Alex Clay

Alex Clay

I was doing my typical boredom-induced zombie scrolling deal on Facebook the other day and happened upon a Woody Harrelson meme that said, “When people who only play “original music” crap on my cover band” and has Woody drying his eyes with money. It made me laugh, but it also made me think of another post I saw a while back that argued that cover bands aren’t “local music.” Both of these polarizing posts kind made me question where musicians place their value in their music, and I just wanted to talk through some of the points here (especially after having a discussion with a friend who has very different opinions than mine).

I’ll start from my end because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I love writing music and creating riffs and songs, but at the basis of my playing, I just enjoy playing covers. They’re fun, they get people up and moving because they’re identifiable and it’s a relatively straightforward thing that you can build from with your own unique flourishes should you choose to or play it exactly like the records...the choice is up to the player. For me, I like playing it note for note with the recording. It’s equal parts nostalgia and the desire for perfectionism is a world that lacks it completely. My OCD makes me want to nail each note exactly how the pros did it, and when I finally accomplish it then I feel successful. That’s been a driving force and where the bar has been set for myself since I started playing. I’ve always played covers because that’s actually how I’ve learned a lot of theory is piecing it together how the pros do it, because I don’t have the focus to sit down and practice scales…I never was a “studier.” When I did learn scales, it turned me into a robot because of that cushy feeling of false safety; if I stayed in the box I knew I couldn’t play a dreaded wrong note. But, it led my lead-work to be…scaley? No emotion, just notes in the scale. So, I went back to piecing theory together from songs, and that’s how I’ve personally connected the dots. It can be considered derivative if you broke it down, but it works for me and makes me happy and I try to play to the song and the band as much as trying to stand out.

My buddy is from the opposite line of thought. He gets ultimate enjoyment from writing songs and riffs. His fulfilment comes when he creates a lead lick or catchy rhythm part that he wouldn’t mind hearing again. He knows a few songs, but 95% of the time he chooses to create something in a jam than to cover a song, it’s just not interesting to him. He’s very into unique tones and doesn’t want to sound like Angus Young or EVH or any of the classics. He wants to create his own sound and for lack of a better description, to leave his own mark on the world. It’s something that I never wrapped my head around as a teenager as we’d go to jams and he’d want to make something up instead of playing a known song (to him that was boring). As we got older we both realized that a lot of what’s so great about guitar is the ability to adapt, so we’ve made stuff work.

Fundamentally, going back to the meme’s as referencing (welcome to citation in 2018), who is wrong and who is right? The answer? Both are right and wrong. I know, that sounds like a cop-out but hear me out. There’s playing music for fun, and then there’s playing music to earn money (surplus income, or sole income if you’re a full-time musician). You’ve taken a lot of time to hone your craft, and exposure bucks don’t pay the rent, unfortunately. So, fair compensation for the service you’re providing is what’s needed. To that end, a musician must be willing to adapt to what the customer is expecting. Whether that’s a bar gig trying to help sell some food and beer for the venue, or whatever scenario arises. In general, however, people are looking for identifiable songs. I’ve had several friends who have gone to bars to find out the band was playing nothing but originals, and they ended up leaving. It’s just the society we live in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many of the famous acts played covers until they got their foot in the door and added in their own material along the way. I guess my point is that there can’t be a polarizing thought-process when it comes to music. Being part of a community means helping it grow, and admittedly it’s something that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own integrity to achieve either. My point is, even the biggest stars in music STILL play covers, because there’s something identifiable and nostalgic about hearing those notes, and sort of tying those nostalgic feelings to the personality of the artist covering them…sort of a way of the person covering the songs to express a bit of who they are and what they love.

 In the end, what is the point of cutting down another musician? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cover band or an original band in the end. If you’re doing what you love, screw it, it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve seen discussions of covers being derivative, but that’s something that is defined by each player. 

Playing music is the greatest, and surely, that should be enough?!

 

Life in the gear industry isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem. My idea of it years ago was playing guitar through prototypes, testing new products and talking to famous people all the time. Some of those are true, but it’s far less than most would imagine. Most days revolve around spreadsheets, marketing insights and subsequent planning, loads of content creation and customer-service stuff. It’s still great because it’s based on a passion of mine, but sometimes like I’ve said before that expectation and reality usually aren’t the same thing. Occasionally though, I do get to get out from behind the desk and go have some fun. I’ve been a long-time fan of Cory Wong’s, and he and I had been talking for a few months because he was interested in an amp that I have (Tone King Imperial MKII). He’s been wanting to try one, so I found out that he was going to be playing a show in Virginia not far from me, and I decided to make the trek to VA Beach and take a few Wampler’s along for him to try as well.
 
Soundcheck started at 5 pm for the gig at 9, and from the moment I walked in Cory treated me instantly like a long-lost friend he hadn’t seen in a while. He’s genuinely just one of the sweetest and most genuine guys in the world. I’ll be the first to say that I’m a fan and had to curb my enthusiasm to be professional…and it only borderline worked. Soundcheck started, he and the band ran through the setup with visuals that they ran directly from Corey’s MAC from the stage, operated by Kevon Gastonguay who also pulls synth duties. Normal soundcheck proceeded as they adjusted all their levels and they ran through 3-4 of Cory’s classic songs (Dial-Up, Pleasin’, and Clouds) including a new section they were going to add to a song for the live set. He had said before that he loves the Ego Compressor, but it really hit home when he never shut it off the entire night and that it was the only pedal that he said he used with Vulfpeck as well. This show was different than most I’ve been to because Cory isn’t a lead singer, but more so a harmonizer. The backing screen has always been part of the show at every concert, but Cory integrated with it, so it was like another band member. He had recorded Antwaun Stanley singing in a booth and harmonized with the video, using vocal effects he had set on his mic for ambience and voice changing effects. 
 
I knew from the initial few notes that these guys were the next level of locked-in to the groove together. I’ve been very fortunate to see quite a few live acts, and I’ve never seen a band so rhythmically tight as Cory and his band. We hung out for a few hours while Cory tested some pedals (Mini Ego, Tumnus, Clarksdale, FTEv2, Ethereal and a pedal no one has seen yet). He loved the new pedal, as well as the Clarksdale and Tumnus, and it was refreshing to see that he knew exactly what he wanted and needed for live use, and in his playing style, he just didn’t need a delay. He said they’re fun but just unnecessary for him.  He was straight with me the entire way with what he loved and wished was a bit different, but in the eend, e kept coming back to his love of the Ego Comp. The guys finished up and headed to go get some food, so I watched the opening act Jacob Sigman and his band sound check as well. Their guitarist was in need of a reverb pedal and asked if I happen to bring anything. So, we loaded up the Ethereal and dialled in a great slapback with a touch of plate reverb, and he loved it. He used it the entire show and adjusted it on the fly, and it sounded killer. 
 
