The Pitfalls of Chasing the Perfect Tone

Searching for the “perfect tone” presents several problems that will eventually back you into a corner from which the only escape is to - gulp - change your perfect tone. Here's a look at three major pitfalls of tone-chasing and what you can do to free yourself from this chimerical hunt.

1) Is your “perfect tone” compatible with all the other musicians you'll ever play with?

If you are lucky (and skilled) enough to be an Eric Johnson, Steve Vai or Carlos Santana, the musicians you play with might be willing to let your guitar tone form the foundation for all the music you play. You’ve got yours, now the band gets theirs, which is to EQ their instruments to compliment what you’re playing. The distinctive tones of Johnson, Vai or Santana work perfectly in the context of their music, but believe me all three of them would sound ridiculous playing in a Beatles, Stones or Led Zeppelin cover band.

2) Are you willing to use your “perfect tone” on every song you play?

The three bands mentioned above (and most bands for that matter) are not known for their distinctive “signature” tones, but rather for the complete opposite: the array of tones they bring to a record. This point allows me to do a little myth-busting here. Most players don’t have distinctive tones. Most players have distinctive playing and songwriting styles. Eric Clapton is perhaps the best example of this.

What tone exemplifies Clapton? His live “Crossroads” solo played on a Gibson ES-335 through a Marshall? Or is it his 1970s light rock/country tone emanating from a Fender Strat and Music Man amps? Many fans might say it’s his now legendary acoustic playing from Unplugged performed on two Martin guitars, a vintage 000-28 and a vintage 000-42. Ironically, most will agree that it’s not his iconic, heavily flanged “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo from the White Album. Clapton’s playing is consistent but his tone is mercurial. The same is true of so many others.

The Beatles went out of their way to mix up their tones. This included vocals, too. They modified voices by running microphones through swirling Leslie speakers on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” recording vocals at slow speeds, which were sped up for mixing as on “Magical Mystery Tour.” They even overdrove the input on the mixing console to distort the vocals on “I Am The Walrus.”

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Back to the guitar, we have every Led Zeppelin recording, which bestow a victory garden of sounds. Those records imagined a Valhalla where celestial, acoustic 6- and 12-string guitar chords mingle with piercing single-notes solos. To say there is a tonal correlation between Led Zeppelin I and In Through The Out Door is to misunderstand tone completely. Even The Rolling Stones, despite their reputation for being the archetypal rock and roll band, come to the table with everything from acoustic blues to funky disco sounds.

All of these examples serve to highlight the fact that one size does not fit all. In fact, it almost implies that having a signature tone is more of a curse than a blessing, because you are then saddled with a tone that makes everything sound the same. Which brings us to fallacy No. 3:

3) Is less really more?

As someone who is not a gearhead, I spent a long time believing that “less is more” when it came to gear. And while it is true that with a good guitar and amp you can make a lot of great music, playing that same sound over and over is going to wear on the audience eventually.

Ear fatigue is a common occurrence that most people are completely unaware of. Have you ever recorded a great performance of a song and while mixing it and listening to it over and over again thought, “This song doesn’t sound good anymore?” Then you came back to it later and thought, “This sounds great!” The former is a result of ear fatigue. Your ear can only stand so much of the same thing. This goes for individual songs as well as “perfect tones.” Audiences get ear fatigue the same as musicians but, more often than not, they don’t realize it is happening. The simple act of mixing up your sound, even faintly, can have a huge impact on the listenability of a long performance. Not to mention the fact that new sounds can be highly inspirational and encourage you to play in ways you never thought of before.

Let’s move on to some ways – both subtle and radical – in which you can add variety to your “perfect tone” without compromising your integrity and without having to add a lot of gear to your setup.

Building a Library of Sounds

You don’t need to buy loads of new gear to mix up your sound. Here are a few suggestions that will allow you to add diversity without significant cost. Below is a checklist of “essential gear” and a few ways you can use it to mix things up.

  • Guitar: Seems like a no-brainer but I’m hoping you understand that every guitar is different. Make sure you know the difference between the tones available from single coil vs. humbucker pickups. Also explore the variations you will find between pickup positions and your guitar’s tone knobs.

  • Amplifier: I believe a good amp is more important than a good guitar. A bad guitar (unless the wiring is shoddy) through a good amp will usually sound pretty good. A good guitar through a bad amp suddenly becomes a bad guitar. I also suggest you get an amp with some sort of reverb unit that you can turn on and off, though many older (Marshall and other) amps do not.

  • Reverb: If your amp doesn’t have reverb then get a pedal for it. Reverb (besides tone knobs) is probably the number one way you can vary your tone in a subtle but highly effective manner. Between a slight touch to add some depth, to a wash of echo you can swim in (think surf guitar) there are many levels and colors of reverb. Watch the Johnny Marr Boss video to see how Marr switches reverb sounds from verse to chorus on “How Soon Is Now.” This short Marr video is highly illuminating regarding the sly use of effects.

  • Distortion Pedal: While it’s nice to have a good amp that distorts on its own, whether through channel-switching or overdriving the amp, a good distortion pedal can add both tonal variety and a volume boost for soloing. Fuzz and overdrive pedals often get lumped into the general category of distortion, and while they are distinct, they have a similar impact on broadening your tonal range.

  • Delay Pedal: The delay effect can be found on records as far reaching as Elvis’ first 45s, featuring Scotty Moore’s slapback through an EchoSonic amp, to Pink Floyd’s spacey “Echoes,” to Eddie Van Halen’s ambient delay. Delay can be as understated or extreme, quirky or conventional as your music requires.

  • Modulation Pedal: Finally it’s nice to have at least one sort of modulation pedal in your rig. This could be any kind of chorus, flange, or phaser that appeals to you. Whether you keep it on all the time or just use it on the occasional song or solo, a modulation effect adds colors you cannot get with other pedals.

So there you have it, a rig that consists of a guitar, amp and two to three pedals should give you the versatility you need to avoid the pitfalls of the perfect tone. Of course, if you’re using Reverb.com, you probably have more of each of these, and that's great too. I count myself in that group, and while I certainly didn’t buy them all at once, adding a new pedal every six months, a new guitar every few years, and an additional amp every decade is probably more than enough for most people. Someone should tell Joe Bonamassa.


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