Alex Clay

Alex Clay

The road to NAMM

January 15, 2018

Winter NAMM is right around the corner, and with the weeks leading up to it come the crazy of preparations to setup the booth, layout the board and get any marketing materials (shirts, stickers, etc) together. One of the biggest things that NAMM is known for is the plethora of new gear that is showcased by most every company. Some designs are reworkings and updated versions of existing products, brand new designs, or something completely out of the ordinary designed to make a huge impact on the patrons and tone chasers who keep up with NAMM news down to the wire.

Herein lies the issue with presenting at NAMM: what’s the best practice in regard to showcasing new products? In years past our brand-new pedals were given first looks on our social media platforms, either from visitors to the booth snapping a photo, us uploading a sneak peak, or your favorite YouTube or gear channel doing a quick video where someone showcases what we’ve got new. This year is a bit different for us though, because our ideals have shifted a bit with what we’re aiming for. NAMM is a stellar event, but it’s also a tidal wave of new information that overtakes all gear outlets for the days leading up to it, during it, and for weeks to come after it. We’ve got several new designs that we’re extremely proud to have ready, but the question comes in as to whether they’ll get lost in the shuffle of new stuff? Each product Brian and our team has worked on has many hours invested, tone-wise along with aesthetics, marketing plans, and the usual release details that often go unnoticed by most people when we release something new. Are we doing a disservice to ourselves showing our whole hand starting out? 

So, our question comes down to this: Despite the designs being done for upwards of 5 new pedals, what do we show at NAMM? Do you go full-blast and hit everyone with all of the information at once, or take a select few and really hammer them home before introducing more? We’ve seen some companies showcasing their NAMM releases already, with the same idea applying of getting ahead of that tidal wave of information and making sure their product is visible and not lost in the mix. We follow a fairly punctual release schedule, so if a design isn’t mentioned at NAMM then it’s a pretty sure bet it will be following suit in a timely manner. This gives us time to prepare, get demos together and the pedals ready to ship to dealers without the tease…or is teasing part of the fun of it?

What do you think? Would you rather know in advance what’s coming up to prepare your wallet and board, or is it like knowing what you’re getting for Christmas, where the magic of the surprise isn’t there? In the end we want happy customers, so we’re curious to know what you personally think and would like to see?

This is going to be a bit of an odd blog for me because it’s going to be a bit personal. At the same time, I feel after talking with several others in similar situations, that it’s a relevant and worth sharing. I’ll preface this with a bit of background info to fill in the gaps. I’m 31, father of two little boys, married to my high school sweetheart for nine years by the time this is posted. Happily married, love my children, working a full-time IT job that’s 9-5:30 and then I work for Wampler about 20-25 hours a week. Most know my background about the kidney stuff, but a quick rundown that’s completely oversimplified: On my 5th kidney, 3rd kidney transplant, 24 years total of dialysis (4 hours, every other day connected to a machine unable to move my left arm, sitting in a chair). All started out when I was 16 months old, and even now with the kidney transplant I require infusions every two weeks to maintain the health and well-being of the longest lasting kidney I’ve ever had, but it’s working, and it’s the closest semblance to “normal” I’ve ever achieved. That’s the quick and dirty.
 
Now that you’re caught up, we can discuss what I’ve found to be a recurrent theme amongst many people my age and older. I’m talking about the balance of adult responsibilities and trying to find time to fit in my hobby. Before becoming a father, I was told: “enjoy your free time; you won’t have much once you have kids.” I never realized how true this was. Not that it’s saying it’s a terrible thing in the least bit to have children (I believe quite the opposite), but it was a shock for me and quite an adjustment the first few months after having our first little dude. I had to forgo quite a few of the personal things I enjoyed doing recreationally to help provide for our family, assist my wife as she had to give up a lot of her free time as well, and help fall into the role of Dad. I eventually got into the groove of things, and we’ve since had another little boy, and the two have brought us more joy, headaches and overall unconditional love than I could have imagined before having kids. This is my best recollection of the events and thoughts that went through my mind during those times.
 
During those first 6-10 months after having each child, I seriously considered selling all my gear. Not a fleeting thought, but a point where I felt I literally wouldn’t be able to play and that it was pointless to own the great gear that I had if it was never going to get played. Between trying to be a good dad and husband, I went for weeks and at one point over a month without touching a guitar. At the time I was playing regularly at church, along with jamming with my buddies at least once a week, maybe more with the hopes of just doing some cover gigs locally for fun. After our first boy was born, my meager skills I had spent 13 years (at the time) developing seemed to be fading into distant memories, because when I did pick up a guitar, it felt alien. My hands wouldn’t work right; I couldn’t remember specific notes in songs or parts I had played hundreds of times. It was depressing, in a nutshell. The old saying “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” definitely applied to me. I think it stung so much for me because playing guitar was one of my primary stress relievers, even if it was playing my electric unplugged in a spare bedroom for 3 minutes. The moments I would get, I was so tired that I mostly just sat there and vegetated, maybe hitting a few notes, but more so taking solace in holding the instrument I so dearly love. For the first two years of his life, my first son suffered from chronic reflux, and woke up every 1-2 hours, every single night. There were many days I didn’t quite understand how I had made it to work without hurting myself or others because of being so sleepy during my commute in. Coffee went from being something I enjoyed drinking, to a life-sustaining fuel required to function. During those times guitar became an afterthought, a faraway pipe dream of a forgotten time.
 
In the weeks after our first son was born, pretty much immediately my days of getting together with the guys to jam were cut to a minimum, then to nothing. Not because of any reason particularly, my priorities just had to shift to my family. In all honesty that’s when I was feeling the most down because at that very moment when I hadn’t touched my guitar for several weeks, I felt like I had lost part of myself somehow. “My” identity felt like it no longer existed, and it was more part of the collective of trying to survive this new uncharted voyage we just set out on. The one thing I did learn though is that the balance is NEVER going to be 50/50. There’s always going to be a sacrifice to be made; it’s just part of life. I noticed I dove into work to keep my mind occupied, and I was lucky enough to find a second job in the music industry. To the people who say that working for Wampler isn’t work, then they have no idea what it’s like to work in the music industry. It’s a constant thing that needs attention, from social media posting on all outlets, content creation, blogs, videos, writing manuals, picking out colors and names and doing the research to be sure nothing is trademarked or copyrighted. The flip side of my son not sleeping meant I was able to get a lot of work done during all hours of the day and night. Jason is 5 hours ahead of me, so he was often awake and was my sounding board as a new father, and for that, I’m forever grateful. He and Brian helped me so much during that first couple of years that it’s impossible to put into words. I highly recommend talking to someone close to you, because if nothing else expressing your inner thoughts helps you cope with changes and good and tough times. I relied heavily on them more than I relized now that I look back. I’d often text Jason at 3am (8am his time) while holding our son that finally fell asleep after screaming for a few hours with a belly ache, saying “I’m about to lose my mind, I REALLY wish I could play guitar right now to decompress.” Whether he was being honest or just trying to make me feel better, he told me it was normal and that it would get better. And he was right.
 
[On a side note: Have you ever had the urge to play guitar SO BADLY that it almost makes your muscles hurt? It’s like this insatiable desire to play, where nothing can quell that urge until you get to (at best) hold a guitar in your hands and strum a chord or play a few notes. It’s like a core sensory urge, like craving food when you’re hungry or water when you’re thirsty? Am I the only one?  Sorry, getting off track.]
 
