How Do You Get That Sound? Easier Than You Think. My Rig, Explained

A guide to a versatile, powerful, great sounding rig on a budget - cover all the bases without compromising!

Ultimate Guitar
Hello internet. I am not famous. Not rich. Not a virtuoso. I may release a solo album at some point in the next five years, but I highly doubt that more than 1% of those reading this article will give a damn.

My point being - I'm just a regular working guitar player, just like many of of you reading this. So when I talk to you about my equipment, I'm not talking about the virtues of $5000 Dumble amps or vintage Gibsons, I'm explaining a rig that was developed on a budget for functionality alone after 20 years of gigging. I'm writing this because I'm hoping it may be of use to some of you.

My rig consists of three basic elements - the guitar(s), the FX unit and the amplifier. Although I play in two different covers bands, record my own material and regularly dep with other bands, I don't really need anything massively outlandish in the way of modulation effects - chorus, some occasional phasing or flanging - and I imagine this is the case for many of you out there. So it's the core tone that's the important thing - EQ, compression and overdrive. 

Guitar - Fender USA Stratocaster Standard (Customised)

Yep, it's a Strat. Sorry, but it's a classic. Versatile, great playing, great sounding - and with some modifications that may be of interest to many of you.

My Strat began life as a 1999 USA Standard purchased secondhand in 2002. Since then, I've added a few things:

LSR Roller nut - this helps with tuning stability by reducing friction at the nut. Instead of regular bone or plastic, this has a micro-roller design that aids movement over the nut, better allowing the string to return to pitch after a bend or whammy bar manipulation. This mod provides 80% (at a conservative estimate) of the tuning stability of a Floyd Rose and has none of the attendant drawbacks. I have my bar set to allow for approximately a semitone of up-bend - this is easily adjustable by tightening or loosening the springs in the tremolo cavity in the back of the guitar. Unlike the rest of the mods, I didn't trust myself to install this one and it went to Bob Dayfield at Sheehan's Music in Leicester.

Graphite String Saver Saddles - these have been an absolute lifesaver. I now break two or three strings a year, rather than a gig. Graphite is a natural lubricant, reducing friction and stress over the string saddle which is the most frequent cause of string breakage. I thoroughly recommend these for any regularly gigging guitar player. The confidence of being able to play hard and really attack the guitar without worrying about a string going makes the whole process far more enjoyable!

Sperzel Locking Machine Heads - These replace the regular machine heads and provide extra tuning stability. A pole inside the tuning peg itself is wound into place after tuning and grips the string in place preventing it from slipping and ensuring that the guitar stays in tune. This is a pretty easy mod to perform, nothing more traumatic than drilling a couple of small holes through the headstock to ensure the screws line up.

As well as Sperzel, Gotoh are known for making high quality machine heads, often cropping up on Ernie Ball Music Man guitars amongst others. If your technique incorporates a lot of whammy bar work and/or string bending, these are must-haves.

Tortoiseshell scratchlate - I just liked this.

Seymour Duncan Everything Axe pickup set - Not for the purists, this one. I've read a lot of reviews criticising these pickups for removing the essential Stratocaster characteristics.

I don't really care about that though. The fact is, the combination of the SL59 "Little '59" minihumbucker in the neck position, the innovative SDBR-1n Duckbucker - a kind of P-bass style offset single coil specifically voiced to accentuate the "out-of-phase" pickup positions - in the middle position - and the SJBJ1b JB Jr for the bridge give me a hugely versatile selection of sounds. Humbuckers in the neck and bridge positions (coil splitting is an option, although I haven't wired mine up to do that. I mean, I totally could and everything, I just didn't want to...) give me access to the big fat rock tones I need for material by Van Halen, ZZ Top, Guns N' Roses and so on, while the Duckbucker means I still get to keep the gorgeous Stratocaster "quack" for the cleaner sounds.

