Having Less Older Gear = Better Tone?
We live in an era of guitar gear nirvana. We can literally get any piece of gear at any price point, today, overnight, whenever. If you buy from one of the big boxes, you can even get something, try it out and return it! Cool…but has all of this resulted in less good tone? And is good tone in fact harder to get now?
This line of thinking popped up fresh for me during a conversation with producer Dave Cobb. Dave recently produced and played most of the guitars on an old-school-sounding rock record by a new band called Black Robot (more on that in a future post). He’s all about vintage tone, and knows how to get it: with old gear.
For the Black Robot tunes he used an old Les Paul with a real Gibson PAF and a T-Top (reversed from Jimmy Page), a ’67 Marshall 50-watt head and a ’70s Marshall cab. Think that would sound good? Duh!
But why did he use the old stuff? Nostalgia? I mean, this is the modern era – gear nirvana, studio wizardry and all that. Can’t you get that type of tone with modern guitars, pickups, amps and recording equipment?
We of course know that vintage gear can be better/great (some of it, not all of it), but I used to think that the recorded tones we heard from the ’60s and ’70s were more a case of those bands and producers doing the best they could with the gear of the day – kind of like starting a fire with flint rather than a Bic lighter. But Dave had a totally different perspective.
I told him that to my ears, a convincing old-school rock tone seemed tough to get these days, the latest AC/DC record being a notable example. So I asked him whether getting those tones is now tough, and why that would be since I thought people were just trying to muddle through with what they had back then.
No, he said. Everything was better back then. “The guitars were American-made and made at the height of American craftsmanship, the Marshalls were made with quality parts, and you had quality players – you couldn’t record a record unless you had a high level of ability. Plus studios had the best mics in the world, they had good consoles and tape.
“Now we might have more stuff available, but it’s not as high-quality.”
When he says it, it sounds obvious. But when you think about bands using guitars and amps designed for clean sounds recording onto four tracks in studios designed to capture the clean tones of the day when the word “software” didn’t even exist yet, it sounds a little…perplexing…that that stuff was better than the stuff we have now.
Older guitar players – Page, Beck, Townshend, Blackmore, Iommi, etc. on up to EVH – relentlessly experimented with their “primitive” rock gear to get it to sound the way they wanted it to sound. In other words, their choices were limited so they developed ways of getting tone – including using their fingers – that worked for them. No getting gear FedExed from Guitar Center for them.
Now many of us run out and buy gear to help us sound like so-and-so (guilty!) or sound like whatever tone we want to hear – but would limits be better? Would it be better to play as much as possible and relentlessly experiment with a very limited amount of gear? Would we get better, woodier tones and more unique tones?
Okay, maybe it would better, but less fun. I’d probably need a GearHeads Anonymous group to help me purge some of my gear. And I seriously need a couple of new amps – plus there’s this guitar I’ve got my eye on….
> To see a list of some of Dave Cobb’s old-school recording gear, go to his website and click on Gear.