February 2017
more... Gigging AdviceHow-TosRecording TipsApril 2010

The Cult of Tone

Sacred Icons of Lust and Zeal
Ironically, our tone rituals are often more visual than aural. Think about this: the sting of betrayal seems to only occur when we see our deities aligning themselves with guitars from other denominations. The guitar greats change amplifiers and experiment with different pedals on a regular basis, but it’s not that big of a deal to their followers even though amplifiers and effects are as responsible for a player’s timbre as their guitar choice. But because the guitar is more visually associated with the player, whereas amps are in the background or hidden altogether, we feel uncomfortable with their change. Often, it’s the sight and not the sound that indicates a more ritualistic than reasonable pattern of tone worship. If it’s not entirely based on sound, what makes us align ourselves with one particular guitar denomination over the other?

It could be argued that one’s theological religion depends more on geography than spirituality. It’s no surprise that I am a Christian—I was born and raised in the United States in the 20th century. Had my ancestors hailed from India, I’d be Hindu. It’s that simple. Likewise, our tonal beliefs are influenced by where we live. I live In Nashville, and I’m not sure you can even cross the border of Tennessee without a Telecaster on your person. Go southwest for 870 miles to Austin, walk into any live music venue, and there’s an excellent chance you’re going to see someone bludgeoning an old Stratocaster, SRV style. Or, head 880 miles north from Nashville to the clubs of New York, and you’ll hear and see an inordinate number of Les Pauls, 335s or Strats retrofitted with humbuckers.

Speaking of the geography to tone relationship, to my ear, the two biggest pickup companies sound like the place they’re built. DiMarzio pickups are New York. Like the city that never sleeps, DiMarzio pickups are LOUD, in your face, aggressive, “Fugetaboutit!” Conversely, Seymour Duncans sound laid back and cool just like the west coast—”It’s all good.” (Both companies have diverse product lines, but the pickups that put them both on the map fit the above descriptions to this player.) Why do sound regionalisms exist? Because our beliefs are in part shaped by our surroundings, whether it’s the place where we were born or where we moved to.

The Ascension of Deities and Demigods Can’t you see he’s the man, let me hear you applaud he is more than a man he’s a shiny golden god. —“Classico,” Tenacious D

Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Django, Van Halen, Santana, Brent Mason, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Kirk Hammett, Slash, Jeff Beck, SRV, Duane Allman, Larry Carlton, Eric Johnson, Mark Knopfler, Steve Vai, Ritchie Blackmore, Skynyrd. Most of us learned to play by emulating the sounds of these guitar greats. We research and buy gear like our heroes use(d), not necessarily because it’s the best but because they used it. Some boutique builders will argue that they make better Stratocasterstyle and Telecaster-style guitars than Fender, but Fender remains the most coveted and popular because that’s the brand played on all those classic albums of the past; this is a consumer decision based on ideology rather than facts. Our idols established the laws of tone, and most of us follow without question.

Have you ever gone back and listened critically to some of the guitar playing that first inspired you? Take some time to collect the isolated guitar tracks, (YouTube has some great ones); it’s an amazing experience. When you strip away vocals, drums, keys, and bass to hear the naked, raw tone of legendary guitar tracks you’ll experience some surprises. These are the sounds that inspired thousands of loyal devotees and millions of dollars in gear sales, but a truly open-minded listen will reveal the sublime and the downright ugly. Last year, I stopped into my friend Chuck Ainlay’s studio while he was mixing Clapton’s latest Crossroads DVD. I watched Chuck struggle with a mix that day because one of the guitar greats had a downright bad tone happening. Granted, this was a plug-and-pray festival where acts run on as the others run off, so there probably was some questionable backline gear and not much of a soundcheck. This guitar legend was playing well, but—yikes!—the poor engineer was left polishing a tone turd. This could have been a bad day or this guitar god may just have bad tone all the time. Who knows? But it was an ear-opening experience for me as an apostle of this player, and it helped me listen more critically to what’s coming out of my amp.

Finding one’s own personal sound is like any spiritual odyssey: It starts with what we are exposed to, but somewhere along the line something clicks inside of us and we become true disciples of the faith. I was raised in Montana, where old cornball country music was ubiquitous. Though I hated much of it at the time, I’ve come to appreciate the nostalgia of it probably more than the sound. What really shaped my tone quest were my hip parents and very cool older brother who exposed me to ’70s rock, music that by today’s standards has more in common with country music. The Eagles, the Dead, Dire Straits, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, or even “Lay Down Sally”- era Clapton and “Landslide”-era Fleetwood Mac sound far more like real country music than current artists leading that format (for example, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts). My personal conversion experience that led to my joining the cult of Tele-evangelists came in 9th grade, when I watched Albert Lee open for Clapton at the local civic center. The scales fell away from my eyes. I saw the light and devoted myself to chasing that sound. I eventually followed that sound to Nashville, where I heard Brent Mason, the guy who probably influenced more people to pick up a Telecaster than anybody in the last 15 years. Mason’s tone pretty much set the standard for what most Tele players strive for. Web message boards are full of conjecture about how he achieves his sound, making it seem more like mysticism than mechanics. I asked Mason about his own pilgrimage to tone, and he was kind enough to give us the keys to the kingdom.

“Oddly, I first got interested in the Tele when I heard Jerry Reed—the slinky, funky style, with claw-style double-stops,” he says. “After that, it was definitely the country/jazzy style of Roy Nichols from the Strangers [Merle Haggard’s band] that twisted my ear. Old blackface Fender amps and a Tele with single-coil pickups and an MXR Dyna Comp compressor in the chain. Later on,” Mason continues, “I developed a little more overdrive in the sound by using a lower-wattage amp—like a ’67 Fender Deluxe Reverb—on the Brooks & Dunn records, Alan Jackson, and so on. That was inspired by listening to Danny Gatton and Jeff Beck (even though Beck plays a Strat, he still goes to that back pickup randomly during a solo, and it had a beautiful tone). I now play through a ’63 50-watt blackface Bassman head with an external cab and one channel souped up a bit. It was the best of both worlds.”

It’s really a shockingly normal story. I hear Mason play and it sounds like he’s been touched by the hand of God. But as it turns out, he’s just one of us—a guy that got turned on by a sound, chased it down, and developed it into his own. As his story corroborates, the actual tone of most guitar greats generally begins as an impersonation of another great. As the artist develops, their tone takes on its own unique signature that’s so far away from the original source that one would be hardpressed to find the sonic footprint. Reed and Nichols begat Mason, who begat Brad Paisley, and so on, but Mason’s quintessential playing does not sound much like either of them (though once you know the reference, you can detect some small similarities). There are many examples of this. Les Paul was influenced by Django Reinhardt, and you can hear those crazy glissandos on pre-Mary Ford recordings, but you’d never guess it listening to his most popular work. Eddie Van Halen maintains that he modeled his tone after Eric Clapton, but they don’t seem remotely similar to me. Their development as players is akin to people who are raised with certain worship rituals but then question what they really believe and strike out to find their own truth.
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