Just like everything, time passes, they got older and luckily took a liking to guitar-oriented stuff. Our second son started sleeping through the night after a few months and was more comfortable for us because we felt like veterans at that point, but the moments of wanting to play guitar and not being able to be still there. Between working my regular 40 hours a week, and doing the Wampler stuff (more on that in a bit) on the side, my wife working and all that, I felt guilty not spending my time off with my sons. I would pick it up for a couple of minutes, then set it back down and be with my family. My priorities had shifted entirely, but I didn’t have that feeling of being down or feeling regret for not being able to play. I finally “balanced” what worked for me that made me feel right in my mind. Granted it’s not the same for everyone, but that worked for me. Life happened, my chops took a major hit, but were found a new “normal.”
 
Our boys are now five and two now. Our oldest is in kindergarten, and has played soccer and baseball, and wants to try basketball starting in a few weeks. Our youngest is two…if you have ever had a two-year-old, then you know what I mean. You can’t take your eyes off them, because they’re so sweet and cute and all that awesome stuff, but they’re mischievous as hell too for lack of a better word. Even though they’re out of the diaper stages, they still require (and deserve) time. So, when I get home from work, the boys follow me into our room where I change and fire up my amp. 9/10 times I get about six chords in or half of a lead run in before they’re tackling each out on our bed, or attempting to dive off something, trying to emulate some wrestling moves our oldest has picked up at school. So, I attempt to break them up and go back to playing. Inevitably (usually 2-3 minutes later) one of them is going to hurt each other, or they’ll go back in the other room and start going nuts around my wife, which I try to avoid since she has them during her days off (Nurse, x3 12-hour shifts a week). Someone will bump their noggin, or the other won’t do a certain thing the other wants them to do, and it ends up being some crying or messing with each other. I shut down, and we go in the other room. That’s it. There were my couple minutes. On the weekend we're always going, so I may pick it up for a couple of minutes if we’re home and don’t have anything planned, but you can bet if the weather is decent we’re off doing stuff because I couldn’t before (see first paragraph, the whole dialysis thing). But it’s gotten better, and it gets better. 
 
I’m thankful that on occasion, one or both of our boys choose to come in there with me and do something associated with it. The latest trend is for our 5-year-old to want to strum my MIM strat (wine red with a maple neck, my original first electric guitar), and our 2-year-old to strum his toy guitar while I’m playing. I freaking love it. Yes, it’s a bit of a cluster because of course our youngest wants whatever his big brother has. So I have to separate them so they don’t slam each other or hit the guitars together, or sit between them so I can keep an eye on both of them. But for a few brief, fleeting seconds it’s incredibly fun and the proudest Dad moment you can imagine. Or sometimes, our 5-year-old will want to turn up whatever my loudest pedal is (gain and volume) and just strum, saying he’s writing a song. Or our 2-year-old will want to strum as hard as possible and just yell “LOUD!” with a big cheesy grin on his face. I cherish those moments more than I can put into words. 
 
What’s my point with all of this? Being a parent is one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s a daily struggle to try to be a good husband and father, but still, incorporate guitar into my life. I’m very fortunate to have a wife that supports me in my pursuit of gear (that’s a whole other topic for another day), but it’s an internal struggle for me personally where I think “I REALLY want to play guitar, but she’s had the kids all day.” Or there’s loads of laundry that need to be done, or my wife needs help getting dinner sorted, or trying to get our oldest boy’s homework done before it gets too late. In general, my self-guilt leads me to omit time to play, and do what needs to be done. I want to spend time with my boys and maintain my relationship with my wife, and try to help her keep the house in relatively organized chaos instead of looking like a warzone (again, if you have had young ones, you get what I mean). Guitar has taken a backseat to life, but in the end, it’s still there riding with me, no matter what. On occasion I get a few minutes at the house to myself, I dime everything and let it wail. Our dog goes to the other side of the house, the pictures and windows rattle, but it feels like the air moving from the speakers is literally blowing the stress out of my body. It’s rejuvenating and provides a moment of zen. I should mention that there are days where I have a truly “Eff it!” attitude where the dishes and all that crap can wait. If the kids aren’t tearing the house apart and are just playing, then I’ll go and play for a bit. To be completely honest, after about 20-30 minutes of playing I get it out of my system (see the side note above) and then go and do whatever chore our household thing needs to be done. But it’s there when I need it.
 
Admittedly, I’m just starting out this journey. Based on stories Brian and Jason have told me about the teenage years, I fear a bit for my mental state when it’s all said and done. My only hopes are that when they’re older, that I’ve provided a good foundation and example for them to learn from, and hopefully I didn’t mess them up too bad. I hope they find the love of the instrument that I did, and that it provides as much joy and comfort as it shows me in my best and worst times. I know my story is very different from many people, but it’s my best recollection of what I recall and the thoughts that went through my head as I was going through them. No, I don’t play music professionally, and I never will. It’s my love, my vice and my therapy all rolled into one. I have a feeling you know exactly what I mean. I’m not bringing religion into it at all, but for lack of a better term, it’s almost a spiritual feeling, like all is right with the world when all the stars align and your tone and playing hit all the right spots. The stress melts away with every note. 
 
I don’t know why I wrote this, to be honest. Maybe it’s hope that someone will identify with it when they’re going through rough times or those transition years and realize that it does get better. The boys will only be young but for so long, and eventually, they won’t want anything to do with me. When they’re gone out on their own, it’ll be my wife and my guitar that I’ll lean on as I miss the times when they were little and the world was realistically simpler than I thought it was.

The cost of tone-chasing

December 11, 2017
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” --Mark Twain
 
I love the quote above because I’ve found it’s true in most cases when it comes to musical experiences and gear. There are bands I saw in concert that I'd never get to see again, and there were guitars/pedals/amps that I have been able to snag over the years for an insane price that I lucked into. Still to this day I’m glad I decided to take a risk on it. On the flip side, I’ve been burned more times than I can count because I made a bad judgment call and either had to backpedal because I spent too much too quickly, or bought something thinking I had a deal and it ended up being a loss (time and money). But, it’s hard to beat the trusted wisdom learned from hands-on experience. For me, I’ve always learned the hard way with everything, including gear. So, the question comes down to the chase for tone, and what’s the ultimate end goal? Is there some grand, elaborate dream setup that we’re all collectively chasing on an individual level, or is it more than that? I’ll refer to my own experiences with this, hoping that some will identify with it or hopefully use it as an example of “Well at least I’m not THAT bad.”
 
My GAS and the lust to for chasing tone started out fairly casually at 16, two years after I started playing guitar. I originally wanted to sound like Eric Clapton when I started playing, but in my freshman year of high school, my cousin (who I rode to school with) introduced me to Incubus. I was hooked, and the chase was on. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Mike Einziger’s pedalboard, you’ll notice that he doesn’t shy away from using a multitude of tools at his disposal. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I started out with the Ibanez Tone-Lok pedals for phaser, flanger and a couple of other things I don’t recall, and a Danelectro Fab Tone. Those suited me for a while, and I slowly added some more pedals or subbed some out as we went along. The Metal Zone was soon on there, and I thought it kicked ass… Regardless, my intentions were pure, and my focus was more on learning and playing rather than effects. 
 
Later in high school, I developed a love of the sound of Marshall amps, and my graduation present was a Marshall AVT150 and a 1960A 4x12” cab. I was over the moon, and shelved most of my pedals for the sake of using the amp gain (which was sorely needed). I used that rig through college in various bands, and still focused on playing mainly more than tone chasing… mainly I’d say because I didn’t have any money to chase with. I would dream of owning various things, but again it was what felt like a faraway pipe dream. I eventually moved back home after college while working to save up, also was dating my high school sweetheart and planning a life together. I was working and contributing to the house, but I still had more money that I knew what to do with. That’s really where it TRULY started. During all of this time I had been on dialysis, so I had 4 hours, every other day to just sit. Trust me when I say you can only watch but so many movies, TV shows and listening to music so much before it gets old. Now multiply those 4 hours every other day times 24 years…you get my point. I wasn’t able to use my left arm, so the guitar wasn’t an option. Internet forums became my escape, places like TDPRI and TheGearPage, Facebook, etc. It was in these places that I started cutting my teeth on better gear, reading and absorbing and my curiosity growing every day. That’s what started my path down the rabbit hole.
 
