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Guitar Tweaks: Can you hear the difference?

June 3rd, 2012

We’re talking about tweaking your guitars and your amps. You know:  Stuff, gear, tweaks; can you hear the difference?  Once the drummer fires up, does it really matter that you specifically tweaked your pickups, capacitors, pots and speakers? Does it matter to you or to the audience (should you have one) or do you do it just because you love to experiment?

What have you tried?  What can you hear?  What’s for real? The Internet is full of stuff to buy and try.  Some with disputed results, some not.  Some is must have, or at least must try.

For starters, let’s takes strings.  Strings make a real difference in your sound.  Steel, Nickel, Nickel over steel, Nickel over Nickel.  How about even Nickel over round core versus a hex core? It is pretty much undisputed that different strings sound different.  Most people won’t argue that strings make a difference.

The next topic is  Guitar electronics as in “Caps and Pots”.   You commonly hear “was like taking a blanket off my amp”.  Yup a nice old (or new) PIO (paper in oil) cap can really smooth out and open up a dark or muddy guitar.  Some of the “chicklet” caps in today’s guitars are very harsh.   And it all depends on the value of the cap.  .015 is really nice in a LP with a Humbucker in the neck.  Tame a shrill bridge pickup with a .047 in the bridge.  Most guitars, LP’s anyway come with .022’s.  There are a lot of variables here and again most will agree “pots and caps” make a difference because they do.

Pickups: Way to big a field to even start to discuss here.   I’ve tried a bunch.  I’ve heard large changes, not always what I wanted and I’ve found after some installations I can barely hear any difference at all.   It’s nobody’s fault; the whole idea of describing sound is rather vague anyway.  But in general shop wisely and have an idea of what you want, and then pickups are a good solid upgrade.  I’ll throw out a generalization, and that is go for pickups with less output than you think you want.  Pickups wound really hot choke off highs you may want later.  Get the tone out of the guitar and tailor it at the amp.  Also pickup output can be increased with larger magnets as well as windings.  Difference is the larger magnets don’t choke highs like windings. You can also split hairs by changing magnets in the pickups you already have, but that may be getting too OCD for some.

As with pickups, speakers are a huge topic and they can make or break your sound.  Everyone likes something else.  And remember what sounds great alone in practice situations may not sound great in a band setting. Loud alone isn’t the same as loud with a drummer.   This is why I like heads and separate speaker cabs.  Mix and match.  Makes for more options.  So let’s put speakers into the category of yes, makes a difference.  Yes we heard the difference.

So many more things you can change.  Everything matters.  The room you play in matters.  How far is your open back amp from the wall at home vs a practice or gig?   Your amp, your tubes, your tube bias………  Even the pick you use makes a difference.  This is an area where naming all the stuff that matters can’t really be tackled in one blog.  But it is stuff we mostly all agree we can hear, and that it matters.  We want our base tone to be as good as it can be.  If we can hear it, then it was worth it.

So why is it that the web is full of players who argue that you can’t hear the difference in cables?  They say the cable from the guitar to the amp can’t make any difference, and any difference heard is because you just paid a lot for a cable.  It’s all snake oil and pseudo-science, right? Nope, I’m here to say that it matters much more than you think.

A year ago I was at UFG (Upfront Guitars) world headquarters to try some stuff.  I had a nice Gibson R4, my groovy little true PTP wired boutique amp armed with nice old tubes and we’re rockin’ out.  We were trying different cables.  I was playing a solid core cable versus my OK mid-priced name brand stranded cable.  Yes there was a difference.  More clarity, more shimmer (here we go, trying to find words to describe tone) from the solid than from stranded, and less distortion.  Then I tried a coil cable.  I have a tendency to make any straight cable turn itself into a knotted mess in minutes.  I had hopes that the coil cable sounded good.  If it did I was getting it.  It was as clear as day that the coil cable was the worst cable we tried.  Worse than a straight stranded cable.  Worse than my daily cable. No doubt, no question, it was dull, dark, and fuzzy.  No point in debating it, and not close to the solid cable

A real eye (ear) opener was when I did a blind test.  This was not planned but it worked out that way.  I had been playing just guitar with solid core cable into the amp.  Played some chords, riffs, all the stuff you play when you are trying gear out.  Then I added a couple of pedals into my signal chain.  These are good pedals with true bypass, they were all off and I used stranded cable between them and to the amp.  I started playing again.  The other guy in the room whose back had been to me all this time said right away “wow, what did you change?”  All I’d done was add some stranded cable to my signal chain.  The clarity was different, a little more muffled, a little less “shimmer” Also I found that what I had thought was attack-driven dirt when I played harder was actually distortion from the stranded cable and not from me hitting the amp harder. Swapping in solid core cables cleaned up the signal and the distortion was gone. I now have solid cable in my board and the whole signal chain, but I’ll agree that good stranded cable is very close to solid cable.  I’m just looking for a clean signal.  I can wreak havoc later with a pedal, right?

Yes Hendrix liked the sound of a 50’ coiled chord from Radio Shack.  There is also a guy on Youtube with fantastic demos of his ’59 LP and Trainwreck amp.   He likes the sound of a very long (100’?) cable in his signal chain.  He likes what it does for his tone.  His tone BTW is freakin’ awesome.  You may also like either of the above.  You gonna tell Jimi his sound was crap, to get another cable?  He knew what he was doing.  A cable is a tone control.  Don’t ignore it.

I guess I feel like I owe it to myself to get things right. I just want the cleanest purest signal from my guitar to the amp or pedal.  I know that once the band starts up, once the drummer shows up late and starts his noise in the room with the low ceiling and the wall of mirrors across the dance floor you may feel all is lost.  But you gotta have a good thing going in right?   If you can hear it, it will have an impact on your playing. And you can hear it.

 – Neil Swanson