The show was fantastic. Jacob's band was tight and had a great mix of synth-pop with funky rhythms. After about 7 songs Cory hit the stage and they went to town like it was the last gig they were ever going to play. It was like a master-class in musicianship and rhythm, as the grooves were so tight that it felt like the whole building was locked into it and moving with them. Cory had just recently gotten the coveted “Koz Nod,” which is the industry nod from Dave Koz which serves and an official welcome into the world of smooth jazz. They played for about an hour and a half, and it left me the most inspired that I’ve ever been. He did play some incredibly cool solos, but his rhythmic chops are on another level, and his strat just sounded perfect into the Imperial MKII. The entire time Cory was grateful, joked with the crowd and just made it feel like a bunch of friends hanging out and jamming.
 
Coming back around to the Imperial MKII, he loved the amp but literally only had a use for the rhythm channel (blackface). One thing that I can say is that there’s absolutely no substitute for raw talent, practice, and subsequently refined skillsets from the combination of both. Fundamentally, gear is a tool, and he showed me that clearer than any other player I’ve seen. Gear is fun, no doubt, but a tool nonetheless for musicians to express themselves. Some do it with extravagant rigs and various combinations of effects wizardry, and others cut to the bare bones and let their hands do the talking. Most of the night it was just Strat > Ego Compressor > Imperial MKII, and it sounded great. No frills, just incredible honed skill that made me reassess my own playing and evaluate what was important in my gear choices, and what I had just as excess. I can definitely say that after seeing him play through my amp, that tone is DEFINITELY largely in the hands.
 
 
The time has come where I’m burnt out on gear, and my chase for tone has come full circle. In 2011 I was probably the happiest with my playing that I had ever been. My tone was great, my rig was stable, and I was focused on playing more than anything. My skillset was at an all-time high, which for me, was being able to cover a few Brad Paisley songs note for note along with the recording. Admittedly they were some of the easier songs, but I had set my own bar of expectation relatively low as I have minimal self-esteem, and surpassing and completing that gave me the most pride in the world. I was actively playing regularly, with friends in a band as well as at church. I was using the same guitars for several years and GAS didn’t really exist aside from unobtainable guitars and amps that were completely out of reach. I had a PRS Custom 22 that I had worked for and saved up several summers worth of money to get, and my Crook tele that was a graduation present from my parents for graduating college. I had those two, an acoustic and that was it. I knew everything both instruments were capable of, and there wasn’t a need for anything else. I had a small board with a handful of pedals on it, and a Hot Rod Deluxe that served me perfectly. 
 
I started out my addiction to trying pedals in 2012 to have something for “me”. At the time, we had just had our first child and life had flipped upside down. Free time was a thing of the past, and I’ll be the first to admit that it took several months to adapt. It was one of the most joy-filled times of my life, but also some of the hardest as I had to come to grips with being a Dad, getting very little sleep (he woke up every two hours until he was 2 years old). I felt like there was nothing left of me, just a bit of a warm body. So, at the time I tuned to TheGearPage.net and lost a bit of my soul in the emporium as I proceeded to flip pedals for the next two years. I won’t admit how many came and went, but I will say it was enough that I’m ashamed of it. The flip side was that I learned A LOT about tone, and that ended up leading me to a job in the industry, but at what cost? That was the slow descent into GAS-fueled craziness that went on up until a few months ago.
 
Gear became a distraction for me. It was (and still is) so easy to jump on Reverb or Facebook and browse around and think about the possibilities and ideas that *could* potentially come from owning such gear. There were times that I didn’t touch a guitar for weeks, just because of work or family obligations. I’ve always tried to make family first, but I’ll admit that the quick “escape” to looking at gear was far too easy to do, just like looking at any form of Social Media. I didn’t have time to practice, and chalked it up to “I wouldn’t remember what I practiced anyway, so what’s the point?” It became the same old tireless riffs, noodling and lead lines I’ve played hundreds of times in the past few years. I remembered bits and pieces of the songs I knew before, but for the most part my mind was blank from mindlessly noodling. 
 
As the gear kept coming in and out of the house, I started noticing that the excitement of getting the new gear was dwindling. The Silver Sky was a prime example. I was SO excited to get it; the excitement of the chase was exhilarating. Finally got it, had it for a few weeks, and ended up selling it. My mistake was viewing it as a collectible instead of a tool to make music, and I didn’t want to get comfortable with it and risk messing it up. So, my wife wanted a new deck on the back of the house, and I sold it to fund that. Two weeks later (after I realized the deck wouldn’t cost as much as I thought it would), I had a yearning for the Silver Sky again. My thought process was that I hadn’t given it enough time to properly get comfortable with it and make it work for my style of playing. I was very fortunate that the person I sold it to was willing to let me buy it back and lived locally and is a great friend, so I got it back. I immediately made the tweaks that I felt made it more playable and comfortable…and it did…for a while. After playing it for a few weeks, I decided that I’d sell my American Pro strat and just consolidate my gear down. If it wasn’t being used, then it’s time for it to go. I decided to plug the strat in one last time before boxing it up to sell and realized that I was honestly was more comfortable with the strat than the Silver Sky. I decided to wait, and compared them head to head again after my few adjustments on the SS. In the end, it came down to comfort and sound. The strat just had that more classic sound that my ears wanted to hear, which is the exact reason I wanted to own one in the first place (after a decade of not owning one).
 
It definitely dawned on me a few months ago when someone said “Alex plays guitar. Play something!” I locked up tighter than you can imagine because it’s been WAY too long since I’ve played in front of a group of people that aren’t my family. All of the things I could have easily pulled out of my mind in 2011 were nearly gone, and I found myself cutting pedals on, switching guitars, and overall just making a fool of myself (despite the compliments) because I haven’t played that much in the past few months. The thing was that I didn’t feel comfortable on any of the stuff I was using because I had a revolving door on gear, more interested to see what sounds they could make out of sheer boredom or curiosity than putting them into context in a song or how they would fit my playing needs. My distraction became my addiction, which has led to my passion for it dwindling significantly. Gear-buying and flipping have become a quick outlet to solve boredom and other typical life stuff, a quick thrill that is way too easy and generally has left me feeling lackluster in most respects. 
 
Working at Wampler has really opened my eyes to the market, and what people like and don’t like, and what other companies strive for, excel at, and fall short on (including us). Jason put it best (and this has stuck with me since he said it) that “If you have to use a gimmick to sell it, it’s usually because it can’t stand on its own without it.” And in many cases, that’s completely true. Just because something has fancy bells and whistles doesn’t mean it’s practical or sounds that great. Learning a wealth of knowledge from Brian and Jason has opened my eyes to think more critically of what I’m thinking about buying, and for the most part, my addiction has slowly started to dwindle. Some of the pedals I would have bought immediately, I take a step back and question whether I’d actually use them, or if I’m just curious to try them? 9/10 times it’s because I’m just bored and curious, and now even the curiosity has gone somewhat. The good part is that my board has had minimal changes, my guitars and amps are more solid than ever with very little moving gear, and my comfort is growing back. Brian sent a prototype to me about a month ago, and that has truly inspired me more than anything lately. Not to noodle, but to get whatever I can get out of it (and the rest of my gear) without thinking “Well it would be cool to be able to make this sound now and then.” The reality of it is that if it’s not fun anymore, what’s the point? Admittedly over the past couple of years, fun HAS meant just trying pedals. But at the end, I felt like despite all of the stuff I’ve used, it didn’t add much value to me as a player. Yes, I know what each one of them is capable of, but aside from talking on gear forums, what good is it really going to do me?
 
