In Search of Tone: Part I

What's at the end of the path?

Tone is the Holy Grail of every guitarist, and I’m discovering that finding your own unique sound, voice, or tone is a right of passage for the guitarist. Acoustic or electric, every guitar exhibits a natural tone. Construction technique and materials contribute to the natural tone of the instrument, its timbre, its ability to resonate and create foreplay in the ear. In my youth I remember my music teacher praising the timbre of my violin, and forty-five years later I finally understand what she had meant.

After a year of research and study, I came to appreciate the timbre of semi-hollow body electric guitars and found a Gibson CS-356 waiting for me in Louisville, Colorado. I’ll save the details of that adventure for another day, but I mention it now because that’s when the search for tone began for me, with the instrument itself, played through a clean amp to appraise its natural tone and sonic beauty. If my ears could detach themselves from my head, they’d be dancing in the air.

When I began my guitar lessons and music studies last August, I quickly forgot all about tone as I immersed myself into a daily, regimented practice routine. In the studio of my music sensei I’d plug my guitar into an Evans Custom Amplifiers jazz amp and at home I’d plug into a Mac via an Apogee Jam interface, using the cleanest amp model available in Apple’s GarageBand. Clean tone from an amp carrying the natural timbre of my guitar was all I wanted to hear. Then one day last October I decided having to boot a computer, launch a program, and load an amp model was becoming a major annoyance. The Mac-JAM-GarageBand combo is popular and works for many guitar players, but I was craving a combo amp for my guitar practice. The more I played through the Evans, the more I appreciated its ability to push out very clean tone. I gave VOX, Marshall, Fender, and Line 6 several days of serious consideration, but I kept coming back to the Evans, after all that’s what I was playing through in the studio.

Life was good, guitar practice was great, and my new Evans amp highlighted all my mistakes, but my setup was simple and straightforward: turn on amp, sling guitar over my shoulder, sit, tune, and play. No computer required. Oh, the joy of truly clean tone, as such it was until I began to explore and experiment with the reverb, flange, chorus, depth, body, and expand controls. I soon realized that tweaking an amp for tone can easily suck up hour after hour. In a few weeks I was addicted to tone.

I hid my addiction from my music sensei, but the master noticed nonetheless that I was on a quest for the Holy Grail of tone, looking for my next score and how to get it. Like any tone junkie, I listened to my guitar heroes and researched what was in their guitar chain that produced the tone that kidnapped my ears and emotion. Pedals, effects and multi-effects processors filled the landscape of my browser as I researched what I had thought I needed to give me more options for tone. Fortunately, I came to my senses and determined a Xotic RC Booster is a good start in my quest for the Holy Grail of guitar tone.

What the Xotic RC Booster did for me was boost my guitar signal by 20db so that it would excite my amp at low volumes, i.e., give me a wee bit of dirt without blowing out my ear drums or the windows. Kissing the strings while strumming chords and light picking produced crystal clear tone while slightly, more aggressive strumming and picking produced just a tad amount of distortion and breakup. Nice, very nice indeed, I thought, for I had found a tone that I could live with.

However, a few weeks ago I got home sick for Santa Cruz, California, my home town back in the day when muscle cars, beach girls, and surf guitar populated the realm of my existence. Ah, surf tone, now there’s a tone if there ever was one worthy of a quest, so I’ll leave you with the legend of surf guitar, Dick Dale, the man who created the surf genre. Yes, my quest for tone continues. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

2 comments

  1. Rick C. says:

    I like your personal reflections and growth in your musical pursuit. Great music selection to emphasize tone. Your music passion offers you so much joy and rewards like my outdoor interests in fishing, crabbing, mushroom picking, clammimg and hiking.

    Peace Bro,
    Rick

    • Kenny Harrison says:

      Thank you for the kind words. Having a passion in life makes a can of beans taste pretty damn good.

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