These Are a Few of My Favorite Tones: Electric Americana Edition

Back in March I dedicated an edition of “My Favorite Tones” to acoustic music; I also posted an Americana-adapted version on No Depression. Time for the electric follow-up.

Luther Perkins on “Folsom Prison Blues,” from With His Hot and Blue Guitar by Johnny Cash

There are few guitar sounds more iconic yet understated than Luther Perkins’ contribution to the rhythmic bedrock of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. Perkins was not a flashy lead picker; he largely stuck to a template of muted right-hand rhythm and repeated melodic hooks during vocal breaks. Nonetheless, his playing helped define the Cash sound through the fifties and sixties (before his tragic death in a 1968 fire). Luther played the boogie with a Fender Esquire or Jazzmaster, most likely strung with flatwounds, through various Fender tube combos.

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These are a Few of My Favorite Tones: Acoustic Edition

My inaugural “Favorite Tones” post was rock-centric. For the next round, I thought it appropriate to back off the volume and put the spotlight on some of my favorite recorded acoustic sounds.

Tony Rice on “Manzanita (1st Variation),” from Unit of Measure by the Tony Rice Unit

It’s hard to pick one Tony Rice recording that exemplifies the warm but punchy, even-throughout-the-neck tone of his signature instrument — a reconstructed herringbone D-28 once owned by Clarence White. No other guitar backed over by a car ever sounded so good. This album was released not long after Tony stopped singing because of damaged vocal chords. Naturally, the focus is on his guitar playing, a consistently mesmerizing Americana blend of bluegrass, country, and jazz.

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These are a Few of My Favorite Tones: Rock Edition

This is the first in a series of regular columns highlighting some of my favorite guitarists and the tones that made them famous. Rock & roll largely gave birth to the guitar tone fetish, so it’s only appropriate that this first post put a spotlight on some of my favorite sounds in the genre.

Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower” from Electric Ladyland.

It would be wrong to discuss rock guitar tone without at least one nod to Hendrix, who probably helped define monster guitar tone more than any other player. Continue reading

The Elusive Tone

NYC-based guitarist Cameron Mizell has a great blog. His latest post addresses the elusive “tone” — the aural nirvana sought by millions of guitarists, but only rarely achieved. The quixotic obsession with tone props up a massive industry of big-name and boutique builders of guitars, amps, effects, pickups, and other myriad gadgets guaranteed to keep working musicians broke and always on the lookout for the next big thing. This is despite the fact that — as Cameron very eloquently explains by way of scientific and musical evidence — the “tone” is really in your fingers, not the gear. The two most important sentences in Cameron’s post:

“If you’re not satisfied with the tone from your fingers, you’ll never truly be satisfied with the tone from any guitar, amp, and pedal combination. If you know how to manipulate tone with your fingers, however, you’ll be able to make the most out of whatever rig you’re playing.”

Exhibit A: My Ibanez Tubescreamer, modded to vintage TS-808 specs by the Analog Man. This pedal is the last remaining artifact of countless hours and hundreds of dollars spent in college trying to find the perfect overdrive. Notably, the TS9DX was not the last pedal purchased in that quest. It was, however, the pedal to which I kept returning. It’s no accident that the Tubescreamer is a point of departure for literally hundreds of big-name and boutique overdrive pedal designs. Some of the variations and tweaks represent significant tonal departures, while others are probably indistinguishable (especially if you’re on the listening end of the pedal).

That said, I didn’t end up with the Tubescreamer because it’s the perfect pedal. No, I eventually realized that what I really needed was not new gear, but rather a lot more time in the woodshed. The Tubescreamer is reliable, consistent, and the dirtbox of choice for many great guitar players; if I can’t get a satisfying sound, it’s probably a greater reflection of my playing than the vintage authenticity of the components. I can’t necessarily say that I’ve since found “the tone,” but at least I think I have a better (and more cost-effective) idea of what’s needed to get there.

So check out Cameron’s post, stop surfing Musician’s Friend, and pick up your perfectly good guitar for some well-spent practice time.