Tone Truths

Just several things I've learned about guitar tone
  • The player sells the tone. If you've ever seen a really good player wail through really crummy equipment, you know what I'm talking about. A really good player just needs to get in the ballpark for his tone and the passion and conviction of his playing will make it sound like a million bucks. All the really good players are like that in my experience.
  • Its all about context. A tone that sounds like dog poop in one musical setting can be awe-inspiring in another.
  • Tone is a function of phrasing. For really good, expressive players, their playing dynamics and the way they fret and pluck the strings causes the tone to change as they play. There's an interaction between the sound and their playing technique and really great players exploit that, throughout a song and in mid-phrase. Players like Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, and Eddie Van Halen created their legacies off of doing that. And that's why you can't sound like player X by simply buying their gear; you have to nail their phrasing too.
  • Gear is often a distraction from sounding good. Yeah, new gear is inspiring and can make you play better. But that effect tends to be ephemeral and the more gear trading you do, the less its intensity and duration. Its exactly like a drug that way. Spending energy on learning to play better pays off more tonally -- it really does! -- than spending it on acquiring gear.
  • There's no substitute for volume. At least with classic, vintage-type rock tones, playing loud sounds better. All the really high watermark tones of that type -- Clapton, Page, Hendrix, The Who, Free, Mountain, Trower, EVH, AC/DC, and on and on -- were made by people turning their amps way up. I think that tube amps and speakers sound best when they're pushing the limits of their operating specifications, and you also get more of that phrasing/tone interaction when the power tubes are working harder. This is a real bitch since stage volumes are so low nowadays, but I do believe its the truth.