In Search of Great Tone

Tone is a perennial topic among guitar players. We are always in search of this elusive quality of sound. But, what is great tone? When asked what constitutes hard core pornography, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously said “I know it when I see it”. Likewise, we know great tone when we hear it. 

Those new to the instrument often ask questions such as, ‘How can I get a good (insert genre) tone?’ The truth is, there is no single good tone for blues, jazz, rock, etc.. For example, some jazz players, like Joe Pass have a very clean tone with a lot of articulation – almost an acoustic sound – while others, such as Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell have a little more grit and warmth in their sound. Both are examples of great jazz tone.

Unfortunately, questions about tone, often on online forums, are routinely met with less than helpful answers. The most popular answer is that tone ‘is in your hands’. Supposedly, the crappiest combination of guitar and amp can sound heavenly if you learn the correct technique. After all, B. B. King would still sound like himself even if he were playing a ‘Chibson’ (cheap Chinese knock off of a Gibson). However, will you sound anything like B. B. if you play a cheap rig? And will you be motivated to keep playing and learning while you sound like homemade you know what?

The truth is, there is only so much that you can do with your hands alone to affect tone. You can use vibrato – moving a string up and down to vary its pitch. You can minimize string noise by palm muting. You can finger notes accurately to achieve good articulation. You can also use your fingers and pick to produce harmonics. But your fingers cannot make a note sustain longer or overdrive or distort your amp. You can only make sounds that you can make on an acoustic guitar.

Another suggestion that is somewhat helpful, but oversimplified, is to find a guitarist whose tone you like and buy the same guitar and amp that they use. This may be a good starting point. Just be aware that artists may use different gear at different points in their careers. Also, they may use different equipment in the studio than they use for live concerts.

A useful example is Eric Clapton. When he was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he played a ’59 Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall Series II 1962 combo amp. With Cream, in addition to various Les Paul’s he played a 1964 Les Paul SG, a Gibson Firebird, and an 1964 ES-335 through a Marshall JTM 100 model 1959 with two 4 x 12 cabinets. By the time he recorded his first solo album he was playing a 1956 Stratocaster (Brownie) through Fender amps. On Layla he played Brownie through a low wattage Fender Champ. He later even used a Pignose, a tiny battery powered amplifier – on Motherless Children. And this just gets us to 1974.

Even if you narrow it down to the tone on a specific album and you know which guitar and amp were used you may not be able to nail the tone you want. This is because guitarists often make alterations to amplifiers and (less commonly) guitars. Clapton, for instance, would swap out speakers and tube types to achieve a particular tone. Studio production may also color the tone through the use of equalization, compression, delay and other effects.

So far, it may seem that I am not optimistic that the average amateur can find the holy grail of great guitar tone but if I believed that I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Let me share my recent experience and I hope it will give you some ideas.

I was looking to replace my main amp. I have a few electric guitars: some Gibson’s – B.B. King Lucille (ES-345), Les Paul Studio, SG Classic (P-90 pickups) – and a Fender American Standard Stratocaster. I mostly record in a home studio. Since I don’t gig I don’t need a loud, high wattage amp like a Marshall stack. So, my criteria for an amp was something that would sound good with a variety of guitars and would sound good at a relatively low volume.

Much of the music I play is in the vein of 1960’s and 1970’s folk, rock, and blues. After doing a bit of research, I felt that a Fender amp of that period would be appropriate. I narrowed down my choices to a 1965 Blackface Deluxe Reverb reissue and a 1968 Silverface Deluxe Reverb reissue. After playing my SG through both amps I found that the ’68 reissue broke up (went into overdrive) sooner (at a lower volume) than the ’65 reissue. This was desirable for me except that the over driven sound of the ’68 RI sounded exaggerated, kind of fizzy like a cheap fuzz pedal rather than the sound of organic tube overdrive.

So, I settled on the 1965 Deluxe Reverb Reissue (DRRI). However, when I got it home I found that I only could get my desired tone by cranking it way up. Since my home studio is in a non-soundproof spare bedroom and I have a wife and son living with me this was not good. The DRRI is a thirty watt amp. That does not sound like it would be very loud. But you have to keep in mind that a 100 watt amp is only 3 decibels louder – hardly noticeable – than a 50 watt amp (not twice as loud, as you would think). The relationship between watts and decibels is logarithmic not linear. Thirty watts of tube power is quite loud – 105 decibels SPL or a little louder than a jackhammer.

I was determined to do whatever I could, short of using a soldering iron, to improve my tone at low volumes. So my next move was to buy an attenuator. This is a device that reduces the volume of sound to the speaker by dissipating some of the amp’s power. I bought a Weber Mass Lite 50. The attenuator’s wattage should be more than that of the amp, hence the 50 watts being greater than the 30 watts of my amp. You connect this device between the output of the amplifier and the speaker.

This definitely helped but I still couldn’t get the tone I wanted at bedroom volumes. I next researched tubes, or valves as our friends across the pond call them. The tubes in the DRRI are numbered from V1 to V9 from right to left when facing the back of the amp. The DRRI has a normal channel and a vibrato (actually a misnamed tremolo) channel. If I removed the tube from one channel it would send more power and overdrive the other channel. I removed the tube from the normal channel (V1) so I could use the vibrato. I then substituted a 12au7 for the 12at7 tube in the reverb send (V3) to tame the reverb. I then changed out the tube for the phase inverter (V6) from a 12at7 to a 12ax7, a hotter tube.

This also helped, but, I was still not there. I next researched speakers. I found that less efficient speakers would help. I turned to Ted Weber’s Famous Loudspeakers: They recommended a DT12 with light dope. The DT series was originally made for Derek Trucks to replace his Pyle drivers in his cabinets. I am now very happy with the sound of my amp. I can now get a smooth slightly over-driven tone at a low volume.

Call me crazy but I believe that the improved tone actually inspires my playing. Perhaps the undesirable tone was distracting me. Now I just need to capture the tone I hear in my studio on disc. That is a topic for another day. Here is a sample of Lucille played through the Deluxe Reverb Reissue:

I used a ribbon microphone slightly off axis and did not apply compression or EQ, just a little reverb. As you can probably hear the breakup sounds like a 1950’s era Fender being over driven. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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