The Quest for Tone

The manufacturers of the guitars we all love are always looking for a “hook” to motivate the potential buyer to choose their product. During the past twenty or so years, TONE has become a topic often used. I hope what I share here will dispel many myths and save you a few bux. Ya see, I don’t use hype, I’m trying a new approach, I’m trying honesty. I don’t hide anything, I’ll show you the parts that are often concealed, and tell you the true story. 

What is included here is part of a continuing discussion I participated in on the Telecaster Discussion Forum, http://www.tdpri.com. I invite you to peruse the site and join the chatter. 

The quest for ultimate tone is much like searching for the Pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow. The closer you get, the further away it seems. The reason, there are so many significant variables that are rarely considered. Few guitarists have an understanding of what is involved after the string is plucked, and the sound returns to the ears. 

Wood, type of paint, make of pickups, the wire the pickups are wound with, the wire that hooks the electronics together, the brand of the parts making the electronics circuit, how tight the neck pocket is, and on, and on, and on, all have been claimed to have a significant influence on the TONE of the guitar. 

Note to you scientists. I am talking generalities, I know there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is “real life”. 

First, TONE is adjusted with those knobs on most guitars and amplifiers. It is usually electrically modified as it relates to an amplified instrument. Paint, construction and various other components that go into making a guitar create the VOICE, not tone, of the guitar. That voice is not adjustable via simple methods. Except by a luthier… well a rank amateur can change the voice considerably too.. you just don’t wanna go there……

And yes Poly and/or Nitro will indeed alter the “voice” or resonant acoustic characteristics of an instrument, but I submit, those variances are so slight that in a blind test, with similar guitars, virtually no one would be able to tell. 

Perhaps you may have noticed, there are a few other things in the signal path between the plucked strings and the echoes reflecting off the wall in the back of the venue in which you are playing. They can all affect the sound to a certain extent, and just about all of them will alter the apparent “voice”. That is unless you figure the guys writing the advertising copy for the oxygen free copper guitar cords, or the graphite impregnated speaker cones, or the genuine vintage style vacuum tubes in the amps, or the effects pedals, or the strings, or the nut, or, or, or.. and on and on and on…. You do have a power conditioner dontcha, ‘cause plain old 117 VAC ain’t near as sweet sounding as conditioned 117 AC...? Man!!!….. Find a real electrical or acoustic engineer and tell him about that one… P. T. Barnum was right…

What of something as basic as the acoustic design of the room in which the guitar is played, and if the amp is miked is it a Capacitance Discharge Electret Condenser audio reference Sennheiser or that over EQed on the low end $34.95 special from Radio Shack? Now the difference between those two will make a heck of a difference in that “voice”. 

In most clubs you have an open mike for the vocalist and, of course you have all the guitarists all playing entirely too loud. The un-captured sound from all those amps CAN travel the 10 feet to the vocalist’s mike and get re-amplified too, effecting the apparent “VOICE”. I’m sure many of you have been in recording sessions, where many of the various artists and their instruments are isolated by an acoustic barrier for this very reason. Notice also, the recording studio is a basic anechoic room, that’s why all the blankets and fiberglass are stapled to the walls.

That is why my mantra is PRACTICE. Because even with a really bad audio system a great player will amaze everyone, whereas average, is well, just average, plus whatever influence, good or bad, the audio system has on the performance.

Anyway, back on point…. Has anyone ever noticed, whenever ANY audio device is analyzed, it is done in an anechoic room? That means it is not only sound proof, but no sound can be reflected around the interior of the room either. Now, take two identical (there is no such pair) guitars, one with a Nitro finish and the other with a Poly finish, for sake of argument, test them in the anechoic room so there will be no external influences, and it will take a pretty high-end and sophisticated audio spectrum analyzer to really tell the difference, acoustically. While YOU may notice a considerable difference, it’s just a figment of your imagination. Oh close your mouth, there’s more.

A figment of your imagination, why? Because of the psychosomatic influences your brain is laden with. What that means is, you expect to hear a difference, therefore you will hear a difference. That is why ALL honest audio comparisons are double blind tests.