I know this has drawn on and has a lot of information you’ve seen before, but for me, I think this is a step in the right direction to admitting I have a problem, and I’m trying to take steps in making my own life a bit better. I’ve been on a mass exodus with gear, anything that’s not being frequently used is pretty much being sold. It feels pretty good to get the space back, not having the money essentially just sitting on the shelf not being used doesn’t hurt either. Since I’ve started decluttering and dropping the excess, my playing has started improving again, my desire to mindlessly search YouTube for demos and Reverb for killer deals have decreased too. GAS still exists, but it’s not frantic like it has been over the past few years. My point with this whole blog is basically to say do what makes you happy but also think critically about what you’re doing and what you hope to be able to achieve in the future and adjust your trajectory accordingly.
 
I’ll leave you with a quote from Jack Canfield that seems appropriate (at least to my situation): “As you begin to take action toward the fulfillment of your goals and dreams, you must realize that not every action will be perfect. Not every action will produce the desired result. Not every action will work. Making mistakes, getting it almost right, and experimenting to see what happens are all part of the process of eventually getting it right.”
 
 

The Comfort Zone?

June 26, 2018

I’m a creature of habit, 100%. Borderline OCD makes me happy when things are “normal” and in a routine. It’s something I’ve noticed for many years that permeates through all of my daily life, down to food choices, what deodorant I use, all that stuff. When I go to one of our local restaurants, I’ll normally order one of the three or four different dishes I usually get. This same thing was overtly apparent after getting a Suhr a few months ago, then the PRS Silver Sky. My OCD kicks in, and when things are out of place, it’s just impossible for me to bond with instruments, pedals, amps, etc. A lot of it is expectation versus reality, then adding my desire for consistency it makes for a lot of gear flipping.

I was very fortunate to find an incredible deal several months back on a Suhr Antique heavy relic, with three Thornbuckers in it. It was an incredible sounding guitar, and the neck felt great in my hands. I had it for about two weeks, to where I was enjoying it but there just wasn’t something quite right. At the time, I had it built up in my mind that “It’s a Suhr, it has to be something wrong in my mind, these guitars are supposed to be perfect.” I played it for another couple weeks and found myself still feeling like it wasn’t quite where I wanted it. Despite my better judgment, and complete lack of experience, I watched a couple of YouTube videos, changed to my favorite strings that I use on every guitar (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s, I’ve been using them for over a decade now), and adjusted the truss-rod and the saddles on the bridge. Threw a set of Dunlop strap locks on there, and sure enough, that’s what it needed. It came down to it being a comfort level thing, where those strings and the security strap locks give me mentally helped complete the puzzle.

The strap lock thing is entirely for a reason, and to this day I’ll put a set of strap locks on every guitar I ever own in the future. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I had a PRS Custom 22 in Scarlet Red. That PRS was a guitar that I had saved for over two years for, and it was my first genuinely nice guitar. I was in a hard rock band and did a lot of jumping around and carrying on, and we were practicing before a gig in a garage. We were mid-jam when I jumped in the air, and when I landed the back of the strap broke and my beloved PRS went flying and hit the concrete floor. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I was fortunate because it mainly took a 1’ chip of finish off down to the wood near the jack, but the back as absolutely scratched to death. I couldn’t repair the considerable chunk of finish that chipped off, but I was able to at least wax some of the scratches out of the back. No guitar to this day feels safe unless I have strap locks on it now. I soon stopped jumping around pretty permanently after that.

The string situation comes down to preference and comfort. I’m used to the tension and tone that the Regular Slinky’s (10’s) give me, and although I’ve played guitars with other strings that worked just fine, nothing quite feels like home like a set of Slinkys’. I’ve gone through the phases of trying heavier and lower gauge strings, and for me, heavier than 10’s make my carpal tunnel act up, and anything lower than 10’s feel like playing spaghetti. I’ve tried various brands, from NYXL’s, D’Addario’s, and even boutique strings, and though they all sounded good and played fine, it always comes down to a manner of familiarity and what my ears expect along with how the strings feel under my fingers. The same thing went on with my PRS Silver Sky, where I just wasn’t comfortable until I put my favorite strings on there, adjusted the truss rod how I liked it, and even adjusted the pickups down to better suit my tastes. After those small adjustments (and a set of strap locks), it immediately felt sturdier and like I was “at home.” It just proved that I’m horrendously set in my ways, sometimes to a fault. The irony is that I’ve changed “favorite picks” so many times that I can’t count on my fingers and toes (albeit most revolve around a thicker, JazzIII XL shape).  

Am I weird and the only one who does this? Not sure. I guess one way to look at it is that I know what I want more-so than in years past. The same has occurred recently with pedals too. I’ve moved more OD’s and fuzzes and dirt boxes on and off my board for so long now that there were days when I had a board full of nothing but dirt, to try them all. Now, I’m down to 3 dirt pedals that have stayed relatively consistent on my board, and they’re about what you’d expect: Klone (depends on the board size as to whether it’s a mini or a large one), Tubescreamer, and a Bluesbreaker of some sort. I like them versatile enough to cover lots of ground, but not so much that they overlap a whole lot. The same goes for most of the rest of my board, and I think it’s what it means when people talk about finding their own personal tone. I still flip pedals, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I think in that situation, getting in the comfort zone can be kind of nice (especially financially).

I’ve been trying to write this blog for over a week, and each time I sit down it just hasn’t clicked. I normally have no problem with just starting to write and letting it flow, but here lately it’s just not clicking. I read Jason’s blog last week, and in the midst, it dawned on me what my deal was. I’m suffering from a bit of a slump. Not in a pity-party kind of way, but more accurately a social media and gear kind of way. In the past few weeks I’ve been extremely busy with work, the kids, working on the house, and just things pulling from every direction it seemed. That’s not unusual and accurately describes life in general, especially as a parent. But it hit me too that I couldn’t really nail down the last time in the past few weeks where I was able to truly jam without interruption for more than a couple of minutes. The combination of lack of playing plus spending more time on social media trying to stay connected with the every-changing gear world, I realized that I was starting to burn out on guitar. Not playing, but all of the other facets of gear culture. Overexposure to it made uninteresting and not nearly as fun. I took a step back this weekend, worked it out so my mother-in-law could keep the kids for a couple of hours, and let loose for a solid two hours. It felt like the stress melted away, and my shoulders felt lighter.

