This Mythbustin’ Nashville YouTuber Is on a Guitar Gear Mission
Why does your guitar sound that way? Is it your amp, your pickups, or your pedals? Jim Lill is trying to find out, one filmed A/B test at a time.
Get two professional guitar players in a room and ask them, “What's your most important piece of gear?” You’ll almost certainly obtain two different answers.
Is it the pickup configuration? The particular tube type in their amplifiers? We don't know, and they don't always know, either. The world of guitar tone is almost as driven by myths and snake oil as ancient Greece itself. Every guitarist prays to different gear gods, and every city-state of nerddom is convinced it is right.
But what if you actually want to listen for yourself and decide what matters, using A/B listening tests? It's really, really hard to find volume-matched comparisons. That’s why I have become obsessed with Nashville, Tennessee–based YouTuber-guitarist Jim Lill. In a Mythbusters-esque series that Lill calls Tested, the session guitarist and songwriter brings your ears and eyes along on his personal journey. He compares various components of the electric guitar and its numerous amps and speaker cabinets, aiming to determine what makes the biggest difference in sound.
For a gear nerd with my own little hoard of guitars, the results have proven nothing short of astonishing. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Lill’s videos have fundamentally changed how I think about how guitar tones are made and how to accomplish them.
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Lill's audio tests are based on a easy concept that would've been impossible just a few decades ago. You certainly can't do it live—even with the speed and soldering skills of a modern Fender Custom Shop employee, it’s hard to, say, swap two pickups back to back and not lose your sense impression between listens. Back when Lill's heroes were recording songs, you would've needed an ADAT machine or a very high-end tape machine.
Very few individuals devoted those precious resources to tests like this. Nowadays, Lill uses digital software and a easy audio interface. “We are alive in the only time in all of human history where individuals can record two things, edit them together, and listen to them back to back,” Lill said in an interview with WIRED. “I’m not so sure that all my heroes formed their opinions by doing that.”
You need software to volume match, because it's basic audio engineering knowledge that the louder the sound, the better you think it sounds. As JHS Pedals owner Josh Scott says in his own popular YouTube channel, “Loud is more good.” Turn down a song on the radio and then bump it up a couple decibels for the chorus, and you’ll feel this effect in full action. When comparing two guitars or two amps, it can be hard to be sure you're playing at the same volume and thus judging tonal differences accurately.
If you’re not hearing matters back to back at the same exact volume, you can end up with entirely wrong impressions of a piece of gear. Lill, however, presents his back-to-back sounds and tests at matched volumes with no personal commentary—sometimes to comical effect.
In one video, Lill slowly hones in on where the tone comes from in electric guitar amps. “I’m just a performer; I don’t know anything about circuits,” he says, as he slowly discovers he can obtain almost identical tone to classic amps with a couple cheap pedals in a fishing tackle box. If you don’t believe me, check out the video for yourself.
Like me, Lill says the tests have slowly revealed his own biases. “I used to think that I would have experience with amp where it'd be like, oh, I used to own that amp. I know what that sounds like. And my memory of that amp is that it sounds brighter or something than this current one. Now I'm starting to realize my memory of having played something formerly is not a trustworthy witness.”
Climbing Tone Mountain
When he arrived in Nashville to attend Belmont University and study audio engineering, he quickly got into the school’s country ensemble and began playing with older students. Over the years, that gig led to a professional career in music. But alongside practicing the instrument itself, Lill always had an interest in which particular pieces of gear made his favorite players sound the way they did.
“The first thought I had was like, oh, I want to ask individuals what they think it is. Pretty soon into testing I realized, man, I don't think anybody knows,” he says.
For example, strings matter much less to overall guitar tone than you might think. In a video in which he tests many string types, there is very little difference to my ears. Online, you can read folks on forums describe major changes in sound between gauges and types.
