General tech questions

20 hacks to increase your musical satisfaction, from FREE to 300.00

1

... and arranged in ascending order of cost.

I've tech'ed on a few of my guitars lately, and have been thinking about relative bang for the "upgrade" buck. The list is based on my experience with electric guitars and amps (50 years worth and dozens to scores of each), and I'm trying not to leave anything significant out.

(Naturally, none of that means I'm right about anything.)

Now, you may have reached a peak (or a plateau) of perfect satisfaction and be completely happy with your sound and your playing. You may already be the Compleat Guitarist. In that case, this article isn't for you.

But if you can imagine the slightest room for greater musical satisfaction, read on.

Most items here relate to the guitar and/or the amp. Although a few pedals have snuckened their way onto the list, they're what I consider "basic" foundational pedals that will almost surely improve the tone of any guitarist, of any style, in any genre: they aren't overdrivey, fuzzy, moddy, or echoey. And for these crucial utility pedals, I've recommended what those same long wasted years (and dollars) of experience have impressed on me as the most cost-effective of their kind.

I suppose the list is rather Gretsch-centric.

And here we go!


FREEPractice. Learn something. From youtübe to books to training courses to lessons to jamming to woodshedding, there are hundreds of ways to do it. Just find one.

Helps to play with other people too. You don't have to shut up, but you do have to play your guitar.


FREEListen. Listen to all sorts of music, with ears picking out the details. Don't just hear the guitar, though. Hear everything, and how it fits together.


FREEStop playing. Fed up with your sound, your repertoire, and your musical self? Take a couple weeks off. Don't even pick up the guitar. Then start playing again. You'll be technically a little rusty - which will let you identify those areas of your playing which need the most attention (because they'll be the hardest). You'll also hear yourself and your gear with new ears - and don't be surprised when you spontaneously come up with new ideas.


FREEDo a Deep Tuning. What’s a deep tuning? I don’t know, but I’ve been there occasionally. (Note this may require some of the items further down the list.)

When John Sebastian played at the NorCal Roundup, I watched him tune three guitars for about 45 minutes. He went in rounds. First he got them close (but audibly a little out), one after the other. Then on a second round he got them as “in” as I would expect a guy playing for a room of 25 people would bother with. Then on the third round, he got them to some magical place where EVERYthing was perfectly in - every note, every strum. It was another whole dimension of euphony that lifted everything he played. He did it with a tuner (at first), then his ears and lots of note comparisons around the fingerboards. We should ask him to describe his method.


FREE • Learn to count. Notice I didn't say "practice counting." I don't mean to insult us, but we're guitarists. To us, time is a magazine. Here's what we do: we rush. We mostly rush ahead of the beat. Unless we're really drunk or under some other influence, in which case we might drag before we pass out. And if we're stoned (I've heard), we're just all over the place. Why do you think the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers needed two drummers?

Drummers mostly hate us. They just tolerate us because audiences won't pay to watch 3 hours of drum solo.

We should learn to count. (Note: do what I say here, not what I do.) I say it's free: you probably have a tuner with a metronome built in. If not, there are apps for that. Maybe you have a drum machine. Use the click or rhythm track in your looper (see below). There's free software for your computer which will play very regular drumlike sounds.

Nother words, we have no excuse. We should be practicing to a regular source of reliable time. I'm told that, once you learn to stick with a rhythm, you sound better. Can't prove it, but that's what they say.


FREEDig deep into the tone/volume controls of your guitar and amp combo; learn to really understand them, and find some new sounds.

Digging deep applies in other ways if you’re lucky enough to have multiple guitars and/or amps. Try different combinations, not just the tried-and-true setups you’re used to. Twist the amp knobs into unfamiliar positions, even if you know it’s wrong. See what happens.

And if you have pedals...there’s more in most than we get out of them. Again, twist the knobs. Hook’em up different. Break your own rules, and especially any rules someone else gave you. Find out if they’re right. And if a pedal doesn’t light you up? Set it aside and try it again in a few weeks or months. If it’s still not making you grin, even if it’s a well-known coveted classic everyone has to has - who cares? Outta here! Reverb it. Digging deep could actually pay you a little.


