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. In this fourth and final part of the feature, we’ll look at pedals and effects.
In the previous parts we’ve discussed the importance of choosing the right guitar and amp to achieve the tones you want. We also looked at how minor adjustments and modifications can have a positive effect on your tone. Check out part 1, part 2 and part 3.
What is tone?
Tone is often associated with effects and pedals. Ask anyone about any guitarist and in most cases, they’ll describe the distorted or modulated sound coming from the amp. However, many of the guitarists we admire for having a great tone, has a slightly different approach to their playing. One of my all time favourites, Eddie Van Halen once said that tone ultimately comes from your mind. He had a clear vision of what he wanted and experimented until he got it. His tone on the first Van Halen albums is a combination of his unique technique, tube amps turned insanely loud and a handful of effects. Jimi Hendrix was one of the first guitarists to use a wide range of effects and pedals, but he also experimented with different modifications, speakers and cabinet sizes. Again, the combination of exploring the potential of the gear and a unique technique, created a tone few have managed to replicate. Another of my favourites, Billy Gibbons will tell you that tone comes from your heart and soul. He also claims that learning the blues is the key to developing a good tone. Perhaps not everyone agrees with that but David Gilmour also has roots deep in the blues tradition and although some of his stage setups have been quite overwhelming, his true tone has always been the power of a single, sustained note – just like the many blues legends before him.
What all this means is that tone isn’t just about your favourite pedal or fancy technique. Tone is a combination of many things. Have a clear vision of what you want to achieve experiment and learn how to achieve it and don’t stop until you’ve reached your goal. Ultimately, the best tone is the one you created and the one that will inspire you to play guitar and create music.
Learn from others
Most of us learn how to play guitar by copying others. We listen to our favourite bands and try our best to figure out how they created a certain riff or tone. Some will claim that they never listened to anyone else but created their own unique tone out of the blue. However, in one way or another everyone is influenced by someone or something. Studying your favourite guitar players will help you understand and learn different techniques, scales and chords and how to build a tone. Don’t get stuck though but use what you’ve learned to develop your own style and tone.
David Gilmour started out in his teens learning how to play by copying the old blues masters like Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, BB King, Robert Johnson etc. Once in Floyd, he also got a lot of inspiration from learning how contemporary guitarists like Hendrix, Beck and Green had used the same influences to develop their own unique tone. As Floyd moved on, so did David and by Meddle and not least Dark Side of the Moon, he had created his own style and tone by developing his blues roots and being a pioneer with all the new effects that emerged throughout the 70s.
David Gilmour, the early years 1968-1969
Simplicity is often be the best approach to creating your tones. Listen to Dick Dale’s “Surfer’s Choice” (1962). He would puncture the speaker cones and play insanely loud to get that fat overdrive tone. On the legendary 1966 John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album Eric Clapton plugged his Les Paul into a Rangemaster booster and a Marshall amp. The tone has inspired generations of guitarists. Gilmour recorded the solo for Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) by plugging the guitar into the mixing desk and feeding the signal back to a guitar amp that they miced.
The foundation of tone
A tone starts with your mind and fingers. The guitar and amp are your tools and the pedals your colour palette. Don’t start with the pedals but learn how your guitar and amp performs in different situations and how they interact with your playing. This will allow you to determine what pedals you need to get the tones you want.
Let’s do a little exercise. Plug your guitar into your amp using a good quality cable. Play around with the amp’s controls and listen to it from different angles to be able to dial in the exact tone you want. Once you’ve set the amp, it’s time to learn how the guitar and amp interact with your playing and technique. Listen to how the different pickups sound and how the amp reacts to different picking techniques. Alternate between soft and hard strumming listen to details in the chords and the attack in a single pick. Make small adjustments to the amp’s EQ and listen to how this affects the tone and response. Notice how a loud volume will produce more transients (peaks in the sound wave appearing as harsh treble) and how rolling down the guitar volume just a hair, will produce a softer, more balanced tone.
Setting up the pedal board
Regardless of how many pedals you have, your goal should be a tidy setup and a minimum of quality. This will allow your guitar signal to pass through without getting too noisy or drained. The fine art of building a pedal board is as much about maintaining the pure tone from your guitar and amp as it is to combine the pedals you need to achieve the tones you want.
A pedal board should feature velcro tape to keep the pedals in place, power supply with separate feeds and multiple voltages (TRex, Voodoo Lab etc), a tuner and good quality patch cables (George L’s, Lava, Evidence Audio etc). Other than that, it’s up to you to fill the rest of the space!
