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It’s in the Hands

Hello Troubadourians! Everyone wants to get a good tone from their instrument. It doesn’t matter what you play, you want to sound good. Whether it is replicating a tone you hear in your head or trying to sound like one of your influences, it is important to know how to achieve “that tone.” But how do we do that? Gear manufacturers would like for you to believe that buying their product—especially if it is the same piece of gear that is used by whomever you’re trying to emulate—will give you the same tone as that artist or player. I’m sure that many of you have already gone down that rabbit hole at least once; a lot of us have done it many times, which begs the question, “Did you get the tone you were after?” Let’s hope that to some degree the answer was yes. More likely, you ended up with a “different” tone but not necessarily the tone you were seeking. Why is that?

Well, as I say in the title of this column, “it’s in the hands.” More specifically, your hands. But what does that really mean? Let’s start with an often-told anecdote about Ted Nugent and Eddie Van Halen. The story goes that Nugent and Van Halen were playing the same venue. I don’t remember if they were touring together or just happened to cross paths while on tour. Either way, the two of them were very curious about each other’s rigs. Ted was envious of Eddie’s “brown sound,” so he asked if he could play Ed’s guitar through his amps. Ed agreed and Ted proceeded to wail away on Ed’s guitar, sounding for all the world just like… Ted Nugent. Later, the reverse swap was made and, according to Ted, “He played all of his stuff on my guitar through my amps and sounded just like Eddie Van Halen.” “Same brown sound and everything.” While you couldn’t really say that Ed and Ted are polar opposites, each does possess a unique sound and tone—they still sounded like themselves while playing the other guy’s rig is a testament to the fact that how we sound is in our hands, not in our gear. Now I will admit that there are highly idiosyncratic instruments, amplifiers, and effects devices that can and do color the sound such that it is nearly impossible to distinguish one player from another when each one plays a piece of gear like that. Yet even under those extreme conditions, once an accomplished player spends some time with this idiosyncratic rig, they will inevitably begin to learn how to let their unique playing and nuance come through. From my experience working in a music store, we would sometimes have some piece of gear come through that had a characteristic tonality or sound. There were three of us working there, each with a very different approach to playing the guitar, and each with a recognizable tone on the instrument. Every piece of gear received a thorough workout from each of us. At first, we’d all pretty much sound the same but as we adjusted—or adapted—to the thing, you could tell who was playing it without having to see who it was. I was always fascinated by that phenomenon, but it took me forever to make the connection that our singular uniqueness would always transcend the gear and make itself known in sound and tone. Had I figured that out, it probably would have saved me a lot of the money and time that I spent buying this and that and modifying instruments to achieve some particular tone.

Yes, your tone is uniquely yours and it’s all in your hands. But what if you don’t like that tone and/or you truly covet someone else’s tone. Now, I’m going to blow your mind… you can change your tone. Yes, you read that right. You can change your tone. How? All it takes is work. Really. I know because I did it. When I first started playing, I really had no concept of tone. Once I started to become aware of tone—mostly other people’s tone—I figured that I could get that if I had the same gear, or at least better gear. As I said above, I found that to be less than successful for the most part. Along the way, as I got serious about practicing and putting in my 10,000 hours, I realized that not only was my tone getting better, I could actually control what tone I was able to wrangle out of my guitars just by changing how I touched the guitar. I found by changing the angle of my fingers, that also changed my tone. By playing with my fingers parallel to the frets, my tone was rather generic but articulate. If I held my fingers at more of an angle, much like a violinist, I could get several different tones just by changing the pressure I exerted with my left hand. I found that I could imply different effects like Wah-Wah and phasing just by how I moved or angled my fingers. And my callouses contribute to my tone as well. The deeper I got into it, the more I liked my tone – or tones – and stopped chasing other people’s tone. But there’s just as much tone shaping that you can get by altering you right hand technique, maybe more. Playing with your bare fingers, a flatpick, thumb pick – with or without finger picks – or “hybrid picking” which is when you play with a flatpick and fingers. Personally, I mostly use hybrid picking because I can switch between flatpicking and fingerpicking on the fly and get the tone of a thumb pick without having to commit to wearing one. That said, I also use all of the other techniques, except for the finger picks (I never got used to those). Each technique yields a different tone and also informs your playing since your touch is more or less intimate depending on how many bare fingers, or nails, or finger picks you’re using, if any. This is the one area where the type, shape, and thickness of the pick can really make a difference in your tone. This is true for flatpicks in particular. Most players use the pointy end of the pick as God intended, but some heretics like me and Robben Ford use the rounded end of the pick. I’ve found that I can vary the tone I get from the pick much easier by using the rounded end and I think it sounds fatter as well. It also glides over the strings when I want it to or bites if that’s what I’m after. An added benefit is that I get twice as much use from a pick since it has two rounded corners. Bonus. So now you know that if you don’t like your tone, with work, you can change it.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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