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The Cult of Tone

How Vanity, Iconography, and Chance Dictate Six-String Spirituality

Note from the Editors:
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

re·li·gion – noun
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
If 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”?

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:
• Tele-evangelists
• Disciples of Paul (Les, that is)
• Southern Strat-tists
• Gretsch-itarians
• 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.

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.

The Tympanic Membrane: An Intelligent Design or Evidence of Evolution?
If we strip away all dogma and the influence of our family and friends, what do we believe? Music, like spirituality, is so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to define what and why something moves us. Why do we like what we like? Just as scientists hypothesize physical reasons for religious phenomena, there are some scientific explanations for why certain tones move us. Jason Dunaway, a damn fine bassist I’ve worked with in the past, happens to be a top electrical engineer who has helped design some of the gear most of us have used at one time or another. I asked Jason to weigh in for a scientific explanation of why we devote ourselves to certain tones.

“Our ears/brains are really amazing,” he says. “We can divine an incredible amount of information very quickly by listening. Is it a real cry or are they just messing around? Is that my wife? Sarcasm, deceit, serious, playful, angry.” In short, our hearing has an amazingly difficult job of picking up the tiniest nuance and processing the information. Roughly 100 million years of evolution was involved in developing these abilities—our ancestors’ hearing had to be good to ensure survival of the species. So how does this relate to our choice in guitar tone? It goes back to survival. “Generally, when we are stressed or excited and want to verbally express it, we go up in volume and drive our vocal apparatus harder than normal,” Jason continues. “Things get nonlinear and our normally smooth voices have more highfrequency content and volume than normal. Over time, we have come to perceive this changed harmonic content and increased volume as something that needs to have our attention. It may be danger, it may be an opportunity...but whatever it is, it excites us. It also says ‘Listen to me!...ignore all that other stuff that’s going on.’

“We find even-order distortion fairly pleasing,” Jason explains. “That’s essentially the addition of stacked octaves on top of the fundamental tone, and it is a result of asymmetrical distortion [one side of a waveform being clipped more than the other]. Odd-order distortion gives us odd multiples of the fundamental, which is not very musically pleasing. Where does every guitar, saxophone, vocal solo, or evangelical preacher go to bring the crowd to their feet? Loud, high, and way nonlinear. A scream has much more high frequency content than a normal speaking voice, regardless of volume.”

And there you have it, folks. The reason the hair stands up on your arms when you hear a PRS ripping through a warm, fat tube amp is because your body has evolved over millions of years to respond to those nonlinear waves. Our bodies tell us that these sounds are important and we feel physically excited when we hear them. Conversely, these tones don’t fit very well in an everyday context, as Jason learned from personal experience. “Tones that are used for everyday signaling, like a doorbell, are pretty simple. They don’t alarm us too much. I once had a door chime that was the actual recording of Zeppelin “Black Dog”— for one day. Every time someone rang the doorbell, it scared the shit out of me!”

Paradise Found
We are physically built to respond to certain tones, which helps explain why music means so much. Music, quite literally, has a power over us. And that gives it an almost mystical quality. Sure, there are scientific reasons why guitars make us feel the way they do, but what fun is that? Let miracles be miracles. Not to sound too new age-y/creepy, but guitar playing remains a religious experience for me. In one of his final interviews, Stevie Ray Vaughan summed up the religion of tone when he described recording the nine-minute instrumental “Riviera Paradise” to Larry Coryell in an interview in the nowdefunct magazine Musician:

VAUGHAN: To me, the song was a much-needed chance to turn the lights off in the studio and basically, I don’t know any other way to put it, pray through my guitar.

CORYELL: Ah. Man, that’s an excellent way to put it.

VAUGHAN: And be able to express some of the things to some of the people that l don’t know how to talk to right now about what l need to talk to them about, say the things that I wish I could say, to become willing. Okay? And that’s what I was doing. And it’s funny, everybody else was in a separate room. I was in an isolation booth so I could be with my amps. They were all in the big studio with a window. And I just turned the lights off in my room. They couldn’t see me. The drummer was tuning his drums while we were playing. I had my back to the engineer and the producer, Jim Gaines. They were in the control room going completely nuts because the tape was about to run out. And it was funny because none of this ever crossed my mind. I just knew we were gonna play the song once and it was all gonna be just fine.

Maybe music, like prayer, is our primitive attempt at expressing the ineffable—a way to let the notes say what we cannot. Maybe much of what we do is empty worship ritual, but I remain one of the faithful.