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The Pursuit of Tone
  • I'd love to hear from Jim, and others, about how you found your tone. I know people talk about this or that equipment, and that's certainly part of it, but the best music is often made by discovering/cultivating your own voice and I'm curious about each person's process in discovering theirs. On acoustic guitar, which is where I have spent the majority of my time, I feel like I've found out more about my voice then the electric (which I played as a teen and then started again a few years ago). You know, I've got the guitars, and the PRRI amp, pedals, etc., but in the end those are just part of the deal. Charlie Parker once played and recorded on a plastic saxophone when he didn't have his regular horn. And he sounded just like Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman played a plastic sax for years (by choice, or economics) and sounded just like Ornette, and continued to do so after he switched to a more conventional horn. Jim sounds like Jim, Duke Levine, like Duke Levine, Bill Frisell, etc. I am reminded of a quote from Eisenhower: "Things are more like they are now than they have ever been before." That seems to capture the essence of many things (I'm sure Ike wasn't referring to music!). In any event, I would love to hear people's stories.
  • I had a cool experience a few months ago when John Scofield came to my town in CT to record and he dropped by the guitar store that I run to check out some in house amps. We spent a few minutes "dialing" stuff in so there was no wasted time when he arrived. I remember sitting back watching my friend play the rig and it sounded just like him and then Scofield came through and grabbed the same guitar, everything dialed in the same way, and right away it sounded JUST like him after two notes.

    I spent some time thinking about this. My setup is pretty much a total rip off of Jim's and while certain stuff is idiosyncratic to the gear (behind the nut bending is much more fun on a tele than a les paul etc.) I think it has a lot more to do with making you feel happy before you even play.

    I think 90% of it is the bone tone and how you like to play. The bigger thing for me with gear is that it makes me feel comfortable. It is really cool to see folks who can pick up any guitar and plug into any amp and play really well but I have learned that I get a little nervous when I try new stuff and the playing suffers. When I sit down with my stuff I am excited before I even play a note, maybe it is because it is gear just like my hero's play or because it is old stuff or because it is expensive but that feeling to me is worth it.

    Aside from comfort I think knowing your gear well is just as important as having expensive gear. I see people all the time playing with "bad" gear but they have used it for so long and know how it performs in different situations that they make it sound amazing.
  • Thanks for asking and I'm not sure I'm a wealth of information. I agree and relate to cwilliams and IgnatzMouse.
    For me, it was just staying with one thing and eliminating effect pedals forced me to find sound effects manually and concentrate on touch and dynamics. And I will adjust to whatever set up I have. In other words, play the music your sound dictates and discover what unique sounds your guitar will give you. Obviously practice is the foundation the house is built on.

    Hmmmm - at 0.30 Nick Jonas has "good tone"...

    At 2:35 Prince borrows a guitar that is unforgivingly clean (and it looks uncomfortably low) and he forgoes the Santana-like lead, slams out some funky rhythms and then he takes his shirt off. THAT’S working with your tone and the cards one is dealt!

    Then there's Ted Greene playing a wedding...
  • I've seen the Prince video- I was mightily impressed.... not by WHAT he played, but that, in that situation, he figured out that that WAS what NEEDED to be played, given the situation, music, gear, etc... it's not a grammy-award moment or anything, but it was brilliantly executed given the circumstances.

    The "pedals thing" for me has been tough.... some days, I want to throw them all out and use just guitar and amp- like Jim usually does. Other days, I want them at my disposal, but use them only sparingly for "spices" to "sprinkle in" once in awhile... I have a delay, a tremolo, and a leslie/vibratone pedal (which can double as a chorus)... even the guys I love who DO use effects, use them sparingly, and are quite often just guitar into amp. But then you've got the Nels Clines and Bill Frissells.....

    I found this quite interesting... Eric Johnson, playing Zakk Wylde's guitar through Zakk Wylde's rig and sounding like... Eric Johnson.

    As they say, "tone is in the fingers"... and I have yet to hear one of my "favorite pros" disagree with that, regardless of what, or how much, gear they use....

  • "Aside from comfort I think knowing your gear well is just as important as having expensive gear. I see people all the time playing with "bad" gear but they have used it for so long and know how it performs in different situations that they make it sound amazing."

