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.
As you may know, we run an extremely lively group on Facebook, imaginatively named “The Wampler Pedals Tone Group”. Feel free to click on that and join us.
We are quite proud that in the most, it’s very unlike MANY other pages that talk about gear, as generally there isn’t much trolling and everyone is there because it’s a ‘safe’ place to talk openly without much in the way of come back. I say ‘much’ because as we’ve got 10k members, it does sometimes kick off in there, and when it does Alex and I have to make like Gendry and bring the axe to any particular party that might be in full flow.
At the start of the weekend, there was a classic post that ended up in somewhat of a 'heated debate'. It was the classic "Tone is in the fingers" comment that people reacted too, and then others reacted back. It was one of those posts, you know what it's like...
ANYWAY... This started me thinking. How can we look at this issue objectively and see if it’s true. Or if it’s half true. Or if it’s crap. At the very moment in time i as thining about it I received a barrage of texts from my friend Jamie, utterly pointless ones (because if I am being honest we have a similar sense of humour, that of a 12 year old boy, and are constantly texting each other stuff just to make the other laugh), but as usual they were very funny. As I was texting him back I had what you might call a lightbulb moment, because the best thing about Jamie in regard to the question mentioned above is that he has spent a lot of the last 10 years as the guitar player in the show “We Will Rock You” (where they are very very fussy about tone and you HAVE to sound like Brian May does as much as possible to be even considered). He is unique in this thought process because he has the rare position of being friends with Brian May and has toured with him... So, as he has spent his time using gear to sound like someone and then had the opportunity to play though that same person’s real rig, I thought I’d put the question directly to him…
JW: “Hey Jamie, I want to ask you a specific question but before I get there, I'd like a little back ground first... So, the We Will Rock You (WWRY) show, how long have you been doing that?”
JH: “I first started in 2007 as the sub guitarist and went on to be “Guitar #1” in Europe (at Brian’s request). So far I’ve played the show in UK (including the tour), Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. All this means I have to do all the signature Brian stuff and I'm the one that goes out on to the stage every night and plays the solo from Bohemian Rhapsody as a visual part of the show.”
JW: “What was the requirement for gear in the WWRY show?”
JH: “We had to sound as much like him as possible, so that includes a Red Special guitar, Fryer Treble Booster, big chorus and authentic AC 30’s. I went on a personal mission to get as close as I can so I got a different treble booster, the one that is worn on the strap, had the pickups replaced on my Red Special to the ones wound the same as Brian’s with old 60’s magnets and even the Bourne Pots which are slightly different. All this is integral to the tone, THAT tone.”
JW: “So, how close do you think you got to Brian’s tone with that gear?”
JH: “To be honest, the gear is really important but it’s more about getting into the headspace of how Brian plays and using his techniques. For example, the sixpence, the belt pack booster BEFORE the wireless system, the using of the finger to brush the string, the almost regal way he phrases his runs, pre-bends and his vibrato. So, it’s just as important to use the fingers in the way he does as it is to have the gear, but it’s more important to get into his mindspace and work out what he plays and how he plays it. There are so many different things that make up his sound.”
JW: “You also toured with Brian – so when you played Brian’s gear, how close can you get to him”
JH: “I think as close as anyone can get by getting into that mindset, but it was still only really close, because I’m not Brian. When I am playing like him, I exaggerate the things he does to make it sound more like him to make those signature parts work, but I’d say it’s impossible to truly 100% sound that way, but I think we (the guys who really really try) can get close enough for a lot of people to question who it is, providing we have the right gear and right mindset. When we played Hyde Park in London, I got to rip through his entire rig at huge volume, because that’s my childhood right there, I was so happy… and it sounded so good, Brian and Pete (Brian’s long serving tech) where there, and they said I was really really close to ‘THAT’ sound”
JW: “So, is tone all in the fingers or all in the gear?”
JH: “It’s in the fingers, and the gear, but most importantly, it’s in the mindset and the approach to how you make the gear work and appreciating that the phrasing along with it, that is actually as much to do with the tone than anything else. It’s all as important as each other.”
So, what do we make of all that? Let’s think about what Jamie was saying, and let’s face it, he’s employed to sound like Brian as much as possible and he went the extra mile to do it (and, as Queen own the show he's employed by Brian to play like him). He can get really close by employing the same gear, the same touch and most importantly the same mindset. So, it would appear that tone is not all in the fingers, or the gear after all. Everything is important, everything makes the tone, but you have to be thinking in the right way first.
Jamie is a session musician from the UK, now based in Sweden. He endorses and is endorsed by: Music Man, Mesa Boogie, Massive Unity, Two Notes, Steinberg, DiMarzio and many other incredible manufacturers. You can catch him on tour this year with The Champions of Rock in Scandinavia, see his instructional videos on LickLibrary and buy materials from his website, jamiehumphries.com
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: