I was talking recently to someone who is pretty new in their guitar journey. They can play cowboy chords and a few barre chords up and down the neck so long as you stay below about the 8th or 10th fret. While we were talking, they made what I thought was an interesting comment. They said, "I just wish I could get my signature sound figured out."
I had to carefully chide them on saying that. I didn't want to beat down their enthusiasm for playing and learning, but I also wanted to be sure that, at this stage of their journey, they were concentrating on chords and notes and learning a few licks instead of trying to chasing that unobtainium known as their "signature" sound. So I gently broached the subject. Their immediate response was this. "Well you're one to talk. You've got how many guitars and are always buying pedals and gear." They also told me that they think I have a signature sound most of the time, and I always sound like me.
So I had to try and explain that. Yes, I am always buying pedals and gear, but that's mostly out of curiosity and and not so much chasing a tone. I also reminded them that I've been playing guitar in some way, shape, or form since I was a teenager. I also tried to explain that I usually have "my" tone because, when they hear me play, I'm usually using the same (or a very similar) amp with my chain running the same (or, again, very similar) pedals. They usually hear me with a Blackheart amp on the edge of some breakup, with my chain being an always on klone followed by a tube screamer (or TS clone) just in case I need to cut through a bit.
I also reminded them that the "signature" tone is much more of a journey than it is a once and done thing. Yes, buy gear and play with it and see which of it you like, but, as a relatively new player, the sound in their head will more than likely change. I told them that, if they hadn't already, they would begin to hear the different in a Strat and Tele and Les Paul and 335. They would hear the difference in a Fender and Vox and Marshall. They would walk into a gig and immediately know whether the player was using a tube screamer (or clone) or some other OD pedal.
I also told them that, with a lot of players, you can stick them on whatever guitar, pedal, amp combination you want, and they're going to sound pretty much like themselves. This is because, and I've been just as guilty of this as others, we get a new amp that is the new hotness and totally amazing, but when we dial it in, we dial it to sound just like the old amp we've been using for years. Some of the most fun gigs I've played have been where I carry my guitar in, plug into whatever amp they have available, stab it to be sure that I'm not ice-picking my ears (or those in the front row), and then just play. Don't worry about how the amp is set. Just play. After all, isn't that what music is about...playing?
For most of us, especially us hobbyists, our "signature" sound is ever-evolving. For those that play out, sometimes it changes and sometimes it doesn't. These days I'm sure that a lot of pro players have a carefully curated sound. They have a sound in mind and work towards that. They pick the amp, the guitar, the signal chain, all to get the sound that they're known for. Back as recently as 20 years ago, I bet that a lot of players didn't necessarily do that. Before the explosion of pedal manufacturers, when folks had only heard of 3 amp makers (Fender, Marshall, and Vox), I bet a lot of sounds were as much a matter of convenience as anything. You could get ahold of this amp and that guitar so that's what you used.
Truth is, I heard an interview with one of my fave guitarists the other day (who is relatively young in the overall scheme of things) where he was talking to someone about his stage gear. He knew the answers to the general questions (what kind of guitar do you use, what's your chain from the guitar to the amp, etc), but every time it got specific (what's the neck radius on that one, how do you have your pedal set, etc), his response was, "I don't know we'll have to ask that one to my tech." Towards the end of the interview, he made the comment that "when I was young we were poor so I played whatever I could get my hands on. That has kind of stuck. My tech has helped me find gear that I really like, but I don't always know that much about the specifics of it." Turns out, in talking to the tech, all of his Fenders were partscasters. Personally, I think that's pretty cool.
Back to the "signature" sound thing. I know I'm way too guilty of not just playing whatever I can get. It has to be the right guitar though the right amp sometimes. The funny thing is, even those times where I'm running the guitar straight to the amp, and neither of them are mine, I still sound like me. Which makes me think. Maybe that signature sound has more to do with who's playing than what they're playing on, so I really should be practicing more and not obsessing over gear. But that's a whole other subject.
Snarf is a wannabe musician who currently resides in the great state of Texas. His wife is his favorite. He believes chocolate milk made from milk that is anything less than whole milk is basically water and deserves to be dumped down the sink so nobody has to suffer through it. He hates having to shop for clothes. But he has a thing for really cool bags, and, consequently, has more gig bags than guitars and a closet full of messenger bags and backpacks. He still misses his dog who was taken by cancer years ago. Check out his Reverb shop and see if he has any gear he's trying to get rid of.