Start with arranging all the pedals the floor. Take a good look and exclude those that don’t need to be included. Remember, the more pedals you use the more you’ll drain the signal. Plug the guitar into the first pedal and listen to how that affects the signal. You now got the signal travelling through the pedal’s circuit and an extra cable from the pedal to the amp. This will surely drain some of the signal. Add the next pedal and this time also listen to how the pedals affect each other when they’re both off, when one is on and both, if you want to combine them. Repeat the exercise by adding one pedal at a time. Stop when you notice that the direct signal between the guitar and amp is seriously affected, noticed by less attack, treble and an overall duller tone. As an example, vintage style wah wahs are notorious for cutting the high frequencies. Either ditch the pedal that’s messing up the signal or consider if this is something you can live with. Do not adjust the amp settings! This will only make things worse and fool you in thinking that you’ve solved the problem.
guitar > fuzz > wah wah > whammy > compressor > distortions > overdrive > boosters > modulations > volume pedal > delay > amp
Once decided on the pedals, the next step is to mount them onto the pedal board. Be sure to use good quality patch cables and make them as short as possible. You don’t want lots of cable draining the signal and cluttering the board. Try to keep all instrument cables and power cables separate to avoid electric interference. Use strips or gaffer tape to keep everything in place.
Buffers or true bypass?
You can also compensate for some of the signal loss by adding buffers in the chain. A buffer will sustain and drive the signal from your guitar to the amp through long chains of pedals and cables. Too many true bypass pedals can drain the signal and cut the treble but it’s not the pedals them selves that’s causing the problem but the fact that they can’t drive the signal through the patch and instrument cables. Remember, the more cable the more drainage. Too many buffered pedals aren’t a good idea either because the buffers can alter the tone, increase the harsh treble frequencies and amplify the noise. A good balance between true bypass and buffers will in most cases give you the best signal. Personally I like having a buffer first and last in the chain to be able to drive the signal to and from the pedal board. Active pickups like the EMG DG20 will also act as buffers and be able to drive the signal much better than passive coils. Try different combos and listen to what sounds best for your rig.
Choosing your pedals
Choosing pedals for your setup can be a true nightmare. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the quest for the Holy Grail is a personal quest. It’s always a good idea to check out reviews, YouTube clips etc but ultimately, the choice is yours. I nor anyone else can’t do much more than share our experience and try our best to guide you along the way. Some will tell you that only they know the secrets of the Holy Grail. Some will even tell you that you made a huge mistake buying pedal that you did. Don’t listen to them. Only your ears can be the judge.
A good tip is to always consider why you need something new on the board. Unless you’re looking for a specific effect, in most cases there are a number of ways to achieve different tones. Rather than having four overdrives on the board, get one or two that’s capable of producing a wide range of tones both by adjusting the controls on the pedal and using the guitar volume to control the gain and overall tone. Hendrix was a master at manipulating a single Fuzz Face for multiple tones and this approach is a good rule of thumb for maintaining a pure signal. A single pedal can easily act as a booster, overdrive and distortion. And just to make it very clear – everyone bends down during a show to adjust the settings. Including Gilmour.
I can provide a list of all my settings but the truth is that I change them all the time. How to set the pedals depends on the guitar, pickups, amp, where you play, how loud you play, your technique and long list of other things. The point is that what works for me doesn’t have to work for you. Again, it’s important to learn how your guitar and amp sound in different environments. Set the pedals to match the amp and don’t try to force the amp to fit a certain setting on the pedals.
A common mistake is to increase treble and gain as your hearing is lessened throughout a gig or rehearsal. Rule number one: try not to adjust the amp during a gig but make sure it’s set up as good as possible during soundcheck. Rule number two: do only minor adjustments on your pedals during a show and trust that the tone you heard during soundcheck is maintained.
Different setups require different settings. As an example, Gilmour’s Tube Driver clean boost setting (level 2:00, hi 2:00, low 2:00, drive 8:00) will sound transparent, clean and warm with a Strat with vintage style low output pickups and a Hiwatt-ish amp. With a Les Paul sporting burstbuckers and a Marshall JCM800, the Tube Driver will sound rather dark with a noticeable break up. Typical low volume bedroom setups will require higher gain settings and even some lower end boost, while a louder tube stack will require less gain as the tubes will interact more with the pedal. Likewise, a delay will need different volume and feedback settings depending on what pedals you combine it with and how loud your play.
If replicating Gilmour’s tones is your goal then use the settings listed in the David Gilmour Gear Guide as a reference and make the needed adjustments to match your setup.
This brings us to an end of this four-part feature about tone. It’s a huge topic and although I’ve only scratched the surface, I hope you’ve enjoyed the reading and perhaps even picked up a few tips along the way. Playing guitar and creating music is all about inspiration and a good tone can be incredibly inspiring. Your tone is unique, regardless of how many guitars or pedals you have. Experiment, try new things and listen to other guitarists and develop your technique and ultimately your tone. Please feel free to share your tips and experience with us in the comments field below!