We all have them—our secret weapons. The one thing in our rig that defines our sound, or at the very least, plays a pivotal role in the final outcome.
For me, it’s the pickups in my G&L ASAT. If you aren’t familiar, Leo Fender sold the Fender company in 1965 due to health concerns. Years later—in 1979 to be exact—after a stint as president of Music Man, Leo teamed up with his friend George Fullerton to form G&L guitars. (G for George and L for Leo.) The basic designs were similar to Fender guitars, but with a variety of modern upgrades. One such innovation was the MFD pickup.
MFD stands for Magnetic Field Design and the concept was the next step in guitar pickup topology.
Rather than winding copper wire around alnico poles as he had at Fender, Leo employed a big, fat ceramic bar magnet at the bottom of the pickup and wrapped the copper winding around (individually adjustable) soft iron pole pieces.
The result is a stronger, more harmonically rich single coil tone that’s clean, bright and relatively quiet. How? Because MFD technology yields about twice the output per wind. So while the impedance only measures about 5.6k, it’s more powerful than such a small number might suggest.
I bought my first G&L—an ASAT Special Tribute—about ten years ago and haven’t looked back. My current guitar—a 2007 ASAT Classic Custom that’s been my number one guitar for several years now—has an ideal blend of MFD tones, thanks to the warm, ballsy soapbar-style MFD in the neck and the smaller, more aggressive tele-style pickup in the bridge. I’ve owned and played many nice guitars since first experiencing the magic of Magnetic Field Design, but none have bested my Classic Custom.
And that's my secret weapon. But 300-word articles don’t cut the mustard, so I reached out to a few of my fellow Tone Reporters and they were happy to share their secret weapons with you, too.
Secret Weapon: MONTREAL ASSEMBLY WRONG SIDE OF URANUS
I’ve been working in guitar shops for six years now, and fixing gear for even longer. With that said, I’m a bit of a tinkerer and I’ve built plenty of my own gear, but the truly special stuff comes from the hands of the masters. One such contemporary figure is Scott Monk of Montreal Assembly.
His Wrong Side of Uranus bitcrusher is my secret weapon pedal. I first found out about it when looking for a superior hardware bitcrusher after selling my Alesis Bitrman. I stumbled upon Sonic Crayon’s Moth in 2009 and Etienne posted something like “for a more advanced bitcrusher, check out Montreal Assembly.” I was in awe, and my girlfriend bought it for me for our anniversary—what a woman.
It features eight different modes, including crushed tremolo, random bit depth modulation and more. Sometime in 2011, I emailed Scott and asked about adding a clean blend circuit. He emailed me a schematic, I put it together and it worked like a charm. I simply cannot imagine my rig without it, and it’s been on every pedalboard I’ve ever put together since getting it. My Uranus has seen plenty of shows, inspired countless ideas, and it’s going in my casket. Sorry, kids.
Secret Weapon: H.B.E. GERMANIA
This secret weapon ain't much of a secret, inasmuch as I've yodeled its praises from the mountaintops in more than a few previous TRW articles. It is also not terribly rare or exotic, so please don't get too excited. My commonly available sonic cudgel is the H.B.E. Germania, and you can pry it from my cold, dead hands (or maybe just buy your own—they're cheap).
The Germania is essentially a germanium-based Rangemaster treble booster, but what sets it apart is its Hi-Fi mode. In Hi-Fi, the Germania becomes a full-spectrum overdrive-and-fuzz hybrid of uncommon ferocity. Pushed by humbuckers or a burly set of P90's, it takes on a quality not unlike Mick Ronson's Ziggy Stardust-era sound; raw and snotty in the mids, fat and slightly woolly in the caboose, with a glistening treble glaze up top. It is not transparent at all, but it is glorious.
The Germania has a permanent place in my signal chain for a few reasons. For one, it generally sounds the same through any amp I am playing through, allowing me to get my foundation guitar sound going no matter the backline. Secondly, I spend a lot of time plugged into solid-state amps and digital interfaces, and the Germania's warm, squishy germanium ooze drastically improves the sterile feel of such platforms, adding considerable punch, girth, and tube-like dynamics. Germania and I shall never part.
Secret Weapon: DUNLOP TORTEX .88 PICK
Trying to identify the key to my sound—the one consistent piece—took some deep analysis. I have used amps by Marshall, Fender, Soldano, Mesa Boogie and Vox. Ibanez, Fender, Gibson and G&L guitars come to mind as well. I have changed from dancing with individual floor pedals to different types of integrated effects units. So what really defines my sound? The Dunlop Tortex .88 mm guitar pick, of course.
Early on in my playing I looked for the right thickness and material for the sound I wanted. I had settled on some nylon picks, also by Dunlop, initially. I found that under stage lights, or playing in the heat of an outdoor festival, the nylon got slippery. Then I discovered Dunlop's Tortex picks. I worked with various thicknesses at first, and even varied here and there, but I seem to always return to the .88 mm (the green ones).
The Dunlop Tortex matte finish is comfortable and won't slip around in my hand. The thickness is hardy, which offers good command of the strings whether I'm strumming chords or speed-picking leads. The narrow end is rounded nicely so it's easy to soften the pick attack if needed. Tortex seems to last a while, so I'm wearing it down to a razor sharp edge after each gig. It's no technological wonder, but it has a fundamental effect on my sound.
