Guitarist Series: The Quest for the Perfect Tone

As I've mentioned in some of my previous guitar related articles, there are so many options to new guitarists that it can almost be overwhelming. Guitars are a multi million dollar industry, with more gear available than probably anyone can ever use, sort through or purchase. Yet, us crazy guitarists keep looking for that perfect sound, guitar, setup, gear etc, to create our perfect tone and this is our "the Quest for the Perfect Tone" and for each guitarist it is unique.

Eddie Van Halen referred to his tone as the brown sound while Eric Clapton called it his woman tone. It is just that perfect tone that strikes something inside and stirs you up and makes you say... "Whoa, what was that?" as the hair stands up on the back of your neck. Some guitarists find there tone immediately while for others (maybe even most) it takes thousands of dollars of gear and years of experimentation before they even consider themselves anywhere close. It can really become a life long obsession... obsession being the right word to use as you'd think we would settle for the thousands of tones along the way that we like, but no... we're always on the quest for the perfect tone.

I didn't really understand what made electric guitars work when I first started playing. I mean I knew the physics behind it, and the general layout of the instrument, but I figured that the majority of guitars sounded similar and through tweaking of effects, pedals, pickups etc that one could get any tone out of any instrument. After owning a few guitars, having played a few more, owned a few amps and played a few more of those as well, I came to realize some of the subtle nuances of this instrument that can make the difference between the perfect tone and something that just doesn't sound right. I may not be able to voice what the perfect tone is, or why what I have isn't it, but I know I haven't found it yet.

And so the quest for the perfect tone began.

The Quest:
For me, it's more than just a guitar tone or tones. When I pick up a guitar, I'm definitely looking to make some great music, but I'm also out to express myself a little bit... maybe voice some emotions that just refuse to be formed into words? The guitar tone is an integral part of that expression because how can I express myself effectively in a voice that I think sounds horrible? And even if I think it sounds good, if the tone just doesn't have that magic, then I'm not going to be as comfortable with it, and the expression won't be as pure, accurate or as effective as it could be.

I have found that this quest is something that non-guitarists just cannot understand. They see us "wasting" hundreds if not thousands of dollars on guitar gear every year when we already have a guitar and an amp... I mean, do we really need another?

They don't understand that it is almost like a quest to find out a little about ourselves continually trying to get a little closer to having a direct representation of our soul... in rock and roll form. With each new thing we try out, we find out a little more about what we're trying to say with our playing, about our tastes and maybe, just maybe... a little about who we are as people. We might never actually find this perfect tone though and that is ok too, because along the way we'll learn a lot, probably make some great music, and grow as guitarists, musicians and people.

Other people do this kind of self exploration through meditation or religion, but for guitarists, maybe it is in their gear. Crazy,I know... but you might just discover a little something about yourself and who you are while picking out your next amp...

There is a problem though...

The Problem
Unfortunately, I'm not a billionaire (or maybe it is more fortunate that I'm not) and so I cannot afford endless piles of guitar gear for all sorts of combinations to try and find that perfect tone, just as I'm sure most people can't.

So we begin on this quest for tone and how do we go about it without wasting time and money?

Well, I've found that one of the best things we can do is become more informed about our instrument, how it works, and familiarize ourselves with the differences in tone and exactly what causes those differences. Step one is actually going and playing a bunch of guitars, amps and effects and not getting too wrapped up in the gear that our idols or friends use. A good thing to remember when doing this is that everyone describes their tone differently. I use and hear terms like gritty, chimey, bell-like, rough, thick, thin, distorted, sparkley, bright, harsh, round, transparent, distinct and full to describe different guitar tones all the time and yet I cannot objectively tell you exactly what any of these terms actually sounds like from a guitar perspective. One person's gritty is another person's rough is another person's distorted and so take descriptions with a grain of salt and don't be surprised when you tell the sales person you want an amp with more chime that he points you towards one with more sparkle.

I've also found that learning a bit about how these instruments actually work, specifically when it comes to amps, has helped me save some time either trying or money buying gear that was not, by design, what I am looking for tone wise. A little research can go a long way.

Resources:
Here are some great online resources I've found for learning about your guitars, amps and effects:

http://www.amptone.com/ - A great set of discussions and resources about why exactly tube amps sound better cranked, even master volume ones, power amp distortion and the use of power attenuators.

http://www.guitaramplifierblueprinting.com/index2.html
– Myles, who owns this site may know more about tubes and tube amps than just about anyone I've met. If you're really interested in learning a bit about how tube amps work, check out his Tube Primer e-book (be prepared to read, its something like 200 pages and a little technical, but interesting) and there are lots of other great amp related resources on his site as well.

Also, Myles is a great person to talk to about amp and tube questions, very helpful and willing to give advice. You can post a message directed for him on the Dr. Z forum. I'm a big fan of the Dr. Z amps (my next amp will almost certainly be a Z) and I've found the forum to have a whole bunch of very knowledgeable and helpful people, including Myles. Check out the forum here: http://drzamplifiers.proboards41.com/

http://www.tonefrenzy.com/ - These guys have a great variety of audio demos, although the clips do suffer a bit (like all mp3 audio clips), they are a great representation of some of tones and are done to give a good idea of what some effects, guitars and amps sound like.

http://www.electric-guitar-review.com/ - A great guitar blog about gear. Definitely worth checking out for gear reviews and news on new guitar products.

http://www.harmony-central.com/userreviewstest.html – A huge database of user reviews of guitar gear. A great resource for everything from guitars to amps to effects to pickups, just keep in mind again that each person's idea of what is "insert random guitar related descriptor here" is different.

http://www.proguitar.de/AudioDemo/CompareAmps/CompareAmps.html – An amazing set of audio clips from a whole bunch of different amps available for comparison. These are mainly higher end tube amps so you won't find a lot of the cheaper amps here, but a great idea of the differences in sounds. They also have effects sections and guitar sections but the site isn't entirely finished yet (as far as I know). The amp section is great and I hope eventually they finish them all.

These sites are all great resources to help cut down on both the time and money wasted by helping to eliminate some of the bad gear purchases, time spent trying gear and help zero in on your tone. Like I said, a little research can go a long way for those of us who are not billionaires with all the time and money in the world to spend trying guitar gear.

The Conclusion:
I think the quest for tone is part of the culture of being a guitarist and really does help us grow, although we may not realize that is what is happening. We also may not realize that we're really searching a bit for ourselves, but I think that is part of what drives the quest for the perfect tone. It's more than just a guitar tone, it is a bit of our soul, personality and who we are.

Plus, it makes a great excuse to get more guitar gear. Next time anyone says to you, "Do you really need another guitar/amp/effect/pedal/pickup?" just look them straight in the eye and say...

"I need to buy this guitar/amp/effect/pedal/pickup because I am on a quest to find myself in my guitar tone. By finding my perfect guitar tone I can better understand myself, know how to express myself and finally know who I am as an individual"

If you can say it with a straight face, then it should shut them up good... well, if they don't reply with something like..."That's the biggest load of..." etc etc.

Good luck on your quest for that perfect tone and hopefully you'll find something else about yourself along the way too.

- The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is a division of Fifth Column Media - www.fifthcolumnmedia.com -