A very, very, VERY interesting vlog was released from Brian today, and it is about a subject that has perplexed me for many years. It’s directly related to one of the most common and least thought our retorts on social media “Tone is all in the fingers, man”. This may be a controversial subject, but you know, what’s life without a little controversy now and then?!
As many of you who have regularly read my blog over the years will know, I came up through the local scene by being a prolific jammer. Back in the day (not so much anymore, unfortunately) several local pubs would either have straight up jam nights or booked bands to play with the sole intention of knowing it was going to end up as a beer sozzled jam with everyone just playing with everyone else. Not only was this immense fun for all involved, but as a young player this was an invaluable learning ground for me and made me the player I am today. The most prolific I regularly went to were the Sunday afternoon gig at “The Old Firehouse” and the now legendary local jam night at “The Bowling Green”, both in my hometown - Exeter, Devon. UK. The great thing about these jams/gigs was the fact that every week the same faces would turn up and a carousel of about 50 other players that made it when they felt like it would also turn up, so over a long period of time, I got extremely familiar with all kinds of players. As we are all friends, most people couldn’t be bothered to bring their own instruments and once the beer had started to be consumed, everyone just played whatever was there, at all times. Because of this, I heard the same players on various pieces of gear multiple times.
What did I learn during these years… well, in the times I can remember clearly (remember, beer), every player had their own style and technique, obviously, which gave their playing a certain character and this character always shone through. But, their overall sound was determined by the gear they were using. When you really listened, and I mean really listened, you ‘could’ say that tone was in the fingers, but I think it’s actually a different word that should be used here… maybe a couple of words. Those are ‘character’ and ‘personality’.
Here is a great example, Joe Satriani was recorded using extremely ‘low rent’ gear playing one of his more famous tracks, “Surfing With The Alien”. Please, give it a watch…
And, in case you didn’t read the description, Joe is playing ‘Pignose’ (I know, I’ve never heard of them making guitars either) S style (single coils), a Digitech RP200 into a Peavey Backstage 30. Joe is using the Wah on the Digitech and I expect amp modelling etc from the unit as well, so… you know. It’s not going to sound like his rig when he’s touring/recording!
When you watch it, there is, without doubt, all of Joe’s character and personality is shining through. There is no doubt that it’s Joe playing. It’s in the way he picks, the way he attacks the strings and the way he uses vibrato is what is defining the music that is coming from the gear, but the gear is still defining the tone… unfortunately. When you listen hard, the tone is quite nasty, and I’m quite glad it’s only a phone that’s capturing it as if this was mic’ed properly it would sound sharp and gnarly. But, you know, it still sounds like Joe. Up to a point.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to over the many many years I’ve been seeing the same players playing their own and different gear over and over. Fundamentally, your tone that the audience hears will be defined by the gear you are playing. Because the gear will be dictating how much clipping you have, how much gain that works alongside that clipping, the EQ before, during and after that clipping, the type of guitar you are playing and what pickups it is – style of bridge – wood…, how the amp is constructed, the speakers you use and their size, and all the parts variables that go into each of those and just about everything else… the list is endless. However, an accomplished player will still maintain their musical character and personality regardless of the gear it is being played on. So, the picking hand attack, the vibrato, the note choices… will all be the same. Does this define tone? I don’t think it does, it defines who they are as a musician, but not their note as such.
Here is the video with Brian and Travis playing the same gear.
The interesting things that come out of this video ties up with what I was discussing above. You can hear Travis’ playing style and also Brian’s shining through, but fundamentally, their tone was changing each time they swapped amps. They keep discussing Brian’s pick attack (as he is quite a hard player on the right hand) compared to Travis’ (as he is the opposite, really quite gentle) so in that regard, the attack and bite from these amps is coming from the player, but the core tone is coming from the gear.
I think I’d like to make the case for completely and utterly banning the phrase “tone is in the fingers” and have anyone saying it severely punished. I don’t know what that punishment should be, but I’m pretty certain we can decide on a case by case basis as and when it is used as an argument!
I would like to propose it be amended to the following statement. “Musical personality and character will always shine through regardless of the gear it’s being played on”… but, you know, that’s not quite as catchy and by no means as divisive and controversial, and as I said above, what’s life without a little controversy now and then?
Unlike me to start a blog post with the pure intention of starting an argument! But, you know, sometimes it just has to be done. For those of you who are unfortunate enough to know me in some way will know about my music preferences... My favourite players are on a constant rotation of being ‘the best’ in my head. There isn’t a day go by that I don’t listen to Gilmour, I have epic binges of Vai, Brent Mason is the ultimate studio musician I can think off, Jerry Reed is THE man, Randy Rhoads is immortal… Nuno has the right hand of the Gods.. etc etc. You know how it goes.
