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otcconan posted:

IMHO, the links in your tone chain are most important the higher up you go.
Thus, in order, you got,

1.  Your mind, fingers, soul, whatever have you
2.  The guitar:
     a.  The strings
     b. The pickups
     c. The tonewood that guitar is constructed from
3.  Effects
4.  Amplifier
5.  Speaker

From Dinosaur David B.

The tone chain list is fine, but the issue is the ratio of importance to the sound.

For Your mind, fingers, soul -- It's free, and you're stuck with what you've got.  We either count that as part of the tone or we don't.  Most people here already know my take on that -- which is counting it as any significant part of the tone is counterproductive and effectively negates any meaningful gear discussion, because if tone is truly in the fingers any other gear talk as it relates to tone is pointless, so why even bother discussing it.  That is not the goal of this or pretty much ANY topic involving gear on any guitar forum. So let's stipulate we aren't talking about number 1.

For the guitar, the BRIDGE, the strings, the pickups, and the woods. Those are pretty key factors.

Fresh strings always brighten up a guitar's tone initially, but unless you're changing them for say each gig you play, their effect on tone diminishes in a matter of hours. 

But is the guitar and its pickups THE most important factor? No, it is THE AMP. This is proven over and over again. You can plug a shit guitar into a good tube amplifier and the amp will often save it.  See that piece of crap guitar we all played the Tiny Terror through in the Orange booth at NAMM. You can put heavier gauge strings on a guitar and to a degree compensate for less than ideal tonewoods.  So if you're looking for a place to save money, the guitar is the best place.  Any instrument that plays to your satisfaction and intonates correctly can be made to sound decent through a good amp.  Theoretically, better instruments will respond even more favorably through the same amp. 

Few effects actually impact the basic tone of the rest of the rig. An EQ pedal will, and some signal processing effects can mask some things. But generally, effects can't compensate for a bad sounding rig. Which is why they're a money pit for a beginners who don't understand that they can't make a $200 amp sound better by adding pedals.

So the amp is the most critical factor. The amp colors every part of the tone chain. Every guitar you play through it. Every effect, every cab and speaker. The amp is the place where you should not skimp, but rather invest in tonal quality. That doesn't mean you have to spend $2K on a boutique amp, but it means you should purchase the kind of amp that will produce what you want tonally. That could mean a Tiny Terror.  That could mean Peavey classic 30. That could mean a used Marshall head for a modest price. What it generally does mean for our purposes as Dinos is TUBES -- at least for live work.

If you know what you're doing, and you stick with the conventional designs commonly used to produce the sounds for the given musical genre, the cabs and speakers (IMO) fall somewhere behind the guitar and the amp in terms of importance.  So if you have a guitar and amp set up that you know you like, it's gonna be hard to make it sound truly bad by changing cabs and speakers -- so long as those cabs and speakers are sensible to the musical genre. That is, don't expect great Dino tone from an open back 2x10 cab loaded with Weber California speakers. 

So with that stipulation, if you start running that guitar and amp you like through various different cabs and speakers, you will hear a difference, but the difference usually won't go from bad to good, or from terrible to terrific. It's more subtle than that. The difference will be more like: this is ok, that is good, this is slightly better, this one sounds the best to me at this point it time, etc.  It is like the frosting on the cake.  If you know the cake is good, you're just picking which frosting tastes best to you with that cake.