Every time I think I know something… I’m proven wrong. I’m sure there are many lessons to be had in this realization but, like most humans, I’m reluctant to admit when I’m wrong, except maybe to close friends. What are these things I’ve been wrong about? Thanks for asking…
As a self-admitted guitar snob, I have had quite the journey. When we first got our record deal, I was green and stupid and had shit gear. I think I had 2 guitars, an american black strat and a mij tele. I ran some cheap multi effect processor into the front of a red knob Twin. When we got our deal, I used some advance money to buy a G&L ASAT and it can be seen in our “No News” video. One of our first songs required a B-Bender so I had a HipShot B Bender installed on it. Once we started recording, I realized I knew nothing about getting good tone for studio recording. Thus the journey truly began.
I looked at the gear the studio guys used and asked all kinds of questions and started building my arsenal. By the time we recorded our third album, “Lonely Grill” I had acquired a 4-amp rig with Bradshaw Amp Switcher and a bevy of different guitars (Rickenbacker 12, baritone, strat, tele, Les Paul, and others). Acquiring all this stuff and comparing and looking for next great thing and all the things we GAS-induced junkies do made me think I had opinions of my own. Or they were at least regurgitated opinions from others I looked up to, who is to say?
It goes something like this, “If it’s not a tube amp it sucks” or “only US guitars are worth the money” or “vintage output AlNiCo is the only way to go for Les Pauls”. I’m paraphrasing but we all have those little convictions we subscribe to over time. But I’m here to tell you, if you live long enough, all of those things you think will not only be questioned but you will find exceptions for every “rule”.
Granted, the Kemper probably started that process for me in 2013 when I first got it and realized it could make my life so easy on the road. I had to deal with my “only tube amps” dilemma and then continue to deal with the backlash from all of the other tube amp purists of the world. I don’t disagree that tube amps are great, mind you. I’m a huge fan of them. But I’m also a working guitarist with tonal needs that can be better met using the Kemper. One down…
The next domino to fall was a few years ago when I picked up an SG from Craigslist in KY. I had always thought I disliked a) Bill Lawrence pickups (for being “shrill”) and b) ceramic magnets (for not having pleasant “tone”). When I first plugged in the SG at the gig, I was like “whoa!” and thought it must have the vaunted Shaw humbuckers from the early 80’s that I know sound fantastic. Upon further inspection I find out that they have Tarback pickups, designed by Bill Lawrence using ceramic magnets. DAMN! I was wrong on both counts. Ok, I’ll admit I was wrong about those. Then I started thinking, maybe I didn’t like ceramic magnets because they used them in a lot of super high output pickups. Maybe it was the super high output I wasn’t a fan of. And I still haven’t found a true Bill Lawrence pickup I love but I would certainly be more open to trying one out now.
And in the last couple of years (after the Tarback epiphany) I went down the PAF rabbit hole. I tried almost every high-dollar boutique brand of historically accurate PAF replica and spent a fortune until I finally thought I was happy with them. Except for one little Les Paul I had that I could never bond with. It’s a Les Paul Classic Lite and I got it because I was so fond of my SG but wanted the look of a LP then I found the Lite and I thought, “it’s kind of a cross between the two”. Well, after trying numerous pickups and thinking that maybe the guitar itself is a dud, I decided to sell it. The original pups were long gone as it has some weird aftermarket humbucker size p90’s in it when I got it. I decided to buy some cheap stock Gibson pups and put in it to sell. I got a set of black bobbin 490’s. I put them in and plugged it in to check my soldering and such and I’ll be damned if they didn’t sound FANTASTIC in that guitar. It went from being a guitar I was gonna toss to one of my best sounding guitars in a matter of minutes. So, I had always thought I hated 490’s. I took them out of most guitars I got that had them and I replaced them with “better ones”. Now, any time I have a humbucker guitar that doesn’t sound amazing, I will put a set of 490’s in them and voila! Now they are in 3 of my guitars and they sound great in each one. They have clarity without being spikey. The bridge pickup can cut like a tele and has great tone with overdriven. The bottom end isn’t boomy and they’re not nasally and midrangy like some of the vintage PAF clones. Who knew?
The whole idea for this blog was spurred by what happened last week. My buddy Chris (from the Crunchy Pack demo vid) brought over a MIJ black strat from the 90’s that he was selling for a co-worker. I had owned MIJ Fenders before (tele) and I didn’t think as highly of them as USA versions, although I know the build quality is very close. I would’ve told anyone who listened that I did NOT need another strat that morning. But when I plugged it into my Bogner XTC 3534, it sounds glorious! It was pleasantly spanky but not thin, compressed but in a good way, and super even. And it just felt good. I’ll be damned if I didn’t buy it that day (it was a great deal too). I didn’t know what they did at the factory to make that guitar sound so good, but it’s one of the best sounding strats I’ve owned and I’ve had probably 10 over the years (no exaggeration). And because I tinker with stuff, I took it apart to clean it, adjust the action, install Ilitch silent coil backplate (to make the single coil hum go away), replace the saddles (with Highwood saddles so they don’t dig into my hand), etc. I found out that the amazing sound pickups were the cheap import kind that don’t even use slug magnets, like most other strat pickups. They just have a bar magnet across the bottom (it may even be ceramic) and just metal slugs in place of individual magnets. Once again, things I thought I knew and felt strongly enough about, but now realize I was proven wrong.
I’m not sure what the big takeaway from all of this is, other than be careful when having opinions. You never know when you will learn something new that will put your belief system to the test. And never be afraid to learn from your mistakes or accept that you don’t know everything. It can be embarrassing or disheartening but in the end, it should be about what sounds good, not how much it costs or how much cachet it has.
I’d be happy to hear any similar stories from people who thought they knew something but were completely wrong about (in a good way). Go back to enjoying your day and playing guitar! Thanks for your time,