So, what is it that was burning me out? I don’t want to get back to that state again, and my goal is to cut it off at the pass and recognize the signs before it gets to me. For me, the overexposure to gear culture and the constant chase just wore me out mentally. Chasing tone is a self-imposed deal, so I’m not expecting any sympathy. It’s so easy to hop on Facebook and talk on whatever group you’re into at the time (there are hundreds to choose from, one for just about any sub-faction of gear you can imagine) and see what the current trend is. Most of it reflects the constant chase for the next tone (more on that later), some questions, some jokes, incredible or cool videos that keep your attention for 3-4 minutes. Then it’s on to the next group… and it’s the same stuff. There are the hardcore collectors of individual pieces of gear that are fascinating to watch, but then at some point, it becomes “Okay, we get it.” This is not a dig at collecting at all. It’s just the realization of what the gear community is in general. Mix in some of the things Jason mentioned in his previous blog, and things can get ugly, very quickly. Bad attitudes, light-hearted people trying to diffuse the situation, and the agitators, who have nothing to do with the argument but feel they need to interject something witty to get involved or push some more buttons for entertainment. The internet (and Facebook especially) is a fantastic place to meet great people all around the world, but it also becomes a soapbox for people to yell their ideas out to the world. Here lately it seems like people are actively looking to be ticked off or offended. Some days it’s, and everyone gets along, and some days it seems like someone collectively peed in everyone’s cornflakes that day. 

Now, back to the constant chase for tone I mentioned earlier. I’ve chronicled my quest for tone starting early in my guitar-playing life, and it kind of arced to a peak the past few years and is slowly arcing back down to less desire to chase tones and acquire new stuff at the rate I previously had been. Along with the social media overexposure of talking gear day in and day out, I’ve come to learn awhile back that no matter how expensive the pedal, it’s not going to change the way I play *usually*. Again, (in general) a lot of the pedals I’ve tried from all manner of builders have been excellent, but it got to where it was more of the same with slight variations than something overtly new and exciting. No matter what pedals I play through, I still sound like me. It’s been a bit refreshing as it’s eased the GAS off a bit, but it’s also very enlightening how much time I spent twisting knobs instead of learning and playing the instrument. It was very apparent when my buddies and I got together for a jam a few weeks ago, where I had forgotten more than I care to admit…but my TOAN WAS SICK! Yes, I sounded great, but some of the theory I knew before had a lot of dust that had to be cleaned off, and some I forgot altogether. That was officially the day that it hit me that no piece of gear makes up for skill and knowledge of what the heck you’re going to play, and how well you adapt and improvise using the experience you have. That same day, I let someone talk me into unnecessarily selling a piece of gear before I honestly had time to bond with it because it didn’t fit a “traditional mold.” I ended up repurchasing the guitar back from who I sold it to and love it even more now than I did before. I know that sounds cliché to let other’s play so heavily on how I feel, but I’m truly guilty of it, and I dare say that many others are on social media as well. How many times has someone bought a pedal or guitar or amp off a recommendation from a friend you trust, only to find out it doesn’t gel with you and your playing style and rig? There’s a large element of “keeping up with the Jones’” that happens a lot in gear culture, and the desire to like what’s currently popular despite it not hitting the spot. The idea of such a popular pedal means there shouldn’t be a reason not to like it, but sometimes it’s just simply the case.

I know this entire article seems a bit cynical, but it’s the side-effect of doing something you love to the point where you don’t necessarily love it as much as you did before (or that’s what it was in my case). Yes, there are incredible new offerings by a multitude of companies that are still pushing the boundaries, and it’s not knocking them at all. For me it’s more so the need for a hard reset, disconnecting for a bit, reassessing what’s real and enjoyable in life outside of Facebook. I also have been letting the race of the gear culture pass by a bit before jumping back on the freeway to chase again (so many euphemisms in this article). Yes, there are pedals that still interest me, but I'm gear-fasting a bit to try to hone my craft instead of covering it up with effects. For me, disconnecting from social media this past weekend, cranking my amp and genuinely practising and learning some new songs was a bit of a therapy session for me that was much needed. It made me value what gear I love, sold off ones that had been sitting for a while, and gave me a bit of a renewed interest in learning and growing in my guitar knowledge again. It’s like I spent so much time wanting to play and not being able to that social media and gear flipping filled that void for a bit, but it’s not substantial or sustainable. But the feeling of picking up that slab of wood with strings on it and the joy it brings will never go away.

 

 

I’ve had the fortune of owning the Silver Sky from PRS for about a week now, tried it through several different amps and even played it out with my buddies this past weekend to get a feel for it. I figured there’s no time like the present to take a look at what I found that I like, what I’m not a huge fan of, and my overall impression of the instrument that has divided the gear community more than just about anything in recent memory. Keep in mind this is a personal view, may ramble on a bit but I’m trying to be thorough for anyone who is truly on the fence about these guitars.
 
I’ll start off with straight out of the box. I’m not one of the lucky ones that won the lottery and got a case with my Silver Sky (for any who aren’t aware, the first 500 shipped with a gig bag, the rest ship with a padded gig bag). First impressions are positive; it’s a solid gig bag with padding on the inside that keeps the guitar from moving all around. Decent pockets for all your stuff, and backpack shoulder straps for when you want to throw it on your back. It’s not overtly protective, but it was protective enough that the only thing in the box was a bit of light bubble wrap around the top and bottom of the bag and put in there to roll, and it survived the trip (but freaked me out upon first seeing it). Upon removing it from the gig bag, I immediately noticed how light it was (lighter than my American Pro strat). Upon initial views, the finish (I got the red, Horizon finish) was expertly done, no flaws, blems or quirky stuff anywhere on the guitar. I instantly noticed the slightly darker paint shade on the lower bout of the horn, which was subtle but kind of accentuates it to make it have a 3d quality. All of the edges were clean; no hair-line paint cracks around the neck (which admittedly my American Pro had out of the box).
 
Upon the first strum, it was already in tune. It made the trek from Texas to here in VA in relatively frigid weather and was ready to roll out the minute it landed. The neck has been a big talk of the guitar, talking about the 7.25” radius instantly turned a lot of players off. For me and my small hands, it was comfortable. The frets are smaller than the modern jumbo’s I’ve been playing for years, but it didn’t detract from the experience at all. They’re a bit taller than my friend’s ’64, but the thickness of the neck and overall feeling of playing it felt like playing an old friend. As to be expected with a guitar at that price, the attention to the frets was perfect. No sharp fret ends, everything was just smooth, all the way around. The rosewood used on the fretboard has some gorgeous figuring to it, and the birds are there but not as “in your face” as my old Custom 22 and other PRS’s are. Unplugged, it’s a relatively loud guitar compared to some of the others I’ve played. Chords ring out really well with plenty of sustain and bending feels great. Now, the dreaded question associated with the 7.25” radius is…does it fret out? The answer is 97% NO. The only time I experienced a single fret-out was on the high E string, playing way up around the 20-22nd fret. That’s ONLY on the high E string though, and I had to do well over a step and a half bend to get it to fret out. It also doesn’t do it on the other strings, but admittedly I’m personally not playing up that high very often, so it’s not a deal-breaker. The bridge itself is great, very sleek and stays in tune quite well even when bombing on the trem arm. I’ve always put my bridges down to the body on my strats since I was a teenager anyway, so that felt right at home. The tuners are solid and work very smoothly, and of course, the PRS locking option is just one of my favorites anyway out of ease of use.
 
