Archive for February, 2007


How you sound is important, and what sounds good to you is an entirely subjective thing. A lot of guitar players want to sound like other guitarists – that’s not a bad thing. Hell, I’d love to sound like Eric Johnson or Joe Satriani or Stevie Ray Vaughn myself! But whether or not you want to sound like some other guitar player, or create a sound that’s unique to you, you need to take into account what shapes your overall tone.

Unfortunately, many guitarists, especially inexperienced guitarists don’t understand tone shaping all that well. They think that just because they get a certain stomp box, they’ll sound just like their favorite guitarist. But getting the right tone involves a lot of different factors, but they boil down to three different areas. And how you balance those areas will affect how you sound. NOTE: This deals more along the lines of equipment as opposed to the guitarist, who of course is the main factor in getting tone; in other words, how you play affects how you sound, so technique is really a huge factor.

The Tone Triangle

The tone triangle

The diagram above is what I call the “Tone Triangle.” It simply is a graphical representation of the three factors that influence your overall tone: Power, Clarity, and Density. Power is a function of your volume, whether set from your guitar, volume pedal, or amp; or by using a booster or overdrive pedal. Clarity is the cleanliness of your tone. I tend to think of clarity or cleanness in terms of the amount of distortion or lack thereof that is present in your tone. Density is the “fatness” or “thinness” of your tone. For instance, a Strat has a fairly thin tone as it doesn’t produce much in bass area. An ES-335 or Les Paul however, have dual humbuckers, so they produce a much wider range of tone; thus the “fatter” tone.

So what’s the point to all this? What you do to tweak your sound will affect the shape of your tone triangle. Note that there’s no bad shape to the triangle. Its shape just changes based upon the tweaks you make. And understanding how that shape is affected will get you a long way towards knowing what kinds of pedals to buy or adjustments you have to make. So armed with that idea, let’s look at the three corners of the tonetriangle.

Things That Affect Power

Power is a pretty easy thing. Pump up the volume, add an overdrive or boost, and the net result is a generally louder sound. But keep in mind that power has an inverse relationship with clarity. The more power you add, the lower your clarity, as your signal will tend to distort at higher power levels.

Specifics: Volume adjustment (guitar, amp, volume pedal); overdrive and boost pedals.

Things That Affect Clarity

As discussed above, gain has a negative effect on clarity; not that this is a bad thing. I myself can appreciate a creamy smooth distorted signal. But distort too much, and what you get is a mess. In fact, with an overly distorted signal, even though you might pump up the volume, your sound will just get lost in the mix. So with clarity, you have to really balance how much distortion is appropriate for what you’re playing and who you’re playing with.

Let’s take a bit of time to discuss distortion. Generally, there are two types of distortion. The first distortion is the result of high input gain, while the other type is the result of signal manipulation. Both are completely valid, but each produces completely different types of sounds. Distortion from gain or overdrive tends to be on the bright and gritty side, while distortion from dedicated distortion pedals tends to be thick and smooth. The combination of both kinds creates a very big sound indeed – sometimes too big for some applications, so be careful how you’re applying distortion. With respect to distortion pedals, my advice is to play a bunch of different kinds. The same goes for overdrive pedals. Again, it’s all about personal preference, but it’s also about the type of music you play. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to play with a lot of overdrive and distortion if you’re playing jazz or pop; on the flip side, playing a really clean tone with death metal is absolutely nuts!

Clarity is also affected by how you EQ your rig. Put too much bottom-end in your sound, and you’ll sound muffled. Dial in a lot of treble, and you’ll sound thin or at higher volume levels, you’ll sound piercing. So you have to be careful about how you balance your EQ.

Specifics: Again, volume or gain; distortion and overdrive pedals. EQ. Modulators such as reverb, chorus, flange, and phasers also affect your clarity.

Things That Affect Density

As mentioned above, density is about the fatness of your tone. This can be affected in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the type of guitar you play and the pickups they employ. In general, single coil pickups produce a thinner tone, while humbuckers have a deeper and richer, thus denser or “fatter” tone. The type of amp you play out of can either thicken or thin out your tone. For instance, Fender amps are clean and bright, while something like a Vox AC30 produces a thicker overall tone.

As far as effect pedals are concerned, the most common pedal used for adjusting signal density is the compressor. I’m tired, and this entry is getting long so for a good discussion of how a compressor works, read this great article. An overdrive pedal can also serve to thicken your tone if used at lower drive levels, but it’s tricky, and you have to do a lot of tweaking depending upon the guitar you use.

Specifics: Type of pickups you employ;compressor, overdrive pedals.

