Posts Tagged ‘Tone’


Got the following in an email from Keith at Ernie Ball:

Ernie Ball, the premiere builder of strings, accessories, guitars and basses, has a new documentary series, Ernie Ball:The Pursuit of Tone on AT&T AUDIENCE Network (DIRECTV ch.239 or on AT&T U-verse ch.1114), that kicks off March 25 with blues legend Buddy Guy talking frankly about a wide range of topics  — from how he got his start with a 3-string guitar to Muddy Waters’ last words of advice.

Here are a few clips from Ernie Ball: The Pursuit of Tone (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpmXaiJ64_w) . In this clip Buddy opens up about his reputation as a wild and crazy guitar player, “I started kicking the music stands off the stage,” Buddy says at one point. Also, included is the official trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thQs9A0hWa8)  from the new series.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have DirecTV or AT&T U-verse, you can’t watch it. Hopefully, after the show airs, they’ll post it in its entirety on YouTube.

I’ll admit that I’m not a “blues guy,” but I do appreciate shows where icons of certain genres talk about their craft, and Buddy Guy is certainly an icon! I watched the clip on YouTube, and though short, you could just feel his passion for what he does.

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I recently received an interesting article from the folks over at AmplifiedParts.com entitled, “Describing Tone.” It takes both a scientific (quantitative) look at tone as well as presenting more qualitative ways of describing it. The qualitative section seems geared to describing tone within the context of selling gear, but if you think about it, when we’re talking about tone, we’re doing a selling job. The author, Kurt Prange makes an interesting statement in the article: “If someone told you that a particular speaker sounds ‘rich and creamy with buttery mids and crisp highs,’ they might as well have said, ‘it sounds great, trust me.'” I’ll speak more to that in a little bit. But without further ado, here’s the article:


The Audible Frequency Range and Describing Tone

by Kurt Prange


As guitarists, most of us sooner or later find ourselves in pursuit of tone. A talented guitarist can find a way to make anything sound good, but there should be no doubt that our equipment and the tone it provides can inspire and help fuel our creativity. In pursuit of tonal inspiration, we need to develop a vocabulary to help us find what we’re looking for in our sound.


The Audible Frequency Range

Most guitarists start out by learning the names of the musical notes corresponding to a particular string and fret number, but they are not initially aware that these notes also correspond to the fundamental frequency of the vibrating string. For example, the sixth string played at the 5th fret (low A) in standard tuning has a fundamental frequency of 110 Hz. Any doubling or halving of a frequency is an octave, so the next octave up from 110 Hz would be 220 Hz. In order to develop a vocabulary for tone, we have to think in terms of frequencies as opposed to musical notes.

The audible frequency range for us human beings is about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz). For descriptive purposes, it’s common to divide this range into at least three parts: lows, mids and highs. The specific border frequencies where, for example, lows end and mids begin are not definite. Look at a guitar speaker’s frequency response chart and you’ll see three commonly accepted ranges: lows from 20 to 200 Hz, mids from 200 Hz to 2 kHz and highs from 2 kHz to 20 kHz. With respect to these divisions, the fundamental guitar frequencies are all low to mid range; however, the sound we hear from each note we play also consists of harmonic frequencies in addition to the fundamental. To get an idea of what the fundamental would sound like on its own, just play a note and turn the guitar’s tone control all the way down. You’ve just “rolled-off the highs.”

If you play through an amp with treble, middle and bass controls, you can experiment with the extremes of each control setting to get a feel for how the relative level of each frequency range shapes the overall sound. “Scoop the mids” by turning the middle control down. “Roll-off the lows” and “thin-out” the tone by turning down the bass control. Now, “Fatten-up” the tone by turning the bass control back up.

Describing Tone

Using words to describe how something sounds is not always easy, but in the pursuit of tone it is often necessary. Browse through websites and ads for guitars, pickups, effects, amps, tubes, speakers, etc. and you’ll see a plethora of tonal verbiage that would probably seem like nonsense to the non-musician. When reading through this jargon, you can usually separate the adjectives into at least two groups to get a better perspective of the big picture.

First, there are the basic tonal adjectives that stand on their own. Most guitarists would understand their meaning without the need for much clarification. The words in this group stand on their own because they are closely related to common control settings. Describing tone is simplified considerably when a comparison can be made and most of the adjectives in this group can be paired with a clear opposite. For example, you might compare bright vs. dark for highs, full vs. scooped for mids, fat vs. thin for lows or some other variation to express more or less of a particular attribute. You could say, ‘I’m using Acme brand 12AX7 tubes in my amp and they sound too muddy, I need something that will brighten up the highs and give me more gain.’