So for me, (and I can't imagine my situation is exactly unique), the versatility is phenomenaly useful. Basically, I have all the best bits of Strat and Les Paul in one - and yes, maybe some of that unique Strattiness has been sacrificed, but what I've gained in return is an instrument which covers all the sonic bases I'm ever likely to need, holds tune through all but the most insane abuses, barely ever breaks a string, is light (but not too light) and fits my hand like a glove. And the most expensive of these mods (the pickups) clocks in at £179.99 for the full set of three pickups. 

Amp - Laney TT50

I'm not a big believer in lugging 100 watt Marshall heads and 4x12" cabinets for small local venues - pubs, clubs and so on. What's the point of a all that gear if it sits on "2" the whole time? And yes, I'm well aware of power attenuation devices like the Marshall Powerbrake, but that's just spendinging more money and lugging more equipment to make a big amp sound like a small amp... Why not just use a smaller amp? Sat on a riser, my 50w 1x12" combo has never, ever struggled to make itself heard, and it fits nicely into a small car boot.

Like the Strat, my amp is a nice but not exactly boutique piece of kit - a second hand purchase which has survived a number of disasters, including my dog's attempt to mark it as a piece of his own territory. It's a good-sounding bit of kit, not really voiced for insane high gain stuff like a Boogie or Engl, but with a nice, singing classic rock distortion. I've never been a fan of the Marshall sound (I know, heresy) and have had many, many issues with Marshall reliability which I won't go into here, but as with the Strat, the amp's character is not why I bought it. I bought it to be a blank slate for me to shape my sound myself, and it has a number of design features which lets me do exactly that.

Channels - three. Clean, crunch, and all out filth. All footswitchable - for open mic nights, I travel light (read - too lazy to bring anything more than the bare minimum of kit), so the amp just sits on the crunch channel. Combined with pickup switch and volume control manipulation, this gives me everything I need to get through a night of blues, rock and indie statndards with the occasional singalong number thrown in. Each channel has its own volume controls, three band EQ and reverb, giving me plenty of flexibility to play just through the amp if necessary.

With the bands, I use the TT50 in conjucntion with a DigiTech multiFX unit in a 4 cable configuration using the amp FX loop - more on this below. The TT50 FX mix control allows me to blend the "wet" and "dry" signals for further versatility.

The absolute ace in the hole, though, is the second master volume control. I've never found this function on any other amplifier and it is an absolute godsend. Everything I've triedto use as a boost pedal has always been at the wrong end of the signal chain, fattening up the input signal but with no guaranteed volume boost at the end of the chain, and more often than not ending up as a feedback ridden mess. The TT50 second master volume allows me to set a "solo" level 1-2 notches higher than my "rhythm" volume and solves the problem perfectly. I've had many guitar player friends of mine ask me what I recommend to solve the age old problem of boosting a solo volume level - the best answer I can give is to go on eBay and buy one of these wonderful amps! And sadly, eBay is about your best option because Laney have decided to stop making the TT series. No other amp in production (at least that I'm aware of - if you know otherwise, please let me know) offers this incredibly simple yet incredibly effective feature. Which is why I'll be sticking with the old tea-stained, beat-up and painfully heavy combo until at least one of us is dead. 

Effects - DigiTech RP1000

I'm not a massive user of effects, to be honest, but a nice sheen of compression, reverb, delay etc. Does help to smooth out a mix and for the bands I think it's important to create a tone that sounds suitably... Expensive, for want of a better word. I am fond of the single dedicated pedal approach - one of my luxuries is the Blackstar HT Dual distortion pedal which gives a gorgeous velvet tone but unfortunately has a power supply guaranteed to fail at least once every ten minutes.

For regular live work, I favour the functionality (there's that word again) of a multi-FX unit - everything you need all in one place with the added bonus of amp simulation in the event of a catastrophic amp failure (it shappened before). 

The quality of amp simulators and multi-FX units has increased out of all recognition since the introduction of the Line 6 Pod in 1998 to the point where many studios are now using them in favour of the real thing. In venues where there is a decent level of monitoring, including IEM systems, using amp sims is a real alternative to an amp now, so it's nice to have this facility as a backup - just DI straight into the PA system and done.