FREEAdjust your pickups. Most have a sweet range where they're really most responsive - and it may differ slightly from player to player. Maybe they're perfect where they are now, maybe they're not. Crank'em up and down anyway, counting how many turns at each adjusting screw (so you can put them back if you make them worse). Listen to the balance of each string with each pickup and mess with the polepieces too. Getting them right can be transformative enough to turn an OK guitar into a grinner.


1.00 - 10.00Try some new picks. Heavier or lighter than you now use, different materials. Picks make a real difference in tone, but not quite as much as…


5.00 - 15.00New strings. Seriously. Unless you put them on in the last couple of weeks, just do it. Open an account with juststrings.com and stock up. Nothing makes more of a difference in the tone of a guitar. Of course you might try different gauges and alloys, rounds and flats. But ANY new strings will probably sound better than what you're playing now.


10.00Got a Bigsby? Order a Reverend soft-touch spring. EsPECially if you have an import Bigsby, or one that feels in any way stiff or unresponsive. If your vibrato arm is bending more than the pitch, just do it. It’s like magic. (Don’t have a Bigsby? That’s a problem.)


75.00 - 150.00 • Professional Setup. Unless you are a pro guitar tech (I'm not, though I've done most of my own work for decades), it's worth paying for. Think about any guitar you have - even your favorite. Odds are good there's something about that guitar that is presently sub-optimal. Not quite perfect. Maybe a string binds in the nut, maybe you're sharp in first position. Maybe some fret buzz somewhere you know to stay away from. Squeaking or clinking at the bridge. A high fret somewhere. Rough fret edges. Tuning problems. Scratchy pots.

A sure sign that your guitar needs to visit a pro tech (unless you ARE one) is that you think you need new tuners. Tuning problems are almost never the tuners. (That's why you don't find upgraded tuners on this list: unless you want them for cosmetic or extra-musical reasons, they don't deliver value.) Yes, great ones that work smoothly feel luxurious - but if your tuners hold the strings at pitch and keep them from slipping (and they probably do), replacing them is vanity. Let the pro determine your need after doing the setup. It's not that I mind your wasting the money on tuners you don't need - it's that you'll still have the problem you hoped they'd fix.

From nut dressing (or replacement) to truss rod adjustment to bridge tweaking to miscellaneous thises and thats specific to your particular instrument, it's almost impossible to explain the value a thorough pro setup brings to your guitar. Reverend Guitars' reputation is built not only on guitars of nice construction and high value - but also the setup their tech Zack Green does before shipping. Reverends all come into customers' hands set up to perfection, and they feel like they cost twice the money.


75.00 - 200.00Upgraded Speaker. Too often left out in upgrade and pedal madness. No advice here about brands or models, as those choices would differ based on your amp, its current speaker, your main guitars, and your taste. But unless you know you already have the best speaker in your amp you could have, it might be worth some investigation. A speaker can completely transform an amp.


80.00 - 150.00Great Compressor. (Not a generic or average compressor.)

It doesn't matter why, but most players can benefit from light to moderate compression, most of the time. I'm not talking about special-effect compression for chicken-pickin' poppin' and endless sustain (though I love those at the right time), but general almost-always-on tone conditioning. It's one of the pedals you don't even know is on till you turn it off. It makes you sound not different, but better.

Two very specific choices here.

First, the Xotic SP, a mini-sized quiet, clean powerhouse that's almost as easy to use as compressors get. Two knobs and a 3-way switch for compression amount. It sounds great (though always a bit compressory). It's listed first because it's the least expensive of the two - currently 80.00 (excellent used) to 150.00 (brand new) on Reverb.

Second, and my strong top recommendation, the Boss CP-1x. (NO OTHER BOSS compressor, though. JUST the CP-1x.) This pedal is a marvel of modern digitally-controlled multi-band compressor tech. (Now that I've said it, you can ignore that.) It has one more knob than the Xotic, but no matter where you set the knobs, you can't make it sound bad. And it can be so utterly transparent you'd never know there's a compressor on - until you turn it off. This one lifts and separates, cleaning and defining every note you play.

