When You Don’t Own Your Tone

As players, our signature sounds are more than just a combination of our gear and playing styles. They’re constructions forged by an endless process of self-analytical listening, tweaking, re-arranging, and planning. They are, in many ways, aural representation of ourselves.

However, the feeling of pride that we feel in our sound has the potential to confuse us into believing that it’s above reproach, and that any time it doesn’t fit naturally into a given musical situation, something or someone else must be to blame. Obviously, it’s hubris to think that our signature sound should work perfectly in every musical context, without any adaptation.

In no way do I intend to call for a complete tonal overhaul for every gig, but in order to add something constructive to each mix, and function as useful members of each musical team, our tone should be readily adaptable, ready to be molded to fit each situation. While it might seem more intuitive to expect the rest of our band to adjust to what we bring to the musical table, the selfless (and often most effective) strategy may be taking the lead in timbral specificity.

We want our tone to be awesome, but in a way that fits.

Here's a three-part strategy that I like to use:

Make Your EQ Fit

We want to be able to add something useful to each mix in which we find ourselves. We also don’t want to oversaturate the mix with redundant sonic information, which would make ourselves, and the instrument with whom we’re clashing, harder to distinguish. To find our niche in the frequency spectrum, we’ll just need a working understanding of the rest of our group’s sound. Often, bass guitar and drums will live in the low end, keys and rhythm guitars will live in the low mids, and cymbals and vocal consonant sounds will live in the highs. This typically leaves the high mids open for “lead” guitar work, making a sound present in that frequency range, but less present in the others the optimal choice for making a positive impact on a mix. Our signature sound might typically be scooped in the midrange, or heavy on bass or treble, so learning to tailor our EQ a bit for each mix is a great way to be a sonic team player. 

Make Your Dirt Fit

Ever notice how the amount of distortion on a guitar sound is a great way to tell the genre of a certain group or song? Ever notice how weird a cover song sounds when the guitarist uses an inappropriately clean or dirty sound? We wouldn’t use our Big Muff variant for our country gigs, or our “edge of breakup” tone for our deathcore band, but even subtle changes in saturation can help us fit naturally within the context of a given group. Personally, I like to listen to the basic tone that the principal songwriter uses for their instrument, and set my sound to be a just little bit edgier than theirs, but making sure that our tone stays at least in the same ballpark as the rest of our band’s aesthetic is what we’re going for here.

Make Your Effects Fit

As much as the sonic pioneers among us would like things to be different, there are just some effects that work better in some musical aesthetics than others. Our Whammy pedal might work wonders in our math rock group, but it might seem out of place when we back that folky songwriter. Our wall of delays and reverbs might fit perfectly for that indie group with whom we’ve been playing, but they might not work in that punk power trio. Choosing which effects to use in a given scenario wisely is a great way to show that we’re on board with the sound of our bands, and not caught up in the sound of ourselves.

Ultimately, its not so bad to let the various musical contexts in which we play have a say on how we sound. Its just means that we’re good listeners, which, as always, is the most important trait of a good musician, and an essential component of making our music say what we mean.