Actually any comparison test involving one or more of your senses has to be blind to produce valid credible data. That means the one conducting the test doesn’t know which unit is being auditioned and the one hearing the stuff doesn’t either. That way there is no visual influence on the part of the one doing the listening because pretty or exotic, or over engineered equipment sounds better than ugly wussy equipment every time. Also there is no influence from the one conducting the test, such as, “Ok, now here’s that old piece of crud Poly Guitar, tell me what you think of this POS”. Guys, that happens. Just listen to the dribble coming from a salesman the next time you’re in a Mega Guitar store as he hypes the high commission made in whatever hack he wants you to buy. Then listen to him dis the classic piece you really want.

My experience back in the 80’s was, I was very into very esoteric audio. I’m talking about what was basically a record player and supporting electronics that cost what an exotic sports car would. I was party to a double blind test featuring audio reference monitors. That is, speakers to the “Best Buy” crowd. The most expensive and most highly rated were the Wilson Audio Monitors, those suckers cost a whopping $20,000.00 a pair in the 80’s vs, the humble Magneplanar MG III’s at 1500bux. When those auditioning could see what was being played, the huge and beautiful Wilsons won every time, but in a blind test the Maggies absolutely skunked the Wilsons time after time. It’s the same today. Pretty wins every time, of course the Wilsons were the size of a small bus which tended to awe the client with its dominating presence.

Back to point. Now take the same two identical guitars, one done in Poly and the other done in Nitro. Turn the volume on one up just a crack and bingo. The louder one sounds “better” than the other. Such a sound level variation can be caused by any number of things in that line between the pick and the sound waves bouncing around the room. A faulty capacitor, a burnt resistor, chewing gum on the end of one of the plugs, a cold solder joint inside the 55 year old Blackguard, all can make a guitar louder, or not as loud as a comparable instrument. 

Remember this is only the tip of a very complex acoustic, electronic, architectural, psychological calculus that yields the finished product in the form of sound and I didn’t even mention the multimillion dollar digitized electronics that are involved in cutting a master, re-mixing it and getting it to CD… and what are you playing that CD on and what are you hearing it through? 

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Now in deference to those that just gotta have the Nitro, special pups etc., Go for it. Music is a very emotional and psychological experience, and number one on most lists is you have gotta be in love with your instrument to perform at your best. So if you want a 1962 Danelectro made of Masonite with that skunky little lipstick pickup, you better go get one ‘cause it WILL definitely effect your performance. Who is it, U-2 that plays those things?

Man, life is so darn complicated, unless you can play. Ya know, nobody ever gripes about the equipment a real artist is using, ever, except the roadie. And just for the record, as it has always been with acoustic instruments, and YES an electric guitar is as much an acoustic instrument as a Stradivarius. The best finish is NO finish. So between that and protecting the instrument there has to be a few compromises.

Who said Stevie Ray’s Strat didn’t have a finish? Go look again. There’s still some lacquer on that Strat that hasn’t been chipped off yet. Whenever you see advertising copy that suggests a special unique finish, its first, primary reason for being printed is to compel you to want to go buy one for that reason. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hand applied French polish, hand sprayed Nitrocellulose, mechanically dipped in heated chewing gum, or if the luthiers have found a 55 gallon drum of the varnish Stradivarius used in the 18th century, it’s all for the sake of expediting the sale. Remember, this is Marketing 101.

Now, sure some luthiers have sniffed enough wood dust over the years so that they ignore all the reasons I have outlined that can alter the voice of an instrument, and really think their guitar is actually the panacea of electric lutes, but remember as mentioned above, the psychological influence that can infect objective reason.

Earlier I was discussing how there are so many variables in the audio chain that exists, beginning with the plucked string, until the amplified sound reflects off the walls in the room in which the guitar is being played. Since I was trying to be brief, an absolute impossibility for me, I neglected to mention several other variables that must be factored into the auditory equation.

