Gain is fun in all its forms, from overdrive to fuzz, but let’s talk about a great clean tone.
We’re all here for one thing. It’s the singular sound and magic of the stringed instrument called the guitar—and its various offshoots, including the bass. Okay, so maybe it’s more than one thing, but the sentiment remains. Even as I write this, my thoughts fan out and recognize how many incarnations of “guitar” there must be. It’s almost incomprehensible. Gut-string, nylon-string, steel-string, 12-string, 8-string, 10-string, flatwound, brown sound, fuzztone…. It’s almost impossible to catalog completely, so I’ll stop here and let you add your favorites. Still, there’s one thing that I keep coming back to: clean tone.
I’ve had the luck and good fortune to work in the studio with Robert Cray, and it was the first time I watched how a human being could split the atom with tone so pure that you could feel it in your blood, not just your gut. It’s a piercing voice like heaven’s glass harmonica. Now, I’ve had fellow musicians turn up their noses when Cray is mentioned, but that’s their problem. I love a saturated guitar—my Analog Man King of Tone cranked way up high in the clouds—but it’s a power trip. I know it’s scarier to get it right when down low and tight. Fearless Flyers tight.
It’s not that I don’t like distortion. I’ve chased saturated and singing sustain all my guitar life. I’ve experienced it all, from big amps with quads of Mullard bottles glowing brightly as they approached meltdown, to tweed combos turned up to a sagging and farting 12. There have been racks full of effects piled upon effects—hushing, squashing, squeezing, chorusing, echoing, and expanding my guitar’s output like some Lego sound transformer. The good, the bad, and the relatively unknown. I even tried building my own amp line with a friend when I was 17 years old just to get what I heard in my head. But when I’m honest with myself, the stinging clean sounds of guitar strings are what move me the most.
When I started playing guitar, clean was about all you could get. If an amp started to distort or feed back, we worried that the amp might burst into flames.
When I started playing guitar, clean was about all you could get. If an amp started to distort or feed back, we worried that the amp might burst into flames. I didn’t understand how it worked, but I learned fast. The instruments didn’t ignite, but the sound did. That buzzing, clipping tone hid all my bad finger technique, and I was on my way, squealing and spitting fire from the speakers. The neighbor lady complained to my parents, so, clearly, I was doing something right. It was the power I was looking for in my young life. Clean tone was a thing of the past; long live the square wave on the throne of 16 speakers piled high above the stage.
Many of us have clamored for that thick distorted sound we’ve heard on records and in concerts. Guitarists still curate their collections based upon the building blocks we all discovered during our formative years. It started on the early rock ’n’ roll recordings, when small combo amps got turned up loud to compete with the horns. Bluesmen dimed their amps on Chicago’s Maxwell Street to be heard down the block—good for business. The Brits cranked it up a notch and we players took notice. To some degree, clean was being pushed out. Then, in 1978, “Sultans of Swing” and “Roxanne” came clean. Alongside the slow burning rise of metal, the chiming clarity of the guitar returned to the fray. I’m not trying to build a definitive timeline history of popular guitar sounds here. I’m just merely acknowledging that they ebb and flow. But I always come back to clean.
Even the apex of thick, fat, beefy tone—the PAF humbucker—was and is built for bold hi-fi tone. Its shimmering, articulate clean highs are often lost on period recordings or lousy playback systems. If you doubt it, listen to Michael Bloomfield’s piercing tone on “Albert’s Shuffle” found on the Super Session album. His contemporary, Peter Green, also made extensive use of the clean tones available from his PAF-loaded axe on seminal Fleetwood Mac recordings. Humbuckers can play sweet and clear. It’s worth contemplating that some of the most revered guitar sounds ever committed to record were, in fact, cleaner than we remember. Don’t even get me started with country music.
