A group of seasoned musicians weigh in on strategies to find the perfect guitar, amp, or effects and the iOS apps that can help make you a better guitarist.
From Angus Young’s SG to Rick Nielsen’s multi-necked monsters, certain guitars are intrinsically linked with styles of music or even particular musicians. How did this happen, and how can you find the best guitar (or guitars) for your art?
Prince was not born with a Telecaster in his hand (or maybe he was - you never can be sure with Prince). Every musician takes a long journey to find the best way to share the sounds in their minds. There is no magical map that will lead you to your signature set-up (and sound). Rather, it is a long path filled with experimentation, influence from others, and and your own experiences.
Teacher, I Need You
Paul Masvidal, songwriter and frontman for the band Cynic, has released numerous albums and has recorded and performed as a session musician for numerous movies and television shows. He remembers a teacher who first exposed him to a unique type of guitar that later became his signature instrument.
My first jazz guitar teacher, Dave Weissbrot, was for me a brilliant musician and a great thinker. He opened my heart and mind up to music in a way that I hadn't experienced before. He played a late 80's Steinberger GM4T, which was my first exposure to headless electric guitars. I was hooked the moment I heard him improvise on the instrument and the ease with which he played.
From then forward started a kind of obsession [with], and relationship to, head (stock) less instruments and eventually became a Steinberger player. These guitar types always felt more naturally balanced and akin to my own body. I never looked back, and now have the dream model instrument as a signature guitar!
Craig de Borba has shared the stage with musicians ranging from Enrique Iglesias to Chris Isaak. He has also done tons of work for television and film, and he founded Fusion Music Marketing. He remembers both his early sources of influence, and how they evolved.
I think probably the biggest influence would have to be the artists using them, especially early on. Later on, as I matured as a musician, it came down to the tone or sound I wanted. The next thing is playability: how well does this guitar play or feel in my hands? I think guitars are very unique and personal to the player. You can take guitars, same make and model, and they'll play or feel a little different. And what doesn't fit with my style will be perfect for another.
Lizzy Daymont fills big shoes touring, playing guitar, and harmonizing in Heart by Heart, the new project from Hall of Fame Members Steve Fossen and Mike Derosier, original members of Heart. Her guitar choices have been influenced by both (rock) gods and friends.
All of my favorite musicians have influenced my guitar choices, including guitarists Jimmy Page, Alex Lifeson, Steve Howe, and Howard Leese. Bassists Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and John Paul Jones have also been influential on me. I’m also influenced by musicians that I know personally and work with. I love to talk gear with my peers, and learn what they like and how they approach their setups.
Guitar instructors and mentors, and friends and family who have been playing longer than you, are probably the best sources to start with when it comes to finding a guitar. Not only do they know music and instruments, they know at least a little about you and your style.
You Had Better Shop Around
Whether you are looking for your first guitar, or simply to diversify your collection, picking a guitar will depend on your personal preferences. There is also the matter of finding the right tool for the right job: Are there specific features or tones you want?
Danny Beissel enjoyed the unique experience of playing for the US Armed Forces at Guantanamo Bay with his band, Fosterchild, and is now fronting the American Vinyl All Star Band. He knows that emotion is a large part of the guitar buying puzzle.
When picking out a guitar, take your time! You don't buy a guitar, you fall in love with it. Go to various guitar stores and strum away. When you do purchase your guitar and hate to be apart from it, you know you picked the right one.
Lizzy Daymont uses a variety of instruments for a variety of sounds.
My first guitar was an old Kay acoustic. It originally belonged to my mother, and sat by the piano in our home when I was growing up. I played my first chord on it when I was nine years old. It was not an easy guitar to play, and I had to work pretty hard at it to improve my skills. Now, I am playing a 2002 Taylor 714ce acoustic, a 2004 Gibson Les Paul Standard, 2014 Les Paul Axcess Alex Lifeson signature, and a 2001 Paul Reed Smith Custom 24.
Leanna Patterson fronts California-based indie-folk band The Whiskey Circle. She shares her go-to guitars, and where they fit into her musical ideas.
First, a 1977 Gibson SG Special Edition. It has beautiful sustain and sounds perfect with my Memory Man [Electro-Harmonix delay pedal]. I also have a 2008 Japanese Fender Mustang. It is perfect for the occasional surf rock or alt country tune, and finally a 2002 Martin Dxk2A (the best twangy acoustic).
Grammy nominated songwriter and producer Dru DeCaro has found success in arenas that many guitarists don’t explore such as hip-hop, R&B, and electronic dance music. When asked about his guitar wish list, he shared some ideas as unique as his music.
A baritone. Such an awesome sound, but kinda an obscure instrument. It's one of the few remaining pieces of gear I don't have. Actually, a pedal steel should be up there on my wish list too.
Whether you’re shopping for one guitar, or an arsenal, take your time and make sure each instrument is the perfect fit for the perfect sound.
