What do you do, once you've found your sound?
This last Christmastime I took an entirely different path from my usual and spent the holidays... sick. We are talking the kind of sickness that leaves you as weak as a kitten for days at a time. I did a lot of sleeping... and not much else. For nearly two weeks I didn't touch an electric guitar. In fact, I was barely even able to hold a small acoustic guitar in my lap for a few minutes at a time over that period. I couldn't write, either. Instead, I sat staring at my laptop. I surfed the net. I lurked on forums without posting anything. I was totally sapped. It was... discombobulating. But that isn't the kind of discombobulation I am referring to in the title above.
When I finally did feel good enough to play, I tip-toed into my guitar room and sat down in the "cockpit," surrounded by the guitars and gear I love. I fired up my Five-Minute Amp Rig, but then I struggled to decide which electric guitar to start back with. "The pickups in this one are too high-gain." "That one isn't comfortable enough." I eventually settled on my old '74 Gibson Les Paul Standard. Yes, I know: it will never be a collectable guitar. Yes, I know: it's too heavy. But I've been playing this guitar for over forty-five years now and at this point, we kind of "fit" each other. Back in the '70s an Aussie friend named this guitar "Pauly." It has been re-fretted very nicely and I've got the pickups dialed in really well. After all those years it falls naturally to hand and sounds wonderful. Call it a "comfort" guitar, if you will, weight and all. I plugged in Pauly, dropped the volume treadle on the Helix, and BAM!!! The guitar sounded great. Music just flowed off the fingerboard.
But very soon I felt a creeping responsibility to do what every electric guitarist feels the urge to do: to tweak. I tried a pinch less of this, a little more of that, but the sound always ended up getting worse rather than better. Thank goodness a punch of the preset selector footswitch was all it took to go back to the preset. Tweak, worse, restore. Tweak, worse, restore. The preset I had spent hours building just sounded better than my tweaks in the moment. Funny thing. Still, it felt weird not needing to tweak... anything. My preset sounded and played fantastically. But still... THAT is the discombobulation I was referring to: the kind where everything is great but we still can't be comfortable with things as they are.
After frittering around for a bit I eventually just gave up and played my guitar. True to expectation, the '74 LP was the perfect host. When I concentrated on the guitar rather than the rig, the guitar quickly led me where I needed to go. I just lost myself in a couple of songs I'd been working on before my enforced sick break. They sounded perfect through the preset I happened to have dialed up. I did a little improv rehearsal, dropped into the zone, turned off my brain, and let my fingers do their thing.
The next thing I knew, my lovely wife put her head around the corner, smiled gently, and said, "I guess you didn't hear me call supper, huh?" True, I'd lost track of time... again. But that was as it should be. When things are right, the clock stands still. As I packed up the guitar and turned off the rig, I mused on the discombobulation I had felt at the beginning of the practice. Why do we seem to always need to alter things? If a sound works, why do we need to change it? Where is the line between striving for excellence and useless discontent? At what point does all the yearning get in the way of creativity and the art of playing? Good questions.
So, going back to the initial question, what do you do after all those years of tone quests, when you finally do find your sound? I suppose my answer would be, "You play." You just play.