I started off small, with my very first “boutique” pedal being a Keeley-modded Boss TR-2 tremolo. I fell in love with it and realized that maybe there were better sounding options than I had known about before. My second boutique pedal was a Lovepedal Kalamazoo, also another pedal that sounded phenomenal and was outside of the run-of-the-mill stuff available at my local Guitar Center or Sam Ash. My third boutique pedal pushed me over the edge completely, and that was the Paisley Drive, from Wampler Pedals. I was on a HUGE Brad Paisley kick at the time (see previous blogs), and that was the exact sound I was looking for going through my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. It was so good in fact that I sold my AVT150 to fund more pedals. Next up were the Pinnacle and the Ego Compressor, followed by the Analog Echo. The cycle continued until I had a board full of boutique pedals, lusting for more and needing a bigger board. Looking back, I had time to kill because my wife (newly married) was working 12-hour shifts at the hospital every other weekend, and I was bored and loved experiencing new sounds.
 
Since that time, I’ve been chasing tone, obscenely. There was a period from 2012-2014 that I’m particularly not proud of, where I was buying and selling and flipping pedals faster than I could keep track of. It gained me a TON of experience and knowledge in so many ways, but it took a toll on the wallet. As time has gone on, I’ve tried to reign it in some, but GAS always rears it’s ugly head when new stuff comes out. It’s just so easy to go browse Reverb.com and look at gear, and that “make an offer” button is going to be the death of me. I’ve made crazy low-ball offers before expecting to immediately be turned down, and the seller turns around and accepts my offer. I’ve also sold stuff for less than I wanted to to get a quick sale. I’ve found in general with Reverb that if you want to sell fast, of course, you want to sell cheap. I refuse to add up how much money I could have potentially gotten due to not holding out for a better offer because GAS had taken its tolls and made me lust for another piece of gear.
 
To summarize, Gear Acquisition Syndrome truly is a thing, and it’s the excitement of the purchase, the unknown, dreaming about the tones that could or could not be unlocked from the new piece of gear. But all of those things don’t just cost money. I’ve spent a LOT of wasted time browsing for gear, watching YouTube videos for gear I lusted for, etc. I’ve recently had to put the phone down because I noticed I would be in a restaurant or at a holiday party or kid’s birthday party and browsing for gear or talking on forums or Facebook or Instagram instead of having face-to-face interactions. 
 
My main goal with this blog is that I hope someone else out there will identify with my thought processes or path on the pursuit of tone, and they don’t get to the point where I was with taking financial risks and neglecting the important things in life. At the same time, there are experiences that I have had and things I’ve tried that I had only dreamt of. The key is BALANCE. It took me quite a long time to find mine, but I at least feel like I’m in the ballpark.
 
 
If you recall a couple of months back, an article was released by one of the more mainstream sites talking about the “Death of the Electric Guitar,” and how guitar-based music is going by the wayside and will eventually fade away. That had me thinking, and realistically that’s partially true and partially false. If you pay attention to modern pop music or top 40 songs, then you’ll notice a lack of out-front guitar riffs driving the song. It’s taken a backseat to synths and a plethora of other instruments, or it’s omitted entirely. In other genre’s it’s not quite as bad, but even the likes of Keith Urban and many other country artists are moving away from incredible guitar work to catchier, pop-driven songs. It’s just the nature of the business; it’s what sells. Metal still has a pretty solid foundation, but if you notice it’s not necessarily traditional six-strings doing the heavy lifting. The guitar has taken a step back and become the supporting role again, being layered with effects to make it not even sound like a guitar anymore. You’ll find that even now pedal demos feature not just guitars, but synths as well. All things being said, does that mean the electric guitar is “dying?” 
 
If the electric guitar is dying or is already dead, it’s because the internet and media have killed it. I can read your mind; you’re thinking “What in the heck is he talking about?” Reading that statement out loud, it seems like I’m talking out of my tail, because the internet has made it easier than ever to listen to and interact with some of the greatest musicians on the planet. So how could that possibly kill it? If anything, it has made it even more popular than ever in the music and gear demographic. That’s the exact problem though. Oversaturation and desensitization are slowly killing the electric guitar. Let me explain where my thoughts are coming from.
 
To start out, let’s back up a few decades…if you’re younger than 25, then you may or may not identify with this as much as some of us who grew up in the dawn of the World Wide Web. From the early days of music, what was the easiest way to hear the latest and greatest music? TV, radio, vinyl, 8-track’s, cassette tapes and compact discs were the only realistic and readily accessible form of listening, aside from catching a band live if they came to your area. I’ve heard many countless stories of guitarists picking up their guitars in the first place due to hearing one of those forms of music when they were growing up, and repeating them until the record was worn out. To hear such incredible music and artistry was mind-blowing with the onset of then-modern technology. Imagine discovering Hendrix for the very first time (many who read this may not need to imagine and were there), or listening to the heavy tones on the first Black Sabbath record. 
 
All of these artists were discovered because they took the time to make a record and tour the music excessively. Concert tickets were cheaper, so it was easier to go out and witness these legendary musicians making their mark in the world during their hey-day. In general life was cheaper, it wasn’t as much of a financial endeavor to go out to a bar and see local music, or you could go to a music festival and hear some of the greatest bands of the era at a single venue. Of course, all of that changed over the years. Cost of living has gone up tremendously over time, where money could be set aside for special events like concerts, they have to go towards bills and rent and daily stuff that life throws at everyone. Let’s not get too far off track though, more on that later. In decades past the tools were fairly limited in regards to gear compared to today, so technical ability was what truly set various famous guitarists apart to put their unique spin on the instrument. These styles defined the very core of what spawned countless guitarists to follow in their footsteps. It was new, exciting and completely groundbreaking.
 
Let’s come back to the present and see how things have changed. If you’re into guitar and effects and gear, then it’s safe to say that when you go check Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or any other social media apps, there’s a high probability you’ll find someone playing with incredible talent and tone. Could be a random page sharing it, a friend recording a video, or your favorite brand showcasing a new piece of gear. We’re surrounded by guitar pretty much all the time due to algorithms these platforms use to track your viewing habits and all that fun stuff, and eventually, the bar gets raised higher and higher as the videos get better, the players get better, and the tracks get more technically impressive or over the top. Original music has gone from “Three chords and the truth” to have to think outside of the box to truly create something unique. Our idols have spawned some of the most incredible guitarists on the planet regarding technique. Players like Guthrie Govan, Tom Quayle, Jon Gomm, Tosin Abasi just to name a few… all of these players and countless others transcend what we’ve known for decades as great guitar, combining fluidity, note choice, phrasing and overall mastery of their instrument to define a generation by breaking the mold. But, let’s be honest here. If these social media platforms didn’t exist, how many of these great players would you have heard of organically? Again, it’s a different age where we can readily have digital media nearly instantaneously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 
 
We’re completely oversaturated on all things gear-related and playing that many find any way possible to break loose from those traditional molds. Hence the rise of more noise-making pedals, glitch effects and some far-out weird stuff, because many players just aren’t content with the sound of a cranked Plexi amp for example, or they don’t want to sound like a particular artist. It’s commendable, because they want to create their unique sound. That being said, it’s gone from straight-forward ripping and shredding to creating ambient textures using pads and synths or octaves, layered delays and reverbs and modulation, extended-range guitars and drop tunings, etc. They produce truly unique tones that are far from traditional but provide a different set of tools to let the player’s internal “voice” be heard. So in that regard, the electric guitar is thriving better than ever. The average musician looking to find something unique and different have more options than ever, with more coming out each month.
 
