I’m happy with my tone. There. I said it. I was shaking as I wrote that.
Great tone is a sly little bugger. Since the invention of the electric guitar the quest for the holy grail of sound has eluded guitarists great and small. Countless amps, guitars and pedals have been purchased only to be passed on to the next crazed tone zealot. Why is this so difficult? What makes a sound good or bad, and who decided this?
Few players have found the recipe. Brian May and his homemade Red Special through a cranked Vox AC30 comes to mind. Instantly recognizable. Include in that B. B. King’s clean vibrato simplicity and Peter Green’s snarky, out-of-phase perfection. Let’s not forget Tom Scholz of Boston’s endless, over-processed sustain, Eddie Van Halen’s fretboard-tapping gymnastics, and of course David Gilmour’s tone of the gods. All have their own unique guitar voice. I would have added U2’s the Edge, but since he’s been emulated by every contemporary Christian band in the known universe, it’s more difficult to be certain it’s him.
When most of us began our musical journey, we probably had no idea what great tone was, nor did we care. What brand of amp or guitar you had, made no difference. The point was to make as much noise as possible until the neighborhood girls or the police showed up. Unfortunately, due to the fact I had three brothers who played drums, and the police were on a first name basis with my parents, they usually arrived first.
My formative garage band years were spent in and out of short-lived groups, bashing out passable renditions of Gloria and Louie Louie with an occasional House of the Rising Sun thrown in to dazzle the chicks. Did anyone comment on my magical tone? Eh…. no. They were more impressed that I could play an A-minor chord without grimacing. It was a time of musical innocence.
For the next 40 years I was content with a simple guitar into amp, everything on 10, and let 'er rip set-up. Volume was the name of the game and Marshall amps ruled the day. Knob tweaking or pedal envy were years in the future. And who needed a pedal anyway? I had a 100-watt amp that rattled the plaster. But then came the computer age.
The internet is surely to blame for our gear-head OCD when it comes to the mediocre sound emanating from the boutique, aftermarket speakers. Before YouTube, instructional videos and instrument/pedal demos, we were blissfully unaware of tonal shortcomings. How quickly I got sucked into this tone vortex that said if I demoed enough combinations of gear, I too could find that unicorn of noise nirvana I pursued relentlessly. After years of swapping gear and more money than I care to admit, I've realized it's a fool’s errand. Tone is truly subjective, and once I understood, even what I considered good or bad changed.
The guitar sounds George Martin and the Beatles created, which I once thought of as thin, raspy and generally horrendous, I find delightfully inspiring and brilliant today. Tonal revelation leads me to the conclusion that every fuzzy, distorted, scooped, midrange-y, ear-piercing sound they used was applicable in some way or another. Even Steve Howe of Yes’ decision to play progressive rock on a Gibson ES 175 hollow body with no distortion, which seemed odd at the time, I realize was genius. That saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” applies to sound as well.
Although my ideal guitar tone has remained unattainable, the basics of the search have not changed since the beginning. That said, my appreciation of tones I once considered trash has done a complete turnaround. I now listen with renewed tone appreciation to The Ramones, The Beach Boys, Jack White, The Black Keys, and old Motown classics. Maybe you love the raunchy goodness of a Fender Tweed Deluxe or old Supro. Perhaps a Mesa Boogie Duel Rectifier gets you drooling. You could even be an acre of pedals into a clean Fender Hot Rod Deluxe kind of riff king, meaning, it's all good.
In a band setting, due to volume constraints, I’m a low-gain, Marshall-y (Snouse Black Box) Bluesbreaker guy, boosted with any number of treble-boost/fuzz/klone derivatives or whatever I’m honeymooning with at the time. I adore clean Fender blackface amps when noodling, and even the occasional Proco Rat or one of its furry brood when I want to pretend I’m a shredder. I've even been known to whip out the 'ol EH Big Muff when I’m feeling fuzz-a-delic. No matter what your preference, or how many hours you spend crafting your sound, someone will think "yer tone sucks, man." Let it go. Music, like all art forms, is experimental and constantly evolving. If you're happy, it's great tone.
So, am I satisfied with my tone? Ready to call it a day? Naw. Pedals are a relatively cheap way to try out new sounds, circuits are being tweaked constantly, and I have good standing at Reverb.com.
My hunt for El Dorado continues.