In this 4-part feature I’m going to look at the grandest and most difficult topic of them all – tone. Just what is tone? What is a good tone and how do you achieve it? I’m sure there are as many answers to this as there are guitarists. I in this first part we’ll go through the basics and look at how we perceive sound and tone.
What is tone?
I’ve been pondering over the topic for well over twenty years and I’m still not sure I’ve figured it out. One day you think you’ve nailed it and the next day everything sounds crap – or you got a new pedal that redefined all you conceptions – but tone isn’t static. You can’t just go out and buy a bunch of stuff, hit the button and expect it to sound just as you imagined. It can be incredibly frustrating but I think the reason why it is so, is because we have unrealistic expectations, we’re impatient and, dare I say, lack some basic knowledge of how things work. Electronics are stupid. It’s just a bunch of wires that can’t read your mind and you can’t force them to be anything else than what they are meant to be. Just acknowledging that makes it all a bit easier.
I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where you’ve just bought a new pedal and it doesn’t sound anything near what you expected. The reviews were great, the YouTube clips were awesome, David has the pedal and now you got it but it’s still not right. Why is that? Throughout this site I’ve tried to put everything a bigger perspective. Endless lists of guitars, pedals, amps and settings are fine but there’s a lot more that makes up a good tone. It’s not always easy to remember though but let’s expand our mids a little…
Tone is how we define the sound coming from the pickups in your guitar, through all your pedals and cables and out of the amp. Tone is the wood and contour of the guitar, the type of lacquer on the neck, the pickups, the string gauge, the thickness of the pick you use, the quality and design of the cables, the tone of your pedals, how they’re tweaked, combined and arranged, the amount of pedals and signal loss due to too many pedals or the “wrong” combination of pedals, the amp and its tubes, transistors and transformers, the settings on your amp, the speaker cab, its construction, size and the speakers. Tone is also the way you bend the strings, your picking technique, the subtle nuances in your style and how you express yourself, the almost dying battery in your beloved vintage Big Muff, the nearly broken overdrive pedal that only you know how to operate, the way you’ve placed the amp in distance from your ears and the surrounding walls, the humidity that affects your germanium transistors and the quality of your power sources, the thick rug on your floor or the 500 screaming fans in the audience dampening the sound of your amp… I could go on forever. Tone isn’t static. It changes all the time and you always need to adjust – both your gear and your mind.
Sound and tone behaves differently in different locations and you should therefore never really compare bedroom situation with playing in a huge football arena. A good example is how David’s rig changes according to where he performs. The 1994 PULSE tour was huge both in terms of stage production and venues. David’s rig was jaw breaking but it would have been quite ridiculous to use the same rig at Royal Albert Hall in 2006 or in a studio situation. One thing is that you would never get to utilize the full potential of a stadium rig in a small studio but it would also have sounded very different. That’s why David and most other recording guitarists often use a much smaller rig during recording sessions, like a small combo amp and a handful of pedals. It’s no challenge for an engineer to make a small amp sound huge but it’s a whole different story to tame a 2 head + 4 cab set up.
Let’s say you’ve spent your savings on a set of EMG DG20 pickups and a vintage Sovtek Big Muff but it still doesn’t sound remotely close to David’s PULSE tones. But have you ever considered what you really hear on PULSE? What you hear on Comfortably Numb is:
A Fender Stratocaster with alder body (nitrocellulose lacquer), C-shape maple neck (nitrocellulose lacquer) and GHS Boomers .010-.048 fresh strings. The neck feature vintage style Gotoh tuning machines and slim frets. The body feature Fender vintage style synchronized tremolo system and EMG SA active pickups with active EQ tone controls – EXP treble and bass booster (most likely set to 0) and SPC mid range booster (most likely set to 5-7). The signal is fed via a wireless transmitter to the Cornish/Bradshaw effect and routing system where it’s routed through numerous modified pedals and effects powered by a custom power system with separately shielded supplies. It’s then fed through an Alembic tube preamp, into the delays and split stereo and fed to the Hiwatt head and 2xWEM+Marshall cabs and the Doppola custom rotating speakers. The effect setup feature custom modified Boss CS2 compressor, Sovtek Big Muff, Chandler Tube Driver, Boss CE2 (left channel only) and TC2290 digital delay. Add to this, meters upon meters of high quality cables. Mind also that each effect and amp head are carefully set and adjusted for the specific venue.