On the flip side though, at what point does it go from playing guitar to playing pedals? Joe Bonamassa sparked up some major heat in the guitar community when he was quoted in an interview with MusicRadar saying:
 
"I’ve really gotten over pedals. I can’t keep up with this craze of boutique pedals that make you sound like everything but your guitar. I can’t get my head around it. So you don’t want to play a guitar [properly] so you buy a box that makes it sound like an algorithm, like you just fired up your computer and you can spend the night staring at your fuckin’ shoes? C’mon man…. I know I’ll get shit for saying this, but it’s fucking lazy. It’s insulting to people who spent 35 years playing and learning, like a lot of players. And we continue to work at it! These guys can barely play a chord but call themselves soundscapists. Get the fuck outta here! It’s bullshit. There’s so much masking and spin going on there. Can we get real for a minute? What do you actually play? Pick up an acoustic guitar… try that!"
 
Is this his way of voicing his frustration with the drop in focus of guitar-driven music, or was it solely a clickbait scheme to drive social media buzz? I’d suspect a bit of both. Either way, it started a firestorm of anger from guitarists who rely heavily on effects to sculpt their sound. 
 
So, what’s next? Realistically nobody knows. The younger generation has more opportunities than ever to either dive head first into guitar or completely ignore it altogether with the plethora of other options trying to take up their time and money. Will we see another Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix? Maybe, but I doubt in the traditional sense. I think it will be someone pushing the boundaries of current tech, not necessarily TECHNIQUE. It’s an ever-changing landscape that we’re all just along for the ride on, but there’s always the hope the old saying from Stephen King is true “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” Maybe a guitar renaissance is coming in the hopefully not too distant future. The electric guitar isn’t dead; I’d say it’s lying dormant waiting for it’s time to shine again.
 
I'll leave you with a little fun fact to think about: On January 1st, 1962 the Beatles were turned down for a record contract by Decca with the reasoning that "Guitar groups are on the way out." I guess you just never know what the future holds, right?
Gear demos are a fantastic way to kill time. Whether you’re researching a piece of gear you’re interested in, or just checking out examples of how others used it, or just lusting over gear that’s just out of reach, demos are the gateway to the sounds the pedals make when someone can’t physically try them in person. As of late with the continued growth of the effects industry, there has also been more demo artists popping up, each lending their special touch to coax some great tones out, and hopefully give the end users a great, realistic example of how they can expect the gear to sound. For every fantastic demo artist, there’s also the inverse. For every stellar produced, well-executed video there is a poorly done mess. We try not to judge, but there are a certain set of unspoken rules of things to do (or not do) that most every successful reviewer has in common. I’m going to go through them here for anyone who may be considering starting to demo gear and feel free to add more in the comments section of the post that referred you here.
 
#1: Make sure the guitar is in tune - This seems like a fundamental thing that should be blatantly obvious, but it’s a bit crazy how many demos there are that the guitar is out of tune. In some situations, it’s not quite as noticeable to untrained ears to a certain extent…but in the other instances you question how the demoer can think “Yep, that sounds great. Nailed it!” It offsets the entire vibe and purpose of the video because it’s impossible not to be distracted by it. Taking a couple of minutes to be sure that the instrument is in tune can go a long way for future demos and even the reputation of the channel and the player. With headstock and pedal tuners being cheaper, more accurate and more accessible than ever, it’s worth the investment!
 
#2: NO BARE FEET – I completely get it, it’s comfortable to walk around and lounge about with bare feet, airing out the dogs and what not. However, on a demo (primarily referring to pedal demos), PLEASE take the opportunity to express your personality via some cool socks with crazy designs, or showcasing your favorite pair of worn-in kicks. Nothing can off put a demo like cutting to the pedal and seeing giant, hairy toes descending onto the footswitch like alien ships from the movie Independence Day. Feet don’t bother a lot of people, but they also bother just as many too. Many demoers just set the pedal on a desk and activate using their fingers, and that gives a great alternative where you can still be barefooted and comfortable without alienating some viewers.
 
#3: Choose the right gear for the application – With demos attempting to capture relatively real-life tones, it’s important to choose the right rig to adequately showcase the gear how it was designed to be used. For instance, though it may work to use a Schecter Hellraiser 7-string to demo a Vox-style amp-in-a-box into a Line 6 amp, it might not be the optimum setup to showcase what the pedal was designed to do. On the flip side, it’s not going to help if it’s out of touch too. “Here’s my [Insert brand here] $5k guitar, I’m going to be going stereo into this $10k amp in the left, and this $7,500 amp on the right. Let’s see how this $200 pedal is going to sound.” Having relatively easily accessible amps or something similar allows the player to know a little more clearly what to expect rather than the base tone being either incredibly immaculate or incredibly unwanted.
 
#4: Play to the pedal – Piggybacking off #3, along with knowing what gear to use it’s also important to play to the gear. If a delay/reverb pedal has been aimed at the ambient market, using a metal zone to sweep pick through it won’t give the best representation for what it’s designed for. The same goes for dirt; some genre’s just sound more pleasing using certain effects than others. Using a Klone to play Pantera riffs or a metal distortion to play 12-bar blues isn’t going to convey the product nearly as well as researching to see what each pedal is designed to go for. It’s okay (and often encouraged) to showcase the versatility of a pedal but within a context of something the average player would find usable. 
 
#5: No whammy bar antics when demoing wet effects – This is a personal one for me, and it’s one that I felt needed to be on its own  number. When demoing a pedal such as a delay, reverb, chorus, vibrato, tremolo, phaser, flanger, etc. PLEASE do not mess with the whammy bar the whole time. For me personally this is almost deceptive because it’s applying an effect that some may or may not want with their wet effects, and some may not be able to do it at all if they have a hardtail. It’s okay to do it at the end of a passage or during the outro of the video, but consistently using the bar makes it hard to focus on the true nature of the effect.
 
#6: Reduce dead space, and talking – This won’t apply to everyone because talking can be a vital tool for many YouTube personalities. I'm referring more-so about keeping the focus and not rambling. When doing a demo, it’s good to convey the basic functionality, but intersperse it with playing as well. Rambling and “Um’s” make the audience bored and antsy, sometimes leading them to click away without ever getting to the playing. This also swings back around to #1 with tuning regarding reducing the dead space that people won’t care about in a video. Tuning, switching amps, switching guitars, these things are fundamentals that need to be taken care of off-camera. We all do them every day that we play, and it’s fluff that isn’t needed to get the point across of a product. 
 
#7: Make sure it looks and sounds good – This sums up all of the things mentioned above into a single defining rule of thumb. Make it look and sound great. Using an adequate camera and recording software is essential in conveying the overall “branding” of the channel. Dress appropriately, ensure the mics aren’t clipping or overly compressing, record in an HD format so players can see what is going on in the video. Many YouTubers use multiple camera angles to showcase the playing as well as where the pedal is set. Combining stellar visuals with no dead space, and high-quality audio will result in a professional-looking and sound demo that will keep people and companies coming back for more. Worth noting, the background and setting of a video is just as important as the main focus point.
 