It's not only completely unique in the realm of compressors - it's about half the money of anything sounding as good (and most of those aren't nearly as forgiving). It's the first Boss pedal I've gotten excited about in years. (For my nauseatingly full review, see https://reverb.com/p/boss-c...; currently the most recent review, beginning "Great compressor, full stop.")

I paid 120.00 for mine; they're 150.00 new.


80.00 - 116.00Xotic EP Booster. Lots of players think they need a boost pedal to "push the front end of the amp" harder, and maybe they do. This one will do that if you find it necessary. It will also provide just a little increase in clean volume to lift a passage in the mix when needed.

But the REAL magic here is that it gently boosts particular frequency ranges (adjustable via jumpers or DIP switches inside the pedal). Mine came set for low to low-mid fat, and that's where I've left it. It's like EQ voodoo to bring more body to single coil pickups or thin-sounding 'buckers (which we might admit FilterTrons sometimes are). Also a mini pedal, very board-friendly, and used more to contour tone than for amp drive.


80.00 - 200.00A looper pedal. These are great for jamming with yourself and songwriting. Best toy going to seduce you into figuring out just how parts fit together - and to analyze your own playing, quickly and in context. Whether or not you use it live to overdub yourself (and I sometimes do), I consider a looper a basic utility for self-education and playing enjoyment.

Most of the name-brand loopers sound good enough these days - and have for several years (so buying an older model at a good price isn't a sacrifice). I have no experience with the mini-loopers coming with nameless name brands from Asia (Joyo, Hotone, etc), so no comment.

But I do think the popular original Ditto - while it sounds great - offers too little bang for the buck. It was made to draw non-looping guitarists in with its one-button-duh simplicity, and it's good for that. If you just WON'T learn anything more about a pedal than its most basic trick, go for it.

But almost any other looper offers more for your money - more recording/looping time, more memory locations for the ideas it's going to help you develop, and - in trickier models - multiple simultaneous loops and effects. If you're already looping and ready to move on to the next step, look at the Pigtronix Infinity or the (stupidly named) EHX 22500 (both reasonably complicated, but worth it if you like what they do).

If you haven't looped, I think the Boss RC3 and EHX 720 are real sweet spots in value for the money. Lots of basic - and pretty easy - functionality for the money. Sufficient overall time and memory locations. (FWIW, I don't care about quantization and the rhythm/drum tracks some loopers build in - but if a pedal has other wonders, I can ignore those. And some guys like jamming to the drumbeats, so OK.) (Also FWIW, I don't care for Digitech's loopers, even if they're made by a company bearing my last name.)

My price range covers anything from the very basics to more advanced loopers, priced Excellent/Used on Reverb.


85.00 - 215.00Tru-Arc™ bridge (average around 110.00). (Full disclosure for those who don't know: these are my product.)

Originally designed to create a better radius match between some Gretsch bridges and fingerboards, the bridges have been said to improve on other aspects of guitars' performance (depending on the guitar at hand and the bridge being replaced), including feel under hand, tuning stability, intonation - and tone.

But a major part of the Tru-Arc "thang" is that they're available in five metals (aluminum, brass, copper, stainless, titanium) plus glass - each with its own tone and response. Particular materials combine with particular body construction types and pickups in different ways, so bridge selection becomes another way to tweak your tone to your preference.

They come in two basic series - Standard straight-line rocking bars and SerpenTune fully compensated rocking bars - and in models for every guitar Gretsch makes. (They also fit other brands.)


130.00A great tuner. I'll be pretty dogmatic about this: you want something from Sonic Research. (Buy direct here: https://www.turbo-tuner.com). I made do with a Boss TU-whatever for years, and I know Korg and at least another couple companies are in the tuner game. Sonic Research lays low in the market and is seldom reviewed on websites or in the mags, because they don't advertise, and thus get no attention. But I did the research and made the decision, and I couldn't be happier. These little marvels are up to 10 times more precise than the competition, and I've never been more in tune.

