From studio to stage the quest for tones
My current guitar rig is what I would call a fairly basic setup. A guitar, an amp and effects pedal board in the effects loop. All in all a pretty standard affair as guitar rigs go. However, I went through quite a process to arrive back at this most basic of guitar setups.
To understand how the rig ended up where it is; it’s important to understand where I was starting from, coming out of the studio. For the recording process of the Transformation album many purist may be surprised to hear that there is not a single guitar amp with a microphone in front of it on the entire album. Yes, that’s right; it’s all Line 6 modeling you’re hearing. Line 6 POD XT Live to be exact. I’ve had many tone purists comment about what a great tone I got on the album and it felt a little harsh to me when I had to tell them the reality of how I got these tones. Many of these guys would have never given amp modeling a fraction of a chance, and frankly, even with my information, they probably still won’t. To each his own, I find it a very convenient tool to have in the studio. When inspiration strikes, setting up and plugging in a mic, waiting for the tubes to warm and then trying to remember where the inspiration was, well, I think you can see what I’m getting at. One thing I really must add, the POD much like any amp, requires a significant amount of tweaking. The factory presets that come with these units should not be used as a gauge of quality. No two guitar players are the same and we all hear things slightly differently. Using the same principles that apply in the real world of guitar rigs, you can program an amp modeling/effects environment that simulates your physical rig. I couldn’t find a single factory preset that was worthy of hitting the record button but with a ground up tweak I was able to find tones that truly inspired me to play.
So my first instinct when putting the live band together was to give amp modeling a try in a live environment. I seriously considered some of the Line 6 amplifiers and I tried out a few but they never seemed as convincing to me filling a room as the POD amp models did in a recording environment. I even considered running my POD unit through a pair of powered PA cabinets and calling that the guitar rig. I tried this in a few rehearsals with the band and with a drum set blasting in the room, the Line 6 and PA combination really was lacking the punch of a real guitar amp. This was the same problem most of the modeling amplifier combo’s I tried had as well. As cool as this rig would have been in terms of portability, I quickly abandoned it and went back to my monster heavy tube amps.
This stage of the process involved me basically using what I had on hand to try and get the sounds I needed to reproduce the album. I narrowed the tone list down to three essential tones, clean, rocking and total crunch; any guitar player will tell you those three tones will get you through most any rock gig for sure.
So what I had on hand was my old JCM800 Marshall from the 1980’s, rock tone = check. A Fender Quad Reverb from the late 1970’s, clean tone = check. As well as a couple of distortion stomp boxes to try and give the Marshall more of a modern high gain crunch that is so prevalent in modern rock these days. The modern gain crunch is where this rig was falling short, well, that and the fact that I would be carrying around about 200 lbs worth of gear! A third amplifier was entirely out of the question, although that’s totally what Eric Johnson does, he literally switches between all of the classic amps on stage to get his tones. Talk about a roadie gig that’s bad for the back.
After a few more band rehearsals with this rig I knew I still wasn’t there in terms of really reproducing all of the tones necessary from the album. So I started looking to my influences to see what they were using. I combed over every rig I could find, setups of players whose tone I highly respect today. Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree (currently one of my favorite players and writers) is using Black Cat boutique amplifiers, they sound awesome but the boutique stuff was a bit out of my price range so I kept looking. He was also using a rather expensive TC Electronic switching system that looks bad ass but may be a bit more complicated than I was hoping for. Ultimately, I stopped when I came across Satriani’s rig. It seemed very simple, an amp head, some Boss pedals and an axe to wield. Could it be this simple? I had seen Joe live with Eric Johnson about a year prior and I had no complaints about his live tone what so ever.
So I headed down to my local instrument dealer and plugged into the Peavey JSX 3 channel 120 watt head. I had them set it up with a Marshall 1960 Lead 4×12 cabinet and I cranked the amp up. I would say within two minutes of plugging the amp in, I had found an EQ setting that was working and all three tones that I needed for the show. I did my ceremonial run through of guitar licks in the music store routine and then told them I would take it. Score! Man was I relieved as well, I knew I finally had the tones I needed to really accomplish the show.
Now, I had the three channel tube amp that I needed, it was time to sort out and trim down the pedal board to the bare essentials. Many of the decisions here depended mostly on the set list for the show. None of the songs we were playing had the need for a cry baby wah, so off it went from the pedal board. The overdrive units, I tried them through the JSX, and I know Satriani has the same modded DS-1 pedal that I have, I really didn’t see the need any longer for the overdrive pedals, the JSX had all of the gain I was needing. Out went the DS-1 as well as the Tube Screamer. I was chopping pedals down left and right! So much so that I actually decided to make a second smaller board to mount the pedals to. In some cases, when you’re carrying gear around especially, smaller can indeed be better.
The only thing I was really missing after being in amp modeling world in the studio for so long, was a quality digital reverb to give the amp some space. Most players don’t use any sort of digital reverb in their live rigs for the sole reason that you really can’t hear them for the most part, depending on the venue you’re playing in. At least, if you’re using them in a minimalistic way, which is really all that’s typically needed in a live situation for guitar. It’s more something that you feel than something you hear and say, oh that’s a ton of reverb on the guitar. Nonetheless, I wanted that slight touch of depth to the amp so I did some research and ended up with a TC Electronic Nova Reverb Pedal. I already owned the Nova Delay unit for a few months and was extremely happy with it, so this seemed a nice match. I must say the depth to both of these pedals is awesome and they are probably some of the cleanest pedals I’ve ever heard.
I ended up with the following final configuration on the board. A Boss TU2 Tuner, a Boss CH1 Super Chorus, a Boss PS5 Super Shifter, a TC Electronic Nova Delay, a TC Electronic Nova Reverb and the JSX footswitch. All pedals run through the effects loop with nothing on the front end with the guitar. I’m not sure if it’s just the JSX head or not but I found that the rig stays a great deal quieter if all the pedals are in the loop and not on the front of the amp with the guitar.
So that’s how I ended up with the current rig. I’m sure it will continue to evolve as the band progresses and the set list continues to evolve. For right now though, I ended up with one of the best sounding and yet simplified guitar rigs I’ve ever owned. I hope me sharing in my quest for the right rig has helped in some way to give you a bit of insight and has helped in some way with the decisions of deploying your own rig. I look forward to hearing your comments! – John