I hadn’t been to Steve Morse’s website in a while so I surfed it for a bit and ended up on deeppurple.com, where I found the following that Steve wrote about tone.
A Deep Purple fan asked Steve which guitar properties affect “tone and sustain most, body/neck/fretboard wood-type, neck joint type, pickups, bridge/saddle design, nut, anything else?”
Steve replied, in part:
I can answer some of it. I tend to have an analytical approach to sound changes on guitars. Right off the bat, the fact that every one is different due to the density of the wood comes into play. It’s difficult to do a true A/B comparison of each change.
First for me is the pickups, then the bridge, then the density of the wood body. Neck and fretboard don’t change the sound much on a solid body electric to my ears. My old frankenstein telecaster had a tune-o-matic bridge with nylon bridge wedges instead of metal. When I changed it for a metal one, it was such a drastic tone difference that I immediately switched back.
Likewise, when I don’t need a whammy bar for a song, I will gladly change back to a hardtail bridge, simply because they sound better to my ears. The whammy bridges that I have are high quality and have plenty of sustain…but they do not have the lively, reactive feel of the simple bridges I prefer.
Pickups are very important, in the same way that the preamp settings on your amplifier are important. They are basic tone coloration, especially the position of the pickups. On my guitar, the neck position pickup needed to be exactly where it is, which meant limiting the number of frets, which was a compromise in favor of tone and roundness over having frets 23 and 24 on the fretboard.
Setting the distance of the pickups from the strings is very important, too. On almost every signature Music Man that I have signed or played, I would bring down the single coil pickups farther from the strings, almost to the pickguard. It doesn’t look symmetrical to the eyes, but it works for me. Keep the humbuckers closer to the strings. The reason is that single coil pickup(s) work best with the guitar volume on 3 or 4, when their naturally brighter sound makes up for the loss of square wave harmonic (apparent) high end when you turn down the guitar to clean it up. Also the farther from the strings they are, the less likely they are to overload the input of the amp…….which is how I can get clean sounds from the amp without having to switch channels on the amp.
I’ve never been able to make a scientific comparison of through-the-body neck design versus bolt on, but I have switched necks back and forth. While one neck may sound different with different frets, or even the slight differences in the height or angle of the nut affect open chords, the sound will be virtually the same. Adding a great deal more mass seems like it could affect it, of course. Instinct tells me that the wood type of the neck would change the sound, but I have never experienced it in a true scientific, A/B test.
Cool info from a master guit-player, but I am bummed that he didn’t mention what he likes about the poplar wood used for his signature series bodies.
Here’s some not-real-current info from deeppurple.com on Steve’s “current” set-up. Note that it’s form 2007, so he doesn’t yet have his signature Engl head, which you can learn a little about here at the Engl site (the site isn’t very good).