Nothing wrong with the clip-ons, but this is a step beyond.

And, clearly, whatever the acuity of your ears, a great tuner will go a long way toward taking you to the Deep Tuning realm mentioned above.


150.00 - 200.00An EQ pedal. Not glamorous, and not often used as an obvious effect, nonetheless most guitarists' tone could benefit from the same kind of subtle shaping an engineer would apply at the mixer. You know your tone can change in ways both predictable (as when changing out guitars) and not-so-predictable (as with weather and in different rooms). A good EQ lets you compensate with more detailed tone tweaks than most amps have the knobs for.

The ubiquitous Boss GE-7 graphic (or any other graphic) is OK - as in better than nothing (as long as you don't get too wild with the sliders), but a parametric EQ is both more surgical and generally more natural-sounding. (Unless you don't want it to be - and it's worth mentioning that an EQ can be used for radical effects.) But I'm not talking about radical effects. I'm talking about judicious tone-shaping. An EQ can be one of those always-on pedals that's just part of your tone.

No rig should be without one. My recommendations are the new Wampler EQuator (standard size, easy to use, semi-parametric) or the Empress ParaEQ w/Boost (a larger pedal, and fully parametric so arguably a little trickier to use). Price range is for excellent used examples.

(Note that if you have such an EQ pedal, you likely don't need the Xotic EP Boost.)


165.00 - 235.00Nocturne Brain DynoBrain or Atomic Brain preamps. These pedals will be abundantly familiar to us on the GDP. Tavo Vega has isolated and enhanced the preamp section of the Roland Space Echo - originally to provide a missing link in creating Brian Setzer's signature tone - but these pedals go way beyond one rockabilly cat.

A little like EQ - but with an extra sort of push and mysterious voodoo I can't quite identify - they lift and separate tones. Your guitar isn't just "brighter", it's somehow clearer (while bearing just a tiny hint of grit), punchier, and more present in any mix. It sounds bigger, more authoritative, manlier. This too becomes an always-on pedal (particularly in a combo setting), because you cut through better without being louder. There's a reason Tavo's Brain pedals have become permanent residents on so many pedalboards - and it doesn't matter what kind of music you play.

I've priced and listed the two most affordable of the current Brain range.


250.00 - 300.00TV Jones pickups. Even if you already have TV Jones pickups, do you have the right ones for your guitar and your taste? There are many flavors to choose from, and they ALWAYS make a difference. If you're changing out generic 'buckers, the difference is night and day. But even if you have some variety of Gretsch-branded pickups, the TV Jones equivalent (or a variant) will bring noticeable definition, detail, and other deluxe things to your tone.



And that's my 20-point guitar-satisfaction hackin' guide. I stopped at 300.00, because beyond that we're out of the upgrade range and into extensive mods and/or new instruments/amps/etc.

Of course, not everyone needs everything on the list (and doing them all would be expensive!). It's mostly intended to help prospective tweakers (which is all of us) prioritize upgrades against their budgets - and perhaps assist in deciding what would be the most rewarding way to spend any available funds.

But have you already covered all or most of the above territory? Do you know you can't benefit from anything mentioned?

Then we've come full-circle. Go back to the first few FREE ideas and stay there till you get happy.

2

Thank ya, Tim!!!!!

KILLER post!

4

A good comprehensive list.

5

Great post that reflects a lot of thought and time. Thanks, Tim, for your contributions to all of us on this site.

6

Proteus wrote: But even if you have some variety of Gretsch-branded pickups, the TV Jones equivalent (or a variant) will bring noticeable definition, detail, and other deluxe things to your tone.

Yesser to that, especially the noticeable definition and detail part. Lately I've been enjoying playing the 6118 with TV Jones Classic and Classic Plus alternating with a 6120 with Gretsch Filter'trons. The guitars are very similar and when played back-to-back the differences in the pickups are obvious: Filter'trons are louder and drive the amp or pedals more, and have a slightly lower midrange frequency response, making them sound 'darker', although darker is not the best word; there not dark. I like them both, but the TVs are a tad brighter, more detailed and have a little more definition. Wait a minute, you already said that.

