The Quest For Tone
(17 Jul 03)
Introduction and Definition
Oh gee, what kind of a topic is that? Did I get myself into trouble now, trying to tackle such a hard to define thing such as TONE?
Well, it sure would be a bit easier to write about stuff like the Japanese pentatonic or nose-tapping, but after all, I wrote a bunch of articles about playing techniques, scales and improvisation already, so I figured it might be a good idea to talk about HOW to play all that stuff for a change.
Now, first of all, many people are confused when it comes to the difference between SOUND and TONE. So let's try to define those two first, mmkay?
Sound- Is what's generated by your gear. Your guitar, the wood it's made of, the pickups, the amp, FX and all the "other stuff" in between (cords, Eqs etc.). It takes money, some ears, sometimes some counseling and time to get gear together.
Tone- The way you shape what you play. The mysterious "It's in your hands" factor. The reason why 6 different guitarists can play the exact same line through the exact same gear and still get different sounds of it. It takes years of playing, listening, experimenting etc. to work on your tone.
Now that we have defined those two, let's forget about SOUND for a while, shall we? I mean, I might write some stuff about setting up your gear, getting together a rig etc. But for now, let's talk about tone.
A common mistake a lot of people make is: they listen to their favorite players, they like what they hear, they try to play it, too... and they get different results. Most of the time, they think "Gee, it's obvious... that guy has better gear, or some hidden goodies in the back of his rack that makes him sound so good. Also, they sure added some FX etc. in the studio, so that's why he sounds so much better than I do when he plays that simple melody."
Or, they try to purchase the exact same gear that their role-model uses, thinking that it will get them closer to the sound of that player. And THAT, people, is why the endorsement / artist signature-business is so successful. I mean, most of those "signature models" are great instruments / pieces of gear, but in general, people think that buying it will make sure they can sound good. And that is a dead-end street.
Because, instead of trying to get the exact same gear as your role-model, trying to get pictures of his amp-setting etc., you should focus on how he plays, not WHAT he plays through.
And I know that that can be very frustrating. I mean, when I got serious about the electric guitar, I wanted to be able to play and sound like Joe Satriani... and for some reason (I believe that all those ads by the companies he was an endorser for were a factor here), I believed that, if I would have that signature guitar and that certain amp, I'd be able to sound like him. And subconsciously, I thought that I wouldn't only sound like him, I'd also be able to PLAY like him.
Reality check: If you wanna play like Joe Satch, using a lot of fast legato-licks etc, it sure is easier with a guitar like the Satriani-signature model strung with light gauge strings than it would be with a vintage Tele strung with a set of 012-056 strings, played through a vintage Bassman.
I had a pretty decent electric guitar though, and I (fortunately) didn't have the money to buy that signature-model, so I figured "Mmkay, let's sit down then and try to do it on this guitar".
Well, years passed, and I worked on my technique. Learned lots of legato-runs, read a lot of columns by and interviews with the Satch, and listened to his albums a lot. And I slowly started to notice a few things:
- Since my legato-technique was improving, I was able to play many of his lines now.
- Unfortunately, it still sounded different than the record.
And the gear (amp-settings) were not a factor here. I had heard that mysterious term "tone" before, and slowly it started to dawn on me that this was what I was dealing with there.