Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, September 22, 2004
# 11:26:00 AM:

Learn about guitar tone

Permalinks to this entry: individual page or in monthly context. For more material from my journal, visit my home page or the archive.

NOTE: I have combined this entry and others into a longer article about guitar tone.

The electric guitar is rock 'n' roll's main instrument. Sure, there are rockers who feature other instruments more prominently (Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, the Violent Femmes, and Coldplay, for instance), but more than the drum kit, piano, electric bass, saxophone, or even the human voice, amped-up guitars define the genre.

PLEASE NOTE: Most of the links in this article go through the new Apple iTunes affiliate program, so if you're in the U.S. and end up buying one of the tracks (or something else) within 24 hours of clicking through, I get 5%. That didn't influence my choice of artists at all, and it's more of an experiment than a real cash-grab (for me, anyway). I had to link to Jimmy Page directly because Led Zeppelin isn't in the iTunes Store, and neither are any well-known Beatles tracks.

The source of tone

Electric guitars can produce a huge variety of sounds, and tone is something electric guitarists obsess about. Guitar tone depends on a wide variety of factors:

  • The design, shape, and construction techniques of the guitar, including the length, thickness, and surface curvature of the neck, the type of frets, and whether the body is solid, hollow, or semi-hollow.
  • The kinds of woods (or other materials) it's made out of, and how the various components are attached to one another.
  • Its age and, if it's used, how it's been treated and played over the years.
  • The design, implementation, and installation of its pickups and electronics.
  • The settings of all its controls, including volume and tone knobs and pickup selectors.
  • The type and thickness of the strings.
  • How those strings are attached to the guitar, including whether they pass through the guitar body or just sit on the top surface—and right down to the materials and construction of the nut and bridge at either and, as well as the design of the tuning posts.
  • The quality, materials, and length of the cable connecting the guitar to the amplifier.
  • The design, construction, and age of the amplifier.
  • The type and age of speaker in the amplifier.
  • How each knob and switch on the amplifier is set.
  • What kinds of preamp and power amp components the amplifier uses, including the type, design, manufacture, and age of those components, especially if they are vaccum tubes.
  • What kinds of additional effects are placed between the guitar and the amplifier, how they are built, and how they are set.
  • The quality and materials of all the connectors between the guitar, effects, amplifier, and beyond.
  • The acoustics of the room or studio in which the guitar and amplifier are being played, including room materials, size, shape, furniture, and how many people are in it, including what they're wearing and whether they're sitting down, standing up, or dancing around.
  • The design, manufacture, and characteristics of any microphones used to record or amplify the guitar.
  • Any post-amplifier recording or amplification techniques or effects.
  • Any speakers (in a car, boom box, stereo, headphones, or live venue) through which the guitar sound is subsequently played.
  • Any background noise, hearing defects, or other things that might affect how a particular listener hears the sound.
  • Of course, the way the guitarist plays, including whether with fingers or a pick on the strumming hand, how he or she places and moves fingers on the neck, where the strumming happens relative to the pickups, the velocity and angle of attack when playing certain notes, and whether he or she holds the guitar in such a way that the pickups interact with the sound coming out of the amplifier for feedback effects.

And that doesn't even cover it all. With that variety, there are also many preferences for what kind of tone people (players and listeners both) like.

Slapback to Marshall stack

The prototype rock guitar tone is Scotty Moore's rockabilly twang in his early-'50s work with Elvis Presley—check out "Mystery Train" for one of the first examples. That's the sound of a Gibson ES 295 hollow-body guitar with thick nickel strings played through a 1952 Fender Deluxe tube amplifier, with a "slapback" echo effect. In early rock recordings, recording engineers sometimes created the slapback echo by putting the guitar amp inside one end of a huge empty steel water tank, with a microphone at the other end. (Yet another component of the tone.)