So, what do you think of the list? Are there any more you’d add that stick out immediately in your mind? Is there anything that stands out that you like the most about a particular demo artist? For a great frame of reference on what TO DO, check out the YouTube channels for Brett Kingman, Jay Leonard Jay, Henning Pauly, Pete Thorn, Jim Lil, Tom Quayle, Mike Hermans, Robert Baker, Andy Martin, Dave Weiner, Dan and Mick from That Pedal Show…the list goes on and on. The key is finding the right niche for the demo style that sets apart from the rest, aside from just natural playing skill. It’s the culmination and “whole package” that makes those fan favorites who they are.
 
 
Chasing tone has become a hobby as much as it has been finding the right tools for the job. There are a load of options out there for almost any sound you can think of, but despite the smorgasbord of readily available designs, there are some circuits that are incredibly popular that are less than accessible to get ahold of. Whether it’s the increased “mojo,” hype created by word of mouth, waitlists, or general obscurity from the builders and their marketing practices, a lot of gear lust has been generated over these types of circuits. I’m going to look at a few popular mojo-driven methods that may or may not have any plausible foundation in the grand scheme of things.
 
In many cases, most gear businesses start out small, with only a single employee (the owner) and maybe one or two extra people to help. When they’re fledgeling shops like that, it’s a simple way to keep things hands-on, and it’s relatively easy to keep up with demand usually. Small shops lead to less overhead for the business owner, but it also leads to slower production times due to fewer hands to do the work. As business grown, they usually add on employees to accommodate the increased workload, then before you know it there’s a small to medium-sized business with dozens of employees that all would like to make a living, as well as providing insurance and all that fun stuff. However, some shops decide NOT to expand their employees due to various reasons…it could be due to not wanted to increase the workload or the costs associated with employees, etc. So, what happens when demand exceeds the supply provided? Well, there are a couple of options that various shops have done. One way is to only release batches on a first come, first serve basis. This is fairly straightforward in the fact that specific quantities are available, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. This allows the builder to design and build at their discretion and doesn’t hold them accountable aside from the requests to create more.
 
Another option is taking preorders. This is a slippery slope, due to the genuine possibility of taking people’s money but not having the quantity available to fulfil all of the preorders if the staffing isn't adequate. This leads to long wait-times with customers having money tied up in a product that may or may not have a first date of when they’ll get their gear. Sadly, there are things that happen that are out of many people’s control that cause delays, or in some cases, the builder just can’t build but so fast and lead times get longer and longer. The result is agitated customers who often want their money back. And finally, there are wait lists. These are lists that you sign up for that require no money down but often have a varying lead time of a few weeks to over a year. There’s no obligation, so it’s just a pleasant surprise when your name finally comes up. The real kicker with all of these cases just mentioned, is that all of this waiting leads to massive amounts of hype and gigantic markups in the used market. It’s a way for the lucky few to capitalize on the good fortune, offering to fulfill the GAS immediately (at a price), instead of making the player wait for an indeterminate amount of time to get their pedal. The result is hyping up these harder to find offerings as rare and mysterious and highly sought after. The Klon is a perfect example, and the KTR is a more current version of it. When the KTR first came out, shops sold out almost instantly when they were priced right around $269 or so, but looking on Reverb and eBay, they were marked up to $450 - $700. It’s a pay to play market, and time is money when it comes to rare gear. 
 
Next up, let’s look at one-offs, special events, and custom or limited colors/graphics, and “accidents.” We all like something a bit different that stands out from the crowd. It’s fun and unique and sits like a fun little nod to being awesome on your board. I love custom color pedals or custom graphics that are different from the production model. There’s a certain “something” to them. The same goes along for special event things, like themed pedals (holiday, jokes, etc.). It’s a kind of nostalgic, cheeky way of chasing tone and having a bit of fun with it. But let’s look at the reality of the situation: unless otherwise stated by the company as being unique or coming with a different set of functions, these are the same production models internally, but with a recase for a special color. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, and I love them, but it’s interesting how that becomes a marketing tool for the used market as well as the company. For companies, it’s a nice little nod to the players who enjoy their products, and often they’ll be a limited or very limited run. But if you search used ads there will definitely be a tag-line of “Custom color – rare.” Though it may be true that it’s limited, I suppose it just depends on the buyer as to what the value of a rehoused pedal would be? In situations like ours, we did a limited-edition batch of pink Tumnus’s, along with a few pink offerings over the years with all proceeds going to breast cancer research. The goal was to raise money for a charity, but we’ve seen used prices on these pedals skyrocket lately. The same goes for the Underdog, except it was also for charity but used prices have jumped to $400 or more. Not that the tones aren’t spectacular, but even Brian was taken back by how much markup things had due them being a bit harder to find. This is not meant to crap on companies who do limited runs; it’s more so a look at it from the business side as well as the consumer side.
 
Next up, let’s talk about eras of gear and the lust for certain versions or periods of time that these pieces of gear are manufactured. Generally speaking, new versions come about because the company felt a need to improve or change the design. This could be to increase the longevity of a pedal by upgrading components, swapping parts for less noise or adding features. Despite these facts that the new versions are designed to improve the overall sound, longevity, and ease of use for the players, there are still some out there that feel certain versions or eras of pedals have more mojo compared to current models. Again, some of these models may be harder to come by (but not always), and they supposedly sound much better and respond much better than the later version. I’ve seen this a lot with the Fulltone OCD and several others; we even have some of our older discontinued or revised pedals being collected. Admittedly there are some things that warrant thoughts like that, such as the Pinnacle Deluxe v1 having a very different control scheme than the Pinnacle Deluxe v2. In that case, it’s just a change of functionality and not necessarily a mojo thing. In the end, pedals are like puzzles, where all of the pieces have to be put together to reach the final project. Most of the time, it’s the same parts going in the same positions on the board, using the same solder. All that changes are the hands that solder the parts in or setup the boards. Sonic differences that may occur are the results of part tolerances being slightly different because it’s not always a scenario where every part is identical. The end goal is to make them as consistent as possible, and tuning them to be that way has been a vital part of keeping the pedals consistent over the years.
 
Jumping back a bit, I’m sure you saw me mention “accidents” earlier. Some of these truly are accidents, some of them are sadly not. Before releasing a pedal, Brian typically sends out prototypes to be tested (maybe one, maybe two or three). There are also some prototypes that are sent to trusted higher profile artists, their band and things like that. With the way the world is, people come, and they go in positions, and sometimes gear goes with them. The instances where those prototypes end up for sale is where it’s disheartening. Those prototypes are lent out expecting honesty and trust that they’ll be kept out of the reach of the public. This isn’t because there’s some magic, it’s because the circuit may or may not be complete, and the end goal of an excellent product that sounds great, functions great and is reliable is the end goal. However, the prototypes are considered gold, because it’s a scenario where it’s an opportunity to get something that no one else has. As someone once said regarding grabbing an unreleased pedal, “I just had to, ya know?” When in fact, no they didn’t. If you’ve been keeping up with our social media outlets (and especially our tone group on Facebook), we’ve been experiencing a few more leaks than we’d like to of unannounced pedals being posted for sale or shared by dealers. We plan ahead for months on a release, down to the smallest detail. It’s not necessarily the result of the release but more so the process we use to allude and build up to it. This is completely undermined and destroyed when leaks happen. We completely understand the excitement and the urge to share the info with fellow tone-chasers, but it also hits us hard mentally because of having the rug pulled out from under us so to speak. It’s discouraging and infuriating and sad at the same time.
 
So why did I write this blog and kill hopes and dreams? Mainly to set the record straight and clarify what’s going on with the magic in these sought-after pedals. Mojo is what you make it out to be. If it’s a pedal or guitar or amp that just feels right and connects, then that emotional connection can be considered mojo. On the other hand, there are many times where mojo created as a byproduct of desiring what can’t be obtained, the chance to try something that has been so hyped up, and the desire to stick out from the crowd. 

