Thoughts On Thinking About Sound
Published On May 17, 2018 by HP Newquist
Over the decades that I’ve been playing guitars, and worked with guitar players, I’ve found that one thing that regularly gets overlooked when finding your sound is actually thinking about it. We’re all taught from the moment we pick up a guitar to think about practicing, to think about learning our scales, to think about repeating difficult finger exercises, to memorize chord progressions, and to remember tunes.
But when it comes to the sound we hear in our heads—the one we hope to transfer to the outside world through our pickups and amps—the basic instruction from day one is simply to plug in and play. And good luck.
Some of the most famous guitarists of the last 50 years had distinctive tones that you recognize the minute one of their tunes hit the airwaves. Eddie Van Halen with his “brown sound,” Stevie Ray Vaughan with his stinging Texas licks, Alex Lifeson’s densely layered chords, Brian May’s nasally melodic solo lines, and on and on. Those musicians worked on creating a definitive sound, one that mirrored the music they wanted to produce.
Of course, there are the chameleons who can jump back and forth between tones with seemingly no more effort than flipping a switch: Ritchie Blackmore, John Mayer, Warren Haynes, Billy Gibbons, to name a handful. They, too, think about what they want to get out of their instruments, even if it’s a vast array of unrelated tones.
The key to what all of these guitarists get from their equipment—and when you think about it, the key to what you want to get—is the right sound. If you’re intent on mimicking someone else’s sound (no harm in that) then you have to think about what that musician did to get their sound. The same is true if you want to have something that projects the unique sounds in your brain to other people’s ears: you have to think about what that is. Plugging in to any available amp and hoping for the best is not the way to do that.
You’ve probably found this out when you’ve shown up somewhere and someone suddenly asks you to sit in, or you have to use existing equipment at a gig. I discovered it the hard way when I was asked to come on stage and play a Deep Purple cover with some friends years ago, and the only available amp was a single channel, no overdrive, no FX, nationally-known-brand-that-shall-remain-nameless amp that would have been perfect for a Glen Campbell set, but not “Highway Star.” That’s an uncontrolled situation, where you make the best of a limited option that allows for little planning. It’s not a pleasant situation. Why? Because you don’t have time to plan your sound, or select the equipment you need to produce the sound you want. You’re kind of stuck with the tools at your disposal, as if someone had handed you a flathead screwdriver when you wanted a Phillips head.
In daily life, when getting ready to record or rehearse for a gig, we do have the luxury to plot our sound—but a lot of us don’t take full advantage of it. And that causes no end to anxiety and worrying over tone. Thinking about sound helps to kills the anxiety.
Just as you think about constructing a solo, or which chord forms you’re using in a song, you should give that same attention to your sound. Needing a bright sound is about more than turning your treble to 8 and your bass down to 4, while riding the mids somewhere in between. It might sound trivial to say you need to twiddle the knobs, but that’s exactly what you have to do. Don’t leave it to chance: think about it. Hard.
At the basic levels, that means matching the sound in your head to what your amp can provide. Tweak, tweak, tweak. Get the settings as close as possible to what you want. Make tiny—really tiny—adjustments after making the big ones. Pay attention, listen, think about what you’re hearing. It’s amazing what turning a knob less than a notch can accomplish.
Once you’re there, then think about the instruments you’re going to be playing through the amp. Use the guitar pickup controls to enhance the sound coming out of your amp. Don’t do it the other way around. Don’t think that just because you always play the bridge pickup with the tone rolled all the way forward that it’s going to sound the same coming out of every amp. It isn’t. Your amp is the ultimate sound “master” because it is the last stop on the chain.
When you’ve got the amp set up, changing your instrument’s settings works within the amp signal to modify your tone. The key concept is “within the amp.” Your guitar can push your amp, but it can’t literally change the settings. Think of it this way: if you’ve got something set high on your amp—like full reverb—no amount of pickup switching is going to reduce that. It’ll give you a different sound that the reverb is applied to, but it doesn’t change the amp settings. That’s true of all amp settings, even tone. Think of amps as the big picture settings and the instrument controls as the details.
Once you’re as happy as possible with the amp settings, think about what more you want to add to them. If something’s missing, that’s the time to start playing with the guitar electronics. More brightness, more warmth, a little less sparkle? Adjust the pickup combination, tone, and volume. Think about what each one adds to the sound: neck pickup is boosting your bass, the bridge is highlighting your treble. Think about what you want more of from your sound, and adjust accordingly.
Remember, and this might be way too obvious, but don’t plug into an amp with the preconceived notion that your instrument settings are fixed and don’t have to be tweaked to meet the amp. The sound comes easier if you get the amp to the right place (like tuning an engine) and then apply a deft touch to the pickup knobs (like subtle changes to the steering wheel and brakes).
If you’ve gotten this far, and you still haven’t exactly gotten that exact sound, then you make the leap to mods. At the amp level, it’s about speaker choices and tube swapping. On the instrument, it’s about upgrading your hardware (better electronics mean more fine tuning) or replacing pickups so you can send a more powerful—or different—signal to the amp. Humbuckers making your sound too fat for a twang? Think single-coil. This immediately sounds like a bad idea to many purists, but in some cases, the instrument itself feels too good in your hands to give up on tone. I’ve had incredible sounding Les Pauls that I didn’t like playing because the necks were too big, and crappy sounding Teles that felt perfect to my fingers. In those cases, something has to give. When you think about it, the electronics are going to go first because finding that perfect fit is even harder than finding that perfect tone.
Beyond the mechanics of your guitar and your amp, there’s a full world of pedals to think about to get your sound. Tony Iommi found that his sound wasn’t perfect despite a truly muscular combination of Laney amps and an SG. By adding a wah wah pedal at half choke (also a favorite of Mick Ronson) he created a sound that not only defined him but the entire sound of Black Sabbath.