The speaker cabinets are recorded with carefully placed microphones and the signal is mixed with ambience sound taken from different sources around the venue for the right balance and natural reverb. Additional digital reverb is added in the final mix and most likely there’s also additional compression, EQ and limiting. And of course, don’t forget, David’s hands and mind. You might frown upon all this but every single thing makes up the tone you hear on the album.
What is a good tone?
Well, obviously I can’t tell you that. A good tone is defined by how you perceive sound, based on your very subjective taste and experience. Gilmourish.Com and other guitar sites, magazines, YouTube clips etc will give you valuable help in your quest for the ultimate tone but none of these should be considered as gospels. The gear and the settings I suggest are meant to be used as a guide and nothing more. I too search for the ultimate tone and I often come across these Mr. Know-It-All types. Only they have the answers and everything they don’t approve of is crap. Of course that’s just bullshit. There are jerks with too many personal issues everywhere, so never trust just one source but make sure you’ve gone through several reviews and sound clips before you make up your mind. Most importantly though – try before you buy!
Not everyone is blessed with fully stocked guitar shops and unlimited savings accounts. However, a tight budget and seemingly “boring” brands doesn’t have to be a limitation. Regardless what gear you have you should always spend some time on getting to know it. Make sure the guitar is set up just the way you want it, try different settings on your amp and find the best basis for your pedals. Try different effect combinations and settings and train your ears to hear the nuances in your tone. Whether it’s high-end boutique or the average off the shelf stuff, most equipment today is very good so it’s more a matter of utilizing its potential and having a realistic concept of what you really need. In the next parts of this feature we’ll look at ways of choosing the right gear for your desired tone.
A fun exercise is to think about why you fell in love with a certain tone. What made you notice just this specific song, album or solo? Try to describe to your self what you hear and compare that with what’s actually being used and how its recorded.
Music often evokes certain feelings and you’re mind will “trick” you into hearing and believing things that’s not that evident to others. My all time favourite Gilmour tone is from Montreal, Canada July 6th 1977. Ever since I heard that show some 15 years ago I’ve desperately been trying to replicate David’s lead tones on Pigs and Dogs especially. However, for someone who doesn’t know Pink Floyd that well and certainly doesn’t care that much for studying bootlegs, the Montreal show will just sound like a very bad day for a tired, beaten band that really didn’t want to play at all. Add to this the fact that the recording is pretty poor. However, when I put it on and sit back and listen, I hear a guitarist at the very peak of his career with a confidence and grandeur that I’ve never heard from any one else. I hear a guitar that cuts through like a knife. I “see” a tall figure with long hair at the left side of the stage playing a black Stratocaster in front of a wall of speaker cabinets. I hear the perfect combination of a Big Muff, Colorsound Powerboost, Electric Mistress, MXR delay and the Hiwatts and Yamaha rotary cab. Add to this the dark atmosphere of the show, Roger being pissed off at the audience and the rest of the band, David being angry with Roger for ruining the show and the tour, the way David’s tone is “manipulated” by where the person recording the show is standing and how the sound is echoed in the hall… This is hardly a rationalized description or a good reference for how David’s tone really sounded that night, but to me, this very show is the incarnation of Gilmour and his tone.
Studying David Gilmour, or whoever your favourite guitar player may be, has thought us a lot about techniques, gear and tone but you should never forget your self. Be inspired and learn from the masters but allow yourself to explore your own style and technique. Don’t get too caught up in the whole “I need a Black Strat, Hiwatt and Big Muff” thing but challenge yourself to discover new tones. Very few guitarists are unique but those who are have managed to create something new from the old. Hendrix took the blues and made it wild and heavy. Gilmour combined Hendrix and The Shadows and created more mellow soulful blues. Eddie Van Halen refined what Jimi Page and Richie Blackmore had done before him and combined that with a great sense of rhythm. Every one of these dared to experiment and challenge themselves but they were all inspired by someone before them. Don’t be ashamed that you sound like Gilmour but don’t forget to develop your own voice neither.
In the next segment we’ll look at guitars and amps and how to create the best basis for your tones.
I’d love to hear what’s your favourite tone! Describe it and tell us why it’s so special.