Second, there are the ambiguous adjectives that leave you with some doubt as to what they really mean. They serve as a kind of garnish to add personality and make a tonal description sound more appealing or marketable. For example, the highs might be crisp or bell like with sparkle or chime, the mids might be buttery or woody, there might be mid-range honk, the tone could be warm, rich or creamy. This is good stuff if you don’t take it too seriously, but these words don’t really mean much on their own. If someone told you that a particular speaker sounds ‘rich and creamy with buttery mids and crisp highs,’ they might as well have said, ‘it sounds great, trust me.’ Another aspect of this group of adjectives is that they can allow you to identify a target audience that the product was designed to reach. For example, you probably wouldn’t target the death metal crowd with a ‘warm, vintage-voiced pickup with rich fat lows and top-end sparkle to express the subtleties of your playing style in fine detail.’ You’d be more likely to describe ‘fat, thunderous lows with upper mid-range sizzle and crisp highs for brutal rhythm and scorching leads.’

When communicating with other people to get suggestions for which product might get you closer to the sound you’re looking for, it’s usually best to make comparisons, while using mostly adjectives from the first group and going light on those from the second. Of course, the best way to know if something is right for your sound is to play through it yourself and set up an A/B comparison, but that’s just not always possible. So as we journey along in our pursuit of tone, we have to develop a vocabulary to help ourselves and others find the way.

Kurt Prange (BSEE) is the Sales Engineer for Amplified Parts (www.amplifiedparts.com) in Tempe, Arizona, United States. Kurt began playing guitar at the age of nine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a guitar DIY’er and tube amp designer who enjoys helping other musicians along in the endless pursuit of tone.


Addressing the “ambiguous adjectives” paragraph, I tend to agree with what Mr. Prange has to say for the most part, but I do think that ambiguous adjectives play a key role in describing tone; so long as you make the distinction between the unabiguous and ambiguous. I agree that on their own, ambiguous adjectives do very little to inform me, though they are certainly effective at raising hype – something that happens a lot on forums like The Gear Page. So as a bit of a follow-on to Mr. Prange’s words of wisdom, be very wary of those who do nothing but use unambiguous adjectives to describe the tone of their gear; especially if they’re trying to sell it to you.

The problem with unambiguous adjectives is that they are purely subjective. What might seem “muddy” to one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. To me, I find most Fender amps to be muddy, with really booming lows, but those people who dig that tone, would call them “smooth.” Get the picture?

And then of course, I totally agree with Kurt Prange in that the only way to really see if some gear fits you and your style of playing is to play it yourself. Ultimately, you’re the best judge of great tone. Don’t defer that to anyone else.

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Go to any blog or forum and you’ll see lots of discussions centering around Tone. You’ll also see some heated debates about it that often escalate into name-calling and all-out arguments. With respect to tone, everyone has an opinion. Some are put more eloquently and authoritatively than others, but in the end, they’re still just opinions, no matter how educated or experienced one may sound. For this particular discussion, I’m referring to “Tone” as that unicorn that we all chase that is a combination of what we’re playing as well as how we’re playing.

Admittedly, even with the articles I’ve written regarding tone, my viewpoint is well… my viewpoint. People call me out all the time on that and offer their viewpoint, and that’s all well and good. But it’s still just their viewpoint. I think the challenge of describing tone is that it is incredibly difficult to articulate something that is produced aurally and then evokes an emotional response. The result is that when speaking in reference to something like that, instead of being able to capture the meaning definitively, we have to speak metaphorically, with copious use of “sounds like” or “feels like.”

So with respect to that, to find your Tone, as I’m apt to say quite often here, you simply have to try things out for yourself. Recordings get you into a general area, and they’re quite helpful, which is why I do them in the first place, but keep in mind that they don’t tell the entire story. For instance, here’s an experience I’ve had several times when evaluating amps. Like almost everyone, one of the first things I do is to try to find recordings and videos on the Internet so I can hear how the amp performs. But one thing I’ve learned with evaluating an amp is to take note of what guitar and effects are being used to do the recording. An amp may sound great with a Strat, but may sound absolutely horrid with a Les Paul. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed when I finally audition an amp in a shop that I’ve gotten wind of on the Internet. The point to this is that you have to do ALL of your homework…

Salient Question: How do you know when you’ve found your Tone?

Taking into account that different styles of music require different combinations of gear, the way that I’ve found that I’ve hit that sweet spot of finding my tone is that my performance becomes effortless, and I’m going on pure instinct and expression. I’m not thinking about the sounds my gear is making or how the individual components are functioning or if my levels are correct. At least when I hit that sweet spot, I can FEEL it, and I’m left to be truly creative.