The strange thing about this, or maybe I should say “strange beautiful music” thing about this is that very rarely do I stand up and gush about Satriani, but in recent times I’ve been on a Satch trip that appears to be never ending. And it’s lead me to this conclusion. Joe Satriani is the ultimate rock guitar player.
Right, OK. So let’s get this out of the way. No one can EVER take away the impact of the three guys that made rock guitar what it is today, without them we simply wouldn’t have the music we have… So, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and Tommy Iommi. Accepted, vital. They are the heart of it all… but in 2018, are they the greatest?
Here is why I think Satch wins this title (of course, this is a massive subjective issue). Of course there will be dissenting arguments, however... I need to keep the word count down so I'll try to put it in bullet points, this could have been a definitive 20k word thesis!
When you break down what Joe’s music is, primarily you’ll find a shedfull of hooks. Little lead lines that you hum along too. And then right after that, some weird crap that no one can comprehend (at the time) will fall out of your speakers and you end up looking at the CD case (I’m thinking back here to when I first got his music in the 80’s) thinking “What the hell are you on?”. Then, more hooks, more melodies, more weird crap, melodies, hooks… This is where Joe wins for me, the melodic element. I mean, if you look at EVH and Vai, that’s the one thing they miss in their playing. Those hummable melodies that appear in EVERY song, usually multiple times. As musicians, we are constantly looking for melodies and hooks, Joe seems to have them falling out of everything he writes.
Joe’s playing is flawless, in every respect. Whether he be grooving along, sweep picking, tapping, legatoing (is that a real word?) or anything else, he does it perfectly. If you listen to ANY of Joe’s live recordings, or have seen him live, you’ll notice that he is complete control of his instrument at all times. How he manages to hold the whole thing at the edge of feedback in that way and only have it come in at certain times is beyond me… His right hand is permanently locked in, his left hand never seems to drop a note at all, basically, in terms of the physical act of playing, there isn’t a thing wrong.
This may not be a big one to those who are younger than I am, or weren’t into this style of music when it was released, but believe me, back in the day when Joe erupted onto the scene, it was like nothing we’d ever heard before. I was very fortunate as I was introduced to Joe’s music in the mid 80’s, I was early teens, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had heard Vai on DLR, I was well into EVH, Hendrix and all the others… but there was just something else unheard of here. I can remember with pretty well complete clarity the first time I put Surfin’ on, the title track was all well and good – but it was the following three tracks that confused the hell out of me. “Ice 9”, “Crushing Day” and “Always With Me, Always With You”. From that moment on, every album of Joe’s that I inhaled just blew my socks off. How many other people listened to “Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing” the first time and played it again and again thinking “What the hell was that and how the hell did he do it?”. Also, when we are talking about Joe being an innovator. Let’s remember, he taught Vai how to play, Alex Skolnick, Kirk Hammet (don’t go there, that’s another conversation, but if you want to, listen to Master of Puppets, And Justice For All etc and then stop talking) and so many other outrageously good players, you have to take note of the mans impact.
Who else can go out on stage every night, out Voldemort Voldemort and smile while playing like that. You gotta admit, he’s so damn cool it’s just not funny. Even at 61, he’s still a sizeable amount cooler than any of the younger crop of players out there today.
I’ve often heard that Joe is just one major scale away from being a major scale himself, maybe that’s why I love it so much, as I’m a fan of things being in a major key and even when he’s in a minor key it sounds major. I’m not going to delve into his theoretical approach via his concept of pitch axis etc, but everything is about the music and not just the mindless widdlewiddle that so many shredders rely on. This is where he sits apart from players like EVH, sometimes on EVH solos it’s just insanity and all over the place, in the best possible way, but with Joe it always feels like it’s just the song but in solo form. The only people who come close to constructing solos in this way, maybe Andy Timmons or Nuno Bettencourt.
Dude, he taught Steve Vai. End of argument.
As you can imagine, I’ve been writing this while listening to Joe, in particular, the Live! album from 2006. In between grabbing my guitar to play along, or the epic amounts of air drums I’ve been subjecting my wife and kids too (much to their amusement) and generally blubbering on about something that I have no right too, or been able to articulate properly, because it’s all just opinion and you know what they say about opinions. And what they are like. But, I ask you this… put personal favourite’s aside (Joe is not my favourite, at least not today, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?) and think about the wider scope of modern rock guitar and the person who has been consistently updating the genre for 35 years. Once again I’ll refer to the main arguing points… Vai: technique, stage presence, insanity… the top of the tree. EVH: Without him there would be none of this I expect, he broke the mould, but he only broke it once. Hendrix. In my own (highly contentious opinion) he was a blues player, although once again, without Jimi there wouldn’t be the others (but then again we can take that all the back to Chuck Berry and further). Who else? We can list and discuss them all, but when I really think about it all as a whole, it always comes down to one man. Joe Satriani.
Now, as the much-overused meme says… “Change my mind!” - but before you do, watch this. This has absolutely everything in it and just shows what a master of his instrument he truly is...