Hey, what’s up, guys? I’m Ed, and welcome to Trade Secrets. This month we’re going to talk about tone secrets. But, before we begin our tone-chasing journey, I’ll tell you when I got bitten by the tone bug.
I was in college and hitting the blues jams in the evenings. At one of these jams, this 6′ 5″ blond-haired biker taps me on the shoulder. The Viking was wearing a black rock and roll t-shirt, I don’t remember the band, a denim jacket, blue jeans, black motorcycle boots with chrome buckles, and, this was my favorite part, an official ZZ Top belt buckle. Yes, he also had the official ZZ Top key chain.
He had shoulder-length hair and a handlebar mustache, and I could also see a few female admirers as he leaned forward and introduced himself. He tells me he’s seen me play, likes my sound, and wants to hire me to play on his EP. It’s 5 tunes, 3 originals penned by the Viking, and 2 covers.
He assembled the band, and we were all jam-night participants. But we didn’t know each other, and the Viking wanted us to record live with no overdubs. So, we got to rehearsing, and the Viking said we should play some gigs to tighten up the band.
We fill out our set list with a bunch of blues and classic rock standards. At the jams, we would lobby for stage time as a group and were gifted 15-minute slots to play 3 or 4 songs.
As the studio date approached, I became more nervous about my sound. I had my trusty 1973 Gibson Les Paul Custom. But, my amp was leftovers from the Island of Misfit Toys. I had Peavey Cabinets and a Tube Works Mosvalve Amp Head. Also, I played “Naked and Dimed.”
Alright, get your minds out of the gutter, and I’ll explain. Naked means there’s nothing between your guitar and the amp except a cable. And dimed means everything (except the master volume and reverb) is on “10.” I learned this trick from the older guys at the blues jam.
Naked and dimed worked in live situations, but for the studio environment, there was a lot more that I needed to learn.
We all want to get the most out of our gear. And to do that, we need to learn how to use our equipment. So, this month we’re going to talk about tone as it relates to the electric guitar.
What is tone?
It’s the twang of a Telecaster, the chime of a Blackface amp, the beef of a Les Paul, and the lion’s roar of a Marshall. Tone is the sound of an electric guitar plugged into an amp and the sonic happiness that follows as your fingers dance across the fretboard.
Why do some of us spend a lifetime chasing a better tone? That’s a good question and a difficult one to answer simply. Some people like a fuller or fatter tone, while others like a brighter one. For me, it was the opening riffs to Led Zeppelin II’s “Whole Lotta Love,” ACDC’s “Back and Black,” Ozzy’s “I Don’t Know,” and Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil.” I heard these tunes, and that was it. The guitar was going to be a part of my life. I was hooked.
And, let’s not forget the Tone Gremlin. That elusive, cunning, frustrating, and mercurial ghost that haunts my gear and alters everything with the slightest change in any of the numerous variables forcing me back to square one. The Tone Gremlin loves poor tone and coyly snickers as my sonic selections get compromised.
In most situations, achieving a better tone has nothing to do with buying more gear. We, guitarists, get frustrated with our tone, and what do we do? We buy more expensive gear.
But, good tone is not a one-size-fits-all deal. It’s very subjective and depends on how we hear certain things we like.
What elements go into developing your tone?
Tone encompasses everything about your playing experience, from how you hear music to how you interpret and play it back. Tone includes your emotions and state of mind, plus the actual instrument and amplifier.
The pick’s dimensions (i.e., pick size and thickness), the strings, the electronics of the instrument, the wood, etc.; all of these elements play a significant role in creating your tone. And let’s not forget the hands!
Famous Guitar Tones
Here are 6 classic guitar tones in chronological order.
- Buddy Holly’s Classic Fender Tone: In December 1957, Buddy Holly played a Fender Strat through a Fender Pro-Amp on The Ed Sullivan Show. This was probably the general public’s first exposure to an amplified electric guitar sound. Holly’s tone was classic Fender clean.
- Eric Clapton’s “Beano” Sound: EC traded his Fender Telecaster and Vox amp (from his Yardbirds’ days) for a ’59 or ’60 Gibson Les Paul and 1962 Marshall Series II JTM45 Combo for the Bluesbreakers’ recording. The secret to his tone, turn the amp to LOUD.
- Eric Clapton’s Woman Tone: EC’s “Beano” Les Paul was stolen in the early days of Cream. So, EC borrowed two late-50s Les Pauls and probably used JTM100 model 1959 Super Lead Marshall heads, with four KT66 tubes for 100 watts of output. The secret to his tone, roll off the pickup’s tone control to create a smooth, dark, and singing sound.
- Jimi Hendrix’s Classic Clean Tone: Jimi famously used Stratocasters and whatever he could get his hands on. Most were right-handed, and the only modification was flipping the nut. The height of the pole pieces would not be adjusted, and Jimi would restring his guitar using different gauges. Hendrix is known for using 100-watt Marshall JMP 100 Plexi Super Lead amps, but he also used Fenders. And, live he would turn it up. The secret to his clean tone, roll off the pickup’s volume control to reduce the overdrive.
