The Psychology of Tone
Note from the editors: It is widely believed that a guitar’s tone involves fingers, physics, sometimes electronics, more physics, and then your ear. Not true. In reality, this signal path is not complete without one more thing… your brain. So why is it that the most complex part of the process, which is clearly the brain, is the one we never talk about? Assuming that beauty is ulti- mately in the brain of the beholder, why do so many beholders lust after the same handful of classic tones, when there are so many varieties out there? That can’t be a coincidence. Is that evidence that superior tones actually do exist, or is it simply proof that some mishmash of culture, acoustics, mojo— and who knows what else—have played with our heads without us even realizing it?
What exactly is happening when we try to produce certain tones
with our favorite musical instrument? We believe it comes down
to three things: psychology, science and religion (not that
kind of religion; we’re talking about another kind of belief
system). For the next three months, we’re going to explore
these concepts. We know we aren’t likely to set the record
forever straight; we’re merely trying to better understand the
elements at play. In other words, our goal for this series is
to mess with your head.
The first time I plugged a Gibson Heritage
’ 80 Series Les Paul directly into an unmolested 1985 JCM 800 sitting on top of a beefy
4x12 with Celestion G12H-100s I had truly
set foot in tonal Valhalla. While full-bodied G
chords and bowel-emptying detuned chugs
rang in my ears, I just couldn’t wipe the
sloppy grin off my mug. “That’s it!” I thought,
finally putting down the axe as light continued to spill from the heavens. I had indeed
heard the angels singing through those
Celestions. My path toward the holy grail of
tone had finally led me to a comfy cul de sac.
my grizzled grill every now and then, there’s
always some other guitar slingers’ singing
sound that will make my big toe curl up in my
boot and send me reeling back to square one.
I’m sure most of you reading this are already
yelling out the punch line from the cheap
seats. Just keep in mind that was twenty
three years ago, and much like the premise
of the show Kung Fu, I am still, of course, a
young grasshopper trying to snatch the tone
pebble from the master’s hand.
guitar straps and picks
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After my short-lived tonal nirvana was over, I
started searching for the next perfect tone.
GAS set in hard, and I took up permanent
residency in tonal purgatory, constantly trading, selling and buying guitars, amps, pedals,
etc. in a concentrated effort to permanently
grasp that slippery eel we call tone. Although
that sloppy grin has a way of stretching across
The Never-Ending Journey
If you’re anything like me, you experience
occasional moments of clarity during your
tone quest. That’s when you ponder questions
like, “Do I really need 15 overdrive pedals and
six Marshall 4x12 cabs?” Your answer: “Why
yes. Yes, I do.”
Maybe you wonder why you sit through
records made by a guitarist whose style
you don’t really appreciate, but you’ll spin
them anyway because his tone leaves you