I picked up guitar at the age of 14 or so, but gave up rather quickly. It took me few years to overcome the initial disappointment by not being to play like Ritchie Blackmore right off the bat. Next time I picked up guitar was at the age of 16 or so and it was a borrowed old acoustic guitar. At that time I played mostly Led Zeppelin stuff, probably still frustrated by Blackmore :). Later on I borrowed another guitar – a horrible Bulgarian Kremona electric, along with a cute little Marshall MS-4. Although it was an utter crap, having an electric guitar brought me back to Blackmore’s music. Finally, I got my own guitar – a Chinese Squier Strat in metallic purple.
Over years I went though several rigs trying to find the right sound, but without much luck. For a while I owned a Korg AX-10 processor run though headphones, which I replaced with Marshall MG15-DFX amp and latter added a Marshall Jackhammer pedal. As my musical taste evolved to heavier stuff, my modest gear became more and more inadequate for the job. My guitar heroes at that time were Satriani and Vai and both of them had fancy guitars with floyd rose tremolos, hi gain amps and whatnot. Being a student at that time, I couldn’t just go out and buy a new gutar, tube amp and pedals, so I started exploring DIY ways. I read about making amps and pedals as much as I could from AX84.com and DIY Stompboxes. About the same time, my father started his custom guitar business, so between the two of us we got everything covered.
The first tube amp I ever built was an AX84 Firefly and it instantly got me hooked on building amps. What I always liked about the idea of DIY is that you can tweak the design to suit your needs. Most of the amps/pedals I built have at least one mod included.
Finally, I thought it would be a good idea to share my philosophy on guitar tone. If you find yourself disagreeing with more than half of the bullets below, you probably won’t agree with my other judgments throughout this site 🙂
- I hate most of single coil pickups. Weak, too bright and noisy. If I had to choose to have only guitar, it would have humbucker-single-humbucker pickup combination. If I had to choose between a Strat and Les Paul, I’d probably go with an LP.
- I don’t like too powerful pickups either, especially the neck pickup. Neck pickup should be brighter and quieter than bridge pickup (for about 25%) to make it balance well with the bridge pickup. Also, it needs to clean up nicely with the volume knob turned down. By DiMarzio standards, I don’t like going over 400mV for brigde pickup and 300mV for neck pickup.
- I don’t like active pickups 🙂 Tried EMGs and they sounded sterile to me.
- I tend prefer neutral sounding pickups over ones that have a certain frequency range exaggerated. For example, I like that “HI-FI” distortion produced DiMarzio Crunch Lab and Steve’s Special. Super Distortion is too fat for me, and Evolution is a bit too bright. I do like slightly mid-heavy pickups like Fred or 36th PAF, they are great for lead and even rhythm as long as it’s not palm muted heavy stuff.
- I like the sound of pickups with asymmetrical coils. It has unique high-end bite that cannot be found on traditional symmetrical pickups.
- I don’t like over-processed sound. Too many effects make the sound unnatural and unappealing to me. I like simple setup with just one or two effects. My idea of horrible guitar tone is Henry Kaiser, just listen to this :).
I’m not a big fan of fuzz or fuzzy sounds. The only type of fuzz I can stand occasionally is octavia-style, the way Satriani uses it.Taste changes with time so now I don’t mind fuzz if done tastefully 🙂
- For most part, I prefer hi gain amps with more gain stages over those that achieve that with lesser stages. I find the sound more…refined, don’t know what to call it. Maybe it’s compression added by more stages. Fewer gain stages make sound more raw which is cool for other stuff, like Blackmore sound.
- I don’t like cranking the heck out of the amp. When I was younger I’d max everything and then bring the gain down until the noise becomes bearable. Nowadays, I prefer to start low and stop when there enough crunch. That makes the sound cleaner and also makes me play cleaner.
- I don’t like too much bass coming from guitar or first couple of gain stages in the amp. It makes the sound flabby when palm muting. When there’s an input EQ (Mesa Mark, Trainwreck, basically all Fender style amps), I tend to keep the bass knob very low.
- I like scooped mids, but not drastically as it can make the sound lifeless (check MXR 6 Band EQ review to see how I set mine.)
- My idea of good rhythm tone is pretty much anything on Dream Theater’s Awake album, to name one – The Mirror.
- Although I do like the way Appetite for Destruction sounds mixed together, seems like guitar sound alone is a total buzz-saw. I fits very nicely with bass and rhythm guitar though.
- Speaking of buzz-saw tones, I don’t like early Gilbert tones either. Very dry and shrill. Gets a bit better on newer recordings though, I like this Scarified performance. Again, bass usually plays same notes of riffs, so it makes it sound fuller.
- One of best live sounds for me is Satriani’s Live in San Francisco. A good example of lower gain lead tone is Until We Say Goodbye. Another good one in that department is Vai’s Blue Powder from Live at Astoria DVD.
- I like string action to be super low on shredding guitars, but for stuff like Ritchie Blackmore you really need to have strings set higher to leave them room to breathe. Tone and sustain is noticeably different.
Amps and preamps
- Mesa Mark IIc+ based preamp
- Vox MINI3
Some interesting pix I took
Click on an image to see more details.