If you’re a guitarist who also happens to have access to social media, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the “Tone Is In The Hands vs. Tone Is In The Gear,” debate at least once within the last week or so. Always raging, and carrying a surprising amount of personal investment, this discussion always seems to devolve into inter-discipline bashing and name calling, and without the emergence of a clear path to a usable guitar sound. With that in mind, I’d like to (humbly) divert things in what I believe is a more useful direction.
I’d like to claim that tone is ultimately in the ears.
Our fingers and our gear certainly have a direct effect on the timbre of our instrument, but it is the evaluative power that stems from our ability to listen that really determines which tones are usable and contextually valuable (read: “good”). By using our ears to instruct our physical interaction with the strings, as well as our system of how we set and when we choose to use certain pieces of gear, we stand a far better chance of making a positive sonic impact across musical contexts than if we lean on the quality of our expensive amp or the dexterity and nuance in our experienced fingers as crutches.
I think a great (though admittedly hyperbolic) example of how this might come into play is the tones achieved by David Gilmour in his performance on “Comfortably Numb,” when a combination of Gilmour’s legendary feeling and phrasing, his mythical set up of Hiwatts and Ram’s Head Big Muffs, and a touch of studio wizardry make both solos, but especially the later, jump out of the mix and command the listener’s attention with a seductive combination of intrigue and aggression.
Awesome tone, right? But lets pretend that after Mr. Gilmour (and probably one or more engineering buddies) dialed in the sound for the second solo, Gilmour thought it was the best tone he’d ever gotten in his life. So good, in fact, that he’d like to use it all over the song. Actually, scratch that. He’s going to use it for the entire record. Forget the galloping delays in “Run Like Hell,” or the funky spank of “Another Brick In The Wall Pt.2.” It’s going to be fuzz and solo delays from back to front because good tone is good tone, right?
Obviously, this is an outlandish example. The rest of Pink Floyd would have never let Gilmour use a single tone on their art rock masterpiece. The engineers and producers would have been less than pleased as well, and the record company probably would have had a few reservations. Most importantly, however, David Gilmour’s own ears would never have allowed his solo tone to be used on parts that didn’t need it, because it’s his ears that educate his choices regarding the timbre of his instrument. Sure, his tone sounds great on the solos, but he’s not going to let the scooped mids and wide footprint of that Big Muff trample on the atmosphere in the verses or the orchestration in the choruses. Gilmour rarely even plays on the rest of the song, and when he does, he's usually just doubling the bass line with an almost inaudible sound that sinks into the mix, because that’s all his ears tell him the song needs. Rather than worry about whether fingers or gear are up to snuff, I think we need to be more like David Gilmour, and use our ears.
Our ears tell us when we need a pristine clean sound, a dynamic overdriven tone, or a wall of crushing fuzz. They instruct us on how to intonate bends correctly and alert us when we’re out of tune. Our ears recommend that we hit the strings with more or less ferocity to convey a shift in dynamics, and they teach us how to set our delay pedal for the sound that we want. Our ears let us know when certain tones are appropriate, and when we’re bringing too much or not enough sonic information to the table. Our ears tell us to play a busier part, or to let the part breathe a little, or even to not play at all. They are the source of evaluation, the quality control in our section of the band’s sound, and the ultimate authority on whether or not a tone is actually good. On top of that, they’re always listening. They don’t care if your tone sounded great for the verse if you don’t sound good in the chorus. Your ears can take context into consideration in a way that a new amp or ten hours of practicing Stevie Ray Vaughan licks just cant, allowing you to add to the mix in any section of a song, with any band, in any context, just by listening.
The next time you ask yourself if you’ve got good tone, or if your tone is challenged, what do your ears tell you? If they give you the thumbs up, you’re good to go. No amount of gear snobbery or “tone is in the hands” elitism can argue with a guitar sound that meets the standard set in place by your ears. If they’re happy, you should be too. If they’re not, let them instruct you on how to make things better. Your ears are more reliable than a guitar-playing message board. Listen to them.