How I Learned about Guitar Tone, The Hard Way

Getting a good guitar tone is one of the most talked about subjects in the guitar realm on the internet in my opinion.

Everyday you can find people discussing amps, guitars, strings, cables and many other components of what will give you the ultimate guitar tone. Just go to the Gear Page, or Harmony Central if you don’t know this yet. If you haven’t visited these sites then the amount of information on these sites will make your brain spin!

Now I’m going to tell you my story of how I learned about getting a great guitar tone.

Band Auditions

Back in 1994 I had been playing guitar for a couple of years and wanted to play in a real gigging bar band. I had been playing with my high school buddies in a band, and we did some house shows, but now I wanted to be the lead guitarist in a hot cover band that played lots of gigs.

So I went to all the local music stores and found the ads for bands that were needing lead guitarists. If you have ever done this, then you know how strange it can be to call someone out of the blue and try to convince them that you are a real guitarist. You meet some very interesting people doing these kind of things I will assure you.

So anyway, I found one ad that appealed to me and decided to give it a go. I was about 19 years old at the time and had never played in any bar bands, just house shows with my friends. This was unchartered territory for sure.

I called the number on the ad and spoke with the drummer about the music I was into and I little about myself. I told him I liked rock and blues music and had only been playing for about 3 years. He seemed to like what I had to say, so we arranged an audition with the band.

The day arrives and I’m really excited about the chance to play in a real band that plays gigs and will make some money too! I drive over to the house and begin to unload my equipment and bring it out to the practice shed behind the house where everything is set up.

Back then, I had a very weird dressing style going on. I remember I had just shaved my head, not bald but very short. I also remember wearing a pair of green jeans and a red flannel shirt with black shoes. It was the grunge era you know! I probably looked a little weird to them because they were definitely in their 30’s or it seemed that way to me.

When I walked in the room, everyone seemed to give me a slight look like, “Who is this guy?” I proceeded to set up my equipment and get ready to show them that I could actually play and that this would be a great opportunity for the both of us.

My setup at the time was this:

  • Marshall Valvestate 50 watt amp
  • ADA MP-1 tube rack preamp
  • Fender Mexican Strat with a Hot Rails pickup in the bridge

In my mind, this gear was some killer equipment that gave me a great tone! After I got setup we played through a few songs. I can’t remember what they were, but I think we did play a Black Crowes tune, and Tightrope by SRV.

Bad Tone

After we finished a few songs the drummer looked at me and said, “Why does your guitar sound like Sh**? I mean you have so much distortion and I can’t hardly hear the notes your playing! Why don’t you unplug that digital thing you got hooked up. I think it’s killing your sound.”

So I unplugged the ADA MP-1, which I thought was the piece of gear that really made my guitar sound good. I had saved up a long time to purchase that piece and now it was just worthless? I unplugged it and we played another song. The tone was even worse, and I couldn’t hear anything I was playing, neither could the band.

After we finished the drummer looked at me and said something like this, “It seems like your guitar playing is pretty good, but your sound is total sh**.” He then looked at the rhythm guitarist/singer and said, “Play something for him through your rig.” Now this guy I will never forget. He kinda reminded me of Robert Plant. He had long curly blonde hair, very thin, a cool looking Fender amp, and a nice Les Paul. When the drummer told him that, he began to play just a few short leads to show me what a guitar is supposed to sound like.

I admit it sounded way better than my setup. My sound was thin, distorted and small, while his was warm, smooth, and large. He played beatiful sounding notes and swung his blonde hair all around like he was in Led Zeppelin. The drummer then said, “Now that’s it. That’s tone my friend!”

Harsh Reality

At that point I knew I was not ready for this yet. Yes, I had played a few house shows and practiced a lot in my bedroom, but I really didn’t know much about guitar playing and doing gigs. I was just learning.