- Eddie Van Halen’s Brown Sound: EVH’s Frankenstrat is a mutt made from inexpensive parts. Eddie wanted the sleek comfort of a Strat-style body with the beefy tone of a Les Paul. So, yanked out the bridge position PAF humbucker from a 1961 Gibson ES-335. Took the pickup to Seymour Duncan, had it rewound, and dropped it into his Frankenstrat. He then plugged that into a ’67 Marshall 100-watt Super Lead. The secret to his brown sound, play with lots of attitude.
- Eric Johnson’s Smooth “Violin” Tone: Mostly known for playing strats, EJ also uses Gibson ES-335s, Les Pauls, and SGs. Also, a little-known fact, “Cliffs of Dover,” was recorded on the Gibson ES-335, not a Strat-like many think. EJ uses a three-amp setup and usually combines Blackface Fender Twins with Marshalls and/or Dumbles. The secret to his violin tone, a hot-rodded fuzz pedal.
Where Does Tone Start?
Many say that tone is in the hands, and that makes sense. But I also heard Steve Vai say that tone is in your head, which makes sense. And it’s Steve Vai. I also read an interview with Grammy-award-winning classical guitarist Jason Vieaux, who says that tone is in your ears. And that makes sense, too.
So, who’s right? They all are.
First, you need to imagine the tone you’re aiming for in your mind, and then you need to focus on your ability to hear nuances in your sound. These nuances come from your gear (guitar, strings, pickups, amps, and effects) and your hands and fingers.
The ability to produce the tone in your head takes practice, just like everything else. I’ve found that it takes careful listening to identify what you like and don’t like about your tone. Then, understand whether you want to adjust the guitar, amp, or stompbox. Or is the problem in how you’re playing the instrument.
Either way, the first step is conditioning your ears and learning your guitar’s natural sound.
Conditioning Your Ears
How well do you really know your guitar? I’m not talking about visuals, facts, or how it feels. I’m talking about what it sounds like. I also call this learning your guitar’s personality.
I’m not sure if those terms actually exist, but it’s what I call the exercise that we’re about to work through. And the concept is simple. Learning how to listen to what your guitar excels at. For example, it’s silly to try to get a Strat sound out of a Les Paul or a Tele sound out of a 335. But, your guitar has a special sound and your job is to find that sound.
Here’s how it works:
- I’ll use three basic amp sounds: clean, overdrive, and distortion. Or, as I like to refer to these sounds: clean, mean, and scream.
- I’ll dial in some sounds with the guitar wide open, i.e., volume on 10 and tone on 10. Also, I like beginning with the neck pickup.
- Play some licks and riffs and adjust the volume. Make a mental note of the effect of lowering the volume on your sound. Do the same with the tone control.
Repeat the process, change pickups and change the overall amp sound from clean to mean to scream.
Using a clean sound, I’ll walk you through this in the video below.
My Rig Rundown
I’m playing a Dean Zelinsky Tagliare, and it’s outfitted with Zelinsky custom pickups, also the volume and tone pots are push-push that allows me to “tap the coil.” This is my Swiss-army-knife guitar and probably the most versatile instrument I own.
I’m running this straight into my Headrush, and I’ll use a utility rig that I use as a starting point for most of my rig setups. It’s based on a Soldano clean sound with a compressor, EQ, and two different distortions (mean and scream) in front of the amp.
I also use another EQ as a clean boost for solos after the amp. And, I add a little bit of boost to the high-mids and highs to cut through the band. Next, I add delay and reverb after the speaker IR.
In my early years, I’d try to dial in a sound at home only to have it sound completely different at the gig. Then, I’d be handcuffed to that tone all night for fear of making any adjustments only to have it sound worse. These weren’t pleasant experiences, but they were necessary.
I simply didn’t have the confidence to adjust my tone on the fly. My ears were conditioned to listen for wrong notes and chords, not for nuances in EQ, compression, distortion, etc. And I wasn’t familiar enough with my gear.
It wasn’t until my first recording studio experience, ‘real’ recording studio experience, that I decided to learn how to use my gear. During the process, I discovered that each piece of equipment does most things well, a few things okay, and one or two things great.
As I worked through learning my gear and its sonic nuances, I realized that each piece of equipment and every guitar has a particular personality. Conditioning your ears to hear these sonic subtleties is a must for today’s guitarists.
If you’re one of those players that hasn’t experimented with the volume and tone settings on your guitar, then you’re in for a treat. Give it a try, and you may discover different options and more colors. Also, apply this concept to every guitar and piece of gear that you own.
You never know. You may only be a tone roll-off away from your ‘perfect’ sound.
Thanks for reading.