The same goes for wood and body type. In one of his most popular videos, Lill goes so far as to create an “air guitar,” with strings and a pickup suspended between a workbench and a shelf with a pair of Honda engines weighing it down. Spoiler alert: When pickup height, position, and pickup type (among a few other things) are matched, the guitar with no body sounds the same as his Tom Anderson Telecaster.
The videos are long and inspect every element, but Lill says he didn't intend them to be. “Here are some matters I thought mattered going in, and I swear this is true,” he said. “I thought that the guitar's body wood made a big difference. I thought that cathode versus constant bias [in amps] made a difference. I thought that EL 84 versus 6L6 [tubes] made a difference. Everything I tested, I tested because I thought it would be a much shorter video.”
Throughout the whole effort, Lill says, his perspective on tone has dramatically shifted. Most of his focus these days is on amplifier settings. One of the leading ways he thinks that guitar tone can change most dramatically is by simply using the tone knobs makers already put on each amp.
“I know individuals who just, like, unbox the amp and then plug it in and turn it on and don't even look to see if [knobs] got bumped or not,” he says, after describing the massive differences in tone a even easy treble knob can create in a guitar's sound. “They'll treat gear like talismans against evil, where it's like, ‘I have a Mesa, I have a Bogner.’”
While people’s feelings about their own gear and what it does can often impact the way they play psychologically, that doesn’t mean the gear is doing exactly what they think it's doing. Lill jokes about a friend—whose playing, for the record, Lill insists he loves and has learned a lot from—that uses a Two Rock amp setting on a digital amplifier to obtain a sound that he calls “that John Mayer thing.” The issue being that when Lill asked the friend which Two-Rock amp mannequin John Mayer plays, and which amp is in the modeler, he didn’t know.
“It’s just funny,” he says. “It’s like saying ‘Oh man, I love Dale Earnhardt. That’s why I drive a Chevy, you know, just like Dale’s.’”
Perhaps the thing that strikes me most about Lill is that, in a world of influencers actively growing their social media following, he doesn't aim to turn his videos into his full-time livelihood. Instead, he’s just a musician, sharing what he learns with those of us who don’t have the time and resources to do the same experiments.
When asked why he started making the videos to begin with, he says, “I have noticed that knowing the answer without having any proof doesn't always work the same as when you actually capture it on videos. So I try to create sure to capture stuff on video as much as I can.” They have a surprisingly good production value, for a man who admits that at the beginning he actually didn’t own a camera.
Instead, Lill gave me a gift for free—the knowledge that speaker cabinets and tone settings matter more than the hunk of wood and strings in my hand. This is valuable information, given the sum of time I've spent hunting for guitars and not messing with tone knobs.
“I've seen a lot of different approaches to how individuals convey information on the internet, and the way that I've chosen to go is as unbiased and as kind as I can,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter if someone believes me or not. It’s just a guitar.”
Jim Lill’s Current Signal Chain
Given his background and his history in testing, what does Jim Lill actually use? Here's the audio equipment that you'll find in his studio.
Lill says, “The Anderson Tele has been my number one since high school.” The other guitars and bass are for particular sounds but aren't used as often.
Lill combines his own 2022 homemade 2x12 with a 2001 Celestion Vintage 30 (with the side closed-back) and 1967 Fender Utah (with side open-back). “I've mostly been using the one I made,” Lill says, “but I also have two cabs that J. T. Corenflos used on sessions and a cab Tom Bukovac used on sessions.” Impulse responses of Jim's cabinets are available for sale on his website.
Lill uses a Shure SM57 (one for each speaker). Of placement, he says, "I was taught at my favorite studio to put the mic two fingers from the grill cloth, straight on axis, pointed at the line between the dust cap and the cone. That's where I start."
Parker Hall is an connect editor of product reviews at WIRED. He focuses on audiovisual and consolation products. Hall is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he studied jazz percussion. After hours, he remains a professional musician in his hometown of Portland, Oregon.