The first of which is, the ears of the one trying to disseminate what “tone”, actually “voice”, the person to which those ears are part of, is looking for. 

The problem for all of us, and I do mean all, is we have criminally abused those two most important components in that entire chain. If we, while playing wore hearing protectors, that would be one thing, but ya know, I can’t recall ever once seeing a guitarist with a pair on.

Since the Sound Pressure Level (expressed as decibels or db) at the ears of the typical guitarist playing in any given venue exceeds 110 db, hearing damage begins almost from the earliest performance. Of course we’re all young, we know it all, and are invincible, so we don’t really give a hoot ... so we just keep on playing and cranking the gain up.

I don’t know the ages of those reading this dissertation, but I’m betting those of ya’ll in the over 50 set, have tinnitus, that is a constant ringing in the ears. This is often caused by being exposed to loud noises like over powered amps, but it is a sure indication of a damaged auditory organ growing on either side of your head.

Now take a damaged pair of ears and try to determine what guitar has the best voice. That’s gonna be a tough one. Here’s an example of what can happen…

Back in the 70’s here in Jacksonville , a world class musician got the “to die for” recording contract with Columbia. They wanted him to produce as well as perform on the album (pre CD’s). He recorded it here in Jacksonville , at a recording studio I was in and out of quite often. The owner, a friend of mine, asked me to listen to the finished master. It was great music but the sound sucked. The musician’s hearing was shot, remember he was the producer too. The entire session had been so over equalized on the high end, it was like listening to cats screech while fingernails were being dragged over a chalk board.

The point, if you go to a firing range, they will throw your butt out for not wearing hearing protection, get a job in a noisy environment, they will fire your sorry butt for not wearing hearing protection, but… we have all been so cool so as to stand up on stage in an incredibly dangerous environment, wearing no hearing protection, and proceed to blow our ears out with some great music.

So if your hearing is crappy, you aren’t really in a position to make a rational judgment as to what sounds good, “voice wise” are ya?

Musicians will spend thousands on a new amp, their 4th or 5th, but wont pay the 25 dollar co-pay to have their hearing checked. Kinda makes you say hummmm.

So variable number one, can you hear what you are trying to hear? Don’t forget the psychosomatic effect of expectation.

The next thing to consider is this: in the world of scientific auditory examination and auditioning to determine sound variances, at approximately equal volume, if the pieces of equipment cannot be switched between within a few seconds. The ear cannot accurately determine a difference. This is because your CPU, the brain, will automatically alter your cognition to accommodate for those variances after only a few seconds.

Here is a visual analogy of what happens. Have you ever seen a photograph that was taken in a room with plain old light bulbs lighting the subject? Sure ya have, they are always Orange , Orange , Orange ….or.. if the subject was under florescent lighting, they are GREEN as they can get…. But, you think.. I was there, I remember, it wasn’t orange. What’s up with that? Those guys at Insty Prints screwed up. Well not so… It’s that darn brain of yours was adjusting and color correcting the input, just like your ears when you’re listening to different audio sources of the same thing.

OH.. I just heard every body gasp… Yeah… if the two different guitars are played at two completely different volume settings, or way different tone settings you will remember the difference, and it will be overwhelmingly apparent, but I’m talking about a head to head comparison with the settings approximately the same. To determine the “BEST VOICE” of a guitar they will also have to be played as close to the same volume as possible.

If you think I’m full of it, try this little experiment. Sit down in front of a reasonably decent stereo system with just the 2 speakers. Now play some music, and have 2 friends move the speakers around. You will notice immediately a difference in the overall tonal quality of the sound and you will hear it constantly changing as the speakers are moved. Now, go back to the original position with the speakers and play the music for a few moments.. turn it off.. and relocate the speakers. Turn the music back on.. and listen. Your perception will be it sounds the same. Try it several times. This is your brain making the automatic corrections so you don’t go crazy.

I don’t want to scare anyone off from going after the finest they can afford, because, as I mentioned earlier, the psychosomatic effects of what you have strapped around your shoulder makes a lot of difference, recall the Danelectro example.

