Dave’s Corner: The Open-Minded Tone Search

Time and time again a guitarist will go out in search of something new — a new guitar, new pedal, new amp — with the notion that this will shake up his or her tone, that it will bring something fresh to the table. I know the urge well; I’m doing so almost constantly myself. But I also have developed a theory that many of us have an innate tendency to sabotage our own best efforts to evolve into a new sound, a tendency that we are unlikely to be aware of. I also feel that, without being fully conscious of this tendency, your odds of success in crafting any truly different voice are slim.

Self-Sabotage, Gear Style

Consider this example: I build my own amps now and then, and while I don’t have as much time to put into the adventure as I’d like, I do get pretty good results when I work at it. Not having a “classic Marshall” sounding amp in my arsenal at the time, I set out last year to build something on a JTM45 platform, but with some voicing tweaks of my own to make it suit my style.

The thing came out great. Truly superb. But then I decided to modify the design a little. Among other subtle re-voicings, I added a switch to take it from fixed-bias (the original Marshall JTM45/Plexi bias mode) to cathode-biased, as used by Vox, Matchless, smaller Fender tweed amps and others of that ilk. That was pretty cool. Then I added another switch to remove the negative feedback loop when desired.

I started out seeking something entirely different and got completely turned around — straight back to the familiar."

And now the thing sounds just the way I want it to. It sounds, well, just like me. Flip these new switches the right ways, and this amp that started out “modified-Marshally” now sounds entirely “modified-Voxy;” in short, pretty much like the last half-dozen amps I built, and like 70% of the other amps I’ve bought over the past several years, including the ones I most often gig and record with. Without really knowing it, I started out seeking something entirely different and got completely turned around — straight back to the familiar.

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Our Sound

Whatever our playing experience, whatever our level of commitment — professional, dedicated amateur, rabid enthusiast of bedroom-based tonal bliss — most of us who have played the guitar a while will have developed a sound. Our sound. And we might not even know it.

Chances are we got there through plenty of open-ended exploration early in our playing, or perhaps through a few evolutionary leaps; whatever the case, something eventually clicked in our gear selection, use and playing technique, and we found the voice that expressed our guitaristic self. Sure, we could ape the sounds of other players when needed — do a little Jimmy Page, Beano-era Clapton, Jack White or Zakk Wylde — but when we were just sitting in our own space and playing for ourselves, with no agenda, we sounded just like us. And that’s a good thing. A signature voice is something any musician might rightly aspire to.

Once that signature sound is locked in place, though, it can be strangely difficult to embrace something dramatically different, even if we think we want to.

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Sounding Like Yourself

The story usually goes like this: you’re at a gear show, or maybe your band is opening for a major name player, and you are right there in the room when that guitar star straps on a rig that’s entirely different from what they are known to use and, regardless, sound just like themselves. The variation is that get to try the rig of a famous player, perhaps a hero of yours, and you’re all excited to sound just like them, only to find that you still sound more or less like yourself.

This occurs partly, of course, because “our sound” is determined in great part by how we play: how our fingers move, how hard our left hand grips the neck, the kind of touch our right hand employs to attack the strings, not to mention that whole big mess of what we play.

That’s all well and good, and maybe a discussion for another installment. Most experienced players — and truly great players even more so — are able to adapt any rig to their needs. They might favor a Les Paul into a Marshall via a treble booster, but give them a Telecaster plugged into a Deluxe Reverb via a Tube Screamer, and they’ll twiddle and tweak, and a moment later come out sounding just like themselves.

Again, fantastic stuff: it is to the benefit of any guitarist’s career to have a distinctive tone, a sound, a voice. But isn’t it kinda’ cool to tap into something very different now and then? Isn’t there some pure, raw fun in experiencing a new aural excitement that might inspire a fresh creative direction?

The Thrill of the New

Dive into something new and let yourself ride with that a while rather than tweaking it back to familiar territory."

Just for kicks, then, embrace the open-minded tone search when you can; that is, dive into something new and let yourself ride with that a while rather than tweaking it back to familiar territory. Most of us really are stimulated by something different, something fresh and will enjoy the experience if we can resist the desire to mold it to our familiar sonic shapes.

I see this desire for new sonic pastures being expressed all over the place, although often in subtle ways. One example: Have you noticed how many players are experimenting with variations on vintage gold foil pickup designs? Sure, the hallowed Gibson PAF humbucker and vintage Stratocaster and Telecaster pickups are revered as the all-time greats, and as wonderful as the best examples can sound, they are very familiar by now. But those gold foils, man, they are something different. Plug in a guitar loaded with those things, attack the strings with a vengeance and they’ll perk up your ears in short order.

I have recently been enjoying the opportunity to play some very different pieces of gear; I have reviewed guitars made by David Myka and Peter Malinoski, both very different, but also different from most standard, traditional-minded electric guitar designs in equally creative ways. Amps by Todd Sharp, Benson, and Audio Kitchen have done similar things for me. Some of these creations have been subtly different, some dramatically so, but all broke the traditional molds and offered a refreshing sonic re-assessment in the process.

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Thesis, Synthesis, Antithesis

If we start from a place of the new and keep tweaking until we get back to something like we had before, well, there’s no harm in that. The experience probably is telling us that we know our own minds or ears, and have a voice that we’re comfortable expressing. The effort might have modified our sonic vocabulary just slightly, and that’s something in itself.

Then again, if we embrace the new and ride it for all it’s worth, while remaining aware that we can easily jump back to that other old rig — to our sound — whenever we need to, without chiseling down the stimulating new angles of this one to get there, well, that’s a pretty exciting adventure.


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