The band proceeded to leave, but the drummer told my to stay for a little bit longer to talk. He sat down, popped open a beer, and said something like this, “Man, you’re a pretty good guitarist, but your sound is bad.” He then said the words I will never forget. “Get rid of all that digital, valvestate, whatever you call it. It’s not tube! I mean get a real fender amp that has lots of tubes in it. You’re never going to sound good until you drop that garbage of gear your playing. Also, you play too many notes, and you don’t have any dynamics. Dynamics is the key to playing music. I don’t care if it’s SRV or Nirvana. They both use dynamics to make their songs sound good. Take Nirvana for example. Smells Like Teen Spirit starts off really heavy and then after a while Kurt plays 2 notes and holds them. That’s it! Do that sometimes. It will help you.”

I left that audition feeling embarrassed, and worthless. I felt like I had spent so much time practicing and learning about guitar, but for what? Apparently I had a long way to go and I was’t even close to getting theier yet. At that point in my life I had decided that I wanted to do music for a living, and I wasn’t going to ever give up. In those moments I felt as though I would never even be good enough to play in a cover band. It was very depressing and for a couple of days, I felt like giving up guitar for good.

My First Fender

A couple of days later I decided that maybe that drummer was on to something. Maybe I should just get a Fender amp with tubes, and at least my tone will be good, I hoped. That day I walked into MMI music in Mobile, Al to see if there were any Fender amps I could afford. I walked in and asked the guy working there about the Fender amps they had for sale. He said, “This is your lucky day! The owner just got some old Fender Twins in and they sound really great. They don’t have overdrive though, so you will need an overdrive pedal. I recommend the Ibanez tubescreamer and a Rat. You will be able to get some great sounds with this gear.”

The Twin was a 1974, and the whole deal was about $500. That was almost all the money I had from working at Sears, but I figured this is what I must do to move forward with this music thing. So I bought the Twin, 2 pedals and started down the path of becoming a lifelong Fender amp player

I still have the Twin today and will never sell it. I think back about that drummer, and I now realize that he did the best thing that ever could of happened to me. If he wouldn’t of said anything to me about my sound, who knows how long it would have took for me to realize that my tone wasn’t very good. To this day, I play strictly Fender’s. I’ve tried Marshalls but they just don’t have the sound that I truly like. I’m not saying they are bad amps, this is just my personal preference. To me, there’s nothing quite like plugging into an all tube Fender amp and just enjoying the smooth, glassy sound that can only be attained by a Fender.

Here’s the Fender Twin I got a couple days after that incident.

Fender Twin

John W Tuggle
John W Tuggle

I love teaching the blues and have created numerous training courses and lessons to learn how to play like BB King, Clapton, Duane Allman, and more. Get Started Now

Articles: 171

36 Comments

  1. I can’t wait for Part II of this. I got a fender amp full of tubes too. You still sound better. Lol.

    • I’ve got the exact opposite problem to you John. No talent, but lots of toys….I was a late starter on guitar and could afford some really great equipment. I have a USA Fender Lone Star Strat from 96, Gibson Les Paul Traditional from 2013 and a Squire Classic Vibe tele same as yours. (Watching your videos influence the purchase of the Les Paul and the Tele). I have several other “less quality” guitars and a couple of cool tube Amps (Fender and Ceriatone JTM45). A few cabs with Celestion and Eminence speakers and a basic pedal board i’m very happy with. JUST GOT TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY THE DARN THING…..

    • My blues was hard earned also. Back in 1970 I had my tele and walked into a west coast jazz club to sit in and play blues. Unfortunately I was playing with a jazz band and I was lost outside of 3 chord special a la 12 bar. In front of a pro crowd there to see Anita o’day( I think). I was humiliated but invited backstage to drink whiskey with Anita. They were kind and encouraging. They said it takes longer tha three years to be a blues man. Man hard times is a good teacher. After all these years I’m still at it. Next week hope to get Louie Louie down-lol.

  2. Very nice article ! I am looking forward for others. Unfortunately I had have similar experiences but I was a bit late to understand what is dynamics in music. Speed, notes etc it is really nothing without dynamics. Good amount of the feeling is coming from dynamics. It should be clearly emphasized like in this article. Cheers !

  3. A MEXICAN STRAT?!?!

    NIce post man. I can truly sympathize. It does seem that the clearest way to advancement in music is trial by fire because musicians are fiery, and “beer-popping” lowers their inhibitions…

  4. I had a similar experience. When I was at that point with my high school band where we were gigging all i thought about was “I need a louder amp.” Then when I got with a band later on in life with a group of musicians I looked up to and were fans of, the first thing they said was that I should sell my amp and get a better one and showed me the tone of the other guitarist. I was quite embarrassed myself. It’s all for the better though.