I’ll ‘fess up… I love nitro, my personal guitars are all Fender (well quasi Fender), with the original vintage style vintage applied nitro, vintage style pups. I even have cotton covered wires inside, and I know none of that means bunk as far as the end result is concerned, but I just cringe at the thought of a poly guitar with plastic covered wiring. Heck, I can’t even stand seeing the serial number decal on the headstock of the new stuff. Where did that come from?

My, sometimes unwanted, advice has always been over the many years, before you make a decision, one that will cost you bux, be darn certain you’re making an informed decision. The only way you can accomplish that is to assimilate as much info as you can, and this is important. . . WITHOUT arguing about it. . . consider the info, check it out (none of us know it all) then proceed.

If you can do that objectively, you will be soooooo much happier with your purchase, and you will be completely aware of the many variables that have allowed you to come to the decision to make that purchase.

Most sales of “cult level” equipment such as Guitars, Cameras, Esoteric Audio, etc., are expedited by rumors, often propagated by ambiguous advertising. Such ads are written with the specific intent of legally saying one thing while compelling those reading the ad to come to a completely different conclusion. 

Esoteric audio is a world class example. I was part of that culture before there ever was a Monster Cable. Then, somewhere in the late 70’s, all of a sudden you had to have 12 gauge wires going to your speakers. Shortly thereafter, Mark Levinson introduced Oxygen Free 6 ga. That stuff cost a hundred bux a side. Not to be out done, other wire manufacturers came out with braided, flat braided, coaxial, and what ever other configuration of copper going from the amp to the speaker you could think of. Now you can spend several thousand dollars a side for nothing more than wire and still not have the “best sounding”, if you believe the advertising copy.

Again, I recall being there for an “objective” test. We tried good ‘ol industry standard 14 gauge, against the hundred dollar Levinson wire. Daymmmmn if the hundred dollar wire didn’t sound better, noticeably better. Of course none of us knew anything about the psychosomatic effects of seeing plain brown lamp chord, compared against the beautifully engineered Mark Levinson wires. Shoot, just the Swedish machined connectors on each end made us all want to install our speakers backwards so you could see ‘em. Remember, pretty wins every time.

And here’s the real deal, turns out, the 14 gauge lamp cord had a higher resistance per foot than the much heaver Levinson, thus there was at least a .02 db differential in sound pressure level generated between the two. So, the Levinson being of a lower resistance allowed the amp to pump a fraction more sound out of the speaker, not a perceptible volume increase, but just enough to get your attention. 

The other examples in the quest for TONE, like say, changing a bridge or what ever, is also greatly influenced by that darn internal psychology again. Consider, you just beat your brains for an hour changing a bridge, getting the guitar re-setup, of course if you know anything about a real setup, you let it sit for a few hours to stabilize, re-set ‘er up, then start strumming… Do you think for a moment the vast majority of guys doing that kind of project are going to say, “well, that sux.” Not gonna happen, he will be raving about the great improvement in the Voice, but in reality, it would to take weeks to come to a valid objective conclusion as he hears it under many different circumstances. To a professional luthier, when he hears that kind of experience, one word goes through his mind, “amateur”.

Here’s more that can effect that final voice equation. I forgot, are you a heavy picker? Do you pound the heck out of ‘er when you play, or do you have a soft style, ala, Chet Atkins, what kinda strings? Did you buy the axe and plug ‘er into a 69 dollar garage sale amp? Dang, there is soooo dawggone much to consider…..Just go practice… like I said, in another thread, George Benson is generally considered by the club of really elite professional guitarists to be the best, he practices 6 hours a day. How much did you practice this weekend? You wanna be a guitarist or would you rather be a whatever else you did this weekend? Like the musician said when asked by a lost guy in New York City , “Hey Man, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” His reply, “Practice man, practice.”

So please.. all. Don’t buy junk, never buy junk, ‘cause, well, it’s junk, but don’t buy hype either, ‘cause hype is just BS, and if you have ever been on a farm, you know, BS stinks.