Wrapping It Up

Notice that I didn’t mention specific brands or pedals in this discussion. This is because tone shaping is such a personal thing that to give advice on specific items to purchase would be a disservice. What I wanted to do was give you an idea of the kinds of things that can affect your tone triangle. So go out and shape your tone!

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Fender Hot Rod DeluxeA few days ago, I got a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, and as I mentioned, I was just blown away by the sound. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing like the tube sound, and according to articles I read and people that I’ve spoken to about this amp, it’s a great entry-level tube amp that you can a lot of mileage out of. Since I’ve gotten it, I’ve been playing it at least a couple of hours a day – it’s that good!

After a few days of playing it though, I started feeling that there was just something not completely right about the sound. Mind you, compared to my modeling amps, the sound from this amp could be compared to swimming in hazy waters, then coming into a crystal clear patch of water. But still, the clean channel felt just a little “flat,” and in the drive stage – even with my TS-808 adding heavy overdrive – the distortion was choppy.

Before I bought the Hot Rod, I had read a bunch of articles and talked to a few very knowledgeable amp technicians about how the stock tubes that come with the amp are biased pretty low – in other words they run at a lower output level so they last longer, but this has an effect on the sound. So, armed with that input, I took my amp to King Amplification in San Jose, and none other than Val King (the owner and designer of King Amps) took a look at the tubes. My intent all along was to swap out the stock Groove Tube 6L6GC’s and run up the biasing just a bit higher based upon my reading, but Val did a thorough check of all the tubes and various voltages in the circuits, and I actually ended up not only swapping out the power tubes, I replaced the pre-amp tubes as well because they were just slightly distorting at low volumes. According to Val, that was probably causing the “flatness” in tone I was experiencing. So he replaced both pre-amp tubes and also replaced the phase inverter tube. Now, the sound that the amp produces is crystal clean, and has a lot of ringing overtones! I’m very happy.

I’m scheduling to have another mod made to the amp, and that is to tighten up the distortion even more in the boost channel. The new tubes helped a lot toward this, but I want a subtler, creamier distortion – it’s still a tad choppy for my tastes – so I’m going to have it adjusted. I’m also going to have the volume pot changed from a logarithmic-style volume pot to a linear one – it’ll make it much better for controlling the amp’s volume.

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In my last entry, I recommended that anyone who was in the market for a tube amp should read the excellent article by Randall Smith (president of Mesa Engineering) on the different tube configurations before making their decision. So, armed with that information, I started surfing the web on different kinds of tube amps. No telling, my head started spinning. When you start getting serious about getting a tube amp, the challenge in finding one is not just about understanding tube configurations and what they all do, it’s also sifting through the literally hundreds of boutique tube amps out on the market. After a couple of hours, I was admittedly pretty forlorn.

But a chance conversation led me call to Tone Mechants in Orange, CA. I’ve got to tell you, this was the most useful conversation regarding tube amps I’ve ever had! Instead of trying to sell me one of theirs, the guy recommended that I go down to my local music equipment store and get an entry-level tube amp; specifically, a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. This is a two-channel tube amp with three 12AX7’s for pre’s and 2 6L6GC power tubes, and a good starting point for anyone who’s new to tube amps. The guy’s reasoning was that there’s a lot of snake oil out on the market today with boutique tube amps, and you should take as much time as possible to find the right one for your needs. While you’re searching, you can get a starter tube amp that will get you familiar with the sound and technology of tube amplification, and you won’t break the bank in the process.

So… I went out and bought one last night at Guitar Showcase for only $589.00. 🙂 I also bought a seemingly universally recommended stomp box: An Ibanez TS-808 tube screamer overdrive, along with replacing my BOSS CE-5 Chorus and DD-3 Digital Delay boxes. This morning, I’ve VERY tired because I just couldn’t stop playing last night once I got it all set up! I’ll talk more on the details of the amp a little later, but the moral of this story is:

Watch what you research… You wallet may get a lot lighter! Ciao!

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…then you’ve got to read this article about tube amplification written by the president of Mesa Engineering, Randall Smith. Beware, you should have a good hour or so on hand to go through it (I read it in two sittings, myself). In any case, it’s just about the best article I’ve ever read on how tube amps work, and what it means when someone says, “Class A” or “Class AB” configuration. And if you’re someone like me who is currently in the market for a good tube amp, this article completely demystifies all that stuff a salesman will bandy about to get you excited about an amp.

As they say, information is power. With this article, you should be able to make a really good, informed decision on what kind of tube amp will suit your needs best. For me, after reading through this article (I actually re-read several sections just to make sure I understood what he was talking about), I’m going to be looking for a two-channel setup that’ll give me Class A and Class AB operation, so I have maximum versatility. But I’ll let you read the article – I understand the concept, but I don’t think I could explain it any more clearly than what Randall did.

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