  5. I have a ’67 ES 335 I ran thru one of those old padded Kustom amps. It sounded great if all you wanted to do was cover CCR. If you did anything else, it sounded like my guitar was holding its nose, if you know what I mean. In ’69, I replaced it with a Twin Reverb with 2 12″ JBLs. Great move! I still have both guitar and amp. Til death do us part.

  6. Nice post. In fact, this was a kick in the a** for me. I’ve been buying way too much crappy gear over the years instead of finding a few quality items. After reading this post, I’ve sold a lot of old, cheap gear (amps, guitars, pedals).

    I kept my strat, my tubescreamer and my boss delay.

    And lucky as I am I stumbled upon a 1975 silverface Fender Twin Reverb, which I took home today. What a Nice, simple and good soundin rig!

    I should have done this years ago…

    Thank you for the inspiration!

  7. Tone has more to do with playing, than gear. I was blessed enough to have a guitar teacher who was very strict in that department and more than once I managed to get compliments on my tone playing my First Act Rig. Also, I think the discrimination against digital is a lot less relevant today than it may have been then. Even Steve Howe uses A Variax through a line 6 amp and I’m happy to report that his tone sounds no less gorgeous than it did on the Close to the Edge record. Digital technology follows a very predictable pattern, getting twice as good and half as expensive every 2 years, while tube amps change little. I’ve also noticed that tube amps are more often than not any more, more about marketing than performance. I bought an AC30 after my Stage 160 broke down. The Stage could and did handle everything well, and I used it for both Country and Metal(which seemed to be the only two genres that got staged in my area at the time) as well as in my school’s Jazz band. The only issue the amp ever gave me was keeping up with the metal bassist’s 2 8×10 cabinets, while the Vox wouldn’t let me dream of metal and pulling out the country twang is painful without my 6120(though it handles everything else with gusto).

  8. So true! I think I’ve lucked into tone somehow. I started around 2001 playing guitar through a 90’s Peavey Bandit, my brother’s amplifier from when he grew up, but the kicker was in 2003 when I got a Gibson Les Paul Junior Special. That guitar has sounded great through everything I’ve plugged it into. It holds it’s own through different amps for rock, blues, and jazz. I even had a metal guitarist compliment the guitar after he played it in his rig. My brother who has mostly played Fender, has wanted a Les Paul after playing mine.

    So I bummed my brother’s amp until in December of 2010 I finally bought my own rig. It’s a VOX Night Train 15watt with the coupled 1×12 cab Celestion Greenback. I also bought a Mexican Lone Star Stratocaster: Texas Special pickups and a Pearly Gates humbucker on the bridge. Sounds great but intonation is mugged-up. Regardless at the blues jam i go to I’ve got players twice my age coming over to eyeball the rig. So I never had the experience of someone telling me my tone was bad, but then again people who heard me playing the Bandit were probably staying politely quite :)

  9. great read. I’m a very young guitar player, in a cover band with friends. I’m trying to obtain as much knowledge as I can on equipment, like amps and pedals. I if anyone could recommend sights to visit and learn more, that’d be great. :D

  10. Lots of big BS. They should’ve let YOU play thru the other guitarist’s rig, and I bet you would’ve sounded only marginally better than thru your own rig. If you can’t get workable sound out of a Valvestate, you’ve gotta LEARN about tone first and THEN get the expensive equipment – if it’s still necessary.
    However, maybe you – and thousands of other players – just can’t handle anything else but plug&play-one-sound-gear.

    • I agree with Finn that they should have swapped amps. This band had an attitude problem for sure. I’ve been in similar situations where one guitar sounded better than the other. What did we do? We plugged into each other’s amps to compare. No judgment on the person, we both had beginner level gear. Both were solid state BTW.

