The Tone You Learn the Hard Way

Just another compilation of tone tips. Use them. Love them. Why is John Mayer wearing a stetson.

  • On most momentary tap tempo switches, the tempo is counted when your foot releases the switch, not when your foot hits the switch.
  • Tubes last longer in heads because there is less speaker vibration.
  • Turn the mix down on your delays.
  • More volume, less drive on overdrive pedals.
  • Amp set to the verge of breakup, push it with pedals. Or amp drive set to your highest gain, and use your volume knob or a volume pedal as your drive control.
  • Volume pedal first in chain to be used as a volume knob, after drives before effects for swells, end of chain for a master volume control. Or, get 3 volume pedals. 😉
  • Do not use flange.
  • Give it more emotion. Always, always, more emotion. That one thing will matter more than anything you can spend money on or even practice.
  • Those cushion things that you pay money for so that your amp can sit on them and give less vibration and hence less volume? Ya, those don’t work. Just turn your amp down and play better.
  • If it seems too wacky to be true, it probably is.
  • Your cables are not directional. And if electrons technically flow backwards through a cryogenically frozen vacuum of flux capacitance, or whatever the new internet site this week says from the guy trying to sell frozen vacuum’s of cable flux capacitors, a better position of your thumb on the string is going to make more of a tonal difference.
  • There is no one way to tone. ‘How do I sound like Hendrix, Stevie, Edge, and Andy Summers?’ I don’t know. All had great tone, all had wildly different ways of approaching it.
  • That is not the holy grail of tone. I don’t care what you’re looking at buying right now on Gear Page, with another tab open watching a youtube demo of it, while the manual downloads. It’s not it.
  • Modulation can cover for lack of tubes. Listen to some of Edge’s clean tone on The Unforgettable Fire. Or, maybe you just need a Roland JC120. 😉
  • Uh still…get a tube amp.
  • If your tone sounds different everywhere, it’s time for a real power conditioner. And not the rackmount power strip with lights.
  • Your ears are usually better than the internet.
  • Blind tests are your friend. Have your wife or girlfriend turn on and off different pedals while you play with your eyes closed. Then take her to dinner that doesn’t have a drive-thru, a movie that doesn’t have ‘Avengers’ in the title, and repeat for a few days.
  • There’s this incredibly small window where people respect your pedalboard. An inch smaller and you’re a noob, and an inch bigger and you’re a prima donna.
  • If it makes you happy, then it’s good tone.
  • Delay repeats up, mix down for ambience.
  • Your amp sounds different depending on where you stand. Stack it on something, or eq it with your ear where the mic’s at.
  • If it sounds good, use it. If it sounds bad, don’t. You’d think we wouldn’t have to remind ourselves of this, but the internet is a harsh mistress.
  • Shimmer is overused. Doesn’t make it sound bad.
  • Plug your amp and your board into the same power strip/source for less hum.
  • Amp volume up, back off on finger and pick attack. More power, more finesse. Less power, less finesse.
  • Practice. It never changes.
  • New strings. Those need to change. About every couple weeks or so.
  • Don’t time your trem’s so much.
  • Don’t tread on the vocals.
  • If you’re not having fun anymore, something needs to change.
  • If you find yourself leading worship and more excited over getting to look up what pedals Nigel uses to get the tones in the setlist, rather than how the setlist is going to glorify God, reach the congregation, and what you can do to help…something needs to change.
  • Production has become overrated. Working hard has become underrated.
  • Try a little less compression. On everything. Just try it.
  • A little noise never hurt anybody.
  • And my personal favorite…the guy’s who scoff at expensive amps and pedals, yet must record everything in a ‘studio.’ Your guitar does not need Pro Tools and a 78 channel mixer to sound good. Just once I want to see someone ask the producer to make their guitar sound like George Harrison, and for the producer to turn off all his gear, take out an old tape deck, connect a mic to it, and put the mic on the amp grill. Secondly, most ‘studios’ got all their gear at that Guitar Center you make fun of so much.
  • Okay…now I’m just plain listening to too much Katherine Baker and Son House. So take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt. Then, realize I’m right, throw that salt over your left shoulder, and don’t hit Sea Bass.


65 thoughts on “The Tone You Learn the Hard Way

  1. Oh hey, I’m gonna take this chance to ask an annoying question! Have you come across a decent very small tube amp for tone? I’ve been hoping to find something smaller than a 12 inch speaker or with a switch to lower wattage. I don’t know what the “gear page” is you reference and can’t remember how I even found this blog in the first place :)!

    If you know of something over $1,500 feel free to ignore my question , it’d take me years to save up!

  2. what?! un-timed trem … you lost me! lol … i’ve been listening to a lot Floyd lately. i’ve listened to their music before but now more as to what Gilmour is doing in the songs. what a great tone and melody he has

    that Freight Train sounded better than I could ever be. wow!

  3. Travis–lol Well, I think my pedalboard falls into the ‘slightly large’ category, so I guess I’m a prima donna. haha

    James–As Jody said, the Epiphone Valve Junior is great for cheap. The combo has an 8″ speaker. Also, Carr has some great small amps.

