Break Out Of The Tone Box

"How should I set my amp to get a good tone for blues?"
"Which pedals should I use to get good post-rock sounds?"
"Which guitar is best for late 2000’s easycore breakdowns?"

If you’re a guitarist that’s been on the internet recently, chances are you’ve seen at least a few variants of the aforementioned questions in the comments of YouTube videos, on forums, or in Facebook groups. It seems that as a community, guitarists are pretty willing to believe that the sounds that they hear on their favorite songs can be achieved most successfully if certain pieces of gear are present, down to brand, model, and settings. This phenomena is obviously a bit problematic in itself, but I’d like to claim that it’s really a side-effect of a bigger problem:

Too often, we let ourselves get trapped in a tone box.

How often have you heard a pedal demo or gear review specialist utter the following phrase?

“This (piece of gear) wouldn’t really be appropriate for (insert genre of music) here, but it really excels at (insert dissimilar genre of music).”

I struggle to find a reason why we should let ourselves be limited to a certain set of sounds, which are achieved by an even smaller set of prescribed gear, based entirely upon some unwritten code of what is “typical” for the style of music we’ve decided to play. Obviously, the players and songs that we consider influential to this day wouldn’t be such if they hadn’t been willing to push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable, both for their genre and guitar as a whole. Consider these important developments in guitar sounds:

  • Keith Richards' somewhat-unintentional use of fuzz on The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”
  • Jimi Hendrix’s penchant for otherworldly, non-melodic “guitar noises”
  • The galloping echoes of David Gilmour, and later, The Edge
  • James Duke’s role in the recent surge of slide guitar in worship music
  • The reverse reverb, tremolo, and vibrato bar sounds of Kevin Shields
  • Tom Morello’s mechanical wizardry for creating non-guitar sounds

Non of these players would be considered the innovators that they are if they’d allowed the collective guitar community to convince them that the sounds they were creating were “a little to inappropriate for (insert style here).” They just went for it, and I think we need to so more often. In this era of worldwide guitar communities, it’s actually really, really simple to find exactly the right path to the “correct” sounds for any style from jazz to djent, for both equipment and playing strategies. However, if we allow ourselves to mold our rigs into carbon copies of everyone else on Instagram, and mold our playing around the same licks that everyone in Guitar Center plays, can we really expect ourselves to have anything special to offer?

Granted, consideration for both creative partners and your audience will always play a role in deciding whether to get atypical for a particular section of music. Even when going for a unique or surprising sound, the fundamental questions must still be answered:

  • Is this going to help the song?
  • Is this authentic to the sound of our band?
  • Are my band-mates on board with this decision?

and, most important of all:

  • Do I actually like the sounds I’m making?

That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? If you like being a bluesman who plays pentatonic licks through his TS808/Fender combo, or a worship guitarist who plays triad inversions with modulated dotted eighth delays, more power to you. Maybe some of us who are more tonally restless could learn a thing or two from you.

But if being another iteration of the same status-quo sound does not satisfy you, know that you’re not alone. Together, we can challenge each other to make our music say what we mean, instead of repeating someone else’s rhetoric. We can encourage each other to push the envelope, both sonically and compositionally.

We can break out of the tone box.