Tuesday, October 7, 2008

How To Not Suck, Chapter 10: Tone For Days, Dude!

Go into any guitar forum and you'll see the word "tone" bandied about. It can mean any number of things. If you have a knob on your guitar marked tone, it likely serves to block the higher frequencies. Instruments made of different woods will sound differently, as will instruments equipped with different electronics. And you can craft "your tone" by your choices of picks, string gauges, amplifiers, speakers, tubes, effects, order of effects, settings on effects, and, if you're Eric Johnson, cable type, cable length, brand and charge of 9 volt batteries in effects, etc.

This is not what I refer to. At least today.

You can play incredibly well, with all the right notes in all the right places and still not sound good. And not sounding good, well, it sucks.

How do you sound good? Keep your frets from buzzing. Get a nice, solid sound from your instrument, a sound that sounds musical. That, in a fundamental way, is getting good tone.

And how do you do that?

Fred Ford of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, the guitar shop for, if not the stars, then the Dot.Com millionaires at the epicenter of our software industry, has a website called frets.com that'll tell you most of what you need to know about your fine stringed instrument.

(OK, some of you might have real POS instruments. Get the best you can out of it.)

Looking around on the site, you might find a page on eliminating the buzz. I'll refine and explain some here, if only to make this not just Mindless Link Propagation, but it is truly a site to read.

  1. Pick Right as in a right angle. Hold it at a right angle to the top of the guitar. (Assume a flat-top for this discussion.) Parallel to the strings or not, that's a matter of style, but if you hold the pick perpendicular to the top, you will tend to vibrate the strings parallel to the top. If you pick with an angled pick, you'll vibrate the strings so they'll be more likely to hit the frets and buzz.
  2. Fret Right as in right next to the fret. There is the point where you get the most benefit for the least work.

Ford has pics which explain better than my words do. But neither he nor I explained it first. This is what Gibson said on the subject, nearly 100 years ago.

Guitar Soloists necessarily use the entire length of finger-board and, therefore, must have easy action throughout the whole scale. Guitar accompanists usually demand a trifle higher action in order that they may force their instruments to the utmost without the string striking the fret. Howerver, in either case easier action may be used if the performer takes pains to vibrate the strings more horizontally, rather than to lift them in picking which causes the strings to vibrate in more of a vertical direction.


MooPig_Wisdom said...

Let me see... if I am receiving the message: Okay -- you are saying it ain't the guitar, it's the operator of the guitar... no?

And if one follows some self-restraint and common sense about physical limitations of six vibrating strings; then the result will be standard fare. So far so good.

However, there are some people who do all that naturally, as if they could make a board stuck in a number ten galvanized wash tub, a piece of binder's twine running up the board, plucked with a can opener, still sound much better than my best...!

Much like a real mechanic can keep his car tuned with a toothpick and a butter knife, I guess.

Thanks for the great pointers, Mr Direction. Always good links over here for tracking down the best advice on how to not suck.

Dave Jacoby said...

Some guitars are better than others, but you can always try to play each instrument to make it sound the best it can, and the best that you can.

Steve Vai tells a story, where Eddie Van Halen came to visit when he was home in his personal studio. They were talking, and Eddie, rather than talk through an idea, picked up Vai's guitar and played it. It's Vai's guitar, Vai's amp, Vai's effects, and it sounded like Eddie Van Halen. Tone, in the fundamental sense, is in your fingers.

There's three stages of guitar: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. There's lots of books that'll tell you how to play guitar. I was talking to a friend in a bookstore and saw two different books with wildly different designs titled How To Play Guitar. That's perfect for the beginner. There's many many DVDs that are deep in a style and those lean toward the more advanced player. There's little out there for the intermediate player, who is good enough, familiar enough with a few styles, ready to play out, but with some gaps. They know how to play guitar, but there's gaps in their knowledge. I know there's gaps in mine. Most of this series is written when I find something that I either struggled with in the past or was struggling with at the time.

Dave Jacoby said...

And of course, if you know what you're doing and feel the music needs weak and buzzy notes, then by all means make use of it. Stevie Ray Vaughn thought his music was best served in the El Mocambo version of "Third Stone from the Sun" by flopping his #1 around on the stage while holding onto the whammy bar, standing on the cutaway horns and slamming it to the ground, and leaning against his Twin Reverb until it squealed. Anything can be music if you insist it is hard enough.

Patrick said...

I personally have taken a board stuck into a plastic 3 gallon bucket, strung up with nylon weed-whacker string, and made it sound better than Victor Wooten*.

*if Victor Wooten were, for some unfortunate reason, attempting to play the bass while in a coma, wearing a lunar EVA suit, and submerged in molasses.

Kenski said...

Someone really ought to write a guitar book that starts with exactly how a beginner should hold a pick and how to move your arm. Once you're 'good enough' you can throw that away and do whatever you want, but until then 'do as I say, not as I do'.

Maybe someone could figure out a 'karate kid' fence painting exercise..?