1. 1. It’s all in your hands ... for example; Stevie Ray would have sounded distinctly ... well, Stevie Ray, on any guitar he picked up (check out some of his acoustic tracks). So learn to express yourself with touch and phrasing before blowing hard earned dosh on gizmos.
2. 2. Strings make your sound ... make sure they are fresh, good quality, and as heavy as you can get away with for your style. Yes heavy! The more mass your string has, the better the sustain and the gutsier the tone. Heavy strings will stay in tune better, last longer, and really hack off any guitar light-weights that pick up your instrument! Get strong fingers and wail baby wail. I use 10 to 53s and get to feel like Tarzan often.
3. 3. Look at your string contact points ... are you overlapping string on the tuning machine? Has your plastic top nut got the consistency of soap? Are your bridge saddles some disgusting alloy pot-metal rubbish? All the afore mentioned will rob tone and sustain. Get a proper bone nut, or brass if you are that way inclined. Learn how to string without creating bird’s nests ... get some steel or hard brass saddles.
444. Check over all your electrics and fit a good quality tone capacitor/s ... cheap ones sound it ... or it could just be my ears. Cheap pots feel awful but I don’t think they really affect your tone very much. Make sure the right value and taper ones are fitted for your pickups though. Swapping from a 500k to a 250k (or visa versa) can make all the difference.
5. 5. Get your amplification sorted! The market is awash with small, relatively cheap, low wattage tube amps. One of these babies will sound mouth watering ... I show an Epiphone ... but there are loads of other good ones out there.
but if you need really squeaky clean sounds at high volumes you might have to go bigger.For the record, I have nothing against transistor amps ... in fact there are two I would love to own ... a hundred watt HH VS musician 2x12 combo from the seventies, and a twenty watt Gorilla combo amplifier from the early eighties. The trouble is that these are the only two tranny amps I have ever heard/played through that I really liked ... out of all the hundreds I had through my shop in the nineties!
6. 6. Right ... now, as a pickup maker, perhaps you would have expected me to put ‘getting expensive pickups’ at the top of my list. Well you’d be wrong. I have played plenty of guitars with cheap pickups that sound perfectly acceptable. In fact, if you are going to be bunging your sound through a rack full of effects or into a ‘modelling amp’ (must be made in Essex) then a cheap but powerful humbucker is probably your best bet ... no point in drinking the finest wines if all you want is to get hammered!. However if you are like me, and prefer to play a guitar, a lead and a tube amplifier (sometimes a chorus and/ or overdrive box ), and you want the most versatile and detailed sound then ... babies ... I’ll wind you a beauty!
7. 7. Don’t be fooled by hype. There is no pedal on earth that gives ‘instant Hendrix’ ... there is no pickup wound that will make you sound just like your heros ... gadgets get you closer perhaps ... but ultimately it comes right back to number one ... learn to play with passion and soul and your sound will fall into place.
Oh yes ... and my favourite pickup in the entire world? Apart from the ones I wind of course ... the first after-market pickup I ever bought ... the DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker ... all over-winding and ceramic magnets ... pure filth. But it takes me back to being seventeen again!