The Quest for Tone – My Thoughts on Gear & Skill

I’m not sure if this is going to be a rant…or a guitar sermon…or just a little sharing of where I’m at. But here I go…

As a guitarist who is also very much into gear, I too have been on this “quest for tone.” It sounds dumb, but I’d say every musician probably holds this facet of their sound to a very high regard.

Back in the day, during an earlier phase of my life when violin was life, good tone was something you achieved by doing something different with your hands (or even, body). Maybe you dug in a little harder with your bow. Maybe you modified your bow-hold. Corrected your posture. Made sure your bow and your strings were perpendicular. Even breathing could help sometimes.

But with the electric guitar, achieving better tone is often associated with the acquisition of gear through which you run your guitar signal. To a certain degree, this association makes sense. After all, with the electric guitar, there is the electronic component to all of it; Your basic gear should be of a certain quality standard. But you get to a point where much of your gear is pretty good. Sure, you could spend more and get something even better. But the degree to which it is better is just marginal at best.

I have a friend who has two fenders  – one American-made, one Mexican-made (can’t remember if they were strats or teles). He told me that when he plays the Mexican guitar, he could hear that it “sounded a little cheaper.” I thought, “c’mon dude! bullshit!” Perhaps he paid a pretty penny for that American-made version and needed to convince himself that the cost of his American-made guitar was justified. Whatever.

It’s widely accepted that between the guitar and the violin, the violin is the more virtuoso instrument, while the guitar is more accessible. That’s not to say that the guitar can’t be a virtuoso instrument – I mean, there are countless examples of virtuoso players out there. What I’m saying is that you can be mediocre at guitar and be famous. But you can’t be mediocre at violin and achieve the same success. To my knowledge, there is no William Hung equivalent in the world of professional violinists.

Anyway, as time passes, I’m realizing that seemingly insignificant refinements in technique apply just as much to playing guitar as they did to playing violin. In forums, whenever there are discussions about tone, there’s always that guy that chimes in and says something to the effect of “tone is all in your fingers.” As much as I would never want to be the guy who says this, I’m finding myself being more in his camp these days. Finesse and sensitivity can be learned, I think. But a lot of times, it’s something you either have or you don’t. It’s the thing that distinguishes you as a better musician than the other guy even if his/her technical chops are pretty decent. Other fellow good musicians will make note of it.

Having said all this, here’s another picture of my mini-board, built on a Pedaltrain Metro 16 frame. It’s pretty great! Pretty much just the essentials for the type of music I like.

As always, I’m curious as to how many people my posts reach…
Chime in in the comments, I guess.

One thought on “The Quest for Tone – My Thoughts on Gear & Skill”

  1. I’m with you on this one, Simon. I went through half a dozen overdrive and distortion pedals for my bass, trying to get that exact blend of growl and punch. Turns out that to the house, everything just “sounds like a bass.” I’ve learned that my money is better spent on new strings and my time better spent on practicing at home.

    P.S. I’m still loving that Klon clone you built for me though. It’s on in almost 100% of the songs I play.

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