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It is widely believed that a guitar’s tone involves fingers, physics, sometimes electronics, more physics, and then your ear. Not true. In reality, this signal path is not complete without one more thing… your brain. So why is it that the most complex part of the process, which is clearly the brain, is the one we never talk about? Assuming that beauty is ultimately in the brain of the beholder, why do so many beholders lust after the same handful of classic tones, when there are so many varieties out there? That can’t be a coincidence. Is that evidence that superior tones actually do exist, or is it simply proof that some mishmash of culture, acoustics, mojo— and who knows what else—have played with our heads without us even realizing it?
What exactly is happening when we try to produce certain tones with our favorite musical instrument? We believe it comes down to three things: psychology, science and religion (not that kind of religion; we’re talking about another kind of belief system). For the next three months, we’re going to explore these concepts. We know we aren’t likely to set the record forever straight; we’re merely trying to better understand the elements at play. In other words, our goal for this series is to mess with your head.
The first time I plugged a Gibson Heritage ’80 Series Les Paul directly into an unmolested 1985 JCM 800 sitting on top of a beefy 4x12 with Celestion G12H-100s I had truly set foot in tonal Valhalla. While full-bodied G chords and bowel-emptying detuned chugs rang in my ears, I just couldn’t wipe the sloppy grin off my mug. “That’s it!” I thought, finally putting down the axe as light continued to spill from the heavens. I had indeed heard the angels singing through those Celestions. My path toward the holy grail of tone had finally led me to a comfy cul de sac.
I’m sure most of you reading this are already yelling out the punch line from the cheap seats. Just keep in mind that was twenty three years ago, and much like the premise of the show Kung Fu, I am still, of course, a young grasshopper trying to snatch the tone pebble from the master’s hand.
After my short-lived tonal nirvana was over, I started searching for the next perfect tone. GAS set in hard, and I took up permanent residency in tonal purgatory, constantly trading, selling and buying guitars, amps, pedals, etc. in a concentrated effort to permanently grasp that slippery eel we call tone. Although that sloppy grin has a way of stretching across my grizzled grill every now and then, there’s always some other guitar slingers’ singing sound that will make my big toe curl up in my boot and send me reeling back to square one.
The Never-Ending Journey
If you’re anything like me, you experience occasional moments of clarity during your tone quest. That’s when you ponder questions like, “Do I really need 15 overdrive pedals and six Marshall 4x12 cabs?” Your answer: “Why yes. Yes, I do.”
Maybe you wonder why you sit through records made by a guitarist whose style you don’t really appreciate, but you’ll spin them anyway because his tone leaves yougob smacked. Perhaps you turn green with envy when you hear tales of people finding goldtops in attics, or Supro Thunderbolts and Maestro fuzz pedals at garage sales. Surely you wonder why you sneak expensive fuzz pedals past your better half as remorselessly as an unfaithful man scrubs lipstick off his collar. I don’t doubt that you also heat up the soldering iron with the mere thought of Dirk Wacker’s latest “Mod Garage” column, just like I do. You know exactly what I mean, and on some level, like me, you truly hope and pray that you never get well. I mean, really. Who wants to find their rig and be done?
I decided to get help—not necessarily to cure me of my GAS but rather to crack the code of it. I arranged a meeting with the manager of Mental Health Services at Concordia University in Montreal, Dr. Jeffrey B. Levitt, and decided to see if he could help me finally snatch that damn pebble out of that calloused ol’ hand.
Dr. Levitt isn’t your everyday quackery-spouting egghead. He’s actually one of us. About a baritone neck away from his framed psychology license in his office is a calendar boasting all of the solid lumber coming out of the Fender Custom Shop. On top of his desk, where other psychologists might have a Newton’s Cradle of clacking steel balls, he has a nickel-covered set of Throbak humbuckers. Dr. Levitt’s quest for tone has led him to a ‘92 Fender Custom Shop Telecaster that he plugs into a 65amps London head with a matching 2x12 cab, but his quest for tone remains as insatiable as mine.
“Very few people actually attain what they are desiring,” Dr. Levitt told me soon into our conversation. He went on, laying a clear foundation of thought from which we’d further poke and prod, “People will get a Gibson and a great amp and create a great sound but it’s never satisfying enough. To use an analogy, vanilla is great and is probably the best ice cream flavor but you when you see strawberry and chocolate and other flavors you have to dip in and attain it. The sonic vocabulary is so vast that once you get one type of tone it remains to be only one paragraph of one chapter of one story. I know people who are just crazy about fly-fishing and they will just obsess with water temperature, the type of fishing line, altitude, etc. and it’s no different from being a guitar enthusiast. Once you become passionate about something, the quest is never over. The quest, though, proves to be even more enriching than reaching the ultimate.”
I actually followed that. Bought it, too. From there, we both knew where this was going. I had more questions, and it was clear that with his background as both a tone junkie and a psychologist, I had the right person to ask.