What’s with guitarists and their obsession of ‘tone’?

A lot of talk on guitar forums and such is about all sorts of gear and such, all in the pursuit of the elusive ‘tone’. From very early on I’ve always found that a tad strange. I played keyboards before I started guitar, and in the keyboard world people don’t seem all that obsessed with a vague concept like ‘tone’. Then again, I’ve rarely heard a keyboard player who actually sounded bad. Even with synthesizers where you can tweak lots of settings and completely create your own sounds, it generally comes out sounding good, and I’ve never seen discussions that go as ‘deep’ as guitarists.

I can understand the whole gear/tone thing to a certain degree… After all, a guitar is a more ‘personal’ instrument than a synthesizer. Especially the electric guitar, which is what this is mostly about (you don’t hear that much debate about acoustic guitars). You have more control in personalizing your sound… there’s strings, picks, pickups, many different types of wood and construction of the guitar itself, then there’s cables, effect processors, preamps, power amps, speakers, microphones, and probably many other things that influence your sound. This also means that there’s more that can go wrong.

And it often does… Beginners generally don’t sound too great on an electric guitar, especially when they’re using distortion. Lots of noise, and the intonation of the notes they do manage to play, is all over the place. Where it goes wrong is in the solution to this problem. It seems that a lot of people think it’s in their gear, so they invest in more expensive gear, hoping that it makes them a better guitarist.

It’s a pretty bizarre situation really. It’s embarrassing, or even confrontational in a way. Namely, the weakest link in your guitar sound is you! For a big part, a good sound is a result of having good technique. Another big factor is you understanding your guitar and gear, and dialing in the right settings. In that order… and only after that comes the gear itself. A while ago there was this great video of Joe Satriani playing guitar at a friend of his son’s place. The guy had a cheap beginner Strat guitar and amp. But when Satriani played on it, he made it sound pretty good, and he was able to execute his entire song pretty much flawlessly, despite the modest gear.

As some guitarists will say: “Tone is in the fingers”, and for Satriani that certainly goes. People like him just have ‘it’. Are such people born with ‘it’? No, I don’t think so. I think they developed it by practicing for years. Probably on cheap gear too. At least, that’s how I worked at developing ‘it’ myself. Shortly after I started playing guitar, I went to university, and as a student I simply didn’t have the money to invest in better gear, so I played with the same stuff for many years. In the end I got pretty decent results out of it, and knew the weak points and how to get around them.

The catch-22 here is that I didn’t really need all that fancy gear from that point on. The painful fact is this: there’s just a lot more guitarists in the world who don’t have ‘it’, than ones that do. So a lot of ‘internet wisdom’ regarding tone and gear is conceived and perpetuated by guitarists who don’t really know how to use gear and can’t really play well enough to get good tone anyway.

I think this demonstrates my point pretty well:

Sorry guy, but okay, you have a real Gibson, and you bothered to ‘upgrade’ the guitar with EMG pickups… but firstly your playing technique is pretty sloppy, so you get lots of noise, and many notes are off, and secondly, you dialed in a pretty unpleasant tone. Now I don’t really want to go for shameless self-promoting here, but please bear with me, because I think it helps to demonstrate the point:

Now, my guitar isn’t a real Gibson, it’s an Epiphone, made in Korea, and I bought it secondhand. I also didn’t upgrade the pickups. They’re generic unbranded stock pickups. I’m also not playing over fancy stuff, just a simple Zoom G9.2tt modeler and a Marshall VS230 transistor amp, recorded with a simple dynamic microphone.

Despite my gear being far more modest, I think most people will agree that my recording sounds more professional, more ‘musical’ than his. Heck, you’d almost say that he’s not worth a real Gibson, perhaps he should give it to someone who will put such a nice guitar to good use 🙂 I never bought a real Gibson myself, didn’t see the need really. My first Epiphone was a pretty damn good guitar, and I upgraded its pickups with original Gibson pickups which I bought secondhand from another idiot who ‘upgraded’ the pickups in his Gibson. The result was so good that even though I’ve tried various Gibsons in the shops over the years, I never found one that I felt would be a worthwhile upgrade from my Epiphone. I did get a second Epiphone, but the reason for that should be clear if you count the number of strings in the above video. I could afford a Gibson, but I’d rather buy guitars that have something special to them, and to me it’s a bit of a sport to buy cheap/simple guitars, and then set them up and modify them to become great instruments.