I have to mention though; those TV T-Armonds in the Falcon......well.....nothing compares IMHO. Its got me thinking, or should I say curious about, a set of gold T-Armonds in Filter'tron mounts for the 6120.

7

Great list Tim, I whole heartedly agree with you. These are the things that take time to learn (decades) and I wish I had read more about this earlier on in my life. I also stumbled my way, with a lot of wasted time, money and energy, discovering many of the things on your list. I seemed to have missed a few of the bullet points you mentioned. Thanks filling in the gaps, it's greatly appreciate.

8

Take time off. That hits home. My wife needed surgery a few weeks ago so I was responsible for everything. No time to breath and no time to play. Yesterday I went for my guitar lesson and amazed myself and my teacher. We spend about twenty minutes where he lays down a rhythm and I'm supposed to play lead using whatever scale he shouts out at me and I blew my own mind. I don't know why, but that down time was super beneficial.

9

Thanks for the recommendation on the compressor pedal Tim.

I've got a EHX B9 that I'm trying to force feed with a Jazzmaster. I'm going to give the Boss a try.

10

The organ module? Hmm. I think EHX prefers those pedals get straight signal from the guitar, but if it's not triggering because output is too low (or variable), the comp could help boost it and even it out.

I have the Mel9 - and since it's basically a sampler player, I reason that it should ultimately be amplified not by the guitar amp, but by something with a fuller range, like the PA (or recording gear). So I've set up a parallel signal path. One from the guitar into all the guitar stuff, another just to the Mel9, then out to a channel of a mixer. When the instruments are thus separated, it's a better soundfield too.

11

I blew my own mind.

Don't you love it when that happens?

12

Yeah. I think that I had many emotions stored up and they all erupted in that one moment. Good things can come from stress.

13

Good things can come from stress.

When it's relieved.

(Well, also weight loss.)

14

Another free one would be jumping on an instrument you might not be familiar with.

Piano, accordion, cello, whatever. You can fiscover new melodies by going down a different path, even if you don't know how to play that instrument.

Sometimes, just a different guitar is all that's needed. Try a resonator, a 12 string, and acoustic if you haven't in a while.

15

Yup. My reso made me want to play more and try different styles. Even my six string uke made it more fun.

16

Awesome list. Thank you for taking the time to compose that!

17

Take time off. That hits home. My wife needed surgery a few weeks ago so I was responsible for everything. No time to breath and no time to play. Yesterday I went for my guitar lesson and amazed myself and my teacher. We spend about twenty minutes where he lays down a rhythm and I'm supposed to play lead using whatever scale he shouts out at me and I blew my own mind. I don't know why, but that down time was super beneficial.

– UncleGrumpy

I recall reading, on more than one occasion about historical creative figures who regarded time away from composing, practicing, writing, scientific problem solving, etc., as crucial to the process. While our conscious minds are not engaged in something, another part can continue problem solving and often make real progress, as if the conscious part reaches a point where it gets in the way; hence the phrase, "The mind is a terrible thing."

My old tai chi teacher said, "When you get up in the morning, don't ask yourself what you have to do today. Ask, what don't I have to do today." I too often get caught up in trying too hard to accomplish things. The old Taoists cultivated wu wei; doing without doing. Thanks for the reminder.

18

Sometimes you have to step back to move forward.

19

The organ module? Hmm. I think EHX prefers those pedals get straight signal from the guitar, but if it's not triggering because output is too low (or variable), the comp could help boost it and even it out.

I have the Mel9 - and since it's basically a sampler player, I reason that it should ultimately be amplified not by the guitar amp, but by something with a fuller range, like the PA (or recording gear). So I've set up a parallel signal path. One from the guitar into all the guitar stuff, another just to the Mel9, then out to a channel of a mixer. When the instruments are thus separated, it's a better soundfield too.