    I just wanted to add that there's a ton of truth in this... altho I wouldn't say "bad" gear, because if it sounds good, it's not "bad"... but DIFFERENT gear. Some of my favorite players over the years have changed their gear with almost every new record/tour, but they always sound the same. ALTHO I will also say, some of my favorite players found one "formula" that works for them, and they stick with it: Jim, Guthrie Trapp, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Brian Setzer, just to name a few.

    I haven't found "the one" setup yet... I have found "the one" guitar, a '93 MIA tele that I bought new, but have not yet found "the one" amp FOR ME.... I can make any amp "work", but I'm still looking for my "desert island amp". I THINK, if you can find that- the ONE guitar and ONE amp, then the pedals fall by the wayside, for the most part.
  • How can you not see Jim's post and think how lucky we all are to be apart of such a diverse and talented group! While filled with tremendous effort and frustration at times, it is such a treat to be able to play.
  • I agree! To quote Jim: "Thanks for asking and I'm not sure I'm a wealth of information." Your definition of being a wealth of information must be different from mine, because you seem to me to be a mother lode of information (and thank you!). I appreciate all the comments, and love the videos!
  • To quote Luca from an email conversation we had, "Tone is in the fingers...and pricey vintage amps."
  • Jim, I got notification that you had posted another comment with a video (an awesome video at that!), but when I clicked on the link I got a "Page Not Found" response. So, I saw your comment, but others haven't. -Paul
  • Hi IgnatzMouse - Thank you. Actually my intention was a bit snarky and it was directed towards a respected musician -so I deleted it.

  • Jim, Thanks. Got it (and got it). Still, the Tele playing was great.
  • I think sometimes people confuse style with tone. There was a period when the Buckaroos got into a squabble with Fender and so they started using other brands. I've seen video of Don Rich playing a Gibson. His style was essentially the same but his tone sure wasn't. Definitely not the same as his telecaster through a Twin with JBL's.

    I guess some aspects of "tone" are in the fingers, like note articulation, dynamics, attack, but in general tone is very much dependent on the gear.
  • For me, finding my tone has been a journey. Not sure if I'm at the destination or not, but I'm certainly getting close. I started out with cheap beginner gear and no chops at all (like we all do). Then, as time went on, I started trying to get my gear and my playing to sound more like the musicians I was listening to. While doing that, buying and selling gear, and making observations along the way, I've noticed trends in my gear and music tastes. This has moved me away from copying the rigs of my favorite guitarists, but the connections are still there.
    For example, I seem to lean toward semi-hollow electrics. I seem to like mahogany, on both electrics and acoustics. I can bond with single coils or humbuckers, but either needs to be fairly low output. I've gone through a lot of amps over the years, and now I have 3 that have managed to stick around over time. And they're all 6V6 amps, so I guess there's something to that, too.
    I guess my point is that I've made more progress with my tone when I started to see what feature I liked about my favorite guitarist's tone, rather than trying to copy rigs exactly.
  • +1 morroben, it's a "gumbo". My experiences are similar. And some days (like today), I wish for simplicity: all I REALLY need (since I don't play professionally) is 1 electric (ok, maybe 2 if you throw in an archtop), and 1 acoustic. I currently own 8 guitars, but not all of them get played alot- I feel like 2-3 really great guitars and maybe 2 great amps, and I'd be good.

    I do have quite a few pedals, which I use very sparingly these days, but that's a whole 'nuther story.

    I am finding that, with a good guitar and amp, regardless of what they are, "tone" really is in the hands. I don't think I could get Jim's tele + Princeton tones out of a Gretsch and a Peavey Bandit, for example. There are limits. LOL
  • But you would be better off with a Gretsch, a Peavey Bandit, and a couple of Jim's licks, than with a toploader Tele, Princeton, and none of the licks.
    Chasing tone is a wormhole...kind of like the internet. I'm guilty of going down it myself. But I try to remember that it's generally just a waste of good practice time.
    That being said, good tone can definitely inspire me to practice more. So there's that.
    What I really mean is, I have no idea.
  • I like this thread and I'm enjoying every post. I saw this in a vintage magazine thought it might represent a few viewpoints... Thank you gentlemen!

