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|Does the following scenario sound familiar? One day at band practice, thinking out loud, you say, “Man, my tone sucks!” Your drummer will ask what’s wrong with it, and you’ll fumble around for answers before uttering some generalized complaint like, “It’s just not… great. I want a really great tone.”|
He suggests you invest in a new amplifier, and after some more discussion, the seed is planted. You then try out the latest supercool boutique creation and declare, “This is it!” only to discover four months later that “this” is most certainly not “it.”
So there you are, back at square one with a hole in your wallet and a piece of gear that isn’t getting it done. What happened? What do you do next? What if this happens with the next piece of gear you try? Does all tone knowledge come from seemingly endless trial and error? Did iconic guitarists like Van Halen, Santana, Hendrix and Stevie Ray – players with instantly identifiabl tones – go through the same demoralizing searches? You just spent your vacation money on this amp and your wife will throw you out if you buy another one – there has got to be a secret to finding good tone that keeps your cash reserves liquid and your marriage solid.
The honest truth is it’s an equipment jungle out there and it’s easy to get lost. The good news is that the players mentioned above made it to the other side and so can you! Our eight-step tone checklist will help you identify the gear you need, before you open up the wallet, meaning a better chance of getting it right the first time. If you’re sick of spending money on gear that doesn’t get the job done, read on.
Head, Heart and Hands
Electric guitar tone begins before you ever pick up your instrument. It starts with your heart, is assembled in your head and lives in your hands; the gear you use is simply a conduit for the expression of these departments. You won’t find your tone in an amp, guitar, stompbox or rack unit unless you know what you’re looking for. The oftheard line, “I’ll know it when I hear it,” is nothing more than a cop out! Just because you can hear it in your head doesn’t mean you’ll ever figure out how to get it out of your hands.
Ever heard this line before? “Smokin’ Johnny Hotlix played my rig and still sounded like Smokin’ Johnny Hotlix!” Why does this happen? Because Johnny Hotlix can answer all the questions above and apply those concepts to any rig. He is absolutely dialed into what he wants. And you’d best believe that he dug hard (just like you) to find it. Some players can do this naturally, like a gifted athlete; some folks stumble on it by accident. But the rest of us have to work at it.
But here’s the rub – I have no way of understanding what’s in your heart and how you create music with that source. That is what makes your art, your art. We’re certainly not here to discuss the esoterica of tone in your soul, and we’re not here to discuss the application of your God-given physiology, either. The point of this article is to help you get inside your head and make some decisions about your tone. Hopefully your heart and hands will follow suit. As there are so many little details that make up a signature tone, we’ll focus on the basics of what kinds of tones emanate from what kind of gear. We will use general classifications to help narrow down the wonderfully ridiculous number of gear choices out there. You will then be able to try a piece of gear and know what to listen for.
A quick note before we jump in: throughout this checklist you will see a lot of adjectives regarding tone. Almost every description has an opposing point of view. Please understand that our purpose here it to generally classify, not define.
Checklist Point #1: Clean Tones
The amplifier is where clean tones are delivered, and provides the foundation for the rest of your tone. Today’s amps deliver thousands of styles and colors of clean tones, so how does one narrow it down? Let’s start by identifying the four basic types of clean tones that the rest are derived from.
“Fender-style” Clean: In the 1950s, Leo Fender and his amp company pioneered this style of tone, created by the use of 6L6 power amp tubes and a Class A/B power configuration. Look for a sparkling, clear and open sounding color. The highs cut hard, the mids are transparent and crisp, and the lows are dry and clear.
“Marshall-style” Clean: In the 1960s Jim Marshall used EL34 power tubes and a Class A/B power configuration to create a signature clean sound with a round, warm high-end, punchy midrange, and thick, level lows. Amps such as Marshall’s Plexi and JCM series, Dr. Z Amps and the Mesa Stiletto deliver this flavor. Artists such as rock godfather Jimi Hendrix, The Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, and the Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman and Dickey Betts use (or used) this tone to define their styles.