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Good Guitar Tone in Your Hands? Still Waiting?

September's Premier Guitar issue features a thought provoking article by George Ellison entitled "The Replacements". It's good reading amongst the zillion other things in each issue of PG-- that zine is stuffed!

Ellison's article is part of a continuing series about how to choose replacement pickups. He makes many good points on how various factors & components contribute to tone. If you're on the quest for guitar tone, click the above link and read his article before reading on here.

Did ya read it? Yeah, whatever...

Although I don't really disagree with Ellison at all, in a broader- beyond guitar- sense, it seems we guitar players can get pretty ridiculous when it comes to all this tone stuff.

Consider my own following ridiculous musings:

So is it wood or isn't it?? Or is it the weight of the wood?

If Duane Allman had switched from an LP to a Tele would he have then become unrecognizable?

Do jazz pianists have to switch from Steinways to Bosendorfers when they want "Chick Corea tone"?

Do cover band singers need different mics when switching from a Steven Tyler vocal to a Doors tune?

If good tone comes from your hands, why hasn't somebody come up with a tone hand lotion product for guitar players? Ya know some of us would buy it! (Remember, you saw it here first.)

Ok, so it makes good sense to back up and stress the importance of your hands over gear. The lotion idea was stupid-- wanna buy some? Even a perfectly tuned & intonated guitar (Buzz Feiten'd even), will sound OUT if the player's fretting pressure isn't right. Especially with big frets or a scalloped neck.

But what puts the tone in your hands? Well, that's partly figurative of course, because it all starts in your mind, heart, soul, spirit, brain, beingness; I'll leave which term up to you, but it's in that general area. You started playing guitar inside before ever picking one up. Next, there's a monitor loop you establish between your consciousness, your ears and your hands. When those three parts agree to coordinate, you then set about controlling your gear the best that the gear can be controlled. To the degree it doesn't control YOU, you're getting somewhere.

From that point, there are infinite avenues to pursue in terms of taste and sounds. If you play a lot of covers and want to nail sounds from records, you should probably invest in a multi-effects station. There's a broad range between Angus Young and Steve Vai. Angus has always been at home with his SG and a Marshall Plexi with only a cord in between. While Vai on the other hand...

People are doing many different things with guitar. Electric guitar is the ultimate synthesizer, as proven by the enormous number of guitar, effects and amp manufacturers there are. No other instrument comes even close to rivaling the guitar in terms of performance enhancement support products available. The modeling software thing is just exploding!

The irony is that many players seeking to cop guitar tones from 40 years ago are still looking for gear that hasn't been invented yet. And that statement is the crux of the biscuit.

The truth about tone which nobody is telling you, because it might be bad for business, is that fundamentally you need a decent sense of pitch, a decent guitar that is set up and intonated correctly and the willingness to keep it in tune. Too often, players start out with instruments that even seasoned musicians can't tune and would find difficult to play.

Developing the skill and conditioning to play guitar is tough enough, without having to wrestle some dissonant table leg with strings. Unfortunately, low cost, entry level guitars usually fit the aformentioned description. Some players quit, and a small few overcome to even excel out of high desire, determination and very good ears.

A significant 3rd group continues to struggle on, representing most of the gear acquisition syndrome GAS market. The evolution of this player involves the continuing quest of trying to feel good about his/her playing by adding enhancements to unknowingly compensate for a weak ear and/or poorly set up & intonated instrument which can't be tuned. Hence the gazillion different distortion pedals on the market.

Nothing wrong with overdrive, gain and playing dirty. But remember one important thing-- You can't polish a turd! In other words, a well tuned & intonated guitar of decent quality with proper relief and action will have pleasant tonal, harmonic and sustain characteristics when CLEAN, which accentuate themselves even better when overdriven. The WRONG thing to do is try to fix a poor, badly intonated instrument by adding more distortion and other effects. This is what is known as polishing a turd. Can't be done-- it's a universal law that even Tenacious D recognizes.

Guitar teachers should help their students with developing pitch and harmony, and provide orientation on the structure and mechanics of tuning and maintaining guitars. Instrument retailers should sell playable guitars to kids and beginners, and provide proper instrument set-up. Many parents- not being musicians themselves- need to be educated about the importance of quality instruments. Many kids quit playing, thinking they just don't have what it takes, when all along a crappy instrument is actually to blame. Parents don't want to spend a lot of money on something that the kid may grow bored with next week. Still, the same amount of $$$ that the X-Box 360 and i-Pod cost WILL procure an acceptable instrument. So what, if the kid decides not to play guitar after all? You were also willing to spend the same $$$ to zombie-ize him with video games, so at least you can say you tried in the case of a musical instrument.

What's all this have to do with TONE? Everything. Properly equipped and oriented guitar players with pitch awareness and decent guitars stand a far better chance of attaining sufficient musicality in order to overcome and transcend petty tone issues and the seeking of wrong solutions for those issues. Knowing one's ears and the condition of one's tools provides greater focus on melody & harmony instead of chasing your own tail under the guise of chasing tone.

Maybe the guitar magazines don't tell you this because they and their advertisers also rely upon the UNCERTAINTIES of guitar players, to make a living. I'm a gear pimp too, but I'm tellin' it like it is anyway. I'll never run out of stuff to blog about either, as crazy as we all are.

The unprecedented abundance of gear choices available to us is great. So is the confusion. And though there may appear to be a glut of products, there is never a glut of genuinely good products. The marketing is fierce, and I wanna hurl everytime I see the word "MOJO" used in gear ad copy. This big candy store can be fun, but guitar players chase more butterflies when they should be creating music. Anyone who's ever sat down with an acoustic guitar and totally lost track of time and space was having a musical experience, not a gear experience... though possibly an herbal experience, but that's beside the point. Playing an amp can sometimes be an evasive battle, but keep it simple because adding more junk in the chain is all too often an avoidance of a more basic situation.

Just remember to work on your ears, and keep your guitar tuned and set up correctly. Base any gear acquisitions and upgrades upon the enhancement of pitch & harmony, as opposed to muddying and masking fundamental musical elements. Tone doesn't have to be a holy grail quest, money pit situation. The real romance is music, and the only mojo is your certainty of the musical sounds inside you, and your hands, like Mr. Ellison says.

In spite of any negative points, the popularity of guitar is unparalleled by any other instrument, not even counting guitar-shaped video game controllers. Just think how things would be if we did more things right as teachers and merchants! Maybe guitar players would make the planet safe, end war, feed the hungry, stablize the climates and bring back fresh cut french fries, & big cars with fins!

I'm just sayin...

Click Here if you still need that tone hand lotion!


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