I have to admit to really quite enjoying the technical side of electric guitar – browsing around music shops and websites, trying out new amps, playing around on a computer or with the lastest amp modeller. However I have long since given up looking for that perfect tone for a number of reasons:
1. Tone is in the fingers. I was once in a band with one of the best lead guitarists I have ever had the fortune of playing with. What was most remarkable about him was that he didn’t really care about what kit he used so long as he could hear himself and had middle to lots of drive. He always sounded great no matter what he played through. Even going through a crappy boss SD-1 straight into a mixing desk he sounded better than I did through my valve amp. The only thing he was fussy about was his guitar that had to “feel right” which normally ment a US Fender, Tele or an Ibanez. After touring with him for a year or so I realised that there is quite a gulf between the great musicians and those of us who play for a hobby.
2. Tastes change. Although I have a long-term preference towards bluesy overdrive rather than straight distortion, I have noticed my tastes changing over time. What sounded great a couple years back doesn’t quite cut it for me anymore. I am also suspicious that I quite often blame my sound rather than my ability, and sometimes when things don’t seem to be rocking I’d rather change my amp than practice more!
3. Every room is different. Can’t add too much more apart from carpets really help!
4. Volume matters. A bit of a difficult one for those of us who are now bedroom guitarists, but there is something called “psycho-acoustics” which is to do with how our ear hears sound and transmits it to the brain. Since we have evolved to hear voices and communicate we are naturally sensitive to middle frequencies at low volumes, however as volume increases our auditory system starts to flatten out so that we hear all frequencies at similar levels. This is why people often scoop out the mids on their stereo systems but why anyone involved in PA looks scornful when the same is suggested. Basically our EQ on our ears flattens out around 60dB which is actually quite loud. So it is perfectly true that my guitar “sounds better when I turn myself up”.
In conclusion, if you can’t get a great tone out of middle of the range guitar (eg US Fender strat) and a middle of the range valve amp (eg Fender blues junior) you probably need to practice more. Yes of course effects are cool, but great players don’t need to hide behind them.