If you’re like a lot of guitarists, you have a favorite player whose tone you find truly inspiring, and you are constantly trying to buy gear that will help you emulate it. Maybe you love Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone—that huge, glassy, gritty blues guitar sound that was truly unique. We’ve all heard guitarists try to copy his sound, and it always falls just a little short. Maybe you’re really inspired by the silky, violin-like tone of Eric Johnson. No matter who your favorite guitarist is, you have likely spent at least some time trying to emulate that tone. You’ve researched their rig, bought at least some of the same gear, and discovered that somehow you just can’t quite get there.
Well, don’t worry. It’s not just you. This is the same experience of many guitarists, including yours truly. I spent many of my early guitar playing years chasing the tone of some of my favorite guitarists, and no matter what gear I bought, which guitar I had, which amp I had, or which pickups I installed I couldn’t get the sound I was chasing. And I learned a very important lesson—tone was more about technique, and well… just me, than it was about the gear I bought.
Every guitar player needs to come to grips with the fact that no matter how much they want to sound like their favorite player, they never will. This is a cold, hard reality.
If you’ve listened to Stevie Ray, you have noticed that no matter which guitar he played, or which amp he played through, he always sounded unmistakably like himself. That’s because the tone fundamentally wasn’t in his gear; it was in his hands. Sure, if you listen carefully you can hear a difference in his tone when he’s playing through his Fender Twins and his Marshall amps, but he still sounded unmistakably like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I remember hearing one local guitarist who was not only an incredible player, he had great tone. He got this huge sound out of a Telecaster clone and a Mesa/Boogie combo amp. Now, how he got that tone I will never know because his guitar was setup was not conducive to this kind of sound. He played .008 gauge strings with the action so low that if anyone but him played it, the guitar would choke and buzz. He also used the thinnest nylon picks he could find. But he still got a huge, clear sound with plenty of sustain. Why? The tone was in his hands. It was fundamentally in his technique, not in the gear he played.
So what role does gear have to play in your tone? Well, it’s an important role. But the kind of sound you can get out it is more about what resonates with you as a player and what inspires you to play. Gear is more about color and nuance than it is about fundamental tone. No piece of gear—no amplifier, no effects pedal, no guitar—no matter how good it is, will give you good tone, let alone the tone of your favorite guitar player. The fundamentals of tone come from your hands, not your gear.
Emulating your heroes too much will turn you into an obvious imitator. People will hear you and say, “Oh, you’re trying to sound like (insert name here).” People may not take you seriously, and it will ultimately limit you as a player.
Your guitar tone is like your own voice. It’s uniquely yours. In your quest for the perfect tone, don’t go too far in trying to emulate your heroes. Instead, embrace what you sound like, and develop your unique tone.
Eric Johnson's tone is still a sound I really admire. If you're not familiar with it, give this a listen.