Over the weekend, everyone’s favourite member of the Wampler Pedals Tone Group on Facebook asked this simple question.
“What is good tone?”
When I opened up the list of answers, I was almost in dread as I was expecting an argument of epic proportions about individual personal opinions but was delightfully surprised at the answers (although I shouldn’t have been, we have a great bunch of people in there). I thought I would collate a couple of the theories here (with some direct quotes - so, don’t shoot the messenger), cross-reference them with what is in my head, just to open the discussion further.
Before we go into it - here’s my favourite comment of the thread “I’ve heard it’s in the fingers. Maybe that’s why people put their fingers in their ears when going to loud gigs? Always chasing that tone”.
The overall opinion of the thread was that it’s a subject issue – “The tone you like” (one of the more succinct quotes), but I got to thinking, this really does matter on who/where/when. Is it when it is either appropriate for the band, the song, the player or the audience?
One of the wonderful things about being a little older than I’d like to admit (but still not old enough to look old, I hope), is that you get to revisit the favourite tones of your past and dissect them with more experienced ears. Case in point, Mrs Wilding found a great gig on the digital TV box thing – Gary Moore: One Night in Dublin and his guitar sound was immense, really thick and full, everything you could want to hear from Gary Moore when he is in rock mode… I spent the next however long regaling to Mrs W about the Thin Lizzy album, Live and Dangerous, saying that the tones on that recording were much more classy than Gary’s etc etc. So, eventually, I downloaded the album to my phone and we listened to it in the car this week. She just looked at me and said “Yeah, it sounds good, but I prefer Gary…” and doesn’t really want to listen to it anymore. This made me think a little. Am I listening to it still with the ears of the person I was 30 years ago, or can I listen to it afresh? I’ve listened to it over and over since and I’ve come to the conclusion that even after all these years, for the moment in time (recorded in 1978) it still represents incredible guitar tone. I have no idea what Gorham or Robertson had in between their fingers and us, it sounds like Les Paul’s and Marshall’s, but I don’t actually want to know… I just want to listen to it and think “Yep, 1978… that’s great tone”. Does it stand up to the tones from 2008 when Gary was ripping through modern amps with pedals helping out? I think it does because it’s a moment in time and maybe not one that everyone can appreciate.
Another one I always come back to is Iron Maiden’s Live after Death… compare that to later Iron Maiden albums where the guitar sounds aren’t so raw, now… is that because when I got Live After Death it was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before and still brings those memories back, or is it because they had a better live tone in the 80’s? Anyone have any opinions on that, or am I alone with this? Is my memory playing tricks on me, because even today, I think it sounds just incredible.
One of the comments that made me stop to think was this… “Whatever fits the song and makes the song better. Jimmy Page had horrible tone that worked in fantastic songs.”. This has always been an issue with me with Zep, I adore the songs and the playing, but some of the guitar tones have been kinda ‘meh’, almost like some of them were badly recorded demo’s. However, if the guitar tones had been different would it have had an adverse effect on the music itself? Sometimes, the tone works for the song perfectly even if it’s not a tone that excites your ears personally. Listen to the tone in Kashmir objectively, is it great when it’s on its own? But as part of the song… is it just perfect?
The simple truth about guitar tone was perfectly wrapped up in this quote – “As far as what the rest of us like, it's subjective. But, if you find a sound that inspires you to play and you play better as a result, that is good tone.” – when I feel my tone is on point and my guitar is reacting the way I want it to, then I know I play better, there is something magical in there that just excites the brain and you play better for it. Once again, Mrs W comes into the conversation as she says after some gigs “You sounded great tonight, I could hear it in your playing”… However, do the drunken rabble that is dancing around in front of us aware that my rig is different from the guy who played in the band before me, with his USA strat, vintage TS-9 and a Deluxe? (not that I am knocking that rig, not at all, it’s just not me). I think of some them do, but most don’t, they just like what they hear and react to it.
There is a lot of talk about great tone, every day, in every format, on every forum you care to visit. The main question for me is this – is the great tone for you personally or the people who have to listen to you, and if it IS for them, how far will you go to give them what they want? Great tone is a moment in time… Like the Lizzy album, the Maiden album, EVH on the first two albums, Nuno on Pornograffitti, everything SRV did, BB King at the Regal, Every note ever played by Andy Timmons, Cliffs of Rock City by Paisley, Gilmour on The Wall… but, if you take those tones and put them somewhere else, will they still work? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this - Great tone is just something that makes the song what it is, it doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it or not, it’s just about the end product, and if the end product works, then surely it’s just good tone.
