STOMP SCHOO L
Mojo, Superstition and Tone
Hey there, tone mongers! Welcome back to
“Stomp School.” Our discussion this month is
sure to raise a few hackles, as we examine an
area steeped in fierce dissension and controversy regarding what does and doesn’t affect
your tone. But before we get started, we
just want to clarify a point of concern raised
by a few readers about this column: “Stomp
School” is not a DIY column. While the majority of feedback we’ve received has been
positive, it was never our intention to explain
how to build or modify your own effects pedals. Most of our readers prefer information
geared toward the tone-conscious player
who spends the majority of time gigging and
practicing, not slinging solder—so we aim
to structure our content accordingly. There
are plenty of resources on the web for those
interested in electronics and DIY effects. We
covered this topic in depth in our February
’08 column. Okay, let’s talk about something
a little more… supernatural.
More than most other musicians, we guitarists are a pretty superstitious lot. We’re
prone to falling under the magical spell of
mojo. Hooked on hoodoo, we have a seemingly endless array of gadgets and devices
available to help us conjure just the right
sounds. We use our lucky guitar picks, while
wearing our lucky shoes or t-shirts. We perform ritualistic warm-up routines, and insist
on playing on the same side of the stage
every night. We even give names to our
guitars. Seriously, drummers and keyboard
players do not do this.
In a similar way, some of us can be highly suspicious, guarding against whatever may throw
us off our game. Voodoo vexed, we feel susceptible to unseen forces that wreak havoc
on our technique and tone, be it bad vibes,
bad chili or simply something in the air. Gotta
ward off that juju; keep the hellhounds off
your trail. The history of modern guitar is rife
with mythology and folklore that has helped
foster this mentality. Numerous examples
include everything from Robert Johnson’s
crossroads encounter with the devil to the
black magic dabbling of Jimmy Page. Not
surprisingly, the guitarist is usually the one in
the band most compelled to take on the role
of the shaman or magus—thus the phrase
“guitar wizardry.” Trust me, this stuff isn’t an
issue to the average oboe player.
While the majority of us don’t take things
quite to that extreme, this much is true—we
guitarists are the most obsessed with the
never-ending search for that one sound, the
perfect combination of elements that will
yield our ever-elusive Holy Grail tone. That is,
after all, why you’re reading this magazine,
isn’t it? And in our continuing quest, we
Hooked on hoodoo,
we have a seemingly
endless array of gad-
gets and devices avail-
able to help us conjure
just the right sounds.
often place a great deal of importance on
the various and sundry musical curios we collect: über-boutique guitar pedals with fancy
finishes and obligatory true bypass switching;
super-sleek, ergonomically designed pedalboards; high-end, low-capacitance instrument
cables; and custom-made pickups with Alnico
magnets, hand wound to exact vintage specs.
These are a few of our favorite things. But
does any of it really make a difference?
An electrical engineer will insist that if it
can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist. But we
superstitious guitarists beg to differ. We hear
things that can’t be detected with a mere
digital multimeter. Besides, who’s to say that
there aren’t some strange electromagnetic
properties in the gold paint and pigmentation of the horsey-man graphic that makes
it sound slightly better than the same pedal,
sans horsey-man? And everyone knows, a
pedal always sounds better when someone
has drawn an alien head inside of it.
The bottom line is, when you’re talking tone,
opinion is all there is. By its very nature,
tone is essentially subjective. There are a
good number of things that really do make
a discernable difference, and few things that
probably don’t. The main bit of mojo to be
wary of is an element known as unobtainium.
This describes what happens when the scarcity of a particular item effectively increases its
perceived value. Don’t fall for it! A high price
tag and long waiting list do not necessarily
equal good tone.
What about certain electronic components,
such as capacitors and IC chips? Analog
Mike and I once spent an entire day A/B
testing Ibanez Tube Screamers using different opamps. Was there a difference? Yes,
there was, subtle but perceptible. Was it a
difference your bandmates would notice at
rehearsal? Maybe, maybe not. Is it a difference your audience will hear? Highly unlikely.
So why is it important?
This topic could be debated endlessly. But
there is at least one irrefutable reason why
any of this should matter, and here it is: anything that makes you feel better inspires you
to play better. If you’re happy with your tone
and feel good about it, it’ll show through in
your playing, simple as that.
So there you go. May the tone be with you.
Until next time, keep on stompin’!
(a.k.a. Analog Tom) is the owner and proprietor of For
Musicians Only ( formusiciansonly.com) and author of
Analog Man’s Guide To Vintage Effects. Questions or
comments about this article can be sent to:
( analogman.com) is one of the largest boutique
effects manufacturers and retailers in the business,
established by “Analog” Mike Piera in 1993.
Mike can be reached at AnalogMike@aol.com.