Hey all – Matt Underwood here, talking a little bit about gear. We’ll cover guitars, amps, pedals, and combinations of them together.
First things first – reality is that you need a good combination of gear. A great guitar through a junk amp is going to sound like the back half of the equation: junk. It’s vital that each link of the chain be a good, strong link.
Guitars – are the source of everything we are discussing. You don’t need me to tell you that there are tons of amazing guitars to choose from. However, choosing a great guitar on a budget can be a challenge.
I have several guitars that I rely on, such as a Gibson Les Paul Standard, Fender Telecaster Deluxe ’72 RI, Gretsch White Falcon… the list goes on.
However, if you can only choose one or two, choose something with diversity. The tele deluxe is great because it has 2 humbuckers, giving it a warm, full sound, yet also has the ability to clean up and sound pretty, like all teles.
Also, a hollow-body, such as a Gretsch (or, if looking for a good guitar on a budget, Samick has some great models). The hollow body combined with a humbucker creates a very full, yet very pure sound. Very diverse.
Amps – the next important part of the equation. If you are playing live, you are likely using effects pedals. This is a huge factor, as some amps sound great with pedals, and other’s do not. I love the sound of amp tone, through and through. I will take tube amp overdrive over a pedal any day of the week – however, it’s not always logical to use live, for many reasons. One thing I do is generally stick with low-wattage amps through a 1X12 or 2X12 cabinet. Tube amps always sound better when they are pushed (aka when you crank them). But, in a live setting, especially in a church, it’s not always practical to have a screaming loud amp. By choosing a low-wattage amp through a smaller cabinet, you can eliminate a lot of the excess volume.
For instance, live, I almost always use my Vox Handwired AC-15. 15 watts sounds tiny, I know, but trust me, this amp can belt. I rarely turn it above 4 or 5, and that can still be ear-piercingly loud. This is great because it allows me to get a great sound out of my amp by pushing the tubes to a slight amount of breakup, giving me just a little bit of natural overdrive from the amp. However, it is slight enough that if I want to clean up my sound, I just roll the volume back a bit on my guitar. It’s also slight enough that when I put on an overdrive pedal, the pedal merely enhances the sound.
So, a low wattage tube amp that keeps it’s sound fairly clean is the way to go (Vox AC15 or 30, Fender Bassman, Marshall JCM 800, etc.)
Last but not least – Pedals. As we are on the topic of overdrive with amps, let’s transition to overdrive with pedals. If you have a slightly overdriven amp (where your tone is mostly clean with a just a small amount of breakup) then you want an overdrive that is not going to overpower your sound with fuzz. A great place to start is the Ibanez tube screamer. It cleans up nicely while still getting dirty when needed. The key is dialing in the right amount of grit on your amp and then turning on your pedal and dialing in the perfect amount of overdrive that doesn’t oversaturate your sound, but merely enhances it and makes it bigger, warmer, etc. Great places to start are the tubescreamer, Fulltone Fulldrive, Visual sound route 66, or any boutique overdrive pedal.
Other pedals that are important – delay, volume, tuner, reverb, poly-octave generator, or anything else that gives you the sound that you want.
As most Christian music today is in the U2 ethereal vain, delay is the go-to pedal.
When playing live, I use a combination of boss pedals (dd-5 and dd-7). I use two because sometimes I like to use them simultaneously on different settings. I keep the dd-7 on a warm, analog sound set to standard quarter notes. I put the dd-5 on the “U2” setting, or the dotted eighth note. When used simultaneously, it creates a ping-pong sort of effect. Then, add some reverb and you can create a sort of swimming sensation.
We could go on and on with gear, but I these are a few of the keys to creating great tone. Keep in mind the saying “You are only as strong as your weakest link.” This greatly applies to guitar tone. Each step of the equation must be equally as strong; otherwise your tone will suffer.
Also, remember, it’s not about how expensive the gear is – you can make decent gear sound great if you know what you are doing and you know how to build the equation. I’ve heard plenty of killer rigs sound terrible in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to really use all the elements.
Ultimately, it’s about you, as a guitarist, and as a worshipper, connecting with the gear you have and creating a sound that is your “voice.” Once you have that sound, and you know it inside and out, you will free yourself up to really create when you are playing instead of clouding your thinking with technical worries.
Keep playing, keep discovering, keep growing. –Matt
About Matt Underwood – Matt has played guitar in worship for Sonicflood, Jonathan Lee, Ayiesha Woods, and Andy Kirk among others. Has Recorded guitar parts for Charmaine, Philmont, David Marshall, and Brentwood Benson Demos.