All that stuff is well and good, but it only means but so much unless it sounds excellent. I only had about 5 minutes the first night, and it left me feeling a bit bewildered at how to describe the sound of the pickups. There was something different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it without spending more time with it. Now that I’ve played quite a bit on it, the easiest way I can describe the pickups are strat-like, but with rather hefty variations on some of the frequencies. Overall, I’d say that they’re not as warm and boomy as a strat is. The Silver Sky’s pickups are much…brighter isn’t the word I’m looking for. Present maybe? They have this air about them that is different from any strat I’ve owned. Overall there seems to be less compression on the low end, more presence, and much more percussive quality when reacting to picking dynamics. Generally, on a strat, I would be a neck, neck+middle, and bridge+ middle type person. I’m just fond of the 2, 4 and five positions and often overlook the bridge standalone and the middle standalone. The bridge on the SS is quite nice sounding, and I understand what JM meant when he said: “the lows have high end, and the highs have low end.” The bridge is quite warm, still single-coil but leaning ever slightly toward P90-ish in nature (especially with dirt). The middle was the most surprising for me of all the pickups because it feels like it has the best of both worlds so to speak. It’s got quite a bit of low-end, but there’s some quack and brightness that lets it cut without being like an ice-pick. I never played the middle before to its true extent, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite. You can definitely see John’s influences in each pickup setting. The neck pickup does the SRV-ish thing but doesn’t quite snarl like my strat does outright, but when you dig in with your pick, it really responds almost like hitting the amp with a boost (see my comment above about being very reliant on picking dynamics). The four position has the quack but is smooth and kind of sexy, with some low end that really blooms as you play. The middle is very much Jerry Garcia-ish, and you can definitely see the effect Jerry had on him playing with Dead and Company. Bridge + middle had that great classic sound but compared to my strat it seems to have a bit more mids that smooth but fatten out the overall sound of that position. 
 
While we’re talking tones, the Silver Sky works exceptionally well with most any pedal you use it with. Pairing it with a TS gives that fat and powerful tone you’d come to expect from its lineage, while still adding a bit of extra clarity to it. Utilizing a K-style OD makes your signal cut like a hot knife through butter and fills out the sound to the point where I could see myself only using a Klone if it came down to only choosing one form of dirt. In all honesty, it’s one of the first guitars in a very long time that I haven’t had the desire to use effects on much. I've instead been opting just to play clean or edge of breakup with a bit of spring reverb on for depth and just adjusting my playing style and pick attack to really bring out the nuances. Speaking of which, this guitar it’s overtly forgiving when it comes to playing. Being that it’s so touch-sensitive and all that, every nuance (good and bad) are amplified tenfold. For me, it was eye-opening because I would just play kind of sloppy on a strat with rakes and all that, and the Silver Sky made me take a look at my attack and adjust to clean my chops up a bit already. It’s undeniable that you can hear John’s tonal choices in each of the pickup positions and the reaction to the string attack, which are very much his trademark thing. Overall, it’s effortless to channel JM tones, but I also feel it’s easier to NOT sound like some of the classic strat players, and you have to almost channel their playing style more so than on say my American Pro to get those classic tones. Again, it’s going back to reinforce that it’s a very responsive guitar. You get what you put into it, nothing more, nothing less.
 
Getting into the nit-picky part of my review and some of the things I’m not as big of a fan of are based on the knobs and selector switch and the headstock. The sweep of the pots themselves is very nice and musical the whole way through, no issues there. The knobs themselves, unfortunately, feel very cheap and aren’t snug on the pot itself. They each wiggle just a bit on top of the pot, and despite trying to push down harder (thinking maybe they just weren’t on there good), but to no avail. They’re not majorly shaky, but there’s some wiggle movement going on, even if it’s relatively slight. It’s something I can overlook in the long-run. The pickup selector clicks much more securely into each of the five positions than any of my other strats do, but overall it also has this cheap, fisher-price toy kind of feel to it (same as the knobs). They might not be cheap at all, but just from the onset, they FEEL cheap. I have a couple of friends who have gotten theirs as well, and they said the same thing. Regarding the headstock, the shape is fine and I kind of dig that it’s unique and quirky. The truss rod cover and tuning handles are a matching dark grey plastic, which I also feel makes the look and feel a bit cheap aesthetically. I would have at least opted for black, or maybe even just a different shade of grey, but again I'm just being nit-picky now.
 
Overall verdict? It’s a very solid, well-engineered instrument that pays homage to the legacy of the strat, but then branches off and does its own thing. It admittedly plays more like a PRS than a strat, and the pickups and feel of the neck are just different enough to justify owning both a Silver Sky and a Fender Strat. Did it reinvent the wheel? Heck no. Was PRS aiming to? Not that Paul or John ever mentioned in any of their interviews. It’s another viable option for people who love S-style guitars, with PRS’s impeccable attention to detail on their finishing work. I am a fan of John’s, but despite it being a signature model it doesn’t feel pigeon-holed into just his tones. Other’s mileage may vary considerably, but I for one am glad to see PRS step into that world that so many other brands have been occupying for so long (with FAR less fuss than PRS got). Check one out if you get the chance, and you’ll see what I mean about it just being *different*. 
 
 

What is it about classic or vintage gear that just oozes mojo? In general, many of the circuits aren’t made of magic unicorn dust or rainbow farts and hen’s teeth; just electronics soldered together that culminate in a particular circuit. These parts aren’t necessarily designed to be used with music-related devices, but over the years that’s what’s been adopted by the industry and progressed even further into modern technology. So, what is “mojo,” and why does it play such a huge part in our gear selections? It dawned on me the other day as I was taking stock of my gear, looking at what I would be willing to move (for space and to have a bit of extra spending cash), and things that I immediately will not sell in any way, shape, or form. I think it comes down to mojo, which is a combination of several factors. It made me start looking at WHY I’m keeping the gear I’m keeping, and so easily “thinning the herd” so to speak on some other things.

Several of my friends and I were discussing vintage gear in a group chat, and lust for various pieces of classic gear that are essentially unreachable in our lifetime (financially). The more I thought about the cost. However, I started questioning why I would want something so freaking expensive? One part is nostalgia and kind of a hive-mind of what we grew up around. Many of the older guys we idolized in high school always lusted after vintage instruments, and I think it keeps being handed down through the generations. Again, it goes back to reflecting gear communities and the thought processes behind them (even pre-internet days). 1958 and ’59 Les Paul’s are considered the holy grails of the Gibson world and the idea of playing or owning one seems incredible. Same with an original ’57 Strat, or a ’68 Fender Paisley, or whatever you’d like to use as the defining unobtanium, magic instrument of love and lust as your example. Many were lucky enough to be around to experience those instruments when they were new, but as time goes on fewer players are around that have owned yet alone played a true vintage instrument. But that’s the thing; many people still lust for them despite having never laid their hands on one. Why is that? Well, mojo of course! 