  11. Finn,
    Not only should you learn how to spell the word “thru” as “THROUGH”, which the PROPER spelling, but you have just proved to the people on this entire forum how faulty and unimportant your opinion actually is in comparison to anyone else’s, seeing as anyone that now comments after you will be considered smart for the sheer fact that you cannot spell properly, for one! Secondly, you said, “if it’s still necessary.However, maybe you – and thousands of other players – just can’t handle anything else but plug&play-one-sound-gear.” It is clear by this statement that your tone is UNDER par because you are spending time on a forum searching for a blues tone, which tells me you are unhappy with your OWN tone. Having said that, I believe your opinion is automatically disregarded, since clearly you haven’t even the balls to search for a real tone by actually MAKING one as our friend Mr.Tuggle already has. Just because you don’t have a tone of your own doesn’t mean you can go around persecuting others for having one, one that holds “BALLS TO THE WALL” at that!
    Sincerely yours,
    “Moon Dog”

  12. Half of what the drummer told you was true, but parts I don’t agree with. You can play a lot of notes and still have dynamics. It’s apparent in lots of guitarists throughout music history in all genres.
    Also, digital isn’t necessarily what causes bad tone. Valve State can sound great depending on the rest of your rig.
    One key thought I’ve always remembered..never mix Fender with Gibson, except for strings. For some reason, Fender guitar strings sound really great on Gibson guitars. Light, warm bluesy strings on a thick, heavy, crunchy tone of a guitar.
    Also, tone is a matter of opinion. Period. What 50/100 people may love, the other 50 may hate. I go through this discussion constantly with my bands producer. He extremely hates the sound of EMG pickups and hates the sound of a Boss Metal Zone pedal. THere are A LOT of people who simply LOVE EMGs. Metal Zone…you can take it or leave it. It is what it is lol.

    Key for me…I have 3 bands…(1) Country, (2) Blues/Rock, (3) Mainstream Alternative Rock.
    In my Country band, I use a Fender Blues Jr, an Ibanez guitar with Dimebag strings, and a Robin Trower overdrive pedal. That’s it.
    In my blues band, I use that Fender Blues Jr, a 1973 Peavey T-15 and an ’85 Ibanez Blazer, and a Tube Screamer. That’s it.
    In my Rock band, I use Bogner 40w Tube head, 4×12 Orange cab, AND a Marshal 150 w solid state head, a huge assortment of pedals, a Les Paul Studio, the newer Ibanez.
    Country band, I use thing picks. (.60). Blues band (.73) Rock band (.85?..I think lol).

    Just because it isn’t tube, doesn’t mean it’s no good. Just depends on the entire rig, as a whole.

    Tube is warm, but Solid State is crunchy and mix the 2 together, you can get the best of both worlds and still have clarity in your notes.

  13. A lot of people mix up the idea that “a bad workman always blames his tools” with the idea that fussing about tone hides an inability to play well enough. I think many of us are impressed with the first real guitar sound that moves us, and that will often be a Marshall or Fender amp, for example. For me it’s the sound of various blackface amps and the occasional Hendrix or Peter Green sound. If you sound how you want to, or if your guitar plays well and responds with the sound you are hoping to hear, your playing with improve immeasurably. If nothing else, you’ll be reluctant to put it down, which can only be a good thing. Keep up the great work John- those fabulous tone clips of yours are always welcome.

    • While I find this to be true to an extent, after all it’s my pet peeve when people feel the need to complain about people asking for a rig rundown. Unfortunately a number of people believe that if they buy good gear or guitars their sound will be much better than it is. But then they get the good gear, and still sound like crap. That’s because, they think the tools is what makes the product. You can have good gear, but if you don’t play well, it’ll sound poor. A person can have poor gear, and be a great player and pull it off. So technique is heavily important to guitar tone. Gear should come after technique.

      You mentioned that people are impressed with the first guitar sound. I’m sure some people were. For me, I was impressed by the playing and technique. Hendrix didn’t seem to use a whole lot of gear. But the bulk of his tone came from his technique and phrasing, that’s what gave new chills. His tone gear wise (fuzz, univibe, etc…) is cool. But the sound of his playing was what mesmerised me. If a person wants to sound Jimi, study his phrasing, and no matter what they use, it’ll sound like him. I play some of his stuff without effects. And it’s sounds like him either way. Gear is good, but some people need to be taught that, good gear won’t make sloppy playing sound amazing or great. But that good gear should compliment amazing playing.