The thing is, on the internet, people like me have to argue with guys like him over tone, and he has the more expensive gear, so naturally he’s right, and I’m just an idiot with beginner gear. What can you do? I can’t just say “You may have nice gear and all, but because you suck, it still doesn’t sound good. I can make my cheap gear sound better than your expensive gear, so why should anyone listen to YOUR advice on tone?” It’s the painful truth, but lots of people would get upset if I were to say something like that, so I try to avoid it. People just don’t ‘buy’ this idea of being able to get good results from simple gear if you just know how to use it. I think many people overestimate themselves, they don’t want to face that painful truth that they’re the weak factor, not their gear. It’s much easier to just buy new gear than to actually put in the effort.

Thing is, with my music being out in the open on sites like YouTube and SoundClick, I often get people asking me about my gear. That often makes me feel a bit strange. People ask me about what pickups I use in my RG for example. Well, the stock pickups, what else? The fact that they ask this question, seems to imply that the stock pickups couldn’t possibly sound good. Same with a guy who wanted to buy a 7-string Epiphone Les Paul like mine. He was asking about what kind of replacement pickups to use before he ever even played the instrument. I told him the stock pickups on this model are pretty good and they’d probably hold him over for a while, when he could make up his mind about whether he really wanted to replace the pickups, and what he’d want to replace them with. Got into a long discussion, which was pretty bizarre, because unlike him, I actually own the instrument and play it daily, with the stock pickups… and I provided him with some recordings that proved that the stock pickups do indeed sound pretty good and are capable of pretty tight sounds for both rhythm and lead playing. But still, he seemed so indoctrinated by this whole idea that stock pickups couldn’t possibly be any good whatsoever (he actually said that, literally, *after* I posted my recordings, which he actually agreed to not sounding bad at all), that he just didn’t buy it. I mean, sure… there are aftermarket pickups that are better than the stock ones, that’s obvious. But again, the painful questions: Is your playing really good enough that you would actually be able to sound better with better pickups? Because these pickups apparently allow for pretty good results already, if you know how to make them sound good. And if you don’t know how to make these pickups sound good, what makes you think that other pickups would work for you?

People also ask me what amp/effects I use… well, most of the time I don’t use an ‘amp’ as such, but just my Zoom G9.2tt digital modeler. Why bother asking in the first place? Getting the same gear as me isn’t going to make you sound the same. In fact, one guy was impressed with my recordings, and bought a G9.2tt… then he tried some of my settings. But obviously he used a completely different guitar, amp and playing style, so he didn’t quite get the results he expected. And he actually took it out on me. He seemed to feel like I was some kind of liar who tricked him into buying the G9.2tt, which according to him can’t do various things that it clearly does in my recordings. Again, that painful fact: The G9.2tt doesn’t work for you because YOU don’t know how to use it.

A related problem is when people DO know how to play and get decent sounds, but don’t really understand the technology behind it, and somehow think that their setup is the ONLY way. Usually they cover up their lack of understanding with a lot of arrogance and aggression to anyone who asks ‘difficult’ questions, or offers alternatives that actually appear to work as well. That brings us back to Danny Danzi who is always convincing everyone to get a Digitech 2101 (which is a museum piece by now). Sure, Danny Danzi’s tone isn’t bad (although it does suffer from the ‘plastic’ artifacts that most speaker simulators suffer from, especially noticeable through headphones), it’s actually pretty good… but where he goes wrong is in thinking that it’s all because of the tubes in the Digitech. The Digitech is just a very poor hybrid tube preamp at heart. It gets good sounds, but they aren’t particularly similar to that of classic tube amps. So Danny started telling me that MY tone sounded like a transistor amp… Yea right, a Marshall 6101 30th Anniversary model. One of the best amps ever made by the world’s most famous tube amp manufacturer. There’s no accounting for taste, but surely this is a thoroughbred tube amp, and that’s exactly how it sounds. Anyone who thinks it sounds like a transistor amp just has no idea what a tube amp sounds like. Which makes sense, since Danny’s amp doesn’t particularly sound like a tube amp (even though it uses actual tubes, it’s no more convincing than a modern modeler, or a Marshall ValveState amp). Danny goes on about how he owns many high-end tube amps as well… But I wonder… if he does, then he would know that his Digitech doesn’t quite sound the same. And also, if he owns some high-end tube amps, why would he bother recording with the Digitech instead? I don’t believe he owns said tube amps, I think he’s just trying to show off. Not the first time either. When I was talking about my Gibson M-III to some people, he chimed in, saying he used to own one as well. I guess he forgot that a few months earlier, I posted some pictures on a different forum that we both frequented, and he responded with “Wow, I’ve never seen one of those before”. Oh well, I guess all’s fair in tone war.