A lot can be said about practicing guitar with a frighteningly clean sound. Strip away the fuzz and echo and bask in the glory of that stringy, popping, slicing tone that will reward your progress but punish your carelessness. Even after all these years, I’m a sloppy player. But getting it right when all the distortion is put back in the toy box is a scintillating high you can be proud of. It’s just a different addiction. The best part is that when you dial up the dirt again, it feels like flying.
Our columnist shares the devices and materials needed to do some of his favorite guitar maintenance tricks.
The problem with giving advice is that there are many different approaches to everything, and usually more than one "right" answer. With my five decades of taking guitars apart, and sometimes putting them back together, I take a lot of stuff for granted, and I admit that I'm still learning. But ignoring all that, I'll just forge ahead and share the inexpensive tools and materials needed to do some of my favorite little tricks.
The solvent, not day-drinking. Pharmacy grade isopropyl is a pretty good at most cleaning chores, and is fairly benign. It's great for cutting through the gunk that accumulates on guitars, and it won't harm your finish. If you've bought an entry-level Jazzmaster slathered with stickers, this is just the thing to get you back to a clean slate. You can usually degrease hardware and de-schmutz fretboards without fear of harming your prized axe. Isopropyl works great on sticky fingers, too.
When cleaning with alcohol fails, naphtha is a DEFCON-level higher. You may know it as benzine or lighter fluid. It's way more caustic than alcohol, and it's also carcinogenic, so wear gloves and a NIOSH-approved respirator rated for organic vapors when you're using this stuff. It's highly flammable (lighter fluid, right?) and dangerous enough that a half-dozen states have banned its sale. Oddly, it's mild enough to use on nitro finishes. I used this stuff for wet-sanding nitro for years, until a sander exploded in our shop. I immediately switched to dry sanding with open coat paper. I caution you not to use this solvent unless it's your last resort.
This is as close to a miracle as you can get for $15. A Tri-Flow pen is a great way to lube whatever ails your gear. Got a sticky truss rod nut? One drop on the threads and washer and you're off to the races. Noisy fan? Squeaky bearings? Rusty pliers? You guessed it, Tri-Flow to the rescue. Loosen up those case hinges and hasps. In Chicago, I put a drop in my shop door lock to keep it working when it was 25 below zero.
This is some old-school spray-painter tomfoolery. Want to get that dull matte or flat finish effect when painting your guitar? Don't pay for matte lacquers, just add a little of this stuff to your gloss clear and you're good to go. Build up the clear coats with your regular gloss clear, and then do a final coat with some flattening paste mixed in. You won't see it working when you spray, but when it dries, the effect kicks in. Experiment with the formula on a scrap piece starting with a mix of about 5 percent at first, and increase until you get what you want. The crazy thing is that if you don't like the way it looks, you can just buff it out to gloss like normal.
Diamond Nail Files
Luthier supply shops get serious coin for diamond-coated files because they work great and last almost forever. My suggestion is to get a set of German-made diamond nail files from Amazon. You can get a set of five different sizesfor 10 bucks! I use them to deburr sharp edges on bridges, frets, and anything that needs a quick smoothing. Buy two sets and put some in your gig bag. You can also file your nails with them.
Notched Fret Cauls
Check out StewMac to pick up a set of notched fret-press cauls. These things won't get used that often, but if you have a lifted fret at a gig, or if you're just too lazy to take the strings off, this is the nazz. The cool thing is that, in a pinch, you can place the caul on the high fret (the strings go in the notches) and just hammer it lightly with a Shure 58 to reseat that buzzy fret.
Step up your fretboard prep to the pro level with Watco. Technically a penetrating varnish, it looks great and seals wood against moisture, which stabilizes your neck. Start with a cleaned fretboard, then apply natural Watco on your rosewood or ebony, being careful not to drip any on lacquer. If you're worried, mask off the sides of the neck. Follow the directions on the can. Apply with a soft rag or paper towel, and flood it with two or three liberal passes until it stops absorbing. Don't worry if you get a little on the frets, but generally try to avoid them. Wait 20-30 minutes—that's the secret, so go do something else for a while. Come back and add a light coat and buff to a shine with a cloth. Let it cure overnight.
