The Psychology of Tone
we pay for a relic’d guitar, we’re paying for a
fantasy … unless you’re psychotic, you don’t
actually believe that you’ve been on numerous tours with this brand new guitar, but you
are now able to imagine that.”
There’s No Crying in Tone Hunting
Set aside the fact that certain eras had better manufacturer quality control and consider
that there’s also an emotional connection
with older music. It has endured the test of
time and begat new generations of tone,
therefore it rates higher on our tonal respect
charts. Page’s “Black Dog” tone holds a certain nostalgic value compared to the guitar
sounds anyone can crank out with digital
tools these days.
“People seek comfort with the familiar, the
tested, and with stability.” Dr. Levitt offered,
displaying the kind of trained mental objectivity that unlettered tonehounds will struggle
with. It’s much easier to simply swear that
those old tones are downright “better.” No
one wants to be told that their emotions are
coloring their opinions about actual tonal
“quality,” if there is such a thing.
“Perception is very tricky and relative,” Dr.
Levitt continued. “A guitar could look like
a piece of junk and be butt-ugly but may
possess unbelievable tonal qualities due to
the wood, construction, and other variables.
But … I’d rather play a Tele, Strat, LP, or
Rickenbacker, even if they’re sonically infe-
rior, because I am enamored by their looks
and history. That is, it makes me play better
because I feel better about playing them.
It’s a feeling that you’re a part of history,
a part of a group, a part of a family—be it
Fender, PRS, Gibson, etc. The “feeling” part
and issues of connectivity and attachment…
that’s all psychology.”
I suspect you’ve called BS on some part of
this article by now, and that’s fine. Surely
there is such a thing as superior tone, psychology notwithstanding… right? Personally,
I can’t say that I’m over my fixation with tone
now that I’ve had a chance to chew on these
pointy-headed concepts. I must say, though,
I really do feel closer to whatever it is that
I’m looking for. I haven’t reached that tonal
destination yet, but looking back I know I’ve
saddled up a bar stool next to it and shared a
pitcher of draft with it.
If there is anything I’ve learned from our
mutual unpeeling of the layers of the tone
onion, it would be that the journey is far
more enriching than the actual destination.
Dr. Levitt suggests that much of this has to
do with our natural inclination to seek out the
explainable. In some way, our quest for Holy
Grail tone is an enactment of our thought
process. We want to reduce ambiguity. We try
to frame everything within the parameters of
cause and effect. We may not find the cause,
but we get a good snootful of the roses every
now and again, so we dutifully put our one
foot in front of the other and continue down
the winding path to eargasmic tone. It’s these
prickly plants and their sweet aroma that
make this whole trip worthwhile.
My eyes remain fixated on that perfect
pebble. I’m still helplessly trying to grasp it
away from the tone master, but in the back of
my mind I also secretly hope to remain ham-fisted and slow to grip. The day we are finally
able to grab that elusive pebble could be a
sign that our passion has truly run dry.