Considered by most to be the Holy Grail of all guitars, and possibly that of all guitar tone, the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard is one of the most sought-after and expensive guitars in the world. Does gear like this even matter? Let's dive into a discussion about the ever-elusive concept of "tone" and the gear we use to get there.
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.
Bob Dylan in May of 1966 with a very mysterious Fender Telecaster.
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.
Jimi can barely get his guitar in tune. It doesn't stop him from kicking ass and putting on a great show. Is his tone good, or bad, or so bad that it's great?
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.
Tom Morello takes his Fender Telecaster to entirely new dimensions.
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.
Desmond Smith is a guitar tech and guitar player living in Nashville, TN. You can keep up with all of his guitar and music related adventures by following him on Instagram @desmachine.