Tone Hunting: A Search for Soul In Tone

In Human Interest, Non-fiction on July 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm

There is a dilemma, which I suppose most musicians—especially guitar players—find themselves in: The unrelenting search for the pigment that colors every note, every riff, every melody line the perfect shade and variety of whatever sound you may be after.  In our musical minds, we may have a crystal clear concept of tone inside our head—what sound we want to come out when we play the notes.

But in reality, getting there may be easier said than played.  That is why I know many guitar players who’s ability is not doubted by any means, but the sounds they make, that is another story.  Some sound “plunky” when they play, with little smoothness or palatability.  But hey, the riffs they’re playing are awesome!

Sophistication In Simplicity

       Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that can be made by a musician at any stage in their musical career, is complicating their sound with more effects and gear than they need, or having a good selection of effects and gear but abusing them at the expense of a good sound.  Then, you get a “processed” sound, and that’s something you’ll never hear from a quality musician.

One word of advice: Sit down at your amplifier with your guitar and dial in a sound and a tone that you are content with before you begin stacking effect after effect on top of that.  See what you come up with.  Great guitar players like Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Vince Gill, Joe Walsh (to name just a few) are all envied because of the soul of their guitar tones.  And that is because they all know one cardinal rule of tone: There exists a holy relationship between your amplifier and your instrument; the more understanding you have of that relationship, how they respond to one another, and the more you learn to exploit and manipulate that relationship, the better your tone will become, and the more soulful it will sound.

As far as actual effects, here’s another rule: Choose effects based on how they compliment your sound.  Try not choose effects and gear just because they are cool, or because your idol has one and you want to grow up to be just like him.  After all, effects are meant as enhancers to the sounds an amp is already making.  For example: Let’s say, as a fluke, that the local pizza parlor accidentally left out an ingredient in their crust.  No matter how matter how many toppings you put on top of it, it’s still going to be obvious that the crust is missing something.  Similarly, if you don’t take the time to dial in the natural sound of your equipment, effects aren’t going to hide that as well as you might think.

Be Deliberate!

      Having said all of that about tone and equipment, don’t be afraid to be persistent and deliberate about getting the sound and the tone you like.  I guess you could say, Don’t settle.  As you tweak the dynamics of your sound, mess with the dials on your amplifier, and try different pickup configurations (for you guitar players) you will find that there may be a new tone at your fingertips that you like so much better than how you’ve been sounding all these years.  Some blues players I know are great musicians, but they aren’t gear heads—they don’t even mess with the treble and bass knobs on their amps.

So one time I go up to their amp during a jam (a little presumptuous in retrospect, but oh well…) and tweak a few things, give one of the guitar players a little more low-end and a little more crunch with the preamp, and by the end of the song he was playing, he was much happier with his tone, and you could tell because it affected the way he was picking.  He said “I didn’t know my guitar could sound like that!” And it was because he didn’t set aside any time for tone hunting.

Get to Know Your Stuff

      As an exercise in tone hunting, you might try something that has helped me tremendously, and continues to help me: Set aside some quality time, in the near future, for you and your equipment.  Turn on your amplifier, plug in your guitar, connect all your pedals and stomp boxes, and analyze each piece of gear.  Ask yourself, What does it do? How can I use it better? What is its relationship to all the other stuff I have? Because if you are privy to the relationship each piece of equipment in your arsenal has to all the others, as was stated earlier, you can learn to exploit that relationship and use it more to your advantage as a musician.

Also, get to know, not only your equipment, but also your fret board.  This point may seem a little obtuse at first.  But exercises as simple as learning to play the same riff at different places on the fret board can do a lot for tone.  There are a few licks I play at all different places up and down the fret board in the same key.  If I play them down by the headstock, using a lot of the open strings and whatnot, the sound isn’t nearly as warm as when I play the same lick on the higher frets.  Great jazz and blues players utilize this technique a lot, even mixing and matching different locations on the fret board during a singular riff.  If anything, it helps you to spice up a riff and not get bored with it.  And there are also different opportunities on where to go with a riff depending on where you are on the neck when you play it, so it works out well in the end.

Let the Great Hunt Begin!

      You know, if you were to get in an airplane this afternoon and travel Southwest all the way down below the equator, eventually—somewhere between Samoa and South America—you would encounter a series of islands known as the Cook Islands.  There, the South Pacific black pearl—among the world’s rarest of all—is extracted by hand from the black lip oysters below the blissfully warm waters around the remote atolls, and literally they are worth well more than their weight in gold.

Not that you should drop everything, throw on your board shorts and go diving for the exalted black pearl.  But with a smidgen of perspicacity, perhaps a dash of observation, and an interest in sounding the way you really want to sound, you may not find a pearl, but there is no telling what sort of sound you may get out of your amp and guitar.  So surf the sound waves, my friends, and don’t forget to go tone hunting.  It’s open season!

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