  14. Man! You hit the nail right on the head. I just played a gid Saturday that went horribly wrong. We practice in an old high school gymnasium. The acoustics are amazing in that old gym. When we go outdoors, my little amp just sounds thin, digital and toneless. I play by feel. I don’t know if that describes it for you, but it does me. If I don’t feel it, it simply don’t happen. The tone to my ear is what allows me to create on the fly. Man did that not happen during the gig. I wanted to climb into my little amp and hide. Lol! I’m looking to learn how to never be in that situation again. My tone SUCKED GREEN DONKEY !@#%….etc. My question is about the right gear. I’ve already started purchasing pedals, but have no idea how to go about purchasing an amplifier. Which one will perform best for me. I love the warmth of a tube amp, but don’t know which fender to get. Which one will carry the outdoor venues and still be able to be used indoors? Do I need a soaker to use it indoors? So far I’ve purchased the following pedals. Ibanez TS808hw, Fulltone OCD, Boss digital Delay DD-3, Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner. I’m looking to purchase a RAT pedal, a Boss Blues driver, Boss Super Over Drive. I’m really looking to find a new tone, something that doesn’t sound horrible outdoors. What amp to get??????

    • I had a lightbulb moment and a major re-think about my approach to tone, amps & pedals after I found the Gilmorish website. Especially the section about why which pedals work with certain types of amps.

      The article goes on to say that for a Fender amp, which basically has a scooped tone, don’t use pedals that are also scooped. For a Marshal amp that has a midrange heavy tone don’t use midrange heavy pedals.

      Makes sense to me.

      • Depends on the amp I suppose.

        I can get mid scooped sounds from a marshall all day. So I kind of dont understand where you are coming from. There is an eq section in every amp for a reason.

        Then there are EQ pedals……

  15. Your post is well written, funny and informative. I too had an MP1 and thought I had some badass tone. I had an MP2 to go with it, and an ART DRX. I found a couple of guys on the internet to jam with and I could see the looks on their faces when I fired up my system. Even though it was supposedly a 100W amp it couldn’t even keep up with the volume of the bass player’s little combo amp.

  16. Nice story; thanks for sharing. I think one’s playing technique is a critical factor indeed. “The tone is in your hands” relates to dampening strings and picking style. Yes…digital has come a long way …but I still prefer tubes. If you use a clean palate without distortion …e.g., a twin…then your source of drive pedal will be important. The main thin is to have fun….carry on.

  17. Can’t live without tubes. Maybe it’s a personal thing; but I need as much sonic inspiration as possible.

  18. I just about fell out of my seat when you/the drummer alluding to the ADA MP-1 as “digital”. The ADA MP-1/MP-2 were, and still are, some of the greatest tone generating tools ever created. And while they do have a “digital” computer in them to control their circuitry, the signal path is 100% analog, and driven by some real 12AX7 preamp tubes. The same ones that the Fender Twin has. The real difference is that with the immense capabilities of the ADA preamp come a lot of complexity, and getting good tone for the material you are playing require careful, methodical and deep understanding of what makes good tone. You can make an ADA do things that require a collection of amps to do – and it sounds amazing.
    I would never fault you for playing a Fender Twin – they are great amps. But as a generalization, my biggest complaint with our guitar industry today is totally based on the type of ignorance of this drummer and his band. Instead of trying to learn new and innovative products, many are satisfied with using the basic building blocks of the past – simple tube amps and pedals with antiquated circuits. While there are exceptions, there is a serious lack of innovation in the industry, and it’s driven by ignorance. I would never trade my ADA MP-2 in for a Fender Twin. Ever.

  19. I had the same experience. I had been playing a lot (teenager who learned in his bedroom) and thought I was ready. My first audition was horrible. For me it was the Bass player who told me my tone sucked but he never told me why or suggested any changes…just said “your tone sucks dude.” I felt like I was the lowest form of human garbage at that time. Years later (way before the internet) I found my first Marshall and learned that distortion is good…in spades. I get positive comments on my tone but now they tell me I’m an old fart :).

Comments are closed.