Make me sound like that guy. Anyone that works in this business hears variations on this request pretty often.
When I started playing, all I wanted was a Les Paul because heaps of my favourite players used a Les Paul. When I had a Les Paul, I’d try to make it sound like Jimmy Page. Of course, then, I’d hear Clapton or Gilmour and think I needed a Strat. I got a Strat but it didn't sound like Pink Floyd. Now what?
To an extent, we all do this. And there’s nothing wrong with it. However, the make-me-sound-like-that-guy request can be a tall order. If your favourite player uses a Les Paul, you might get a Les Paul. Then you might find your hero’s Les Paul had its pickups swapped out for Lollars. You ask your guitar tech or repair person to spec out a set of Lollars.
It’s not the same, though. It still doesn’t sound like the album or the gig I saw last month. Maybe something else is missing. What sort of capacitors should I put on my tone control?
The thing is, the noise you hear coming out of a PA array at a gig, and especially the noise you hear coming out of your stereo when you listen to the CD, is the sum of a lot of parts.
Everything from the grey meat in the player’s skull through his or her fingers, the pick, the strings, the pickups, the guitar/bass, the electronics, the pedals, the signal run, the amp, the room, the mic, the preamp, the desk, the compressors, the reverb, the plugins, the engineer, the producer, the tapes/DAW, the mastering tools, the mastering engineer…(phew—deep breath)… Everything has an impact on the sound to a greater or lesser degree.
You can’t possibly replicate all of these things so have a think about how far you feel it’s important to go and what's actually important to you.
An anecdote might help. Gather around…
A number of years ago, I had a customer tell me they wanted to upgrade the pickups in their Strat to sound like Guitarist X. Now, I knew that Guitarist X tended to play Strats with Fender Texas Specials so after some conversation (and a shortened version of the list above), he asked me to order up some Texas Specials and install them.
This done, he collected his guitar. A few days later he called me back saying the sound wasn’t what he wanted—it was ‘too weak’. We chatted some more and I double-checked the guitar to ensure it was working properly (it was). I offered to reverse the changes for him but he didn’t feel comfortable with my doing so any more.
I later learned he’d visited someone else who had installed a set of Duncan Hot Rails. He loved the bloody things.
Now the Hot Rails is a fine pickup but it’s not really a Texas Special. My customer wanted the sound he heard in his head when he listened to Guitarist X but Guitarist X’s axe and pickups through my customer’s rig didn’t get close enough for him.
I wish that I’d been clearer with the caveats so my customer understood the risks and pitfalls of trying to sound like someone else. However, I also wish that I’d been able to better understand his needs instead of taking him at face value. I lost a customer and that’s not something I like.
So, by all means chase a particular player’s sound. I’m not going to get into the ‘tone is all in the fingers, dude’ argument but, even if we stick to hardware, there’s a lot to consider.
Do some research (there are a number of great sites with rig-rundowns and gear lists) and decide what parts of the jigsaw are realistic and will give you the most return for your upgrade-dollar
Of course, we haven’t even mentioned the disputed and ‘secret’ gear. Did Jimmy Page use a Tele for the Stairway To Heaven solo? I heard the opening licks in Sweet Child O’ Mine were played on a ukulele. You’re on your own for this sort of question. ;-)