Pick a Partscaster

October 20, 2017
If you are in the market for a new guitar, there’s no better time than right now to be into the chase for tone. It seems in the past few years that a plethora of builders have popped up, each excelling at their craft with the ability to take the ideas you’ve always dreamt of and make them a reality. We’ve come to a stage in the gear community where artistic expression is at a peak, where if you want something unique and feature-laden, it’s certainly doable. Want an accurate recreation of your favorite vintage instrument, down to the pickups and even decades of wear and tear? All those options are entirely possible and at varying price points. The market lets the player decide how much to spend, and a dream guitar can be had by various methods; whichever suits the player the best. The first thing that people often bring up when discussing custom guitars is pricing. More often than not, the pricing for a custom guitar can rival or significantly surpass the cost of an off the shelf guitar. There are a lot of factors that go into why that’s the case, which I’ll dive into a bit later. I’m going to look through a few variables and options regarding custom guitars and ways to go about achieving them, and what makes them great and what some of the drawbacks are.
 
Let’s start off by looking at traditional guitars, and why guitarists prefer the tried and true designs as the basis of the perfect personalized instrument. If you look back to the 50’s and 60’s of guitar history, you’ll see that the likes of Leo Fender, Les Paul, and a few others seemingly hit the proverbial nail on the head when they created their takes on the electric guitar. So much so that each of the aforementioned builders and their subsequent companies have built stellar, roadworthy guitars that have been in the hands of millions upon millions of guitarists worldwide. They’ve become so iconic that the sound of these guitars is instantly tied to our favorite guitarist through the years. When you hear a Strat, a plethora of artists spring to mind (in no particular order): Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, David Gilmour, Dick Dale, Robert Cray…the list of Strat players is staggering. Teles are the same with the likes of Albert Collins, Prince, Andy Summers, Keith Richards, James Burton, Muddy Waters. Gibson? Billy Gibbons, Slash, Jimmy Page, Angus and Malcolm Young, Peter Green, Albert and B.B. King, Randy Rhoades, and these are only just barely scratching the surface of prominent players that I’d be willing to bet have had some form of influence on every player, in some way. At the same time for all of these incredible players listed, a massive amount of them have delved into the custom realm, whether it’s through artist-series guitars, creating their own unique designs, or using boutique builders. These are our guitar heroes, and their sound shaped generation after generation of players to come, even to this day after many have long passed. It’s no wonder many players would use those famous tones and the foundation and springboard for crafting their own sound. Each used their respective instrument to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.
 
I won’t go too much into current models of various companies, but there are still a load of different models by too many companies to list that follow the traditional approach. Companies like Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc., or revised versions of the classics with personal accouterments like unique finishes or relicing, and so on. Along with standard models that have a streamlined setup with neck shape, pickup combinations, and finishes, many of those companies offer signature guitars that famous artists regularly use (most of the time). These are customized versions that match the player, and great options for providing a variety of different guitars at a cost-effective price point. Sometimes though, these standard models can get the player close to where they want the guitar to be, but not exactly. This is why the guitar parts business has been a boisterous endeavor. There are a considerable number of shops you can visit online that let you piece out the perfect build, down to neck radius, finish and inlays to the routing options for various bodies and bridges control cavities. All things that are made to be easily swappable on the stock instruments to make them a bit more customized to the player. Swapping and upgrading is a cost-effective way to make a guitar customized to the player without going out and fully commissioning a custom build. Many of these online shops offer custom finishes, and some even offer relicing services to make the guitar look like something that had been used on tour for 40 years with tones of use and abuse.
 
These pieces and parts lead me into partscasters. Partscasters are the amalgamation of various parts in the attempt to find the right fit and feel and sound by creating it from a pile of parts sourced from various locations. Eddie Van Halen was one of the pioneers that led people to start hacking into the guitars and building what suited their personal needs when companies didn’t offer it. He used a Gibson PAF in an old strat-style body and created some of the most memorable music that would spawn hundreds of thousands of guitarists. He found what worked for him and made it his own. When going for a partscaster build, the sky is the limit. It could be a neck based off of a vintage-style Strat paired with a MIM Telecaster body with a pre-wired set of pickups from a small shop that hand-winds their own pickups. Or you could get a Flying V-shaped body with a neck setup for 12 strings, with pearl inlays and a figured ziricote fretboard. See what I mean? You can get as “out there” and intricate as you’d like, or build after the classics. Sites such as Warmoth and USA Custom Guitar allow you to pick the various details of your build, so they come as finished or as unfinished as you’d like them to be. This allows the player to simply screw everything together and do a bit of soldering and have a functional guitar on a relatively decent budget. I say relatively because depending on what choices are made with the types of woods used and various finishes, the costs can add up quickly. In the end though, if you’re coming out of it with the exact guitar that you want, then it’s worth it. The Pros are that you get control in the details of the construction of the guitar within a set number of given parameters, but the negative is that it does require a bit of experience and knowledge to get the guitar to where you want it properly. Setups are vital for having them stay in tune and function properly, and for inexperienced players, it can be an exercise in frustration. The same goes for soldering, especially if it’s not using a prewired kit. Without proper soldering, it can lead to increased noise or no sound at all. 
 
The next thing that truly takes the guitar into the “custom” realm is having one commissioned from a company that builds to spec. These are often more expensive, but the player gets considerably more control, with the bonus of the attention to detail and experience that comes from the builder’s history. Many builders still offer a standard line of body shapes that they will do, some traditional and some very modern and unique. Like the partscaster, you get to pick out your dream instrument, from the type of wood the body is made of, pickup routes, a plethora of finishes, the scale length of the neck, radius, neck shape, what frets are used, nut type, tuners, pickups, custom wiring…everything. The attention to details is what sets these guitars apart from the standard guitars that are off the shelf. Having a guitar that’s perfectly fitted to your playing style, the feel, and sound of the pickups makes you want to pick the instrument up more because you enjoy playing it. These builders have become experts in their fields and have listened to customer feedback, evolving and honing their craft to provide those little nuances that make each creation so special. A big question that comes up is “Is it $$$ better?” It depends on how you look at it. In some cases, depending on what is commissioned, there won’t necessarily be a huge difference. If it’s a T-style with a fairly run of the mill setup with two pickups and a 3-way selector and a fairly known color, then to some that may not be worth it. The details of the fret leveling and action and overall playability would be the biggest upgrade.  Is it worth several hundred dollars extra to some people? Most likely not. That’s the beauty of chasing tone and falling in love with the guitar, is that everything is subjective and will be different for everyone. Variety is the spice of life, so they say. The quest for tone is unending, and finding the perfect feeling and sounding guitar is another piece to that puzzle. What are you willing to pay for it?
 
