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?

 

 

The time has come where I’m burnt out on gear, and my chase for tone has come full circle. In 2011 I was probably the happiest with my playing that I had ever been. My tone was great, my rig was stable, and I was focused on playing more than anything. My skillset was at an all-time high, which for me, was being able to cover a few Brad Paisley songs note for note along with the recording. Admittedly they were some of the easier songs, but I had set my own bar of expectation relatively low as I have minimal self-esteem, and surpassing and completing that gave me the most pride in the world. I was actively playing regularly, with friends in a band as well as at church. I was using the same guitars for several years and GAS didn’t really exist aside from unobtainable guitars and amps that were completely out of reach. I had a PRS Custom 22 that I had worked for and saved up several summers worth of money to get, and my Crook tele that was a graduation present from my parents for graduating college. I had those two, an acoustic and that was it. I knew everything both instruments were capable of, and there wasn’t a need for anything else. I had a small board with a handful of pedals on it, and a Hot Rod Deluxe that served me perfectly. 
 
I started out my addiction to trying pedals in 2012 to have something for “me”. At the time, we had just had our first child and life had flipped upside down. Free time was a thing of the past, and I’ll be the first to admit that it took several months to adapt. It was one of the most joy-filled times of my life, but also some of the hardest as I had to come to grips with being a Dad, getting very little sleep (he woke up every two hours until he was 2 years old). I felt like there was nothing left of me, just a bit of a warm body. So, at the time I tuned to TheGearPage.net and lost a bit of my soul in the emporium as I proceeded to flip pedals for the next two years. I won’t admit how many came and went, but I will say it was enough that I’m ashamed of it. The flip side was that I learned A LOT about tone, and that ended up leading me to a job in the industry, but at what cost? That was the slow descent into GAS-fueled craziness that went on up until a few months ago.
 
Gear became a distraction for me. It was (and still is) so easy to jump on Reverb or Facebook and browse around and think about the possibilities and ideas that *could* potentially come from owning such gear. There were times that I didn’t touch a guitar for weeks, just because of work or family obligations. I’ve always tried to make family first, but I’ll admit that the quick “escape” to looking at gear was far too easy to do, just like looking at any form of Social Media. I didn’t have time to practice, and chalked it up to “I wouldn’t remember what I practiced anyway, so what’s the point?” It became the same old tireless riffs, noodling and lead lines I’ve played hundreds of times in the past few years. I remembered bits and pieces of the songs I knew before, but for the most part my mind was blank from mindlessly noodling. 
 
As the gear kept coming in and out of the house, I started noticing that the excitement of getting the new gear was dwindling. The Silver Sky was a prime example. I was SO excited to get it; the excitement of the chase was exhilarating. Finally got it, had it for a few weeks, and ended up selling it. My mistake was viewing it as a collectible instead of a tool to make music, and I didn’t want to get comfortable with it and risk messing it up. So, my wife wanted a new deck on the back of the house, and I sold it to fund that. Two weeks later (after I realized the deck wouldn’t cost as much as I thought it would), I had a yearning for the Silver Sky again. My thought process was that I hadn’t given it enough time to properly get comfortable with it and make it work for my style of playing. I was very fortunate that the person I sold it to was willing to let me buy it back and lived locally and is a great friend, so I got it back. I immediately made the tweaks that I felt made it more playable and comfortable…and it did…for a while. After playing it for a few weeks, I decided that I’d sell my American Pro strat and just consolidate my gear down. If it wasn’t being used, then it’s time for it to go. I decided to plug the strat in one last time before boxing it up to sell and realized that I was honestly was more comfortable with the strat than the Silver Sky. I decided to wait, and compared them head to head again after my few adjustments on the SS. In the end, it came down to comfort and sound. The strat just had that more classic sound that my ears wanted to hear, which is the exact reason I wanted to own one in the first place (after a decade of not owning one).
 
It definitely dawned on me a few months ago when someone said “Alex plays guitar. Play something!” I locked up tighter than you can imagine because it’s been WAY too long since I’ve played in front of a group of people that aren’t my family. All of the things I could have easily pulled out of my mind in 2011 were nearly gone, and I found myself cutting pedals on, switching guitars, and overall just making a fool of myself (despite the compliments) because I haven’t played that much in the past few months. The thing was that I didn’t feel comfortable on any of the stuff I was using because I had a revolving door on gear, more interested to see what sounds they could make out of sheer boredom or curiosity than putting them into context in a song or how they would fit my playing needs. My distraction became my addiction, which has led to my passion for it dwindling significantly. Gear-buying and flipping have become a quick outlet to solve boredom and other typical life stuff, a quick thrill that is way too easy and generally has left me feeling lackluster in most respects. 
 
Working at Wampler has really opened my eyes to the market, and what people like and don’t like, and what other companies strive for, excel at, and fall short on (including us). Jason put it best (and this has stuck with me since he said it) that “If you have to use a gimmick to sell it, it’s usually because it can’t stand on its own without it.” And in many cases, that’s completely true. Just because something has fancy bells and whistles doesn’t mean it’s practical or sounds that great. Learning a wealth of knowledge from Brian and Jason has opened my eyes to think more critically of what I’m thinking about buying, and for the most part, my addiction has slowly started to dwindle. Some of the pedals I would have bought immediately, I take a step back and question whether I’d actually use them, or if I’m just curious to try them? 9/10 times it’s because I’m just bored and curious, and now even the curiosity has gone somewhat. The good part is that my board has had minimal changes, my guitars and amps are more solid than ever with very little moving gear, and my comfort is growing back. Brian sent a prototype to me about a month ago, and that has truly inspired me more than anything lately. Not to noodle, but to get whatever I can get out of it (and the rest of my gear) without thinking “Well it would be cool to be able to make this sound now and then.” The reality of it is that if it’s not fun anymore, what’s the point? Admittedly over the past couple of years, fun HAS meant just trying pedals. But at the end, I felt like despite all of the stuff I’ve used, it didn’t add much value to me as a player. Yes, I know what each one of them is capable of, but aside from talking on gear forums, what good is it really going to do me?
 
I know this has drawn on and has a lot of information you’ve seen before, but for me, I think this is a step in the right direction to admitting I have a problem, and I’m trying to take steps in making my own life a bit better. I’ve been on a mass exodus with gear, anything that’s not being frequently used is pretty much being sold. It feels pretty good to get the space back, not having the money essentially just sitting on the shelf not being used doesn’t hurt either. Since I’ve started decluttering and dropping the excess, my playing has started improving again, my desire to mindlessly search YouTube for demos and Reverb for killer deals have decreased too. GAS still exists, but it’s not frantic like it has been over the past few years. My point with this whole blog is basically to say do what makes you happy but also think critically about what you’re doing and what you hope to be able to achieve in the future and adjust your trajectory accordingly.
 
I’ll leave you with a quote from Jack Canfield that seems appropriate (at least to my situation): “As you begin to take action toward the fulfillment of your goals and dreams, you must realize that not every action will be perfect. Not every action will produce the desired result. Not every action will work. Making mistakes, getting it almost right, and experimenting to see what happens are all part of the process of eventually getting it right.”