Don’t Underestimate Character
The physical look of a guitar can also influence who picks it up, both by features and associations. What shapes and styles speak to you, and why?
Musician and producer Jake Lahmon began playing guitar at age 14. As a part of the Dread Engine production company, he enjoys creating and collaborating with other musicians. He admits that a guitar can actually influence the person playing it.
Everything about a guitar effects what comes out when it's played—everything from the size, to the tone or pickups. Hell, even the color has an influence. A lot of people say certain guitars contain songs within them. It's all about making its way into the right players hands.
Dru DeCaro advises beginners to look for a used guitar.
Not 'vintage' exactly, but one that has been loved and beaten around a bit—one with a vibe and a story. A quick search can yield some insane deals these days. Musician's Friend has a ton of [used] stuff, and I've never really liked the feel of new guitars anyway. Plus, you won't have to worry about putting the first scratch on her, just get out there and rip.
After first picking up a guitar at age 13, Dan Vuksanovich went on to marry a love of heavy metal with a Master of Music degree in classical guitar performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkin University. He knows that the relation of looks and sound can vary in certain styles of music.
With electric guitars the shape of the body is less important than with acoustic guitars, because there’s so much more in between the string and your ears: pickups, effects, amp, cabinet, cables, etc. I know there are players out there who are on the eternal hunt for a more natural path to the perfect tone. I’m just not one of them. I’m an ‘80s metal guy, so I’ve got high output pickups in my guitars. Aesthetically I insist on an “inline six” headstock because that’s a very ‘80s look. I’ve also got diamond inlays in my main guitar’s neck. Pointy things are very ‘80s.
Aesthetic and character are important aspects of a guitar, so don’t let anyone sell you an ugly guitar just because it sounds good. You can have a guitar that plays well, and also has character—you just may need to look a little longer.
Those Wonderful Toys
Once you have the guitar you want, it’s time to consider your next steps, such as amps and pedals. Dan Vuksanovich relies heavily on tools other than his guitar to get the sound he wants.
For an ‘80s high gain sound, the standard is a Marshall with an overdrive pedal in front of it. My current POD high gain patch features the Marshall JCM800 amp model with a Tube Screamer in front of it. At the end of the signal chain I’ve got an EQ to dial off some high end fizz and boost the mids, reverb, chorus, and delay. The tube screamer and the EQ are always on. The reverb chorus and delay I use situationally. I should give a nod here to meambobbo’s awesome site on dialing in high gain sounds with a POD HD.
Leanna Patterson advises beginners to spend where it counts.
Don't be afraid to spend good money on a good guitar. There's nothing worse than buying a cheap guitar and not getting the exact one you want. Spend the good money up front so you don't have to keep upgrading or repairing the cheaper guitar later on. Also, invest in a good amp. A good amp is just as important (if not more) as a good guitar. You'd hate to have your $1000 SG sound like crap because you're playing out of a cheap-o practice amp.
Having found the right guitar, you are far from done. Customizations—from pickups to pedals—can further dial-in the sound you are seeking.
Power in Your Pocket
From staying in tune to passing the time in the van, there’s an app for that. Guitar players share the portable pieces of software that have made their lives easier, or just more fun.
Are amp sims (amp simulators) a waste of time? Lahmon discusses one that he has found useful.
One of the best app I've ever used is Bias, by Positive Grid. Having owned many amp sims including an AxeFx, Line 6 POD, etc., this is honestly one of the top contenders for tone, as far as amp sims go. Sure, it's not a $2,000 rack unit, but for about $20, what's not to like? This, combined with GarageBand and Audiobus on iOS, is pretty much an all-purpose rig.
Daymont and DeCaro use apps to stay in tune and in time, and to practice until perfect.
A few guitar apps that I have found useful include TC Electronic’s Polytune, Metronome+, and Anytune. These are great tools for practicing or learning songs. With Anytune I can loop a part of a recording and drill it until I get it right. I can also slow a song down to nail the details or change the key. I wish I had these things when I was first learning guitar as a kid!
I use Cleartune all the time. And the Pro Metronome by EUMLabs when I'm practicing. There's also a really cool ear-training app called Quiztones. We spend a lot of idle hours on the bus and at the venue; that one comes in super handy.
Patterson records her ideas and enjoys the ideas of others via favorite apps.
I use GarageBand for my iPhone to record demo tracks of new songs I'm working on, and IndieShuffle, a free streaming radio app for indie artists.
Mobile tech is definitely changing life as a musician, and putting some really powerful tools in your pocket!
From New Software to Classic Hard Rock
Whether you are still fumbling over your first frets, or are an experienced guitar player, there are always new tips, tricks, and tools available that can help make your ideas a reality. From a new (to you) guitar to an app that eases your learning curve, the possibilities to improve your playing are almost endless.
Learn more with expert guitar buying guides.
For more great iOS tools, check our article Top 10 Music Apps and the Musician’s Friend iOS Store.