For instance, at my church gig last night, I was in the zone tone-wise. I used a fairly simple, low-wattage setup with a VHT Special 6 amp (which I ran into a 1 X 12 speaker cab for better bottom end), my pedal board, and a Les Paul. Clean or dirty, I just felt I could do no wrong. I didn’t do any tweaking, except for turning down the gain on my amp or guitar. I was able to perform on pure instinct, and that just made the set so much more enjoyable. The point to this is that when you don’t have to worry about it, chances are you’ve found your tone.

But I’ve also said this before: Tone is an ever-moving target. What makes you happy and inspires you today may likely change over time. Myself, I was a Strat/Fender Deluxe player for years. But as of the past year or so, I’ve converted over to the Les Paul/Plexi combination. More likely than not, I’ll probably stick with this combination for awhile as I’ve found that I’ve bonded much more closely with this combination than with the Strat/Deluxe combination. But only time will tell…

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Like any gear freak, I’ve got tons of gear. Just check out the “My Rig” page, and  you’ll see what I mean. I use it all. Now while I rotate my usage of guitars, I use all my amps in the studio. But when playing out, I almost invariably go with a specific type of setup: A humbucker guitar through a vintage-Marshall-style amp; and lately and more specifically, a Les Paul through a Marshall-style amp. That tone simply speaks to me. Clean or dirty, it’s what I almost always go to in a live situation.

At my church gig yesterday, I brought along one of my favorite amps: My Aracom PLX18-BB Trem, which is a “Bluesbreaker” style 18 Watt Plexi clone with two channels and no master volume. With that amp, I usually play in the Bright channel, which is a clone of the Plexi circuitry. This is a simple channel with just one volume and one tone knob. I love this channel! I usually have the volume dimed, with the tone at about 3pm, then control the amount of breakup with my guitar’s volume knob and/or pick attack. That amp just oozes Plexi goodness, and is so incredibly dynamic. The EZ81 rectifier provides just the right amount of sag, where even with the amp dimed to the hilt, it never turns soupy or mushy due to sag. I also loaded it with NOS ’59 GE 12AX7’s in V1 and V2, then have a 60’s JAN Philips 12AT7 in V3. To compensate for the overall brightness of the amp, I loaded a kick-ass Fane Medusa 150 to bring out the bottom end. The net result is that this amp sounds A LOT bigger than its 18 Watts may imply.

Then take all that Plexi goodness and combine it with a Les Paul, and to me, that’s a recipe for rock-and-roll! 🙂

It took me several years to get my “Go-To” tone, which accounts for the gear that I’ve got from my explorations; not that I’d get rid of much of it because in the studio, having lots of gear to get different sounds is important, but for me, when I’m playing out, it’s the Les Paul/Plexi combo all the way. To my ears, there’s simply nothing like the tone that that combination produces!

So what produces your “Go-To” tone?

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This is a hotly debated topic, and there are great arguments for or against using one. I’m of the former group and have used attenuators to great success over the years. To demonstrate how useful an attenuator can be, I put together a quick video. Here you go:

I wanted to be as non-technical about the usage of an attenuator because there are so many attenuator designs on the market. So I kept this video at a fairly high level. I’ll get into more detail in the next video when I discuss the Aracom PRX150-Pro.

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A friend of mine asked me to recommend a pedal that would push his amp into overdrive so it would just be his amp distorting. Naturally, I recommended a transparent clean boost that would slam the front-end of his amp and make his pre-amp tubes clip. So I lent him my Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 clean boost (best I’ve ever used, btw). He hooked it up, turned on his amp, slung his axe, strummed a chord, immediately muted and turned to me saying, “Dude, this doesn’t sound right.”

“What do you mean?” I replied,  “It sounds fine to me.”

“It’s too bright!” he exclaimed.

“Dude,” I replied, “That’s how your amp sounds when you overdrive the tubes. Actually, that sounds killer. Lemme try…”

So I took his guitar, and did a couple of riffs, and bent and held a note to get some feedback. The tone was rockin’!

“That was cool, dude, but it’s still really bright,” he said.

“Oh brother, bleed off some highs from your tone knob, for chrissake,” I said, obviously getting a little exasperated.

He did, I played a bit more, then gave the guitar back to him.

“That was better,” he said, “but it doesn’t sound quite right.”

“Ha! That’s because you’ve been using a Tube Screamer for so f$&kin’ long for your overdrive sound, that you’ve never really known what your amp really sounds like when it’s overdriving without any help,” I quipped.

“You know, you’re probably right,” he said, “but it’s what I like, so I think I’ll stick with it. Sorry dude…”

“Hey! Not a problem, you just gave me the material for my next article! Thanks!” I exclaimed.

