Premier Guitar

A Call to Order

June 8, 2012

Just like a cooking show, where all the ingredients are lined up to prepare a tasty dish, gathering a nice selection of pedals and a fistful of cables offers an opportunity to reorder and recombine your devices in new and exciting ways.

Tone. Tone. Tone. Is there a more subjective discussion to enter into? One man’s sonic heaven is another man’s aural hell. I was recently asked to present a workshop on the subject of guitar tone. No problem, thought I—piece of cake. Once I sat down to flesh out the material for the talk, I realized what a slippery slope I’d ventured onto. The first point to make is that tone is subjective. For example: Kerry King’s tone is perfect for what he does in Slayer, and Chet Atkin’s tone was perfect for playing his unique brand of country picking. Both are examples of great tone in their respective fields.

Cross them over and the dilemma immediately becomes apparent. I’m not sure how Slayer fans would respond to “Dead Skin Mask” being played by Mr. King on a Gretsch Chet Atkins through a clean amp with just a smattering of slapback delay. By the same token, hearing a recording of Mr. Atkins performing “Flop Eared Mule” on a BC Rich KKV plugged into a wall of Marshall JCM800s could cause many an ardent country picker to raise a proverbial eyebrow.

Both are great tones, yet both are utterly different. So from this we can state that one of the factors in defining great tone is context.

And here’s another statement: There is no bad tone.

A bold claim? Yes. But it’s true enough when you are in pursuit of your own sound. But when you’re trying to replicate someone else’s sound, it’s very easy to say, “Nope, that’s not good tone.” That’s because there’s a reference point.

Your humble writer was performing a version of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” the other night at a party. My goal was to get a very Jimmy Page-like sound. There was a reference point, so I assembled the appropriate equipment and consequently got a reasonable facsimile of that sound.

But when you’re playing your own music and crafting your own sonic stamp, well, this is where the right and wrong, good and bad, and nice or nasty definitions of the general guitar playing population go out the window. The only rule in this domain comes down to you and your ears. What makes you happy. What makes you get that goofy grin when you wind up your volume control and strike a chord. The great thing about this pursuit is that anything is an option. I’ve talked in previous columns about some super-low-fi ways that a number of über-classic guitar sounds have been created. The moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to try everything.

So what did I share with the folks at this seminar? In addition to the vapor-speak surrounding the essence of tone, we got into a concept that will open a few wonderful doors using the gear you’ve already got: Pedal order.

A question I’ve been asked again and again and again: “What order should I put my pedals in?” There is no correct answer. Sure, some pedals (certain fuzzes and wahs in particular) like to see the high-impedance load of the guitar’s pickups rather than the low-impedance load of the output of another pedal. But even that can go out the window. The thin, nasal, squashed sound of a fuzz being fed a low-impedance load has been used by a number of guitar greats to fantastic effect. It’s not wrong, it’s just different.

The best thing you can do is assemble your pedals, gather some patch cables and a power supply, grab your guitar, fire up your amp, and then spend an afternoon trying different combinations and effects orders. The way I’ve always approached this is by verbally describing the sound of the preceding and proceeding effects.

For example, the phaser “wooshes” the sound and the fuzz “fuzzes” the sound. If I put the fuzz first, I’ll “fuzz” my “woosh” (this yields a squashed, compressed, fat woosh—think Smashing Pumpkins), but if I put the phaser first, I’ll “woosh” my “fuzz” for a shimmery, swirly, Hendrixthrough- UniVibe sound).

You can apply this principle to any effect—delays, chorus, trem, whatever— and it’s a great way to get a heap more sound out of your existing gear. You never know, your dream tone may very well be already lying in wait on your pedalboard, ready to be unleashed with just a few judicious adjustments to their order. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get woosh/ fuzz/schlube/blurble/blopping!

Ben Fulton designs Red Witch analog pedals, which are heard in arenas, studios, and bedrooms around the world. Andy Summers and Reeves Gabrels are pleased he ended up doing this instead of going to prison. His mum is relieved about this, too.