Tone Is In The Adjectives

In the world of thinly veiled consumerism and elitism that is tone chasing, a great guitar sound is presumed to arise from a combination of high quality, great sounding gear and a set of dexterous, experienced hands. The expectation is that with enough practice, and gear that is expensive enough, a player should always have great tone in each and every musical context.

However, in the fray of practicing (a little) and shopping for gear (a lot), we may not take the time to recognize the way in which our conception of what great tone should be is being shaped by the very lexicon we use to describe tones in the first place. This may seem like making tone mountains out of tone molehills, but I think we’ve all experienced some tone dysphoria that can be traced directly to our own lack of understanding or competency in relation to the adjectives we use on a regular basis. We may be describing tones we like as well as tones we find displeasing with adjectives that mean the same thing.

Perhaps the most relatable example is the distinction between “warm” and “muddy” tones. Even the most inexperienced player will tell you that having a warm, easy-on-the-ears tone is next to godliness, and having a muddy tone is reason for ejection from your band, but in reality, is there really that much of a difference? Are we not accentuating lower frequencies and subduing higher frequencies to make a tone warmer, and then wishing we hadn’t overdone the process when the tone gets muddy? What happens when my warm tone is indistinguishable in a full mix, or if someone else’s muddy tone fits into the perfect sonic space for their context? Whose tone is “better” now?

There is an inherent fatalism in describing a player’s tone, or even a piece of gear in broad, monolithic characterizations, whether positively or negatively. Why assume that tones or tonal characteristics are either good or bad, when it is far healthier to view a certain sound as more or less useful in a given musical space? There may be a musical setting that calls for a tone with an obscured attack that may sound muddy when isolated, just as there may be situations that call for tones that might be considered “brittle” or “thin” to some ears. Tone construction actually works in a very similar way to the crappy editing that we all do to the pictures we take on our phone. We might have liked the way a certain shot looked with increased exposure or saturation, but we wouldn’t assume that all photos would look their best with those settings. Rather, we’d edit each photo as if it was a new event, deciding which alterations would serve it most effectively.

If we can be conscious of the way we conceptualize the quality of a given sound, we can equip ourselves to be far more useful when constructing our own tones, and when critiquing the tones of others. Wouldn’t it be far more effective to comment that a certain tone “could benefit from less gain in the bridge of that song” rather than just claiming that “your tone is too crunchy?” By looking a tones as more or less useful or effective in a given space rather than either good or bad, we leave room for creativity, and equip ourselves and others to make our music say what we mean.

How do you like to make your tone work in a particular context? Let me know in a comment!

Ian