The Color Of Air: A Search For Tone

“Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice
Fortune depends on the tone of your voice”

-The Divine Comedy “Songs of Love”


I never really gave much thought to the search for tone when I was a younger guitar player. The search for tone or specifically the discovery of your own unique tone is kind of like the Holy Grail of guitar players and honestly I felt I was too naive on the subject. However, it has become an increasingly fascinating voyage for me to try and formulate my thoughts on the subject and get to the heart of my tone.

The initial motivator for these thoughts came in the form of a recurring question from a friend of mine. He has asked me on multiple occasions “how do you always manage get that tone?” Given that the circumstances and variables (guitars, amps, pedals, etc.) were different on each occasion, it really got me wondering if there is something in my playing which is inherent in me, unique to me, and gets communicated despite what specific gear I am using.

So if the thousands of dollars of gear I have in my possession is not 100% responsible for my tone than what is?

I am here to tell you that there is no simple answer. Your tone as a guitarist is an amalgam of your personality with some conscious or subconscious tendencies mixed in, life experience, and then you add in the physical and technical side of it. It is almost too esoteric to accurately define but the search is half the fun and ties in with the mission statement of self-discovery that this blog is devoted to.

The first inward exploration I present is called…The Naked Guitar

During the summer of 1994, my friend and I attended the National Guitar Summer Workshop together and one of our roommates had a delay pedal. We had never really messed with much in the way of effects at that point so hearing the kind of sounds you could create with it was life-changing. This probably constitutes my first tone-chasing experience as a guitarist.

Then in 1995, I found a Crate amplifier at the music store that had built in effects like reverb, chorus, and the much coveted delay. I played through it and sonic possibilities seemed endless. So I began the slow process of buying the amp on layaway and eventually it was mine. The quality of the demos I was recording on my cassette 4-track shot up. As I would record guitar solos and would crank the delay, my sound took on an ethereal epic quality and I felt like a real guitarist for once. Honestly I felt that amplifier, as cheap as it was, helped me to discover the beginnings of my sonic identity as a guitarist. I produced a multitude of demos using that amplifier. I still wish I owned it.

During my freshman year of college in 1996, I was taking lessons in our music department. My teacher was a Berklee graduate and grew up in the shredtastic 1980’s so I felt an immediate kinship. I remember gleefully playing him the 4-track demos I had made in high school and the epic guitar solos. I am not sure if I was expecting him to be amazed and proclaim “Greg you are a guitar god!” but I was definitely not anticipating him saying that I was relying too much on effects. It was deflating to hear that and I can tell you that I thought he was completely nuts.

Now more than 20 years later, I get it.

He was trying to convey to me that there is more to tone than effects. Effects ARE wonderful and I still am addicted to using them but they can be a crutch. They can easily hide your mistakes and as a side effect, you may lose sight of aspects of your playing that could be getting addressed. If you were to take those beautiful epic solos I made with my Crate in 1995 and took away the effects and hear just the dry signal of my guitar, it would probably make you cringe. My teacher also stressed to me the importance of paying attention to how the raw guitar sounds. Listening to the way the strings resonate through the wood. Is it a full sound of good wood? Or is it a very weak sound through cheap wood? This opens up a whole other discussion on the tactile experience but I will address that in a later blog.

Getting back to the lesson this experience taught me all those years ago, I still make it a point to practice a lot without an amplifier or effects. I try to get just the naked guitar to sound as perfect as I can. If you can write a beautiful piece of music with your unamplified guitar, then when you add the effects then there is every chance the music will come out that much better. Make sure the effects enhance your guitar sound and not hide your weaknesses.

At heart, your true tone comes from within you and not your effects so focus on knowing yourself, getting in touch with that voice inside, and communicating it first. Once you achieve that, then you’ll see the effects help you communicate better.


Dispatches From The Front Line Of A War With Illusion

“You’re seeing now a veteran of a thousand psychic wars,
I’ve been living on the edge so long, where the winds of Limbo roar.
And I’m young enough to look at,
And far too old to see, all the scars are on the inside.
I’m not sure that’s there’s anything left to me”

Blue Oyster Cult – “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars”

Here I go again.

I have had many attempts in my past to start a blog with varying degrees of consistency, that is to say no real consistency, and they have all fallen into obscurity.  Now it is 2020, and I am bringing to life a new blog idea called The Method Guitarist.

To be honest, I have had this blog site registered since 2017 and have probably been imagining it for many years prior. The truth is that I spend an obscene amount of time in my own head trying to make sense of who I am as a musician/guitarist as well as a human. I have probably written sketches of dozens of entries. There are files that have existed on multiple computers and iPhone Notes and follow me everywhere waiting to be expanded and published.

I have titled it The Method Guitarist based on the common, and probably misguided pop culture, notion of a “method actor” where in an effort to bring forth the truest performance of a character, an actor loses themselves into the process of creating all aspects of the character and living in the character 24 hours a day. In my case, I am realizing that all the things I strive for in my guitar playing and musicianship, things such as tone, emotional honesty, creativity, etc. are all found when I surrender to the idea that the way I play guitar is intrinsically connected to me. I am the character that I want to discover and bring to life through music.

That may seem odd to say but when you think about it, there is always some self-help guru trying to sell advice on how to live “authentically” and I think this is the result of a learned behavior in society where we present images of ourselves like masks but are afraid to know the real person behind the mask. We can convince ourselves that this is who we are but really it is just an illusion.

I have noticed these tendencies in myself so I have declared war on this illusion and the ultimate goal is fighting back and bringing forth the true authentic person within.

“War” is a heavy handed metaphor for what I am describing but would you believe that artists and creatives are prone to hyperbole?

So I sit here at my computer and express my thoughts in the hope that I am able to come to some sort of self-discovery. At the very least I will allow my brain a respite from constantly holding in all these feelings and ideas. And who knows, maybe this will resonate with someone out there as well.