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.
I’m a gear and pedal addict, and I’m always scouring the internet for whatever is catching my eye at the moment (Gibson SG’s right now in fact). I find it interesting when I see magazine articles or YouTube videos about someone’s rig rundown (or when you see some big name artist like Prince or countless others) and their pedal board was comprised of almost all Boss pedals.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it led me to thinking; do we obsess too much over gear? Why do some obsess over “boutique” gear while others are just fine with Boss or some other more budget-friendly brand pedals? Is our pursuit of tone out of necessity to achieve “the sound”? Personal enjoyment? Acquiring the latest and greatest gear? Is it a culmination of all of the above?
I tried to narrow it down to three types of players, in a very broad sense. This is a generalization, so in many scenarios it isn’t quite that static but more of a general observation than anything.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it” – These are players that love their tone just the way it is and has always been since they found “their sound” years ago. They have no desire to change it at all. Many times the players that fit this idea have great amps that they’re accustomed to and know every nuance about them, and every tone they can produce. There are likely a few base effects, maybe a boost or OD, delay, chorus, wah, or fuzz (among other things). In many cases it’s not a massive pedalboard, but in many cases the player has learned to coax the tones out of a smaller board of older pedals, and they don’t need any more than that. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, because it allows the player to focus solely on playing the instrument instead of twisting knobs and they know their tone and utilize every piece of gear with precision that fits the moment and what sound they need.
G.A.S. Hounds – (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) – These are the players that love to buy gear and search for new tones. There hasn’t been any official proof of why GAS sets in, but millions of players are stricken with the insatiable lust for “new” gear (new can consist of new-to-you, which is why the used market is massive right now). It could be the newest DSP delay that has been released with MIDI input, or a Distortion with active EQ controls and multiple gain stages, or a new Fuzz that’s supposed to be identical to one of the classic fuzzes Hendrix or Gilmour used. In many cases, it’s solely curiosity that drives players to want to try out the new gear.
New gear also can greatly inspire a player to try new tones and thus new ways of playing, which can be advantageous in growing their skill and finding their own sound. This works really well when a player is stuck in a rut with their playing, feeling like they aren’t progressing no matter how hard they try. There are many factors that could be discussed at a later date, but in general the GAS hounds are consistently on the chase for a new sound.
This leads to “flipping”, where a player purchases something (new or used) and in turn after playing it, “flips” it by reselling it in order to replenish the funds to put towards more gear. This is a major advantage to buyers and sellers in the used market, which is why it’s thriving so well. There are a lot worse things to do with your time and your money. Some people like to go bowling or play golf; G.A.S. hounds like to try new gear.
They just don’t care – There are a lot of players out there that don’t care what brand of pedal they playing, or whether it’s true bypass or buffered or if a pedal has the extra fancy functions. To them it is just a tool that they use to create music. It is like a carpenter who goes out and buys a hammer. He doesn’t necessarily need a certain brand name, just a good hammer that gets the job done. A lot of artists fall into this category. They know they need a certain sound, but they really don’t have the time, or care to compare delay pedal A to delay pedal B. They just need a solid functioning pedal that will get the job done and let them get their music out to the world.
So where do you fit in? Have you achieved your sound and are happy with what you have? Or are you the player that just likes to check out the newest offerings from the gear world out of curiosity? Or do you view pedals as just another tool in the toolbox, and it doesn’t matter what brand it is as long as it makes the sound you were hearing in your head?
The funny thing is, like most things in the guitar world, there is no right or wrong way to be. It really is about what makes you happiest, and what makes you want to pick up your axe and head to the woodshed.
When you think of tone, what comes to mind? For me it is all encompassing, from the wood the guitar is made of, the pickups, what type of wiring is setup, the string brand and gauge, to the cables, to each pedal and what it does to the signal, the pre-amp and power amp, the speaker, the wood that the speaker cab is made up. For me tone is the culmination of the effort you’ve put into selecting each part of your signal chain, and factoring in the tonality of your individual playing style and how it reacts to different gear.
I’m also 30 and a total gear nerd, and I love that stuff. My thought processes have changed over the years. When I was 15 and learning and playing punk rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine and Incubus covers, my friends and I always had the same frame of mind: Hottest pickups and amps you could get in your hands, and ALL KNOBS ON 10! Our guitar volume was either on 10 or 0, and there was no in-between unless by accident. At that point we didn’t even see the need to have a tone knob, because it was never below 10 (and we dreamt of custom guitars that included no tone knobs, just volume). This served me well for many years until I grew up some and learned the subtle differences just those two knobs make on you overall sound and some of the amazing tones you can get by adjusting them in small increments.
Today, I set my amps pretty neutral EQ-wise to be pedal-friendly, except for the fact that I add a touch of extra treble and cut the mids a bit to use pedals and my guitar to fill in those tone frequencies. I normally roll the tone knob back on my guitar to about 7.5-8 depending on the guitar at all times (more with Tele’s than my Les Paul), reserving that extra bit of top end for when I really need to get out front in a hurry, or if I’m in the middle of playing and it sounds too muddy I’ll roll it up without having to change anything other than my guitars. This works on the other viewpoint as well, so if I’m changing guitars and something is too bright (my Strat bridge pickup) I will roll it down a bit more. That’s how I approach the tone knob when playing personally, but it’s definitely not a hard fast rule.
When talking with Brian and Jason, they both still keep their tone knobs on 10 and never roll them down, though they do use their volume knobs pretty heavily. How do you use the Tone knob on your guitars?
For the sake of discussion, here’s Joe Bonamassa discussing how he uses the knobs. He forgot to add that the interaction with the pedals is a thing of tonal beauty as well: