On guitar tone…

First of all I want to clarify that in this post I do not want to teach anything to anyone. I simply want to put in writing and share some things I have understood; by writing them I pin down the concepts, make them my own and clarify my ideas further. In addition, I gather these concepts in a single page for my future memory. Then if sharing can help someone else, so much the better.

As I often say, I’m just a strummer, not a musician. With the guitar I can do some things at a decent level, enough to perform them acceptably in public. Then all I have to do is look around a bit and there are plenty of guitarists better than me. I’m just not that bad, okay?
If one day I will learn to read and write music, know a little more about music theory, harmony, etc., and maybe make some money playing or teaching, maybe then I will shyly call myself a musician.

Pure tone?

ash_stratThat said, let’s start with the sound of an electric guitar. Granted that there are basic differences in the sound of different guitars such as Stratocaster, Telecaster and Les Paul, if we insist on the “pure” sound of our guitar, not polluted by electronic circuits of amplifiers and effects, let’s forget it; we are talking about electric guitars, their “natural” sound does not exist, it is the sound of their amplified pickups, some electronic devices. Any amplified instrument can forget the purity of its sound. It’s an electronic instrument…
On the opposite side we have a tendency to use as many effects as possible to get our own sound or that of a favorite player.
A crowded pedalboard may not always be a good idea. The ideal would be to start with one effect and learn it well, then figure out if we need another and so on, slowly.
There are two extremes: playing directly into an amp or having a complex chain of effects in order to recreate a range of different sounds. There is no right or wrong approach. Generally it depends on what you want to achieve or do as well as the level at which you play (one thing is the professional, quite another is the one who just plays for fun). Everyone is free to spend their money as they please. Having said that, having a large number of pedals, guitars and amplifiers is not necessary especially if we’re just having fun. If we are collectors by nature and we can afford it, then the various types of guitars, amplifiers, and effects are there for that reason – it’s a free world. If we want to limit ourselves to what we really need, well… then it’s another matter.

Let’s remember who we really are

Personally, I am limited both by the fact that I am not a professional and by the fact that I do not have much money. My character pushes me to have objects that I use: simply owning something doesn’t give me satisfaction, if I don’t need it I don’t spend money on it. So my point of view starts from these assumptions. The result is that I only have one electric guitar, one acoustic guitar, a small amplifier for home and a larger one in the rehearsal room.

My pedalboard is pretty small.
When I played as a youngster I would just record cover tapes with the band in rehearsal rooms. Never did a gig, not even for friends. I knew nothing about guitar effects. I had a Boss Heavy Metal distortion unit (but I played anything but Metal), an imitation Stratocaster with Di Marzio pickups and a transistor amp of ridiculous quality. I also knew nothing about pushing tube amps to saturation. Nothing at all. Later I adopted a Zoom digital multi-effects unit. But by then I was only playing at home. Years later I started to play again, this time in a more serious way and with the new communication technologies that provide an impressive amount of information to those who want to learn. I started again with a Zoom multi-effects but then took to buying single analog pedals.

The ideal for someone who just has fun, like me, would be a digital system in which there is everything you want; gradually you can experiment with various types of effects and digitally simulated amplifiers. It could be the future and despite my age I have no problem with digital technologies. I work on computers and configure software, even using programming language, but it’s not what I want to do when I’m having fun in my spare time. In my spare time I am analogue, I put vinyl records on, take photos with film and play guitar with analogue effects.
In theory we could get any sound out of our amplifier. At home I often do this. The guitarist normally doesn’t use the tone and volume knobs on the guitar much, and even those on the amp. The combination of the two EQ sections of instrument and amp already would provide a rich palette of sounds for any non-professional application. But even if we play for fun, when you’re in a band it becomes difficult to do so. Both because when you go from one song to another, it’s unthinkable to adjust knobs every time, and because it’s one thing to play at home alone, and quite another to bring out your sound in the context of a group: the guitar has to carve out a space in the midrange frequencies where it belongs; low frequencies are usurped by drums and bass, which are extremely more powerful in those ranges; the same goes for the highs, where cymbals rule the day; if there are keyboards, they potentially cover the entire sound range – in the end, if we use the same equalization at home, the guitar disappears when we play with a band. That’s where pedals can come in handy.

How it works

Until recently, I had only transistor amplifiers. I generated all the distortion with effects pedals. It’s possible, it’s a choice. You can also do it with tube amplifiers, but they must be powerful enough not to go into distortion simply by turning up the volume. Which many instead choose to do, opting for a tube amp not too powerful so that at rehearsal room volumes the sound is slightly distorted. But then you need pedals to send the amp to heavier distortions, if that’s what you want.
This cannot be done with transistors. Unless you use their distorted channel (the gain channel) to emulate this behavior.
In the beginning I had a nice ’91 Peavey Bandit 112 Solo Series with a great clean channel on which to set my distorted sounds with 2 or 3 overdrive pedals to simulate the distortion of tube amps. The Bandit’s distorted channel didn’t sound great, it was usable but I liked what came out of the pedals on the clean channel better. It’s a classic for those who have to make do and can’t spend on great amps.
But when I got the chance and switched to tube, I changed my mind. I opted for a 20-watt combo. As long as I tried it at home, its ultra-clean sound shattered all my previous beliefs. Connecting it to my 8-component pedalboard made the overall quality drop significantly. So I bought better patch cables to connect one pedal to another. I had already bought quality guitar cables years before and was amazed at the positive change they brought to the sound. Quality of cables is no joke (no need to spend absurd amounts of money, just take quality cables – I use the Ultimo Cavo, made in Italy by Reference Cables; in my pedalboard I have various Fender, PRS, Roland patch cables…).
I started to reduce the pedals to the bare minimum and this led me to understand what I need and why.