The IDEA of holding an instrument that old would feel like holding an ancient relic from civilizations long gone. I’ll admit that I don’t know a load of vintage instruments, but I’ve heard a lot about them lately. Paul Reed Smith did a live video in the U.K. when people asked why a vintage Strat was so great, and his answer was “Because those guys knew what they were doing.” It’s apparent because the designs haven’t changed much at all in over half of a century.  At the same time, I’ve also seen many people saying that many of those old instruments are inconsistent and that some are magic, but some don’t click for lack of a better way to describe it. Despite the proposed inconsistency, some are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to own a piece of history. I suppose it’s about collecting anything, preserving history for future generations and all that. It’s also a very cool talking point to be able to show off that cool, now-rare gear. The same goes for pedals. The Klon Centaur is probably the most famous of all of them, and despite being a relatively simple boost and overdrive, it’s an item of lust for MANY people (and a point of contention for many more).

These pieces of gear fetch massive costs in the used market, and subsequently, many companies have tried to take the tried and true formula that players lust over and create a modern, relatively affordable (comparatively) version for the current generation that captures that nostalgia and inherent mojo. Some get excessively close in recreating the feel and response and tone of the originals, some take them to new extremes and approach the old as a springboard for creating something grounded in nostalgia, but with modern amenities. It’s the reason why we (Wampler) have two variants of klones, as well as dozens and dozens of other companies as well. It’s the same reason so many places make strat and tele-style guitars. Are the tones quantifiably different? In some cases, yes, in some cases no. There are many people on the internet that would argue that other companies than Fender make a better strat, while many believe there’s nothing like the classic. Are vintage tubescreamers from the early 1980’s completely better than the ones available today? Likely not. There may be a 5% difference or so based on part tolerances and a wider variance in manufacturing, but they’re subjective… and that percentage factors in when you’re looking at substantial differences between the costs. At that point, it’s just a personal decision as to how much that sound and difference means in monetary value. Is it worth *paying* for “mojo”? That’s up to the person making the payments! 

I’ve got a few pieces of gear that are purely sentimental and will be intended to be heirlooms for my kids because they are either unique and quirky, have some form of emotional connection (such as my first MIM Strat) or completely special (gifts, etc.). In the end, it comes down to the tone and how it feels to play it for each person. For me, mojo is that smile I get when I plug into a piece of gear, and it sounds great, responds great with the rest of my rig and does EXACTLY what I’m hoping it will do. It’s the feeling of nostalgia, how playing through a piece of gear makes me feel connected to an era, or a guitar hero that I’m a massive fan of. It’s not quantifiable magic, but it hits the spot for me, where it may not do anything for anyone else. That mojo is self-driven, and I’ve bonded with pedals and guitars that were considered “budget-level,” along with not falling in love with pedals and guitars that are obscenely expensive and theoretically there was no reason NOT to love it. In the end, I can’t say that for me, mojo can necessarily be bought. It’s just the right time, the right feel, the right tone, the right look that grabs my attention when I plug in.

 

 

 

Hey, guess what? PRS is making a John Mayer signature guitar! I bet you’ve never seen or heard of that before?!?! \Sarcasm. Honestly, at this point, if you have been on any form of media at all, you’ll likely have had it plastered all over everything. Facebook, emails from dealers, Instagram, everywhere. It’s become a lightning rod of polarity in the guitar community, spawning countless memes joking about it, intense arguments with people loving it and people loathing it. It’s become more than a bit overboard with the sharing, so I thought I’d take a look at it from a different angle and attempt to address some of the common themes I see pop up in threads and my thoughts on it.
 
Fundamentally, John Mayer (and all musicians really) isn’t just a guitar player but is a brand unto himself. Due to his playing skills and his rapid rise to stardom, he became known for some of his personality traits years ago that were… less than favorable and its divided players ever since. He has an ego that precedes him, and that often shuts down so many people without looking any further. At the same time, it would be hard to not develop a bit of a complex gaining that much praise from legends like Eric Clapton and BB King and many others early on in his career. Regardless, his attitude, gear choices, lifestyle, playing ability and social media posting habits on top of bridging the gap between the blues and modern pop have made him a lightning rod for divisiveness. It seems there are three tiers of people when it comes to Mayer: 1) Super Fans – folks who dig what he does entirely, plain and simple. Generally speaking, the negative stuff is looked past because of his proficiency on the instrument. 2) People who dig his playing, but can’t stand pop music, or consider his playing a rehash of SRV, etc. or 3) People who just don’t like or care about him at all, or fervently dislike him based on some of the things listed above. Regardless of which tier a person falls into, every one seems more than happy to vent their points of view or completely defend their line in the sand. Enough about that though, let’s talk about the guitar. 
 
John was a long-time Fender artist, and as a business person as well he was looking to expand his branding. You can find all sorts of articles guessing and theorizing his reason for departing Fender, but either way, they parted ways a few years ago. He then found his way to PRS and has actively been using that brand of gear since then. A Mayer signature amp was spawned out of the relationship, the Super Eagle collectible PRS, and now this signature guitar the “Silver Sky.” But at a base level, it’s just business. You have a person looking to expand their branding, one of the top companies in the world wasn’t able to accommodate his wishes for whatever reason (there are enough conspiracy theories on the internet to take up a good half of a day). His next option was to find one that could meet his expectations and standards of what he was aiming to do. For those that wonder why PRS would break their mold and go for a much straty-er guitar than ever before, you only have to look at the source. Just like mention Mayer as a brand, he’s a brand that MOVES PRODUCT. Generally speaking, if something has John Mayer’s name attached to it, then it will sell very well. Like him or not, John Mayer is a modern guitar hero for this generation.
 
When the initial demos first came out, two comments that stuck out upon the initial unveiling were “It’s just a strat with an ugly headstock.” And “Not trolling, but it sounds exactly like a Strat to me.” Well… that’s the point. When you are building a brand, you attempt to maintain consistency. In this case, John has been using Strats his whole career, and it’s synonymous with his tone and playing and his songs and what he loves as an artist. It’s instantly what he’s identified with as part of his signature sound, just like Brad Paisley with a Telecaster, BB King with Lucille, Angus Young with an SG, etc. It’s just what’s engrained as their iconic sound. Fundamentally there are a few key features that separate it from a Strat, such as the radius of the body, altered pickguard shape, proprietary hardware, different headstock that push it away from any legal issues, while staying close enough to the idea to keep with the folks who enjoy a bit of nostalgia. Another comment I saw was regarding “It’s way too expensive for a strat copy.” Well, taking a look at the Fender JM Strat, the cost isn’t that far off when including PRS’s lineage of quality and the design of the new Silver Sky is much more diverse visually than his Fender model was compared to SRV’s or other Fender artist guitars for instance. Is it redefining the wheel? Nope, not in the least bit. Is it relatable but a varied take on a classic that is spec’d to what John likes and uses? Yep.
 
