(The following blog is a supplement to our Tone PodCast below)
Guitarists spend a great deal of time practicing licks and learning tunes, trying to become the best players that we can be, but we often forget one of the most important aspects of our sound – TONE. My basic philosophy of tone is that if the sound coming out of my amp is close to the awesome sound I hear in my head, then it doesn’t matter what I play. Everything sounds good, and I am inspired to play better. If the sound is not pleasing to me, nothing sounds good and every note just makes me want to move to a new one as fast as possible. So, I regularly take some time with my rig to make sure that my tone is where I want it to be.
Good tone starts with good playing technique. Do I have my pick under control? Can I play dynamically? Are my right and left hands coordinated? After making sure that I have a good chance of producing good tone, I think about my guitar/amp setup. I play a lot of roots music – rock, country, etc. I like a clean that is not perfectly pristine, but has a bit of bite to it. So I plug my telecaster into whichever amp I am using at my next gig (usually a Valvetech VAC 25!) and play. No effects yet. Any effect needs to be augmenting a tone that I already like. With the tele in the bridge position I’m looking for some good bright spank without the shrillness. If I bang out an E chord it should sound fat and mean. If it doesn’t I might back down the treble or bring up the bass. When I bend notes or play double stop licks everything should be clear. I need a strong attack and enough sustain that I can play some clean blues and sound bad-ass, not thin but present. The point is to spend some real, serious time listening to my sound at performance volume. I’m dialing in one solid tonal concept that my other tones will be built on. If my mostly clean sound is killer I can add some effects and still sound great. I always have delay on so I will add that in first. It’s usually just a slap-back but I like a long delay as well. Next I will check my gain based pedals such as fuzz (I LOVE fuzz), overdrive, boost and compression. I want to make sure that each pedal does its job without killing my tone. High gain distortion pedals are my enemy, destroying the tone I worked so hard for. Instead I like a good germanium boost or fuzz, or even a great overdrive pedal. I’m not into the word “transparent,” but I want the new color to complement my existing one.
At this point I should be able to switch from clean to dirty to filthy (thank you fuzz!) while still sounding like myself. The final step is to add in modulation effects such as tremolo, chorus, phase, etcetera. I tend to use those sparingly but, again, they need to add to my basic tone. Now I can go from bright, present, in-your-face (clean-ish tone with short delay) to spacey, gooey, colorful sounds (fuzz with tremolo and long delay) and everything in between. The goal is to have a basic sound and an interesting palette of options.
Finally, I prefer guitar/amp combinations that allow me to use the volume knob on my guitar to get a cleaner tone. Plugging a tele straight into a Vox AC15 and cranking it up is a good example, but even with the setup described above, I can turn the guitar down and get slightly quieter and cleaner. I once played an entire show with the fuzz pedal on. I got great cleans by keeping the volume knob down low, and everything from light overdrive to super saturation as I turned it up. That feels more consistent than kicking a pedal on for the solo and then off afterwards.
Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.