Thoughts

From time to time people ask me about music gear, like what is my personal fave guitar, amp, acoustic, dobro or cigarbox guitar, effects pedals and etc.. I often also get asked about what I used in studio on a particular song.

Be warned, I have far too many instruments, amps and pedals to take the time to offer a complete list here, and want to mainly focus on how I approach tonality. But I’ll list a bit of my gear further down in context of tone.

Frankly, after so many years of recording a ton of full projects and a zillion songs I rarely remember exactly what I used on a given tune. Sometimes I recall a particular guitar I used a fair bit on a specific record for a number of the tracks, but that’s about it.

As for live shows, it’s “all over the map”, but this post is about something a bit more general to playing electric or acoustic blues in live shows.

My personal opinion is: if the sound you want isn’t in your heart and head and ears… if you don’t have a sort of “ballpark” idea of what you want before you begin you don’t have much to shoot for.

Tone and feeling for a sound in my view, relates most to that.

Certainly we’ve all just doodled around with gear and almost by accident stumbled upon a sound we really like for what ever application, but I’d say that’s a sloooow way to get where you’re going. So how do we decide where we want to land?

First, what are you wanting sound-wise. Next- what does the SONG or those songS call for?

Of course, what gear is already available to you, also what you honestly are able to afford without breaking the bank is part of the answer. Gotta play the hand you’re dealt.

Next consideration on my list is re. live shows- depending how you travel, what gear you can fly or fit in the car or train or whatever, and how excess baggage fees will be covered (or not) all affects what you’ll take. When and where I tour overseas or on a longer, mostly flight or train all of this comes into play.

In terms of solo shows if the folks inviting me (promoter, tour manager or individual cities/events) have good gear available I often only carry a couple harmonicas and perhaps two or three cigarbox guitars (which all fit in one soft carry bag) and go. I bring those because they won’t have them, they cost me nothing to bring along, are light and hopefully make the set/s interesting, even inviting to the audience.

Touring Europe I’ve done it all sorts of ways but unless flying my own Trimmed and Burnin’ “59er” Bassman-type amp head (the tour or local shows provide speaker cabs) I typically prefer Vox AC 30 or Orange combo amps of some sort finding for electric blues or blues/rock, they rarely disappoint right out of the box.

Overseas, if I don’t fly one or two of my own guitars (perhaps Warmouth Strat and Gibson lap steel guitars) I ask for good quality Fender Strats and/or Gibson Les Pauls, and either Taylor, Martin or Takamine acoustic guitars with onboard pickups.

Recently for a Bike Rally I flew one Hohner Special 20 harmonica (key of G) and two Shane Speal cigarbox guitars with onboard pickups. The main cbg is a 3 stringer Shane built for me (killer!) and the second is another 2 stringer he gifted me with that I’ve converted to a diddley bow (1 stringer) and modified some with a cool woodburned wooden top someone gave me. The venue provided me with a couple sweet Strat/Les Paul options (I chose the Strat) and a Vox AC30 amp. ALL sweet for those particular shows.

I decided to blow the harp straight into the vocal mic rather than bringing a Shure Green Bullet. Everything worked out fine.

It’s been said many times- and is absolutely true… that THE TONE/S are IN YOUR FINGERS, your own heart and head. That’s the truth!

You of course use whatever gear gets you close if not spot-on. This is the ongoing quest for all musicians, certainly recording and touring-wise.

Lastly, for my solo blues sets or jamming sets with other musicians in blues mode (not GKB) I try to use very sparse or zero outboard “stomp boxes” (affects pedals) though I have several and use several with GKB. I prefer great gits and amps that get the tone, volume and “crunch” (distortion/sustain/just a bit of break-up tone) without any pedals if I can get it.

I love not having to use outboard pedals when doing solo or jam sets because I can then concentrate on the songs and performance not worrying about “that ellusive TONE”, focusing on the playing of those I’m jamming with when doing those sort of blues sets.

Now get this as it’s really important: there are those who like extreme treble or bass or midrange tones in their guitars. I don’t, so when the gear allows, I like a full low-end but also good midrange and just enough brightness to cut through the rest of the band. Sometimes with piezo pickups or even some single-coil pickups (whether store-bought Fenders, Gibsons or whatever) or in my cigarbox guitars one must really tweak the amp or use a pedal to modify and try to move away from BIG extremes.

Regardless, you may love, hate or just feel so-so about my sound (or yours or another artist) in live show settings or on recordings because after all I’ve said, the p.a., mic and mic placement on your amp/s, choice of speakers… on and on it goes including each sound tech person dials in your tones at least in some measure re. what they like to hear, what they think works best in a given show.

Reality: in live shows, you being on stage never truly hear what you sound like in the room or outdoors, whatever, because you aren’t out there and never are when you’re playing! 🙂

Remember too, the acoustics of the venue (inside or out) is another major sound-modifier of your tone and volume.

So there you go, a bit of overview of my personal thoughts and approach to tone, gear and live gig, blues in particular.

Now there are some out there who have asked why, after so many years of using Les Paul Customs in REZ Band am I often seen on stage with a Strat? Or my fave Epihone or some other guitar?

In RB I did only the occasional blues solo while Stu (magnificent lead player) preferred Jacksons or Strats, and in that I held down mostly rhythm guitar/power chord stuff in REZ it finally became clear Les Pauls were the best for that full sound as a band overall.

I often use the very same guitars with GKB but the fact is I much prefer my Epiphone Shereton with any electric blues- but do not prefer to fly it. It’s too precious to me to risk the airlines hurting it.

I also (in GKB) often use an old and sweet Gibson lapsteel and that puppy is AMAZING. But again, even re. GKB, thicker tones work.

Jamming with others (non-GKB) I choose what I like best, and I love both the sound, feel, and flexibility as well as sing-songy clarity of most Strats I’ve borrowed for live shows. My own Warmouth Strat goes overseas a lot. It has 2 Fender Tex-Mex single coil pickups in neck and middle positions and Seymour Duncan JB (Jeff Beck) Jr. stacked humbucker in the bridge position w. a 5-way toggle switch. I’ve always liked my Strats to have tone controls disconnected, then move the volume control to the bottom position so I don’t run into it when soloing!

If I added all details of all my other electric and then acoustic and finally huge stable of cigarbox and found-object guitars I’d never finish this post so I’ll stop now 🙂

So there you go, some of my thoughts and preferences re. tone and gear.

As always, thanks for stopping by! -Glenn

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