The Color Of Air: A Search For Tone

“Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice
Fortune depends on the tone of your voice”

-The Divine Comedy “Songs of Love”

I never really gave much thought to the search for tone when I was a younger guitar player. The search for tone or specifically the discovery of your own unique tone is kind of like the Holy Grail of guitar players and honestly I felt I was too naive on the subject. However, it has become an increasingly fascinating voyage for me to try and formulate my thoughts on the subject and get to the heart of my tone.

The initial motivator for these thoughts came in the form of a recurring question from a friend of mine. He has asked me on multiple occasions “how do you always manage get that tone?” Given that the circumstances and variables (guitars, amps, pedals, etc.) were different on each occasion, it really got me wondering if there is something in my playing which is inherent in me, unique to me, and gets communicated despite what specific gear I am using.

So if the thousands of dollars of gear I have in my possession is not 100% responsible for my tone than what is?

I am here to tell you that there is no simple answer. Your tone as a guitarist is an amalgam of your personality with some conscious or subconscious tendencies mixed in, life experience, and then you add in the physical and technical side of it. It is almost too esoteric to accurately define but the search is half the fun and ties in with the mission statement of self-discovery that this blog is devoted to.

The first inward exploration I present is called…The Naked Guitar

During the summer of 1994, my friend and I attended the National Guitar Summer Workshop together and one of our roommates had a delay pedal. We had never really messed with much in the way of effects at that point so hearing the kind of sounds you could create with it was life-changing. This probably constitutes my first tone-chasing experience as a guitarist.

Then in 1995, I found a Crate amplifier at the music store that had built in effects like reverb, chorus, and the much coveted delay. I played through it and sonic possibilities seemed endless. So I began the slow process of buying the amp on layaway and eventually it was mine. The quality of the demos I was recording on my cassette 4-track shot up. As I would record guitar solos and would crank the delay, my sound took on an ethereal epic quality and I felt like a real guitarist for once. Honestly I felt that amplifier, as cheap as it was, helped me to discover the beginnings of my sonic identity as a guitarist. I produced a multitude of demos using that amplifier. I still wish I owned it.

During my freshman year of college in 1996, I was taking lessons in our music department. My teacher was a Berklee graduate and grew up in the shredtastic 1980’s so I felt an immediate kinship. I remember gleefully playing him the 4-track demos I had made in high school and the epic guitar solos. I am not sure if I was expecting him to be amazed and proclaim “Greg you are a guitar god!” but I was definitely not anticipating him saying that I was relying too much on effects. It was deflating to hear that and I can tell you that I thought he was completely nuts.

Now more than 20 years later, I get it.

He was trying to convey to me that there is more to tone than effects. Effects ARE wonderful and I still am addicted to using them but they can be a crutch. They can easily hide your mistakes and as a side effect, you may lose sight of aspects of your playing that could be getting addressed. If you were to take those beautiful epic solos I made with my Crate in 1995 and took away the effects and hear just the dry signal of my guitar, it would probably make you cringe. My teacher also stressed to me the importance of paying attention to how the raw guitar sounds. Listening to the way the strings resonate through the wood. Is it a full sound of good wood? Or is it a very weak sound through cheap wood? This opens up a whole other discussion on the tactile experience but I will address that in a later blog.

Getting back to the lesson this experience taught me all those years ago, I still make it a point to practice a lot without an amplifier or effects. I try to get just the naked guitar to sound as perfect as I can. If you can write a beautiful piece of music with your unamplified guitar, then when you add the effects then there is every chance the music will come out that much better. Make sure the effects enhance your guitar sound and not hide your weaknesses.

At heart, your true tone comes from within you and not your effects so focus on knowing yourself, getting in touch with that voice inside, and communicating it first. Once you achieve that, then you’ll see the effects help you communicate better.