Tone sculpting has become a bit of an art, and many players pay so much attention to all facets of their board and guitar. Every link in the chain adds up to the overall tone you’re going to have coming from your amp, and small adjustments in your chain can make a big difference e in the long run.
Picks – There are thousands upon thousands of options for picks, ranging from extremely cheap budget picks all the way to expensive boutique picks that are worth almost as much as some pedals are. If you’re ever looking for a quick adjustment in your tone for something different, try a different pick shape or material. Different material will have a different tonal result on your pick attack, the harmonics and even feel of your playing. Metallic picks (using coins, etc) will have a brighter, chimey-er tone, where using some wood picks will yield a much darker tone. There are a plethora of options in terms of the material used to create them, so do your research and find which material yields the tone you’re looking for. Different thicknesses will make a large difference as well. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to for you to approach your tone differently. Also, if you don’t normally use your fingers, try it! Your fingers and fingernails have their own unique tone, and can resonate differently than a pick can. Switching up your right hand technique can really help you break out of the box tonally and technically.
Cables and Buffers – These are a foundation part of your tone, so great cables can make a huge difference. Again, there are a plethora of options out there for soldered and solderless cables, along with varying ends and methods of creating those cables, along with shielding options and types of outer casings for enhanced durability. The key to finding a great cable is finding a set that creates minimal signal degradation. The cheapo $5 patch cables can suck some tone and cut your high end, which after going through several of those cables will yield a more muffled, dull bypassed tone. Buffers also play a huge part in keeping your tone pristine. Buffers alter the impedence of your guitar signal, which helps it travel through your board easier. Just remember that some pedals (fuzzes and wah’s) aren’t fans of buffers, so place them before it. The best judge of whether you need a buffer or not is to take a short guitar cable (10’) and plug directly into your amp and play. Now plug into your board and see if the tone sounds muffled or like a blanket is lying over your amp. This would be due to signal loss from not having a buffer or needing better cables.
Speakers and Speaker Cabs - Of all of your tonal puzzle pieces, these are literally the devices that project your sound into the world, so choosing the right speaker for the application can play a huge role in turning great tone into STELLAR tone. There are more options than I can possibly put into a single blog, but there are hundreds of speakers from various companies that can accentuate the amp it’s paired with, and subsequently the pedals and guitar that are running into it.
The key to finding the perfect voicing for the sound you have in your head is realizing what you’re intentions are for the amp you’re using. If you want clean headroom, your speaker choices can differ greatly from an amp that you’re intending to use as your dirt tones. Choices can be affected by what configurations you have as well, so a single 1x12” cab will sound different from a 2x12” and a 4x12” (or 4x10”, or countless other options). Having a cab that holds more than one speaker is beneficial because it allows you to mix speakers to fit the perfect application. One speaker may be designed for more aggressive lows and highs with less emphasis on mids, where you could pair that with a more mid-focused speaker to fill out your sound tonally.
When choosing your speaker, you need to pay attention to the outputs on your amps and what ohms they can put out, as well as the speaker and make sure they match up. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, the easiest method is to email the company and let them know what amp you’re using and they can recommend the right product and ohm rating for you. Your amp can sound completely different based on whether you’re running at 4ohm, 8ohm and 16ohm and doing the research between the various options and what works best for your amp will yield some really fun and great sounding results.
Along with proper speaker choices, deciding on the right cab (as mentioned above) will play a part in your overall tone. Horizontal cables vs. vertical cabs can make a big difference on the tone you and the audience are hearing, along with which way the cab is facing and whether it’s tilted, off the floor, or even facing a different direction. The last thing the front row of a gig wants is to have your speakers blaring directly in their faces. Tilting the cab back (on combos) or getting the cab off of the floor will help diffuse some of the sound and disperse it into the air instead of directly at the audience’s faces.
Mix it up a bit – Do you normally run your delay into the FX loop? Try placing it before your dirt pedals for a completely different set of tones. There are typical “guides” and thought processes that come to mind when laying out a pedalboard, but when it comes down to it there are no rules, and what’s right is whatever sounds best to you. Experiment with signal chain order, especially stacking different pedals into each other to see what sonic tones you can coax out of something that would seem so unorthodox.