    Jody–nice. 🙂

    Rhoy–haha I love untimed trem. 🙂 And David Gilmour. Such soul! And ya…I was crying my eyes out listening to that for the first time this morning.

  4. Thanks. That suggestion also helps me search a bit. Noticed Vox has an AC4 with a 10 inch celestion and adjustable watts. I’m slowly putting together an affordable analog rig after having used digital for years.

    • I’m enjoying my AC4c1. Definitely worth checking out. Mine has a master volume instead of the built in attenuator (adjustable watts). Check it out. Unfortunately I’m not sure if GC is carrying them yet is it might be hard to find a demo to play.

  5. James–stoked for the analog rig!

    Daniel–you know, I must’ve played a bad Marshall 5 at a Guitar Center, because it sounded horrible. That’s why I never recommend it. However, it sounded so horrible that it was most likely kicked by someone trying to be Angus Young through it. lol I’ll check ’em out again.

    • You know, I wasn’t that thrilled with it at GC either. But a friend of mine that plays lead guitar for Jeremy Horn (worship leader from Memphis) has a couple of them. I got to play my own gear through one of his the other night and loved it. I really wanna pick one up while they’re still made in Britain. I figure that won’t last too much longer.

  6. Great list. The one thing I think I would add is to never ever stop listening to the whole band. How it sounds all together makes more difference than how you sound individually.

  7. James – Swart Atomic Space Tone is a great low wattage amp.

    Karl – Gonna have to try several off this list. I’m too easily tempted to change amps or buy a new pedal… Yeah, I’ve become ‘that guy.’

  8. Daniel–haha Probably not. And stereo makes everything rock! Very cool.

    Zach–Hmm, great point. So true, bro!

    Andrew–nice! Forgot about Swart’s! And I’ve definitely been that guy too…and probably will be at least a few more times in the future. 😉

  9. It always bothers me when people have their delay mix suuuper high. Especially if it isn’t on tempo. I keep my dd-20 a little less than half and the repeats about 80%. Works really well.

    Speaking of the dd-20, I have a setting for anyone who has one to try out. Especially you, Karl.

    triplet 8th notes, 166 bpm, tape (2 head), feedback about 90%, mix about 65%.
    Lots of ambient experimental feedbacky goodness. Very strange. I have yet to use it in worship or anything I’ve written, but its really fun to mess around with.

  10. Great stuff. When it comes to tone I totally agree: use your ears first and foremost. Reminds me of this interview with one of my favorite guitarists, Nels Cline:

    It’s really long (it’s all about gear, so watch it anyways), but one of the best lines comes at 23:59 while he’s talking about all of his effects and the really long signal chain:

    “People say doesn’t that mess up your sound? I say, yeah. But degradation is my sound. So if I get a decent tone with all this stuff who cares if the sound is degraded?”

    Well said. Now I need one of those Schroeder amps. 🙂

  11. Seriously, the stetson? You can’t just “go country” because you said stupid things a couple years ago.

    Probably a fantastic album though.

  12. +1 on all of it. Love the advice, and I needed to get that ambient delay tip; thanks!

    Here’s another one:
    Blend is your friend (see what I did there?). Find a way to mix your clean signal with your drive, whether that’s a[nother] pedal, a stereo rig, or a piezo out, you will LOVE what it does to your live tone and mix.

    • Oh yeah, and for heaven’s sake, stack those overdrives! Two low-med gain pedals into an on-the-edge tube amp is glorious.

  13. on the practice thingy: i learned that if you can’t pull of something during rehearsals, don’t do it on the actual. it doesn’t magically work

    on the delay mix: while i do agree with you on keeping the mix down (i generally like it like that), it really depends on the music and what you want to do so we can’t put ourselves in a box with this one. i’m surprised to read this from a delay junkie such as you (no offense intended here)

    on the flange: i agree but that Barracuda riff is so good! hehe

  14. •”Do not use flange.”

    I don’t think you could stress this strongly enough! LOL

    •”Production has become overrated. Working hard has become underrated.”

    This is so true and has become more and more prevalent in worship lately. I fear that it will detrimentally affect the overall abilities of the new P&W musicians just starting out. The overall lack of knowledge of scales and chord structures shocks me.

    Gear knowledge has overtaken the desire to learn the instrument.

    Stage lighting has become more important than the musicians ability to see their instrument.

    Loops and click tracks take precedence over worship spontaneity just so that the keys/guitar/bass/drum part in the recording is perfect…when practice is what made the original so.

    I could go on…but, I won’t…

    •”There is no one way to tone.”

    Yup…The day I strated trusting my ears over what some guy on TGP said…well, that was a good day for my tone. LOL

  15. Jonathan M–good suggestion, bro!

    Kyle–thanks, bro! And ya…a slightly lower mix just opens a world of tone.

    JK–nice. So true. If degradation sounds good to you, then awesome! Use it. Thanks for that!

