(Published in Rave magazine 15/08/2006)
Everything in Between
So you've sorted out your technique, got your guitar set up to produce a good tone and still your tone sucks. What's going wrong? Well, its probably everything in between you your guitar and your amplifier. What can we do about it? Well lets see what things get in the road of our tone as it heads towards your amplifier.
Guitar Leads: A lead is a lead, right? Wrong! The first thing you should do is get yourself into a quiet room with your amp, get some leads and A/B them. Plug in one lead, play a phrase, and then plug in another and repeat the phrase. Switch between the two. Can you hear the difference?
Different length leads will give you different tones. I've found that longer leads reduce the amount of top-end in your sound. You can reduce the impact of a long lead run by using a 'line driver' which changes the impedance of your guitar signal. A 'line driver' will allow you to have long lead runs without loss of signal quality. Lead quality is also a big deal when it comes to tone. Just buy good quality leads.
Try experimenting with leads that use varied jack plug materials. Chrome ends are brighter in sound than brass ends, which give a rounder sound. Also, try a curly lead (like what you see Hendrix using). The curly lead produces a darker tone compared to its straight cousin.
Stomp Boxes: So, you've noticed the difference between different leads, Lets plug in some stomp-boxes. Now that you're listening closely, you'll probably notice that your tone is different with a stomp-box in the signal path compared to how it was without the pedal, even without the pedal switched on.
Effects pedals add metres of cable length to your signal chain. Your tone has to travel through the entire length of the printed circuit board of your pedal unit. This can be a long way, and this is why your tone suffers when a stomp box is added to your setup. This problem is compounded as you add more effects to the chain. To add to this, stomp-boxes are relatively inexpensive devices and the components in them often aren't the best quality. Have a listen to your sound with the effect turned on and off and see how much the frequency response of your sound suffers. If you notice a lot of treble or bass frequency loss, then your pedal probably hasn't got the best of components in it.
What can we do to solve these problems? Well, a line driver will fix the length of line problems. The cheap component issue can be fixed by sending your unit off to the various places advertised on the web who do component upgrades. Also, try not to run too many effects units in a chain at once. Think carefully about what effects you really need and cut down to just that.