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more... Gigging AdviceHow-TosRecording TipsFebruary 2010

The Psychology of Tone


Where’s the Rub?
Usually, the seed of a guitar sound I want to attain is planted by a favorite record. The inspiration for the aforementioned Les Paul/Marshall revelation came directly from Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak record. As soon as I heard the midrangy crunch of the twin Les Paul and Marshall pairing on the title track, I was hooked and so it began. Quickly, my stock Gibson “Shaw” pickups seemed thin in comparison with Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson’s twin attack. I have now had every pickup combo imaginable in that guitar and have gotten the closest with a bone nut, TonePros aluminum tailpiece and bridge, RS Guitarworks pots and capacitor, and a WCR coils American Steele set of pickups. I truly love the sound of that setup, but you guessed it—I’m still not holding the Thin Lizzy cigar. I know I’m not alone in having a story like that.

“The more glorified an artist is, the more people will want to attain that fame, beauty and sound,” Dr. Levitt said. “We want to say that the tone is in the fingers but it’s very difficult to measure that and recreate that, so we go to other measures to attain cause and effect. Especially with signature series instruments, there is a fallacy that we will get this one-to-one correspondence with the person who inspires us.” I believe that on some level we all know what Dr. Levitt is referring to; we just don’t want to admit it.

“What does happen, though, is that these artists will provide a path,” Dr. Levitt suggested with a smile, “and as interests in other tones broaden, we will inevitably synthesize these tones and that’s where our own signature sound starts appearing.” My own signature sound? The longer I thought about that, the heavier that concept became.

Yes, Jazzmaster
Most of my amp, guitar and pedal choices are based on records I have become emotionally attached to. I want to recreate those emotions in my own playing. Television guitarist Tom Verlaine’s clean, angular and outside jazz guitar lines truly inspired me and had me researching his gear and finally hunting down and procuring a ’66 blackface Super Reverb and a pair of Jazzmasters (seafoam green’61 and a transitionyear tobacco ’65). Do I sound like Tom Verlaine? Not even close. Do I love the sound of my ’65 into the Super Reverb? Let’s just say I know that the hair on the back of your neck will stand at attention when I tear into “Marquee Moon.”

Oddly enough, before I was on a Verlaine trip my obsession with Jazzmasters came from guitarists like Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore and Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. These mavericks were trying to remove themselves as much as possible from the classic Page, Clapton and Hendrix tones that a plethora of players were trying to shoulder up against. Another thing that I now see clearly is that my infatuation with classic Jazzmaster tones was a blessing for me as well as for other less financially endowed riffmeisters. The Jazzmaster’s doormat reputation had something to do with the slim price tag attached to its extra wide head stock. Heck, that could have been the same reason that threadbare rockers like Renaldo and Mascis’ gravitated towards them.


Elvis Costello with one of his beloved Jazzmasters in 1977. The Jazzmaster’s story, especially the rising price of vintage Jazzmasters, can teach us a lot about the psychology of tone. Photo by Bob Leafe/ Frank White Photo Agency.
As you may know, when Fender introduced the Jazzmaster in ‘58 at a hefty price of $326 it was considered Fender’s top-of-the-line instrument. In a particurly skewed marketing attempt, Fender tried to snare the jazz guitar market with a poor choice of a name and a sound that had strong emphasis on pick attack and treble which was the polar opposite of the warm, Wes Montgomery-like tone that jazzbos were after. When the dotted-eighth players turned their noses up at Jazzmasters, surf bands were swift to pick them up, plug them into their reverb tanks and adopt them as their own. Once the Gretschs and Rickenbackers associated with Beatlemania took hold in the mid-sixties and the British blues movement would usher in the ‘burst Les Paul, the Jazzmaster was considered kindling at best. Those things were stacked to the rafters in the back rooms of most pawnshops. It wasn’t until fairly recently that Jazzmaster players like Elvis Costello, Mascis, Renaldo and Moore would receive signature guitars to help facilitate the demand for the model, and bump up the value of Jazzmasters on the vintage market. So what does the story of this red-headed stepchild of a Fender tell us about tone hunting and tone hunters? Simply put, there’s a lot that goes into the reputation of what might be considered “desirable prey.”