Tone (in relation to music) is defined as a musical or vocal sound with reference to its pitch, quality, and strength.
Tone can also relate to an idea–the general character or attitude of a place, a piece of music, a situation, or emotion. I feel as though this concept of tone directly relates to guitar playing. Attitude, note choice, vibrato, phrasing, chord voicings, for example, are all a part of your tone. Your sound.
Tone is many things to many people, but in most cases it is referred to simply as either being “good” or “bad.” Unfortunately, looking at it this way is an inherently flawed view. In all fairness, there really is no good or bad tone because each person’s opinion of such is subjective. What might sound terrible to you, may sound really great to me, and vice versa. I’ve even heard guys say, “his tone is so bad that it actually sounds really good.” Which can be a completely true statement. It’s like when something sounds like shit, but in a really great way. Let’s take a look at some examples of what I’m talking about here.
The Good, The Bad, The ugly
Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters in the history of recorded music. Most people would agree with that statement. Some people would say that Dylan is a great songwriter, but a terrible singer. I would disagree. I love the sound of Dylan’s voice. I love his tone. I’m also a fan of his guitar playing. His Telecaster guitar tone from 1966 is one of my all time favorites.
The guitar player community tends to love guys like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page. I know I sure do. But go to any guitar-related forum on the internet and you will find people who will openly profess that these guitar players did, in fact, on some occasions sound like shit, and essentially had terrible tone. Can you believe that? Yeah, believe it.
Have you ever watched any bootleg live-footage of these aforementioned guitar gods? They didn’t always sound very good. Jimi Hendrix had terrible nights of being completely out of tune along with moments of bad playing. Jimmy Page and Keith Richards have had equally bad nights, if not worse. It was by the way, the late 1960s, early 1970s, and everyone knows by now that a lot of the time these guys were completely fucked up. You just didn’t play sober back then. You also have to remember that they didn’t have floor tuners or pedal boards in those days. They didn’t have in-ear monitors either. My point is this: some of our favorite guitar players of all time have had their share of bad nights.
They’ve also sounded really fucking great. It’s just a matter of opinion. Even when it was bad, it probably still kicked ass. Part of being a great guitar player means that no matter what, you own it. I bet you’ve never seen Keith Richards act like a pussy while playing “Satisfaction.” That’s because he always owns it.
Where does good tone come from?
Tone comes from a lot of places. More specifically, guitar tone, is a unique combination of many things. A great amp, a great guitar, a shitty amp, a shitty guitar, a great pedal, a cheap pedal…all of these ingredients comprise your tone. It’s true. But why?
Guitar tone, good or bad, or a combination of both for that matter, often has more to do with the person who’s creating the sound than the equipment that they are using. However, the equipment that we use can be what inspires us to play, and will also, by its physical nature, color our sound.
The guitar and amp we choose will usually have some kind of inherent voice. A Fender Telecaster for example, in most cases, will sound like a Telecaster. The same is true for a Fender Stratocaster, or a Gibson Les Paul. These guitars have a characteristic sound that is distinct and almost immediately recognizable. A guitar’s type of pickups, and even its scale length, will effect the way it sounds. Because of this, people tend to acquire a taste for a certain type of guitar, and then they will use that guitar for a particular style of music that the guitar might lend itself to.
Now, the exact opposite might also be true. Just because the Telecaster is widely associated with country or western guitar playing does not mean that it is exclusive to that style or sound. Guys like Jonny Greenwood and Tom Morello immediately come to mind when I think of Telecaster guitar players who have taken that instrument so far from where it started and the music it was originally intended for.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer, is another example of a classic piece of gear being used by guitar players all over the world. It has found its way into nearly every genre of music imaginable. It’s not just for blues guitar players. It is also one of the most copied pedals of all time, so much so, that you’re likely to see a Tube Screamer clone, or a modified version of the original on your favorite guitar player’s pedalboard.
It comes from your hands, kind of
Does tone really come from our hands? Well, yeah, at least some of it does. We all know that a guitar and amp, or a particular type of pedal will change our sound, but what else will create a guitar player’s tone? Is it in the hands?
A guitar player’s touch, his approach and technique, his voice on the instrument is a unique part of the overall equation. All of this is related. Tone then becomes objective and subjective, physical and emotional, intimate and distant, serious and funny. It can consist of long, intricate phrases, or short, simple ones. Your tone becomes the voice of your instrument. You have a sound. It’s what makes you who you are when you play.
Have you ever watched a guitar player struggle to obtain another guitar player’s signature sound? It can be painful. A lot of time and money has been spent by many a guitar player in the struggle to sound like someone else, instead of focusing on having their own sound. Like a snowflake, we all have a totally unique fingerprint, no two are ever the same. You have your own sound, your own guitar tone is literally at the end of your fingers. You just have to discover it, and then cultivate it.
How do we acquire tone?
So, if tone is a combination of our own physical self, along with the gear we use, then how do we achieve the tone we seek?
One way to discover the tone you’re hearing inside of your head is to imagine a situation in which you have a platform that you build upon. Having a starting point is important when doing anything in life. Being a musician and a guitar player is an art form and one must be inspired to be creative. Music, life, sound, emotion, other guitar players, and gear can all be used as inspiration.
Gear is important, kind of
Gear is important. It really is. But ask yourself this–is it important to have the most expensive or the rarest of gear you can find? Or is it more important to find what works best for you?
The gear you choose to use will only get you as far as your imagination can take you. A five hundred dollar delay pedal will only sound as good as the guitar player who is operating it. A super-expensive, custom shop guitar, or a really great vintage instrument will typically sound great in the hands of a good player, but if you can hardly bang out three chords, you might find that the guitar of your dreams may fall short of your expectations. The gear will only do what it is pushed to do.
Keep this in mind as well: just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean that it’s bad. The same is true for the most expensive guitars. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked into a guitar store and picked up a very expensive guitar only to be utterly disappointed with its sound and playability. I’ve also picked up more than a few “cheap” guitars and have been immediately blown away with how great they played.
Just be yourself
At the end of the day, just find and use what works for you. Try everything and always keep an open mind. And remember, once you begin to find your sound, continue to push forward and to cultivate it. Practice being a good listener. Miles Davis once said, “Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” You’re an artist. Paint with as many colors as you can, or with as few as you really need. Just be creative. Be yourself.
I’ll leave you with another quote from one of my favorite movies of all time. This quote ironically seems to perfectly sum up the never-ending search for the ever-changing tone I’m constantly trying to obtain.
“You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first… first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs, wonderful to tell. You shall see a…a cow…on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.” – the Blind Seer, O’ Brother Where Art Thou?
Desmond Smith is a guitar player, guitar technician, and a writer living in Nashville. He plays guitar in a local rock and roll band called Heathen Sons. He has teched for Need to Breathe, Young the Giant, Walk the Moon, the Apache Relay, Ben Rector, and Colony House to name a few. He also does guitar related work for several other touring bands all over the country. You can keep up with all of his guitar endeavors and adventures @desmachine on Instagram and Twitter.