I went for the RP1000 because it has its own FX loop, allowing me to set amp and multi-FX with the four-cable method (which I'll explain in just a moment) - this lets me chain the effects in the optimal order. Overdrive, wah, compression in the front end before the pre-amp, modulation and delay effects in the loop (after the pre-amp but before the power amp stage).

The four cable method works like this:
  • Guitar to FX
  • Multi FX Send to amp Input
  • Amp FX Send to Multi FX return
  • Multi FX output to amp FX return
The result allows me to meld the best of the amp and FX unit - although the RP1000 was the first one I encountered (back in 2009), the ability to wire an FX rig this way is now pretty standard across many units including the current generation of Line 6 and BOSS FX units.

I keep mine largely in pedalboard mode - a tiny little bit of overdrive from a Tubescreamer emulation, a touch of compression to keep the signal level even in the front end. I've found a small amount of overdrive, just enough to add body but not remove note definition, really adds life to your sound. In terms of modulation effects, I usually keep some chorus ready to be switched in to add some shimmer for that classic 80s sound, along with a dab of delay (around about 30% volume). I keep the delay synced with the Tap Tempo function - stamp this during the drummer's count in and it really fills out your sound even if you're not using delay for any noticeable effect.

Hopefully you've found this helpful - a simple, easily portable, highly versatile rig that didn't cost the earth. I've been using this setup for the last five years and despite having a confirmed issue of GAS (Gear Addiction Syndrome), I just can't find anything about it I want to change.

About the Author:
By James Martin.

19 comments sorted by best / new / date

    hmph. no picture of the guitar after modifications.
    I too want to see the modified start. Maybe a few pictures close up of the parts you have changed. Apart from that it's a good little article, I always like hearing about other peoples set up, preferences and modifications.
    "...great sounding rig on a budget." #1"Fender USA Stratocaster Standard ". Yeah right
    Well Tbh if it was a Squier Classic Vibe or Mex strat, with these mods they would all be the same more or less, so he ****ed up there. Majorly
    The Mesa Boogie Mark V has an output control as well as a solo control that lets you do the same thing as your TT50 (but for a lot more money)
    so... where is the pic of the setup you made to your guitar, nice article btw. I would like to hear your recording when it's done.
    Im so glad to see people still using guitar processors, I always found them more comfortable than using pedals one by one, and also way more cheaper for those of us who aren't rich enough to buy 15 individual pedals, and as for sound quality for me they sound pretty much the same.
    Danjo's Guitar
    My Mesa Stilleto Ace has a Master and Solo volume like what you're describing, I'm sure the other Stilleto amps have them as well. And I think some other Mesa Amps have them as well. They do tend to be pricey though.
    The Mesa Nomad series has it too, along with 3 channels, with 2 voicings pr. channel. The Nomad series is a sleeper amp series, so it is possible to pick them for a rather low sum of credits.
    The Judist
    I use an RP500. I don't bother with 4 cables, just whack it all in before the amp. No-one's gonna pull you up on the subtle tone nuances
    Sorry everyone, haven't figured out how to post pics yet - can anyone enlighten me? Thanks for the tip off about the Mesa Boogies, although I must admit I've never really got on with them.. and I know USA Strats are not exactly "budget" guitars, but mine was secondhand for the price of a new mid-level Korean job. 2nd hand US (or Jap) every time for me.
    Surprised to see another Leicester musician, I've been living there for years until recently moving to London to study. Represent!
    This was a nice little article. Its nice to see every once in a while that there is someone out there that doesn't need every effect and name brand gear.
    Even if not for the actual devices, it's still a worthy goal to "get what you want out of what you have" (to a point, anyway). decent covers bands are duty-bound to mimic the records, so it's a lot harder before you even start. You don't always need to buy your way out of bad sound, this article is a good example of that philosophy. Well done!
    FYI, the Kustom "The Defender" V50 and V100 combo amps both have a footswitchable "Boost" function adjustable from 0 to +10db after the tone stack (Immediately before the PI). They are discontinued as well, but there are plenty of them around and they often can be had very inexpensively. IIRC, I paid US$185 for mine. Only 2 channels though, but they do come from the factory with V30's.