There are a zillion little shortcuts and tricks you pick up with time and experience, and these are just some of the ones I use almost every day. Like I said, I'm still learning, so I'm passing these on to you. If even one of them helps you out, you've made my day.
You don't need to become a pro to develop a thoughtful and informed approach to playing music that will enrich your life.
Being a professional musician can be a difficult path, especially if you want to play your own music. We hear about the acts that are attracting the attention of the media or are forging a following on the internet, who seem to be enjoying success. Then, there are established megastars who continue to play their catalog to adoring fans who grew up listening to their recordings. But, as we all know, one day you're hot and the next day you're not. I can't count the times someone has mentioned a performer that has "fallen to the depths" of playing county fairs or small clubs after having once ruled the stadium circuit. "Imagine," they say, "having to play (insert decades-old hit song name here) every night." Very few performers sustain financial success in popular music, and even session players have a limited shelf life as styles change. It's a young person's game, especially if you play pop music.
A lot of instrument advertising leans on professional endorsements or associations. Features are often touted as being influenced by and created for "pro" players. I guess this assumes that everyone who plays the guitar aspires to be a pro. Even garage-rock scenarios are portrayed as a stepping-stone to stardom. But not everyone can be a pro, and not everyone needs to be one.
There's certainly a lot more options if you want to be a side musician or play in a wedding band. Maybe you can eventually get a well-paying gig backing up someone who has made the big time, and you can stand 20 feet from stardom. But I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting that music is your hobby. Hobbies are where we can pour our passion, and they give more meaning to life. If hearing a favorite song lifts your spirits, think of how playing that song for others can lift theirs. Music is the only art form that moves people (and animals) even though it is invisible.
We can't all be professional entertainers, but we can be better listeners, and understanding how music is made lets us enjoy our favorite music even more.
The benefits of playing music are well documented. Music stimulates all the senses and promotes good health. Studies have shown that music prolongs cognition in older folks and helps kids learn—even when it's just heard in the background. Not everyone can write the next great novel, but almost anyone can play a little tune that others can sing along to. Playing an instrument is a way to share good times and tell stories that are meaningful to you. If you have kids, there's nothing better than seeing them discover the joys of making musical sounds and then weaving music into their lives.
Music is also a great icebreaker. I picked up a guitar because it made a joyous noise and shielded me from being shy. It was also easier to carry around than my parents' piano. The mechanical and electrical facets of the electric guitar appealed to my young gearhead sensibilities, too. Guitar music is art, entertainment, and tech all wrapped up together. If you're handy with tools, building instruments, effects, and amplifiers from kits can satisfy a whole universe of interests—and then you can make music with your creations for and with friends.
As most of you know already, being an avid musician also gives you a better appreciation of the music created by others. We can't all be professional entertainers, but we can be better listeners, and understanding how music is made lets us enjoy our favorite music even more and realize the full worth of what we are hearing or seeing. I'd recommend taking basic music lessons to everyone just to improve their appreciation of the music around all of us. As far as hobbies go, music is certainly one of the best ways to enrich your life and the lives of those around you. It makes you smarter, it relieves stress, and it doesn't cost much—at least at first. It's like having a church wherever you go. I'm not saying that it can cure all our ills, but it comes pretty close.
Sure, we'd all like a shot at writing a song that everybody knows and sings along to. Which brings us back to those "has-been" acts playing their platinum hit song for a small crowd of people and farm animals at a county fair. They've had a run that many of us can't imagine. It probably just started out as a hobby for them before it got out of hand for a while. I don't know about you, but I'd be happy to play that song night after night even if it was for a handful of fans. In the end, we're all just enjoying music, which is what I call success. Just keep playing your own hits and the music you love with your friends, family, and pets. And don't hate the word hobby.