Personally, own a few of each configuration mentioned above. I’ve got a ‘12 Les Paul Traditional that I upgraded with 50’s wiring and bumblebee capacitors to increase the range of tones available in the tone knobs. The new American Pro Strats just hit the spot, stock off of the shelf (admittedly I always block the trem, just because I’m a hardtail guy). I’ve also got a couple of Crook Custom telecasters that are decked out completely with custom finishes, neck specs, and even G-Benders. There’s a soft spot and something special about each one that makes them fit what I’m looking to do. The one thing I will say, that for me (I don’t speak for everyone), that custom guitars do not necessarily make me play any better, skill-wise. I may enjoy playing more when it fits just right, and I can get into it more, which subsequently makes me practice and the long game is an improvement, but switching from one guitar to another doesn’t have a dramatic effect. The guitars output what your mind and yours hands put into them and no amount of money can buy technique. That’s something I had to learn as I was starting off, and it’s stuck with me all this time.
With the release of the Paisley Drive Deluxe right around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to discuss and a recurring topic that's come up for years, but especially more frequently now that details have emerged about the Paisley Deluxe (or as Brad Paisley refers to it, the "Paisley Dog"). I'm talking about the limited edition Underdog overdrive. Released in 2009, with a limited run of just over 100, the UnderDog is based on a Nobels ODR-S but modified to clear up some of the shortcomings Brian felt were inherent in the design. Along with the transparent and flexible 3-band EQ, there is a toggle for higher or lower gain settings, and the Underdog became a favorite of Brad Paisley and Nashville players all around due to its versatility. It's very transparent, the gain can be set minimal and used as a hefty volume boost with a bit of grit where the guitar's voicing stays the primary focus, or it can get extraordinarily crunchy and fat, bordering on fuzzy distortion. It's hard to miss, being in a larger enclosure with bright pink sparkly paint, with a decal for the graphics. 
 
Here's an excerpt from Brian in 2010 regarding the cause behind the Underdog: “A close friend of mine has breast cancer and has no insurance, no family, and the government will not pay any medical costs for her to get the treatment she needs. Now, I’m not rich by any means, but I had to do something to help her. My wife and I came up with the idea of creating a pink pedal that is rich, dynamic, and very tweakable, and donate ALL the profits to her. Out of that limited run, famed country artist Brad Paisley bought one and loved it. A number of guitarists saw the pedal on Brad’s pedalboard and asked me to build one more for them, so I decided to start building more to keep up with demand. We are still donating all the profits to my friend, Ivy East, who is struggling to pay the doctor bills to combat this terrible disease.”
 
When the Paisley Drive Deluxe information initially was shared, and that it contained the Underdog circuit as Channel 1, there were a lot of mixed reactions. Overall most of them were overwhelmingly positive and excited, but there were a few discussions that immediately popped up regarding having the Underdog as a standalone pedal, not paired with the Paisley Drive. My goal with this blog is to set the record straight on where Brian and the company itself stands regarding this. It's easier to give the full scope of the discussion in a centralized place for everyone to refer to instead of commenting on dozens of threads, which are still overlooked due to how fast comments pile up on FaceBook.
 
At this time, there are no plans to rerelease or reissue the Underdog as a single pedal. Let me explain why. As you read in the excerpt above, the Underdog was created for a particular purpose, and it was successful in alleviating the financial burdens that came about from a terrible situation. That being said, there's a level of integrity and respect that comes along with that period and what the pedal stood for. It feels wrong to try to cash-in on that moment in time, and doing so would dilute the meaning behind the Underdog and it's creation. After discussing that on FaceBook in our Tone Group, the question arose about changing the name and graphics and just rereleasing it under a different label. The same theory still applies. The Underdog is just that, a limited thing for a special friend who was in dire need. Changing the name won't make it feel any less dirty or wrong by using that circuit setup for that purpose for personal gain.
 
So why does Brad Paisley have the circuit in his new signature pedal? The answer is pretty simple and straight-forward. Brad has utilized the Underdog alongside the Paisley Drive for years (see picture below), having one of the original Underdogs and buying several used version up as time went along to be sure the pedal was always there. It's an integral part of his tone. Touring all over the world has its constraints on gear, and it was at his request that we build the Paisley Deluxe. "But you said you wouldn't reissue it." Correct, as a standalone pedal under the banner of Underdog. With the high number of requests and high used prices, we wanted to be able to offer the circuit for our customers, but without sacrificing the basis of what it meant at its core. The compromise is the Paisley Deluxe. 
 
I'd like to start this blog out with a question to anyone reading this. Have you ever found the PERFECT tone, documented the settings in some fashion (in a notebook, taking a picture, etc.) only to discover that when you return the next time to play, it just doesn't sound right anymore?  How about going to practice or just jam and it feels like your entire rig just sounds awful and wrong? I can give a resounding answer of YES to all of those above. It baffled me for awhile because I knew that my settings hadn't been messed with in the least bit, so it made no sense why it was happening.
 
I decided to record myself for a few days, seeing if it was something that was going on with the amp or my setup or whatever the heck it was. Aside from fluctuations in my skill level (Hey, we all have good and bad days playing), the tones were consistent despite sounding different each day to my ear. One day it was a bit too bright, another day sounded phenomenal, and another day my tone was too muddy. Again, I was using the same guitar, pedals, and amps. Of course, the next instinct was to go to Google, and it's apparent that I'm not alone. It's become a bit of a joke at this point that *something* must happen to make it not sound as good. Maybe someone bumped the board or the amp, or the magic pedalboard gremlins are up to some form of trickery.
 
So what's the deal then? Long story short, one part is life. Not to sound overly cliche, but that's the simple way of putting it. Everyday things that we experience during life all add up to how the human body reacts to external stimulus. Stress in all forms is proven to wreak havoc on the body, and it can definitely do a number on your ears. Looking back at those days where my tone wasn't as good, I realized that the first day I recorded, I had stayed up late the night before and subsequently woke up earlier for work the next morning. That night after playing a few minutes and being dissatisfied with my tone, I cut everything off, got our two little boys to bed (5 and almost 2) and my wife and I went to bed at 8:30 that night out of sheer exhaustion. I got a lot of sleep that night, and sure enough my tone the next day sounded like the life was back in it again. The following day at work was hectic and erratic, so when I went to play my mind wasn't focused, and my tone wasn't very appealing at all. I haven't been able to find a fix for this yet, but my solution has been to take a break and just either play acoustic or my electric unplugged. There have been many times where I just decided to put it down and walk away from it for a day or two, maybe more. Usually when I come back and plug in it's because the craving to play has kicked in and a reinvigorated love for it has sprung back up.
 
Now let's talk about tone consistency at various locations. The scenario is that you've got a great tone dialed in at home, you go to your practice space, and it sounds completely off when turning up your level to match the people you're jamming alongside. Several contributing factors can cause this, and the rig can be adjusted accordingly to increase the consistency of the tones produced. One major point that needs to be hammered home is that a guitar rig will react very differently at bedroom-level volumes versus gigging volumes. The layout and acoustics of the room play a massive role in the overall tone and feel of the amp and rig. For instance, if the practice space is a bedroom or basement, our ears become accustomed to that room, and the amp and pedals are setup accordingly to sound good in that room. Let's say hypothetically that the usual practice space is in a basement or garage with a concrete floor. Alternatively, if the band is at a gig with a large stage made of wood, the amp can sound excessively boomy due to the wood resonating the frequencies in the room. On the flip side, going from playing on a wooden floor to a concrete floor can make the amp feel stiff. While we're on the subject of playing out, power fluctuation needs to be mentioned as well, and that can play a big part in tone. If the space at home is running at 109v out of the wall, but the output at a gig is 115v for instance, then there will undoubtedly be a tonal difference because your amp is receiving more voltage. Increasing or starving the power can lead to an array of tone fluctuations, which is a reason companies have been making power conditioners to keep a steady flow of current to the amp, no matter what the gig is. 
 
A solid example of this in practice is that we had a person on our Tone Group on FaceBook (Wampler Pedals Tone Group, you should check it out). He mentioned having fantastic tone in his room where he practices, but when opening the window, it seems like he lost a tremendous amount of depth to his tone and everything sounded thin. After discussing it, several members chimed in and said it had to do with the pressure changes and the layout of the room, and how the frequencies coming from the amp disperse differently. In that scenario, the bass frequencies weren't bouncing back and stayed confined in the space, and that's why the tone sounded so much fuller when the windows weren't open. 
 