The biggest thing I find interesting is that no one really cared about strat copies until Mayer had one built by a company not known for strats if you really think about it. If you look at all the companies who have made strat variants (some less different visually than the Silver Sky), PRS is by far not the first to do it, and not the most expensive version either. Suhr, G&L, Whitfill, Crook, Nash, Palir, Tom Anderson, Xotic, Don Grosh, Ibanez, Samick, RS Guitarworks, King Bee… there are many I’m missing out on naming, but you get the picture. None of them have ever truly caught too much flak for their S or T-style guitars that are as close to spec on some of Fender’s instruments as you can legally get. And as long as there’s nothing going on legally, then there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s no different than choosing what restaurant you want to get a cheeseburger or a salad from. It’s all a varied take on the initial idea, but with a personal twist on it. 
 
 
Regarding most of the drama, I think it has a lot to do with John himself and public perception of him, and the overall fact that he went from one brand with a signature guitar and had the new company build one that was quite similar with the response that it was 2.5 years in the making. I’ve seen that quite a bit on internet forums and groups, saying that 2.5 years is a massive amount of wasted research and development time that PRS wasted on Mayer when he already had a former signature guitar as a reference point. However, considering that tastes change, and PRS was set on giving Mayer exactly what he wanted, and the time that’s invested in creating these parts with the changes. After alterations, they require John test them on the road for a while to confirm what he liked and didn’t like, and confirming they meet their QC specs, that’s not that long in the grand scheme of things. The 7.25” radius has been a massive contention for players discussing it on forums, subsequently saying that radius instantly turns them off. The idea behind it (for those who haven’t played a 7.25” radius) is that vintage guitars had a habit of fretting out on big bends. If you’re familiar with Mayer’s playing at all, you’ll know he bends pretty constantly, so if fretting out was an issue that’s likely something that had to be addressed by PRS to accommodate his playing style on that radius. I’m confident that in the end, if JM signs off on it, then it’s going to be as right as it can be. Early demos have found no issues with fretting out, but only time will tell as they show up in the wild and guitarists get their hands on them.
 
In the end, it all revolves around personal taste. Mayer fans will be overjoyed, and the first 500 preorders have been completely sold out with the next batch not coming until later this year, and even many of those are sold out. If you’re a strat purist, then this guitar likely won’t be anything worth hollering about, and that’s understandable… it’s hard to beat a classic. But as a fan of all things guitar, I can’t wait to try it. I own a Fender American Pro strat as well as a Suhr S-style, and can’t wait to compare it. Again, it’s all what tickles your fancy and spawns your creativity and stokes the fire on the urge to pick up the instrument and play. Knocking an instrument without having played it, or judging the company or the artist without knowing the backstory doesn’t do any good aside from fueling the drama via assumptions. So, to those who bought it, have fun and happy new guitar day! I hope it’s what you’re looking for and hits the spot. If those who aren’t into it, you’re not wrong either. A strat is a beautiful thing to behold, and there’s a reason it’s a classic and so highly copied. In the end, I just hope everyone will let people enjoy what they want to enjoy, and welcome the fact that you can say you were there when John Mayer and PRS divided the industry for a few weeks (until the next big thing occurs and we all forget about this).
 
 
About once a quarter, my cousins and I attempt to meet up somewhere and do a family jam. Nothing serious at all, just a reason to get together and play loud music and try out each other’s gear. It was way more frequent, but we all live a few hours away from each other, all have kids, and daily life gets in the way. But, we still try to do it whenever we can. We were texting last night trying to arrange it, and the topic came up about doing a “minimalist” setup. The challenge we set for ourselves was only to bring the bare minimum of what we think we would honestly need…well, need is subjective so it’s more so a challenge as to how few pedals we can whittle ourselves comfortably down with. Seems easy at the start, but then gets complicated the more we thought about it.
 
I should preface this that we each play drastically different, enjoy different genres and enjoy how much of a mix-match of stuff we have going on. You could say “Dad Rock” applies to a lot of it, but it’s a mix of blues, harder rock, some country, a bit of metal, and a dash of funk. Again, it’s a hodge-podge of different collective inspirations. Our gear varies quite a bit too. I lean heavily in the Wampler and Keeley camp, sprinkling in various things as necessary (usually effects neither of us makes). My big board has about ten pedals on it, and it covers just about anything I can throw at it. I’m running a Tone King Imperial MKII as the platform for my clean tone and some dirty tones as well. My older cousin is an Earthquaker Devices fanatic, having a board that consists of roughly 9 EQD pedals, a Klon KTR, Strymon El Cap and a HoF Mini. He's normally going into a ’71 Fender Pro Reverb (that his father-in-law found at a garage sale for $25!!!), and is looking heavily at a Fender Twin. My younger cousin is more heavily influenced by the older, tried and true classics. He’s packing some original vintage blues driver, an original Klon Centaur, an 808, a Rotosphere…all sorts of that great stuff into either a Two Rock Studio Pro 50 or a Matchless. So, as you can imagine, when the stars align, and we can get together it’s a gear smorgasbord. 
 
It seems for now only my older cousin and I will be able to catch up, so we were trying to pick apart our boards to see what we would bring in this minimum setup. That’s not to say it’s limited to the number of pedals, but more so just bringing absolute essentials we could get by with, not the extra stuff we only use occasionally. His was reasonably simple: Klon KTR, EQD Hoof, El Cap, and Hof Mini with his Pro Reverb or Deluxe Reverb Reissue. The only reason he’s still debating the amp choice is that the Pro needs a bit of work done to it, and despite being serviced doesn’t produce the output it’s supposed to. So more than likely it’ll be the DRRI. Relatively simple setup, boost/OD, fuzz, delay and reverb. Truly the essentials if you break it down and think about it. He hasn’t decided on bringing his new telecaster or his suped-up orange strat with Bareknuckle pickups in it (I’m partial to the Strat, those pickups are KILLER).
 
For me, the amp choice is clear, which is my Imperial MKII. Realistically that could cover most of what I need with the built-in features, but I still like pushing each of the channels a bit with different boosts to taste. So, I think in the end, it will be the Tumnus Deluxe, Bondi Del Mar, Pelican NoiseWorks Germanium Pelitaur, and a Boss DD-500. The lead channel of the Imperial (tweed-flavor) loves the klones boosting it, and the active EQ on the Tumnus Deluxe helps shape it to exactly the right amount of push in the right area. The Del Mar covers the TS and Bluesbreaker deal, which both sound great into the rhythm channel (blackface-inspired). The GE Pelitaur was my wild-card, which is a collaboration between Pelican Noiseworks and Spruce Effects and can do either Big Muff-ish tones, Tonebender tones (that can get a bit splattery) and a mix of both because of the design of the circuit. There’s also a footswitchable germanium boost that just adds some girth to everything with some of that germanium squishy feel when cranked. The DD-500 has been my favorite delay as of late. Granted, it’s not minimalist at all, but considering everything that’s in it, it’s quite the monster for the price. I never gelled with the TimeLine, but the menus and usability and tone of the DD-500 were just naturally more appealing for my personal use. I normally run two delays on a consistent basis, a straight digital delay with 3-4 repeats mixed low, or the analog setting with 2-3 repeats set at about 40% mix. For guitar I’m probably going with my Suhr with the three humbuckers in it just for fun. Now that I think about it, it's still overkill with just what I listed. I may drop the Del Mar or the Tumnus Deluxe. The Tumnus Deluxe has the buffer, so that'll probably stay. While I'm at it,  I guess I could substitute the DD-500 for the Faux Tape Echo v2... it sounds great and I don't NEED access to two delays...there are too many choices!
 
