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The Economy... Of Tone!

Getting back to basics brings you in touch with your gear

Most of us are gear nuts…why else would I be writing this and you be reading it if we weren’t? We obsess over NOS tubes, transformers, guitar weight, mustard caps, and true bypass until we’re blue in the face. We talk on forums, hang out at music stores, spend time at our friends’ houses showing off our latest acquisition and comparing notes. It’s a love affair, no question about it. But sometimes when you get this deep into something you lose sight of what brought you to it in the first place.

For those of us old enough to have witnessed music being made on simple systems with minimal gear, we can remember the immediacy and gut level emotion it hit us on. On the flipside of that, I can vividly recall the typical “back in the day” rig that was the envy of so many of us rock guitarists. It started with a perfectly good sounding but fairly basic amp (Marshall was standard) that was modified to add an extra gain stage or ten master volume, new tone stack, and an FX loop. Proudly occupying a space the size of a study carol and lit up like Las Vegas next to the four 4x12 cabs wired in stereo was a refrigerator rack full of every gadget you could imagine. Everything from digital delays to reverbs to MIDI-controlled multi-FX units was jammed into that rack and run through the FX loop.

Sadly, most of the gear back then was first-generation digital and had much lower sampling rates and lousy A/D converters compared to today, so your tone took a noise dive the second you plugged it in. And never mind the fact that you had to adjust the input and output of each of those rack units which ensured the gain staging was blown to hell by the time the signal made its way back to the FX loop return on the amp. Add to the picture the fact that with all the junk daisy-chained in the rack you needed additional units to remedy the tone-suck you created in the first place. This led to the development of a whole market of devices created to fix those problems…signal exciters to bring back the high frequencies lost, noise suppressors to stave off the hiss created by the exciters and poor quality A/Ds and D/As, and don’t forget the wireless unit to boost the signal one more time (c’mon, you know the stage was too big for a silly 20' cable, right?).

So what happened when you finally got the rig set up in all its glory? The stereo chorus spread between the cabs just right, the MIDI tap-tempo delay set for the song, the reverb dialed in to sound like you’re playing at Hedley Grange. Well? Chances are it wasn’t so great. Sure, it was chorused out, tempo-synched with the song and lush with reverb, but did it sound good? If you’re anything like me (no, my rack was more of a dorm fridge), you felt that despite your good intentions the tone fell short. In fact, it probably was missing something that you liked about the amp to begin with. What was it? It was a combination of everything that was lost by complicating the picture…kind of like an out-of-focus picture rather than a nice, sharp, clean and defined photograph. For the most part, the real tone of your rig is coming from (aside from your hands!) the guitar and the amp. The little things like speaker cables make a difference too, but just like baking, the fx are like spice…a little goes a long way. The more you complicate the picture, the less pure the end result.

Even the smallest changes to amp circuitry affect the tone. In the seventies, master volume amps became popular especially in recording studios and clubs with the advent of better PA systems. A great example of how this can change tone is on the Kiss Alive! and Alive II records. On Alive! they were using non-master volume Marshalls, whereas they moved to master volume Marshalls on Alive II. You can hear the immediacy, power and clarity on Alive! while Alive II’s sound was significantly brighter, buzzier and higher gain. If you’re not a Kiss fan, there are a million other examples of this in recordings that you can reference.

As a way of experiencing this phenomenon of simplicity, try something today. If you’re fortunate enough to own several guitars, go ahead and look them over and choose one that calls to you. Do the same with your amps if you have a few in your collection. Take a single guitar cable and plug your guitar directly into the amp. Lucky enough to have a guitar room and nobody is home for a few hours? Crank it up. Ahh, doesn’t that feel good? With nothing but a cable between your guitar and your amp, this is the definition of the economy of tone. Nothing is wasted, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience with the right combination of guitar and amp. You might find it rather addictive to feel the immediacy of the attack from your pick to the string, through the pickup and cable, right into the amp. Things like volume knobs will take on a whole new level of subtlety and guys like Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana will start making sense with their constant fiddling with the controls while playing. Finessing great tone starts with the simplest of gear and builds from there. After you’ve found that great combination of guitar and amp you can then add in a little spice here and there. Maybe it’s a pedal, maybe it’s something as simple as a different gauge of string or pick. When you’re working on that level, everything counts…every single component.

Back to basics can be a very inspiring and worthwhile pursuit. I know I’ve enjoyed it tremendously, and yes, I am still obsessed with it everyday.