My personal case

I play in a band that does covers, so some sonic versatility is needed. The basic starting sound is a sound obtained by properly balancing the volume of the guitar with that of my tube amp. I have a Bugera V22 in my rehearsal room. It can work in both pentode and triode mode. In the rehearsal room I used it at first at pentode (maximum power), therefore I couldn’t turn up the volume so much as to send it into overdrive. As I did with the transistor, I created my own distortions with pedals. Then I bought a Bugera V5 for home use. It has a switch to make it work at either full wattage of 5W or reduced power of 1W or 0.5W. So I can send it into saturation even at apartment volumes and…. amazing! The pleasure of playing an amp with tubes at the limit of saturation was unknown to me. If you are in that situation of balance between guitar output and amplifier volume the so-called “sweet spot”, you are in guitar nirvana. Guitar and amplifier respond wonderfully to the hand of the player. Pushing harder the sound responds by becoming more biting and aggressive, softening the strokes the sound becomes clean, slightly distorted if at all. And the expressive possibilities increase, not so much in number but in quality.
And that’s where I realized: it’s fabulous to play directly connected (in every sense) straight to the amp; the sound is made by the amp and the pickups that are in your guitar, combined with the guitarist’s touch, which is responsible for almost 50% of the rest of the sound. But pedals are very much needed. It’s true that we can manage the saturation level of the tubes with our right hand, but sometimes you may need more. So we plug in an overdrive. The transistor distortions of the overdrive blend wonderfully with those of the tubes because each distorts different harmonics of the original sound. The result is a combination that particularly pleases the human ear. And if you need to go to heavier distortions you need to combine 2 or more overdrive pedals. It is typical to use one for lighter overdrives and another when you need to push a little harder. Usually, in combination, the first one pushes the other, especially during solos, and both push the amp tubes. This is the correct way to use overdrive combinations. For what I play with my band I don’t even need distortion or fuzz, I just need the right combination of overdrive and a little delay when needed. I’ve eliminated everything else.
I’ve read of guitarists who don’t play without their trusty pedal board, assembled after years of choices, tests, changes, after spending a lot of money. I read an interesting reflection on this by John Bohlinger of Premier Guitar: have you ever heard a guitarist over 70 play? He tunes his guitar by ear (another skill that is being lost thanks to technology), plugs it into the amp and knocks you out with a solo. So, effects are ok, but with sobriety.

As stated by John Mayer himself, who is greatly inspired by both Hendrix and SRV, Stevie’s sound was more about volume than anything else: guitar volume down and amp volume up…

It all depends on us

After all, the sound that will come out will depend largely on us, on the way we play, the way we use our fingers.
I remember an anecdote by Steve Lukather, famous guitarist and session player of Toto, one of the best in the world, one of my favorites. Steve really liked the sound of one of his friends, so he went to see him to try it out. Well, no matter what he did or tried, he always kept hearing his own sound.
Similarly, David Gilmour, guitarist of Pink Floyd, says that he could walk into any musical instrument store, pick out any guitar, plug it into any amp and effects chain, what he would hear would always be his sound.
stevey-ray-vaughanFor these reasons, I decided to settle and use as few effects as possible. Just the bare minimum for the music I like to play. Of course, those who research particular sounds will have to experiment and play with many different stompboxes. In my case, I prefer guitarists who have become famous for their “basic” approach to effects: Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, used few pedals. Jimi Hendrix loved to saturate his Marshalls, he was known to turn all the knobs to the maximum (the Hendrix setting) and go with the feedback! SRV in the same way used more than anything else the saturation of his power amps. As stated by John Mayer himself, who is very inspired by these two greats, Stevie’s sound was more a matter of volume than anything else: turn down the volume of the guitar and turn up the volume of the amplifier!

Some string theory

There’s a lot of talk about the different sound you can get with different strings of different gauge. Again SVR set the bar high by using very thick strings, up to even 0.013 inches (!!). But his approach was to push the amp with the single coils of a Stratocaster, he had big hands and hit hard: all this contributed to the sound he wanted to obtain, as the excellent Peter Thorn explains very well in his column on Premiere Guitar. What I mean by this is that each of us has peculiar characteristics, skills and tastes. What was good for Stevie Ray Vaughan is not necessarily good for us, even if we play his music. So what strings to choose and what effect do they have on guitar tone? Rick Beato’s excellent video explains how he prefers thin strings, down to even .008 inches in diameter.

The argument is that the smaller section would allow them to move better within the magnetic field of the pickups generating a fuller sound with more sustain. Those who think the opposite are convinced that the sound is fuller with thicker strings that play louder. To quote John Mayer again about string gauges: “Anything you can bend”. Do we want to use bending properly? We must be able to do it. My thin fingers suffer with 0.011 strings, let alone 0.013! For a long time I didn’t go below .010. But I finally gave in to the comfort of the 0.009, which also allow me to lower the action a bit on my vintage neck that would require it to be a bit higher than usual.
Even a professional session man like Tim Pearce argues that thin strings contribute to a fatter tone. He also states that he feels more confident with thin strings and plays more freely, daring more.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to what’s best for us. I know guitarists who are much better than me who use thicker strings and hard, thick picks, beating on the poor strings like crazy. And their sound is excellent. SRV was like that, heavy right hand (and very precise) when needed, big strings, big impact on the amp’s valves, pushed with one or two Tubescreamer. I am certainly not SRV, I love him, he is my reference, but I can’t do what he did: I have rather thin fingers and I don’t like the sound of the Tubescreamer. I’m not Stevie Ray but I have to use the instruments that work for me, even if I cover SRV’s songs… humbly…