The Psychology of Tone
Is there a true holy-grail of tone out there, or is it all in our heads?
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“Guitars like Steinbergers and Parker Fly guitars are amazing playing and sounding guitars but are hardly going to topple the sales of Telecasters, Les Pauls and Stratocasters, because they just don’t have the same aura,” Dr. Levitt surmised. “In the end, there will always be identification with what we glorify, and there will be iconic sounds and images in our collective conscious that we respect, value and seek. We want that connection to a story and if we peek behind the curtain and just see a washboard with a plank of wood stuck on, it loses a bit of the magic—and that’s what we’re after.”
Although many of us don’t want to admit it, Dr. Levitt’s theories do dredge up some truth. One has to look no further than the fetishists who are knocked to their knees when talking about the Peter Green/ Gary Moore ’burst, Roy Buchanan’s “Nancy”, Billy Gibbons’ “Pearly Gates,” Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Number One,” Clapton’s “Blackie,” etc. Are those aficionados aware of how much they love the associated narratives behind those guitars, or is it truly the tones—and only the tones—that they’re after?
Truly famous guitars are famously dinged, and that helps differentiate them from other instruments while adding the realistic side of romance to the equation. True love survives wear and tear; it lasts. The problem is, most of us are incapable of working SRV “Number One”-level love into our guitars, emotionally and physically, but we want to participate in this “older is better” way of thinking. Accidentally or purposely putting a gank or two in your otherwise new Strat just isn’t the same—a weathered guitar has to look like it has been played by a pro for a long, long time. That’s why many companies offer a controversial relic’d version of their classic lines these days.
If you ever want to see two guitar fiends screaming bloody murder at each other, just bring up the topic of relic’ing. People get awfully testy when it comes to guitars bearing chemically treated and artistically abused armor. It makes sense that this is a sensitive issue—the fake beat-up look threatens the sanctity of an aesthetic that, until recently, was reserved for guitars that were authentically worn in and lovingly coaxed into producing todie- for tone over long periods of time. Those are rare guitars. Naturally, one side of the debate is very protective of that authenticity.
“We are programmed as humans to be drawn to stories and characters, and if there is no story we tend to find it less sexy,” Dr. Levitt confirmed. “For the most part, guitar players think ‘the older the better,’ and that’s partly because quality control was better at a lot of the major manufacturers in the fifties through the early seventies. Despite quality control lacking in the mid-seventies people will still pay vintage prices for these guitars, even though they may not be as well made as guitars are today. These beat up guitars tell stories, so when we see the relic’d look it triggers the mind to question how that happened and the mind begins to fantasize. When we pay for a relic’d guitar, we’re paying for a fantasy … unless you’re psychotic, you don’t actually believe that you’ve been on numerous tours with this brand new guitar, but you are now able to imagine that.”
There’s No Crying in Tone Hunting
Set aside the fact that certain eras had better manufacturer quality control and consider that there’s also an emotional connection with older music. It has endured the test of time and begat new generations of tone, therefore it rates higher on our tonal respect charts. Page’s “Black Dog” tone holds a certain nostalgic value compared to the guitar sounds anyone can crank out with digital tools these days.
“People seek comfort with the familiar, the tested, and with stability.” Dr. Levitt offered, displaying the kind of trained mental objectivity that unlettered tonehounds will struggle with. It’s much easier to simply swear that those old tones are downright “better.” No one wants to be told that their emotions are coloring their opinions about actual tonal “quality,” if there is such a thing.
“Perception is very tricky and relative,” Dr. Levitt continued. “A guitar could look like a piece of junk and be butt-ugly but may possess unbelievable tonal qualities due to the wood, construction, and other variables. But … I’d rather play a Tele, Strat, LP, or Rickenbacker, even if they’re sonically inferior, because I am enamored by their looks and history. That is, it makes me play better because I feel better about playing them. It’s a feeling that you’re a part of history, a part of a group, a part of a family—be it Fender, PRS, Gibson, etc. The “feeling” part and issues of connectivity and attachment… that’s all psychology.”
I suspect you’ve called BS on some part of this article by now, and that’s fine. Surely there is such a thing as superior tone, psychology notwithstanding… right? Personally, I can’t say that I’m over my fixation with tone now that I’ve had a chance to chew on these pointy-headed concepts. I must say, though, I really do feel closer to whatever it is that I’m looking for. I haven’t reached that tonal destination yet, but looking back I know I’ve saddled up a bar stool next to it and shared a pitcher of draft with it.
If there is anything I’ve learned from our mutual unpeeling of the layers of the tone onion, it would be that the journey is far more enriching than the actual destination. Dr. Levitt suggests that much of this has to do with our natural inclination to seek out the explainable. In some way, our quest for Holy Grail tone is an enactment of our thought process. We want to reduce ambiguity. We try to frame everything within the parameters of cause and effect. We may not find the cause, but we get a good snootful of the roses every now and again, so we dutifully put our one foot in front of the other and continue down the winding path to eargasmic tone. It’s these prickly plants and their sweet aroma that make this whole trip worthwhile.
My eyes remain fixated on that perfect pebble. I’m still helplessly trying to grasp it away from the tone master, but in the back of my mind I also secretly hope to remain hamfisted and slow to grip. The day we are finally able to grab that elusive pebble could be a sign that our passion has truly run dry.
Next month—don’t miss part II, The Science of Tone, in which we ask the question: Isn’t our fixation with PAF and Nocaster tone kind of like a car buffs swearing that the Model T had the best-running engine ever made?