Let it be clear that even though I think my gear can get pretty good results when used properly, I certainly don’t want to give off the impression that this is the ONLY way, or the best way at that (certainly there’s still plenty of room for improvement with my recordings, and the Youtube recordings are generally not as elaborate as some of the complete songs on my SoundClick). I’m very open to using different kinds of gear, and I use various guitars, various types of pickups, various effect units, amps and recording techniques. I don’t think one is better than the other, just different. Funny enough most people listening to my music generally don’t even notice the difference between gear. They don’t really notice when I’m playing on a real tube amp or on a modeler, when I record direct or with a mic, etc. I guess in the end none of it really matters, as long as the results are okay.

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8 Responses to What’s with guitarists and their obsession of ‘tone’?

  1. John says:

    Well said. I grew up playing in the 80’s and 90’s and no one back then talked about tone unless it was the knob on your guitar. Sellers of pedals and such have pushed this notion through that’s it’s all about tone which really appeals to people who simply can’t play…. 99% practice and 1% magic or “tone”.

    • Scali says:

      Seems so… So many guitarists in the 80s and 90s had great tone anyway. These days, despite all the fancy gear, a lot of guitarists just don’t sound all that great.

  2. C Chappell says:

    Don’t take my reply the wrong way I’m not being mean. I play a Partscaster maple neck strat with a DiMarzio Super Distortion and a Duncan Hot Stack neck straight into a 1987 Peavey Bandit 75 and I have a Metal Muff and Boss Chorus for effects. I’ve been playing 8 years and haven’t changed anything but added the Metal Muff and of course strings. So I understand where you’re coming from with technique and the less is more thing. You had me until you started ranting and name checking about a negative altercations that have obviously already happened.. The past is the past.. and yet you continue to reap and spew negativity instead of coming up with a solution. Where’s the solution? I agree with you half way, but your condescending attitude about something so petty as to what OTHER people are doing with THEIR money is way off base, and and its just that attitude that make avg people think musicians, expecially guitar players are arrogant, boastful assholes.. And we definitely all aren’t. Why not just let it roll of your back and just roll your eyes like most of the rest of us do. Maybe it’s just me.. But I don’t let people get to me like that. Especially about a musical instrument, lol. I hope you calmed down and chilled out after that vitriol release. Just keep positive and keep it ALWAYS about the songs and the music.

  3. Joe says:

    Yeah, agree that it was silly to go calling specific people out, but that doesn’t invalidate your main point which is that a lot of people are poseurs. It’s also true that gear manufacturers have really embraced the internet and definitely fueled–maybe even created?–this better gear=better tone crap. Just rampant consumerism, and both good and inferior players can be susceptible to consumerism.

  4. Clint says:

    It’s funny how you knock some dude and then show a video of yourself playing talking about your playing. You’re using effects and your tone isn’t amazing either. I agree about the obsession with tone but it is nice to have equipment that makes a simple power chord sound epic. Tone is tone but being a good player is what matters most but sticking as many notes in a section does not make it musical. I always feel like players should spend enough time practicing the things they want to improve on. You’re a fine guitarist just take it easy bro and realize that the really rare ones don’t have to put people down or build themselves up.

    • Scali says:

      Of course I’m using effects, who isn’t? That’s what makes your tone, is it not? Bit of distortion, compression, reverb, perhaps delay. Everyone using an electric guitar will use some amount of effects. The amp and speaker themselves are a bit of an ‘effect’ already, even if you do not add anything to the chain. Anyway, the point is that it’s more important how you use it. Also, this blog was written 10 years ago, and the reason was that I got fed up with people putting me down. It was a response to something that happened. People talking only about what great gear they have, and why other gear sounds crap, while their playing is horrible to listen to.

      What you’re saying has a lot to do with that: “sticking as many notes in a section does not make it musical”… not necessarily, but a great guitarist can play fast passages and make those interesting and musical as well. A lot of guitarists dismiss any fast playing as ‘soulless’ or whatever, just because it’s fast. They’re not getting it.

      My point is: develop your technique, and you can get acceptable sounds from even modest gear. Sure, if you know how to use it, you will still sound better with more expensive gear, but hey. There’s tons of guitarists on the radio every day, whose tone isn’t all that great either. They do get the point across though.

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