In this, the final part in our trilogy on the mysteries of tone, we examine the elements that shape guitarists’ worldviews and define what they view as their Holy Grail of Tone. (If you missed the first two chapters, be sure to read “The Psychology of Tone” and “The Science of Tone” in the February and March 2010 issues, respectively.) In the first installment, we took a look at the subtleties of thought and perception that subconsciously guide us toward particular gear choices, while the second piece explored headier concepts like the fact that science cannot quantify and calibrate the elements of tone that most of us obsess over. And here in “The Cult of Tone,” we unabashedly and unapologetically confront the experiences and circumstances that inspire the rampant tone fanaticism amongst players of all ages and stylistic preferences. Because, when we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’ll see that we guitarists are one of the most fundamentalist segments of society today.
Some would say that’s a good thing—that it signals character and integrity in the face of the demonically buffeting winds issuing forth from Lady Gaga’s gaping mouth of doom. But others believe such unquestioning devotion to the tones and gear of yesteryear is backward, ignorant, and dangerously close-minded. Maybe even dangerous enough to threaten the instrument’s relevance and longevity.
As with religion in general, there will never be a conclusive answer who’s right and who’s wrong, but we invite you to take these questions seriously—to question your faith, your motivations, and your core musical principles. We hope you enjoy this series as much as we’ve enjoyed bringing it to you, and we look forward to hearing you testify, rant or sing praises in the comments.
When Premier Guitar’s Joe Coffey mentioned the Cult of Tone concept, I was immediately intrigued. As Joe put it, “A lot of people follow all the rituals involved with a certain tonal belief system… They don’t question what the deities apparently wrote in stone and they don’t question what the preachers are preaching.” Whether or not we see it in ourselves, we all know people who embrace their own particular tone school of thought with the reverence and devotion of a religious zealot.
As a rule, I avoid discussions about religion because it’s an incendiary topic that inevitably angers somebody. Rest assured, we will not drag God into this article. The goal here is to explore why we embrace certain sounds and examine the dogma of our secular beliefs about what sounds good and bad. Whenever the word “religion” appears anywhere, some people immediately stop reading and start threatening. To ensure nobody takes offense, let’s define our terms using Dictionary.com:
re·li·gion – nounIf you’ve ever struck up a conversation with the patchouli-wearing cashier at Whole Foods, you know that, for some, vegetarianism is in fact a religion. My father, a devout Catholic, is privately an apostle of baseball. He and I have taken several pilgrimages to the holy land—Yankee Stadium—to partake in the communion of beer and hot dogs. There are disciples of Star Trek, upholders of the Jedi way, those committed to Amway or Mary Kay, and then there’s us, guitarists living the life of the faithful and steadfast, committed to our religion of tone. To any other demographic, reading a three-part series on the guitar tone would be about as exciting as a ten-part BBC series on the history of laundry folding. Not us. We devour this stuff the way others read Norman Vincent Peale study guides. We devote a great deal of our time, money, and both conscious and subconscious thoughts to chasing a sound. We revere some guitarists to the point of idolatry and unapologetic discipleship. In short, there is a religion of tone. Can I get an “amen”?
1. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects
2. something one believes in and follows devotedly
The Six Sects of Six-String Orthodoxy
Our belief systems separate us into what could be defined as denominations. Like any religion, there are sects that share the same basic principles but differ widely on details—which fractures them into separate factions or cults. Though there are probably hundreds of smaller splinter groups, the main denominations in the religion of Tone are:
• Disciples of Paul (Les, that is)
• Southern Strat-tists
• Church of the Pointy Headstocks
• The Hollowbody Rollers
Players tend to be loyal to their denomination; they may visit others, but they tend to stick to the church they came up in. And when one of the faithful leaves our flock, we often experience a sense of betrayal. For instance, to this day I can’t quite approve of Mark Knopfler playing a Les Paul. I love his playing. I love Les Pauls. I just don’t like them together. You’d think 25 years would be long enough for me to get comfortable with the switch, but it still feels a bit like an infidelity. I felt the same breach of faith when I first learned that Jimmy Page, the High Priest of the Disciples of Paul, played his classic “Stairway to Heaven” solo on a Telecaster. As it turns out, there wasn’t a Gibson on the entire track—the other parts were played on a damn Fender Electric XII! What the hell?! Conversely, Clapton’s famous “woman tone” came before my time, so I’m sure it bothered some of his early disciples when he denounced his Gibson ES-335 and SG for the more subtle Strat sound. But for me, “Blackie” is Clapton. I mean, he’s one of the founding Southern Strat-tists! Same goes for Jeff Beck; his Les Paul days predate my listening, so for me he is an unwavering priest in the church of Strat. Could you imagine Angus Young on a Telecaster, George Benson on an SG, or James Burton on an Ibanez? Sheer heresy. I’m sure these legendary players could make these guitars work—they may even sound better on these instruments. We just don’t want to see it, and I do mean “see” it more than hear it.