The entire goal of this challenge is mainly for us to play some music. We’ve all been chasing the tones for so long that it’s an attempt to decompress, go back to basics and play some tunes without losing track and just messing with gear the whole time. That’s one thing I’m guilty of completely is the whole “Less eBay more Mel Bay” thing. We all want to try the new gear each of us has, and before we know it most of our time has been sent messing around and not playing songs like we used to. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with that at all; it’s incredibly fun. But this is more for us to get out of our comfort zones of having a giant board (to hide behind somewhat). In reality, I know we could plug straight into the amp and be done, but we’ve got to ease into it to prevent withdrawal. We’ll have our jam in a couple of weeks, and I’ll report back. Thinking it’s time to hit the woodshed, so I don’t make even more of a fool of myself!
 
 
We’re all in this together, so when I address some of the scenarios in this blog, try keeping a tally as to how many you can identify with and share similar concepts or stories of your chase for tone in the comments.
 
The “perfect” tone is something I’ve chased my entire guitar-playing life. Early on when I first picked up the instrument, it was a combination of what I could afford (more like what I could beg my parents for and attempt to work off to “pay them” in labor to get) and try to emulate my heroes. I started playing guitar because of my love of Eric Clapton’s clean tone on the “Riding with the King” album he did with B.B. King, along with the tone I heard on the song “Wake Up” from the Matrix soundtrack (Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine). I loved the way they made their guitar seem as if it was conveying emotion, so much so I could almost feel those notes in my heart every time I listened. So, I convinced my parents to let me enroll in a guitar class my freshman year in high school, and they bought me an Ovation Applause acoustic-electric they found at a local shop for maybe two hundred bucks. It wasn’t glorious, but man did I cut my teeth (and my fingers) on it. It wasn’t about tone at that point; it was just learning and “writing songs” (3 barre chords and melodramatic teenage angst lyrics for days). Being that I loved Eric Clapton, my dream guitar at the time was a Strat. Mom and Dad found a Wine Red 2000 MIM Strat at the shop I was taking lessons at, and I drooled over it every single time we would walk in the shop. I was very fortunate to wake up Christmas morning and see that wine red strat and a small 10-watt Fender amp (can’t even remember what model). All I know is it was solid state and at the time had the dreamiest reverb I had ever heard. It was my “perfect” tone at 15.
 
Fast-forward about two years, and I’m in my first band. We were an alt-rock/pop-punk band that was aiming for an Incubus meets Sum 41 amalgamation. My music choices changed due to the environment I was in and the people I was surrounded with, so I migrated from wanting a classic strat clean tone to more dirt. It started off with a friend selling his Fender Stage 160 (because we wanted to be LOUD), and the start of my pedal addiction. I was working after school and all summer, so I saved up to buy a Danelectro Fabtone…. yea. I proceeded to crank the gain and wail. Little did I know that it sounded like a wall of angry bees swarming wherever we played (are the Fabtone and the Metal Zone distant cousins?). As I said before, Incubus and Mike Einziger were my new tone obsessions, so I stupidly sold off my MIM strat to fund an off-brand PRS copy that was at that local music store I mentioned. It was a fight to play, and it was more about looks than functionality and tone. I finally wised up a few months later, worked my tail off and sold off all of my excess gear and bought an American HSS strat  (sienna sunburst, maple board), and took my graduation money and working the summer after and got a Marshall AVT150. At the time, THAT was my perfect tone for what I was looking aiming to achieve. (Can you see a recurring theme here?)
 
In college, I was in another band that was into much heavier music, and once again my music tastes changed. All of my guitar heroes at the time were playing PRS’s, and the shop that was close to my apartment had a used Custom 22 with bird inlays in ruby red that I fell in love with. Admittedly I stretched myself way too thin and put it on layaway, sold the American Strat to a friend (who ended up putting stickers all over it and destroyed it), and got my PRS. The PRS and my AVT150 were my main setup for a few years, again...perfect tone at the time. My wife and I started dating “officially” when I was in college (though we dated in high school too, I was just too stupid to realize how amazing she was and broke it off to go move to the big city, etc.). She's always been into country music, which I loathed for some unknown reason. I grew up on listening to country music, but at the time it wasn’t in my wheelhouse, and I couldn’t stand it. Over the course of our dating my disdain for country music slowly melted away, and eventually, my mom told me about Brad Paisley, who was just about to release his Time Well Wasted album. That started me down another path…
 
Fast-forward to about a year later, and I’m borrowing my Dad’s Tele and Hot Rod Deluxe, and grabbed a Paisley Drive and that was the PERFECT TONE! I got heavily into Brad Paisley and discovered Brent Mason again now that I was older and able to appreciate his style, and all of the sudden the PRS and Marshall weren’t cutting it anymore. My graduation present (which has always been a major deal for our family) was a Crook Custom Telecaster. My dad was playing at the time as well, so we both ordered one (this is 2006, prices were a bit more lenient then). We took a road trip up to meet Bill and pick up our guitars, and to this day was one of my greatest memories getting to spend that time with him. I was working full time and traded in my Hot Rod Deluxe and PRS, and grabbed a Dr. Z RX Jr. It was a great clean platform, and it fit the bill NEARLY perfectly. I wanted the Brad Paisley tone, but with a personal touch. This was when I dove head first heavily into pedals, realizing they were a quick way of changing your overall sound at a relatively inexpensive price compared to an amp or guitar. I’ve gone through a few hundred pedals since then, slowly acquired some great amps, and still fervently chase the tone as much as I possibly can. In the end though, I still just sound like me now, and I accept that.
 
So, what is the whole point of this recurrent theme of finding the perfect tone? Essentially, finding the “perfect” tone is an evolutionary process, and it grows easier to understand as you gain more experience. In the beginning, you aim for what your heroes have, and what you can afford. As you gain knowledge of the instrument and tone, you realize that your tastes evolve as you do, and it molds into finding your sound, drawing from all the past experiences and creating a style that’s unique to you. We’ve all said the famous saying of “my board is done.” No, it isn’t, but it’s nice to think for a brief moment in time that satisfaction is obtained. Again, this might not apply to everyone, but I know quite a few that are right there with me. The chase for tone is a never-ending one because what’s perfect now might not be right for where you are later down the road. Embrace it and enjoy the chase!