    Grate Sport.jpeg 74K
  • HA! Good one, Jim! We are all guilty of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)... when all we really need is a guitar, cord, and amp. (and, only a guitar for all the acoustic players out there). There is alot of marketing out there convincing us we "need" this or that, for sure.

    Even Joe Bonamassa, reigning king of GAS, is now playing a very stripped down rig: 2 tweed Twins, 2 tweed bassmans, 1 overdrive pedal, and a wah. While is his tone IS a LITTLE different form his previous rig (4 amps, switching system, enormous pedalboard, etc)... it's not THAT different.

    For those interested, in the beginning of this video he talks about the freedom of his new rig as compared to his old behemoth:

  • This IS a great thread and I love the cartoon and the video is really fascinating. I think maybe my original title for the thread was misleading; I really meant to concentrate on how people arrive at their musical voice, their personal expression. Tone is obviously part of this, maybe a big part of it, but my question was intended to be about musical expression and being able to say what you want to say and having the ability to say it. And I get the whole thing about not going gear crazy, especially when it distracts from the music. On the other hand, some people make gear exploration really work (think Frisell). It's a matter of priorities and self knowledge, musically speaking, I suspect. If you have already arrived at a certain level of skill and have developed your own voice, I could see experimenting with gear could afford interesting musical exploration, but if you're still developing your musical personality, I can also see that all the stuff is just a rabbit hole (...one pedal makes your larger and one pedal makes you small, to misquote Grace Slick).
  • IgnatzMouse - "...one pedal makes your larger and one pedal makes you small..." Ha!
  • I agree with the "musical exploration" thing.... I have about a dozen pedals, including 4 overdrives. And I have 6-7 of them always hooked up on a pedalboard. But I rarely use them. 80% of the time, I'm using nothing but a tuner and maybe an overdrive. I have lots of other cool pedals: fuzz, rotary/leslie, a few delays, tremolo (because my current amp doesn't have it), looper.... but I sort of "sprinkle" them in, like a spice... none of them really help me find my "signature style/tone", like for example- Eric Johnson with his Butler Tube Driver or his TC Chorus pedals, which are pretty much always on. While I love EJ's tone and style, I have always had a problem with "always on" pedals.... I have always felt, if I have a pedal that must be "always on", then I have the wrong amp (or guitar). 90% of the time, I am 100% happy with just my amp... reverb is REQUIRED tho!

    I'm also a huge jazz fan- mostly pre-bop, everything from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Christian to Louis Jordan to Lester Young up to Johnny Smith. Ditto for blues- T-Bone Walker, BB King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, etc. Whether you're talking horns or strings, all those cats needed was their instrument. (and in the case of the electric guitar players, the amplifier IS part of the instrument). No wah pedals or gizmos; just the music and the tool needed to make the music. You can't improve upon Armstrong. One man with a horn = perfection.

    [on a side note, I'm not sure exactly where all this "hillbilly jazz" fits into the timeline; but I like ALL that stuff as well... Jimmy Bryant, Jimmie Rivers, George Barnes, etc]

    All of this talk has reignited my desire for another Princeton (I sold my last one, but I was in a slightly different "place" then, asking the PR to do what it wasn't really meant to do). But one of the most gorgeous sounds I've ever heard is a tele plugged straight into a Princeton (and the same could be said for the Deluxe Reverb, Vibrolux Reverb, Pro Reverb, Super Reverb... all depends on your volume/headroom needs).
  • Don't forget the tone of pursuit. Which, IMO, is best summed up here:

  • Love Jerry Reed, and love that movie!!! (I actually own it!)
  • It is a great song! Haven't seen the movie in a long time, but would love to see it again. Not sure how it'll hold up...
  • I've mostly stopped using pedals. I finally got a really nice amp about six months ago. Around the same time, the zipper on my Pedaltrain bag broke, and it turned into a pain in the ass hauling my board to band practice. I just kind of gave up on it. Even when I was still using the board, I wasn't using much of it's potential. The sensitivity on my compressor is turned down as low as it will go. My reverb pedal is turned down really low. With the nice amp, I've really been getting into the volume and tone knobs on the guitar, like the Bonamassa video, except I only have one volume and tone for both pickups.

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