As the output of an amp increases, several things can come into play. Preamp's can begin to clip once they're pushed to a certain point, so if a rig sounds overly dirty, it could be that the preamp is distorting, where at lower volumes the output isn't as high. One thing you can try is to use an active volume pedal in the effects loop of the amp, which will lower the signal hitting the phase inverter and cutting down on the clipping ab it. If your amp doesn't have an effects loop, you can try putting a volume pedal at the end of your signal chain, which will cut some of the incoming signal and subsequently lower the gain. A relatable way to think of it is plugging directly into a dirty amp, and adjusting your guitar's volume to reduce gain. The same premise applies. Yes, this will change the tone a bit, but in reality, EVERYTHING alters the tone. Clipping is a reason a lot of players like really high-headroom, high wattage amps because it eliminates the chances of the amp distorting at gig volumes. Along with the preamps reacting differently, speakers begin to compress as they attempt to move more air. The harder an amp is pushed, the harder those speakers naturally compress. 
 
Taking all things into consideration, the chase for tone is never-ending, and more often than not leads to just as much frustration sometimes as it does elation. Give it time, think things through and start from the bottom and work your way up in chasing your perfect tone.
I’ve got a question for you: How often would you say you use your Tone control on your guitar? How about the volume? Pickup selector? With all the goodies we’ve got for tone-shaping at our disposal, I’ve found a very drastic split between people who always tweak the controls on their guitars, and those who set and forget. Admittedly, I fell into the second category of diming the controls for the first 2/3rds of my guitar playing life. The source of this approach came from my early years of starting out playing punk rock, where the idea was that everything needed to be on 10, as loud and as fast as it possibly can go. It was bad enough that I would plug in and it would sound like a blanket was over my amp, immediately making me think that something was wrong with my setup. Nope, just the tone knob had been rolled back some and made my heart skip a beat for absolutely no reason. Sounds kind of wonky or careless, but I’m betting I’m not the only one who has done that (more on that later). It wasn’t until I started digging into songs and learning the nuances of verses and choruses and solos that I realized how much of a difference the controls on my guitar can make in association with how my amp is EQ'd and how I have my pedals set. It took a long time to adopt the differing process, but once I did it opened a boatload of tonal opportunities I had been missing out on utilizing all that time. 
 
Years ago, my normal process for setting up my base tone revolved around amp first (where all of the EQ controls used to be on ten like I mentioned above), then using my pedals to add whatever flavor I was looking to add, usually with the gain set excessively too high. My resulting tone was always completely overbearing, a bit harsh and sometimes flubby on the low end, or overly mid-honky. Again, at the time it wasn't about tone, but being loud and obnoxious. The problem that occurred is that I had no idea how the frequencies needed to sit in the mix, or how it would mesh with other instruments in the band. But alas, it was punk rock, and it was fun. That process of cranking the amp controls doesn't always lead to awful tone, quite the contrary on some amps. I suppose you could say that there's a time and a place for everything, and my combination of Strat into Danelectro pedals, into a Fender Stage 160 combo amp was NOT the place for it. On a nice vintage amp, I could completely see turning everything up and basking in that glorious tube amp tone. Again, I was in my late teens and had no clue of the bigger picture.
 
A few years later, my musical tastes started to develop and refine a bit more, and I started digging into what made some of my favorite artists sound just so doggone good. Through trial and error, I finally developed my ear to learn to approach things from another angle. At this point, I still use the amp as my first act of tone-shaping, but I approach it a bit differently. The amp and speaker(s) are the last things my signal sees before the tone is released into the wild, so that will play a huge role in the overall character of your chase for amazing tone. My initial settings on a 3-band EQ amp consists of Bass on 6, Mids on 4, and treble on 7. That's my starting point, but depending on the amp and where I'm playing I'll tweak from there. The reasoning behind these particular settings is because I've found that I prefer to use my pedals as my method to alter the mids in my tone, and I'm partial to a neutral but still "full" sounding clean tone. Next, I focus on my guitar a bit which might be a bit odd, but I'll explain. I've gotten to the point now where I instinctively roll off a bit of tone on my guitar. Crazy, right? I'll roll it back to seven or 7.5, along with my guitar's volume. My theory behind this is that I've always got a bit of extra volume and tone left in reserve in case I need it in a given situation. Sometimes you don't want to bend down and mess with your controls, so just adjust the tone knob a bit and get that added bit of extra clarity or high-end roll off that you're needing. Same goes for volume, where rolling back the guitar's volume will lessen the input on many gain pedals (especially fuzzes), and it gives you that extra bit of grit when you kick into a solo. 
 
A couple of years ago I adopted a volume pedal into my rig, mainly for ambient swells and all that fun stuff, but after awhile I noticed a practical side to it. I put mine after my drives, before my modulation and delays and reverbs. Placing it there allowed it to act as a "master volume" of sorts that let me set my gain and output for multiple stages of volume, all controlled by my handy-dandy foot. I'm in turn left with my guitar to add a bit of grit and oomph or clarity with the controls on me no matter where I'm standing in relation to my board. I then have several gain stages with my pedals, and the ability to set the overall output as unity or a boost with the volume pedal. *(Handy tip - you can also put a volume pedal in your FX loop to act as a master volume as well). Having those options leaves me constantly tweaking the knobs on my guitar when I'm playing, so much so that if I'm playing unplugged I still habitually twist the knobs. Once you get it down pact and you find your sweet spots, it opens up a load of tonal control right at your finger-tips.
 
While we're on the subject of guitar controls, it would be worth delving more into the heart of your guitar's control scheme. Beyond the typical 5-way or 3-way pickup selections, possibly modifying or upgrading can make a significant difference in your overall tone and the amount of control you have over it. To start off, upgrading your pots can make a big difference in the sound and feel of your guitar. Upgrading from 250k pots to 500k pots can give you an extra bit of oomph if you feel like your pickups just aren't coming alive. Along with upgrading pickups, it may be worth looking into various wiring options for your pickup configuration, such as a 4-way telecaster pickup selector, that allows you to run your pickups in series along with the standard ways. A Les Paul with 50's-style wiring can greatly improve the responsiveness of your tone controls. Upgrading inductors and capacitors in your guitars can also drastically change what tones you have on tap, from major frequency changes to slight treble roll-off. There's an enormous variety of simple upgrades and modifications you can make to your instrument to improve the response and playability. There are push/pull pots for allowing the player to split the coils in humbuckers, or blender pots that allow the player to blend various pickup configurations on the fly, as much or as little of each as desired.
 
Last but not least, let's talk about pickups. Sometimes, no matter how much we want to love everything about our instrument, it's always possible to fall out of love with the tone of it. There's nothing wrong with the way that it plays, but the tone just isn't there anymore. Luckily there are so many options out there for different pickups that it's almost dizzying. Depending on what guitar you have and how the body was routed, a pickup swap is a quick and easy way to drastically change the overall character of the voice of your guitar. Humbuckers, P90's, Single-Coils, Mini Humbuckers...the list is quite long of the various pickups that can be mixed and matched to find what you're looking for. Pick swaps are a relatively easy thing to do, but it requires a basic knowledge of soldering. If you're not comfortable with soldering, there are companies out there that offer pre-wired pickguards and control plates and switches that you can easily have a tech put in fairly quickly. Taking the time to understand and experiment with just your guitar can open a broad spectrum of control and tones that aren't available if everything is set wide open.
 
How do you set your guitar's controls? Have you done any upgrades to your guitar to allow added flexibility and tweakability to shape your tonal voice?