Talkin' About... Gear?

Not just a great Grant Green album (Talkin' About, feat Grant, Larry Young on organ, and Elvin Jones on drums). As an educator of jazz guitar, I often am asked questions about gear. Sometimes they're general questions, sometimes hyper-specific. I'm not an electrical engineer, nor am I a guitar tech/builder, but, over the years I have tried to continually educate myself about gear, trends in equipment, and how to keep things fresh and exciting. I think that the gear that you use should ultimately be a way to amplify (pun intended) the expression of whatever your musical voice is. This is, therefore, immune to the stereotypes of the genre... Rock players use pedals, and jazz players don't for example. Which is, by far and away one of the silliest things I've ever heard. I know a lot of rock players who plug right into an amp with no pedals, crank it and let it fly. I know guitar players with a pedal collection that would rival anyone with a discount at Guitar Center.

I've always gravitated towards a more modern sound. For my tastes, the big jazz box into a tube amp is an amazing sound, but it's not my sound. Thus, I have experimented with plenty of options for tones, reverbs, delays (analog and digital), drives, etc. I find my preferred amp sounds are American-voiced amps, ie a blackface Fender (twin preferred). I have a nice Vibrolux (it's a good one) but it doesn't have the headroom I'd like, but on a gig without an aggressive drummer it covers it and it's way easier to move around than my Twin Reverb.

Guitarists since the beginning have been bullied into becoming gearheads by the industry and that is all well and good. I encourage my students and anyone else to experiment with everything. Just because you play jazz doesn't mean you can't play a solid-body guitar. Shoot, Ed Bickert the legendary Canadian guitarist played on a telecaster... in fact, you can buy it at the Twelfth Fret in Toronto right now for a cool $32,000 Canadian dollars. I've been a huge fan of John Abercrombie for a long time and John often played semi-hollow and solid body guitars, throughout his career. The core of a guitarist's sound is the link between what he/she hears and that link with their technique. The Guitar itself is a vessel. yes, a poorly built instrument is going to impede you. An amp with crap for circuitry is going to be uninspiring, but the old wives' tales you've heard about legendary guitarist X showing up to a jam session, picking up someone else's instrument and someone else's amp, and getting up to play and sounding authentic like themselves is a very real phenomenon. I've been able to witness it myself. 

I'm not a legend in anyone's mind but I know that when I switch between my main instruments, most people do not really tell the difference in the tone. One guitar is a little bit brighter to my ears, and the other is a little more midrange and has a little more 'guts'. Each guitar makes me play different things, but essentially it's all still there and I play my way. Hard to explain I know, many folks have described similar sensations when playing really nice instruments. I'm lucky to own a few real top-notch guitars, and I run them through amps you can get anywhere not only because I prefer that style of amp, but because, yes, when I get on an airplane to go somewhere to play, I don't want the hassle of an unfamiliar voiced amp. However, one thing I learned from a really great guitarist, Tom Daniels was that if you're going to be a professional guitarist, you need to learn how to dial your sound in on any amp. You should be able to get close on any kind of amp, maybe not dialed in perfectly, but enough so that when you're on stage, it's fine and not going to distract you. I've been in scenarios with tired old backline amps and just wished I could have had my amp, but in today's world, that's not really possible.

It makes me very curious about all these Helix products from line6. Everyone seems to rave about them. I'm not sure myself, skeptical I suppose. I know some really respectable players who swear by them they certainly seem unbelievably convenient but I've not heard one with my own ears live and they are a lot of money to drop to replace a pedal board and amp that I've already invested thousands of dollars on. But the temptation is real. I recently purchased a Quilter amphead, it's a very recent purchase... like I have taken it out of the box to ensure it was real, but plugging it in yet, not gotten around to it, there are so many hours in the day. I have some stuff coming up and I'm thinking this is a solution to a back that isn't getting younger... that sucker fits in my carryon luggage... my life may be changed forever...

I tell my students that tone is the highest priority for a musician of any instrument. You must make a beautiful sound, that is, yes, subjective. However, much like when you know that food is too spicy, you know pretty much right away if a cat's sound is not happening, and it can be a major turnoff musically. When I hear someone for the first time, it's their sound I fall for, thus for me, it's everything. I don't ever want anyone saying my sound is wack, and while yes, gear plays a role in that... it's only a piece of the pie. Maybe more on other pieces down the road.


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