– Proteus

It does, but the user manual (who reads those anyway?) says:

"2. The unit performs best using the bridge pickup of a guitar. If a guitar’s pickup has a weak output, performance can be improved by putting a clean boost or a compressor in front of the B9. It is not advised to place a distortion or overdrive in front of the B9. This will muddy up the input signal and cause the tracking to be unstable. If overdrive or distortion is desired it’s best to place it after the B9. 3. Some guitar amplifiers have a uneven peaky frequency response that may cause some sounds to be over accentuated. A compressor in front or after the B9 can help smooth this out. This helps for a guitar player who’s playing is less than desirable in the dynamics department. "

Italics mine.

20

Great write up. This should be a sticky.

I need a looper, for sure. I've gotten along without compression and EQ but they probably wouldn't be a bad thing to add to my small pedal board.

Heck, when I first came on board the GDP I was playing through a Digitech rack system into an SS amp.

21

Proteus, that is an excellent list and addresses a lot of stumbling blocks to progress-or more precisely, ways to overcome those blocks. I just bought a book of tablature sheets and have started to use them to help capture some ideas-you know, the stuff you're sure you'll remember tomorrow, and fifteen minutes later you're going "now what was that I was doing again?" One of the biggest helps in writing it down became apparent when I was working on something that I could almost hear in my head but couldn't quite bring it down to the fretboard. When I tabbed out the part I was getting, it seemed to focus my mind and Bam! There it was, just right. I believe it is an extension of the principal you posted about counting-and boy, is that one ever spot on! Speaking for myself, I'm always out ahead, anticipating the juicy solo or some such-then totally butchering it 'cause your count (time) is off! Arrrgh! Well, not always, but I've certainly been guilty my share of the time, and I have improved over time. An excellent point you made there.

22

Devil’s Tool, I actually do read effect and gear manuals (to do so should actually be another FREE hack), but I’ve read a lot of them recently (don’t ask), and had forgotten that...

performance can be improved by putting a clean boost or a compressor in front of the B9.

So, yup, the Boss will do that marvelously - and polish your tone when you’re not B9ing as well.


I’m glad some of these observations are hitting some spots!

23

Great write up. This should be a sticky.

I agree, although I think it should actually be in the articles section. If Tim doesn't mind, that's where I'll move it (soon, once I take care of some other things)

24

"Free: Learn to count." Yes, everyone should work on their time, and a metronome is a great investment of a few bucks. It can be the harshest of friends, but always an honest, and very loyal one. I have to say though, at the risk of sounding defensive, guitarists don't rush any more than any other instrumentalists; only the ones who don't work on playing time. In my neck of the woods there are certain drummers that I would prefer not work with because they rush, or just don't listen; no one has perfect time, but if we work on it, it can get pretty good. We should all be musicians first; instrumentalists second.

While I never had the good fortune to have played with Duane Allman, or even hear him live, I suspect his time was pretty good.

25

While I never had the good fortune to have played with Duane Allman, or even hear him live, I suspect his time was pretty good.

Well, of course. I was just making a hippie musician joke.

Interesting that all instrumentalists have the time problem. I guess it stands to reason that they would, but I've been led by others to think guitarists have it really bad. Maybe those people are just being diplomatic: it's just me in particular, but they include me in the class of all guitarists to spread the blame and keep my hackles down.

I've certainly played with drummers who rush - especially, for some reason, when they go like brain-dead robots to the ride cymbal because it's time for the solos. One I worked with was the director of a nationally-hyped high school percussion ensemble - considered himself a consummate jazzer, and was a powerhouse muscleman on the kit. That turned out to be pretty unjazzlike on the one gig we used him for when our usual (sublimely smooth and responsive) drummer was out. This guy couldn't quiet down or slow down for the small room we were in, and he was just on genre rails. There's ALWAYS a big intro, right, and then the head, maybe two, then a chorus where you build it up, and then to the damn ride for the solos, yadda yadda. And always pushing. You wanted to push his drum set over. Longest 4 hours I ever spent playing music.

Only he completely separated what we were doing from the domain of music. We were four musicians playing exercises to a drum instructor.

Anyway. I digress.

Indeed, musicians first and then instrumentalists. I should say at this point that the best listeners and most complete musicians of everyone I've played with have probably been three particular drummers.


Register Sign in to join the conversation