Secret Weapon: TC ELECTRONIC FLASHBACK DELAY
The Flashback was my very first delay pedal, and as a matter of fact, it was one of the very first pedals I ever owned. It has stayed with me on every incarnation of my pedalboard, and traveled across the world about five times. When my rig was in mono, the Flashback added space and dimension, with pristine digital repeats or darker and more characterful analog and tape delays. When my rig grew to stereo, the Flashback grew right there with me, providing a world of stereo widening delays and spatial sweetness. I have tried some of the most expensive delay pedals in the world, and so far none of them have dethroned the mighty Flashback. It has everything I could possibly need and want, while sounding incredible. I was even able to fool my friends into thinking it was a much more expensive boutique delay.
If there is anything in my rig that is my secret weapon, it's that. I've spent so much time with it that I know exactly where to set the knobs to get the sounds that I want every time, and it never "takes over" your sound like so many other delays can. It lies right under my main signal, adding space and dimension without the repeats crashing into each other. Every time I stomp it on there is an "ahhhh" moment, like the final ingredient in a complex cake of tone.
David A. Evans
Secret Weapon: FENDER JAGUAR
When I think about that special piece of gear that sets my tone apart, I can’t say that any one thing comes to mind except my mid-’90s, made-in-Japan Fender Jaguar. It’s not my first guitar, but it’s the first electric guitar I’ve owned. And because of its quirks, I’d say that my playing has adapted to the instrument over the years.
The Jaguar won’t please everyone. Its neck is tiny compared to that of a Strat. Yet the short-scale neck has forced me to be economical with my fingers’ movements.
Then there’s the bridge. The Jaguar isn’t known for sustain, nor is it known for a high-quality bridge. Some people claim that when the guitar is properly set up, the stock bridge is fine. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I used a Mustang bridge until I splurged on a Mastery bridge, which increased the sustain and enriched the resonance.
So there you have it. Learning to play lead guitar on a Jaguar, trying to coax as much out of the thing as I could, trying to play fast licks above the twelfth fret, past which the fretboard’s real estate is at a premium—these things, on this instrument, have done more than anything else to distinguish my sound from that of other people.
Secret Weapon: A PERFECT PAIR
The secret weapon in my rig is the two-pedal knockout punch of the Catalinbread Karma Suture and the Earthquaker Devices Dispatch Master. I’ve written about the Dispatch Master ad nauseum; I bought one six years ago and haven’t been without it since. I’m always amazed at its versatility in spite of its simplicity. Just four knobs give you beautiful, spacious reverb and a very musical delay that helps add delightful color to every style of playing and genre of music you can think of. You can use them separately or together, and I highly recommend using them together as they enhance one another. The delay can be described as clear, but analog-ish— you’ll notice it more when it’s off than when it’s on. It does not go into self-oscillation, which means you can turn the repeats up all the way and have a beautiful, unobtrusive cloud for your music to float on. Whether I need subtle space, slapback, or shoegaze ambience, it’s all in the Dispatch Master.
The Karma Suture is an awesome germanium/silicon hybrid dirt device. I have the original version, which is now labeled the Germanium Karma Suture, and it does everything from wild, aggressive fuzz to slightly dirty boost to a harmonically rich overdrive. No matter where you set the knobs, and no matter how fuzzed out it gets, each note rings out clearly, and getting musical feedback is a breeze. It’s a ton of fun to play, and in conjunction with the Dispatch Master, I can get most of the way to my sound no matter what amplifier I’m playing through, and no matter what guitar I’m using. I actually featured these two in my Perfect Pedal Pairs article, and I highly recommend you try both of them if you haven’t already.
Secret Weapon: ROLAND BLUES CUBE ARTIST
I’ve gone through a few popular tube amps lately, but with the Blues Cube Artist from Roland, I have found the simple solid-state approach that’s very refreshing. It features two channels, a nice reverb and tremolo, but there aren’t any other digital effects incorporated. Instead, what it has is great tone, and most importantly for me, it loves pedals.
The BCA acts like a blank canvas. Each of my six different guitars sound unique, as they should. Each pedal on my board maintains its own unique tone. The clean channel is just nice, full, warm and clear—like a good “blackface” amp. The overdrive channel, while not over-the-top, delivers a nice Marshall-like crunch when called upon.
What I love most about the BCA is that it just works. It has four different watt settings: Half-watt for late night playing (and it can still get loud!), a 15-watt setting that I seem to use most often for studio use, with 45- and 85-watt settings that work great for larger spaces. And if you think a solid-state amp is more toy-like than a tube amp, well—try one and see for yourself. In general, it is difficult to find an amp that works great for home, studio and live use. The Blues Cube Artist pulls it off better than most.
Two other distinct advantages: no tubes also means no annoying tube rattle, or tube replacement, or biasing or…you see my point. Finally, at 35 pounds, it is easy to transport—a real plus for aging backs! I suppose the ultimate testament is if I were to lose all my equipment, what would I replace first? It would have to be this amp—and then I would build everything else around it.
So know you know all our little secrets, tonally speaking, of course. And the nice thing is that our go-to pedals, guitars and amps aren’t exactly unobtainable [Except for one. Ed.], so if you’re looking to add a new weapon in your arsenal, well—feel free to take our lead. And we know you’ve probably got a trick or two up your sleeve as well, so find us on social media and let us know what your secret is. Thanks for getting to know us all a little better.