The point of that story is that for some, transparency isn’t pleasing to them at all. With my friend above, he was used to the Tube Screamer’s mid-range hump, and when he heard his amp overdriving with the full spectrum of the EQ, he didn’t like it all. I also met a dude who uses a compressor that’s always on to fatten his tone and punch through the crowd noise when he’s playing (he plays a lot of open, public spaces). In either of these cases, it’s all good because as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

The reason why I brought this is up is because there’s a lot of talk among gear freaks about transparency; that is, the natural sound of our guitar(s) and amp(s) without any coloration. By convention, transparent tone sets the baseline for our sound, which we then color with effect pedals. That seems to be the convention. For some however, that baseline includes some coloration; like my friend who always has his Tube Screamer on. Again, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Admittedly, for myself, before I started using attenuators to get the natural cranked tone of my amps, I was someone who used a Tube Screamer or OCD to get my grind. Once I started using attenuators, it actually took me awhile to get used to not only the transparent, natural, cranked sound of my amp but also the dynamics as the pedals I used added sustain and compression. But now, and for the last few years, transparency is where it’s at for me, and it has really opened up a whole world of tone for me. More importantly, it has helped me understand how different types of amps, especially tube amps, sound in their natural states.

Please don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using pedals to form your baseline at all! But if you do turn on a dime, as it were, and decide to go for transparency, be prepared for a little surprise. When you suddenly experience the full spectrum of EQ from your gear – especially with the case of a great attenuator like the Aracom PRX150-Pro that enables you to get the cranked tone of your amp at reasonable volume levels, you may not like it as your ears are used to the altered tone from your pedals or other devices you’ve had in your signal chain to achieve your baseline tone.

But I will say this: I do argue for creating your baseline tone as transparent as possible. As celebrity chef Emeril Legacie says about cooking, “It’s very easy to add ingredients, but it’s a lot more difficult to take them away.” With respect to your rig, if you build on a good base of transparent tone, it’ll have some very good effects on how you approach your tone. I’ll share with you a few points of what I discovered:

  • I’ve come to appreciate the natural character of my amps. I use four amps (though I normally gig with only two of them). These are all based on different power tubes: 6L6, 6V6, EL84, and 6AQ5. These all have different characters when cranked. When I’m recording, I can pick an amp that fits the type of response I’m after.
  • A fallout of the the first point is that I’ve found that I’m using effect pedals a lot less; especially overdrives, which I still love, but I use only to provide a different character. For instance, while I totally dig the sound of my main gigging amps, Aracom VRX22 and VRX18, the drive channels are on the  bright side when pushed. But if I want a little low-end oomph for some rhythms, I switch to the rich clean channels of these amps, and get my grind from one of my overdrives, like my Tone Freak Effects Abunai2, that has a clipping circuit, plus adds both compression and sustain (this pedal rocks, by the way).
  • Going more barebones in my approach has also made me a better player – especially with respect to sustain and vibrato. Where I used lean on my pedals as a bit of crutch to get sustain, I’ve had to learn how to eek out as much sustain from my guitar using just my fingers. Once I started getting that down, it was a whole new ballgame for me.

Whew! I didn’t mean to write an entire treatise! 🙂 But to close this out, if you’ve never really experienced the natural tone of your gear, I encourage you to do so. It might just blow you away. Then again, you might not like what you hear, and that may give you pause to research getting another amp – that’s never a bad thing…

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A couple of months ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Where DOES TONE Really Reside?” where I discussed the equipment vs. fingers religious debate that seems to rage on the forums now and again. I meant to follow up on that article much earlier, but well, life happens and it’s easy to get sidetracked, so here’s my follow-up:

Tone is NOTHING without music.

Music gives tone a context. Here’s a good test of this statement:

  1. Set your rig up to your sweet spot; that is, where you think it just sings to you, no matter what you play.
  2. Start plucking out random notes, not trying to be musical at all. Could be some dissonant scale of some sort, or just randomly plucked notes. Do some bends and such. Ugly, right?
  3. Now, without changing your settings, make music with that tone. You could comp some chords, or do some melodic lead.

For example, here’s a clip I quickly recorded that demonstrates the steps. In the clip, I’m playing my Strat through a Hardwire reverb, into a Reason Bambino on the Normal channel, at just the edge of breakup. The tone that this produces is silky smooth, but responds to attack and volume increases with just bit of grind. I’ve been using this setting quite a bit lately. It creates a very three-dimensional sound.

The first part – thankfully – is very short, and is just random plucking of notes. Without touching anything on my guitar or amp, in the second part, I do a little chord comping and create some music.

The point to that little exercise is that in both parts, the tone I’m producing – at least to my ears – is gorgeous. But flat-out tone with no context well… it just plain sucks!

So put everything together, where does tone reside? As I stated in the first article, it’s in both your gear and your fingers, but ultimately, you have to give it context, and that’s applying that tone to music. But keep in mind that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. What is considered “great tone” is a purely subjective thing.


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