Perhaps the stereotype rock tone is that of the Marshall stack: a rectangular, 100-watt (or more), tube-powered amplifier "head" stacked on top of two speaker cabinets, each containing four 12-inch speakers. In this case, the guitar is a bit less important to the overall sound, although most who prefer it use Gibson-style solidbody guitars like the Les Paul or Gibson SG, with dual-coil "humbucking" pickups. Cranking up the Marshall creates a buzzing, distorted, complex, and extremely loud sound. Pete Townshend essentially invented the sound in the mid-'60s, and used it to full effect on the Who's live version of Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" (even though he was actually playing single-coil P-90 pickups on a Gibson SG, through a Hiwatt amp). Later promoters of the Marshall sound include Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (and thus nearly every heavy metal band since), Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC (perhaps the purest exponents of this particular rock tone), Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, Kiss, Van Halen, Soundgarden, and most of the more recent pop-punk revival, such as Good Charlotte and Sum 41. (They don't all use Marshalls, but amplifiers from Mesa-Boogie, Hiwatt, Soldano, and others build heavily on what Marshall started for the Who.)

Tweed and Vox

In between those extremes lie the tones I prefer, with more crunch and meat than rockabilly, and more sparkle and clarity than metal. Those sounds tend to come from Fender solidbody guitars like the Stratocaster and Telecaster and Fender amplifiers such as the Twin Reverb. Early Fender amps were covered in yellow tweed cloth, so some people call it a "brown" or "tweed" tone—although later Fender designs are brighter and cleaner than the original tweeds. British Invasion variants on that sound usually came from Rickenbacker semi-hollow guitars and Vox amps, like the Beatles and Rolling Stones used, and have been compared (in their harshest versions) to "a blizzard of nails."

Blues players such as Robert Cray (hear "Right Next Door"), clean-tone rockers such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and many country pickers also like Fender guitars and amps. Newer throwback sounds from artists like the Vines take a similar approach. I own a '90s Fender Stratocaster and a Fender Princeton Reverb amp from the '70s, and they make a lovely noise.

My favourite example of a clean-but-crunchy Fender/Vox tone is from the Romantics' '80s retro-classic "What I Like About You." The composition is nothing special, but the guitar tone alone makes the recording essential. Heck, just listening to the excerpt at the iTunes store gives me a bit of a chill. In order to achieve even an approximation of this sound (since we play the song pretty much every show), the guitarist in my band has to drive his Stratocaster through a $3400 USD Matchless DC-30 amplifier, which is modeled on the Vox AC-30. Luckily, that combination produces many other excellent tones too.

And the rest

Of course, guitarists fiddle, and while most tones you hear on radio, CD, or your iPod are derived from the ones I describe here, they could come from nearly any guitar, amplifier, and player combination. Carlos Santana plays Paul Reed Smith guitars through Mesa-Boogie amps for his singing signature sound, while Stevie Ray Vaughan achieved his tone with Strats and a forest of Fender, Marshall, and custom Dumble amps. Some of the best sounds on record come from cheap equipment: Jimmy Page recorded the whole first Led Zeppelin album with a bare-bones Fender Telecaster and a little Supro amplifier, while Hound Dog Taylor played "Give Me Back My Wig" a few years later with a guitar and amp from the Sears catalogue.

If you want to know more, read about how guitar amp designs have evolved, the quest for ultimate tone, and finding the right tone. Particularly interesting is that guitar amplification, along with high-end audio, is one of the few industries that still relies extensively on vacuum tubes (called "valves" in the U.K.), in addition to transistors or computer chips. My guitarist's Matchless amp, for instance, doesn't have a single circuit board: it's all hand-wired tube circuitry, which has been unheard of in any other realm of consumer electronics since the 1960s.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Apple's affiliate program, which is actually run by a company called LinkShare, is a mess to sign up for. Unlike nearly every other Apple effort, it's extremely confusing, and seems rushed and unprofessional because Apple has not taken the time to put its own stamp on the interface and workflow. (Once you start adding links, Apple takes control again and it's fine.) Even the e-mails they send look nothing like the usual Apple clean design. I hope Apple and LinkShare improve the sign-up and management interface in time—right now it's a blight on Apple's usually-good user experience.


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