    Austin–I use the older Furman Power Factor Pro. The older AR15 and 1215 were also good. They have newer models now which I’m not experienced with. But don’t get the $80 models. There’s no conditioning going on in those.

    Matt–lol You’re so right! I never realized it until you just said that, but ‘going country’ is totally artists’ default after doing something jerkish. haha

    Justin–thanks, bro! Keith Richards used to do the clean blend on a lot of his recordings.

    Ruan–sure, bro. If it’s a tone question or pads request, I’m about 25-30 emails behind on those. Sorry! My day job doesn’t allow for a ton of communication, and it gets backed up quick. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.

    Rhoy–great point on practicing!! And on delay, it’s actually so that I can use delay more. Just backing off the mix slightly allows you to add all of that warmth and melding of the notes that delay is so good at, but in a band setting, allows you also not to call too much attention to ‘I’m using delay! I’m using delay!’ So…the good parts of delay without the conscious recognition. 🙂 And of course, there are times for different approaches.

    Mark–great stuff man! Especially the last one. I can’t count how many times I’ve bought things because some guy who claims to have experience says they’re good, and they’re well…not. haha And we need more rawness.

    Zach–haha You know…a quick iTunes listen didn’t do much for me. First one since Room for Squares that hasn’t. Maybe I need to let it grow?

  16. Andy Summers used a flanger and still sounded amazing. But the again, he’s Andy Summers.

    Didn’t Gilmour use flange, too?

    Conclusion: Gilmour and Summers are both amazing (and british) and the rest of us should still steer clear of flangers.

  17. Sounds a lot like the Jack Nicholson rule for wearing bowling shoes outside an Alley. He can because he’s Jack Nicholson, we shouldn’t :).

  18. lol The use of flange was the one thing that made Andy Summers and David Gilmour human. 😉

    And I am going to be like Jack Nicholson when I’m old, whether I’m famous or not. Best old guy ever.

  19. “That is not the holy grail of tone. I don’t care what you’re looking at buying right now on Gear Page, with another tab open watching a youtube demo of it, while the manual downloads. It’s not it.”

    This is so true. I don’t know how many times I’ve done the forum/youtube/manual download combo. It’s usually augmented by excitedly refreshing a page search on ebay, hoping a magical deal will just “appear.”

    And the pedal board thing too–I’m gonna say 5-8 pedals is what people consider acceptable, but that is just an ambiguous statement. More specifically, I’d say 6-8, depending on the presentation (do you have a big piece of plywood/black velcro with the pedals spread out? does it make you look more conservative? do you have a pedaltrain? those gaps between the bars make you look frugal? Do you have tiers? well, at least I can climb up to the top and see things with a better view).

  20. There’s no such thing as over listening to Son House. The world (especially the music world) would be much better place if more people listened to more Son House.

  21. On the tap tempo issue: there are two different types of momentary switches, “normally open” and “normally close”. Some pedals are set up for one and some for the other. If you plug in a tap tempo switch that isthe reverse of the kind the pedal is set up for, you get tempo counted on the release instead of on the press.

  22. Also, thanks for the tips on the mix knob with delay. I have to admit being completely ignorant about that, but I get what you mean about not having the sound that says “I’m a dotted eighth!”–I think I’ll try that out, maybe because I’m not always on time with my dotted 8th’s anyway lol.

  23. Hey Karl, could you perhaps make a post about signal buffers/bypass/other tips on how to not lose tone when using multiple pedals? My board is 7 pedals now, with a Barber Tone Press on the way soon, and I wanted to make sure my pure tone is still kept as well as possible, and I don’t know much about signal buffers and stuff like that not. It would be greatly appreciated!

  24. Sorry guys, just got back from a family reunion up in the mountains. No cell service, no internet. Is that how people used to live? hehe

    I’ll do a looper/signal loss post soon, and respond soon. 🙂

  25. So a moment of honesty that I think is appropriate for this post even if its a bit embarrassing. I was reading a post on TGP (dangerous) about a guy who just bought a guitar that was the same as mine. He was looking for pickups, etc. that would take it over the top (already a $2k guitar stock). After reading all the responses I was convinced I needed a new wiring harness and new pickups. Then about 3 pages deep someone suggested something crazy. In talking to the original post, he said, “why not wait until you actually get the guitar, play it a bit, and see if you like it stock.” At that point I realized I really like how my guitar sounds, why was I worried about all these upgrades? I think sometimes we just need to take sabaticals for gear forums and the like so we remember that we actually PLAY guitar, not READ guitar. 🙂

    Thanks for your candidness here. It is refreshing!

  26. Caleb–I’ve done that many times. hahaha Ah, guitarists. Nice to know we’re altogether on this! 😉

    Justin–yep! And knob covers so you can change settings with your shoes on the fly.

    Kai–ah, I don’t even want to think about all the time I haven’t spent playing guitar. lol

    Jonathan–completely agree! All the world’s problems would just melt away. 🙂

    Dan W.–yep! And I think there’s also something about mentally thinking about the upstroke of your tap. I’ve seen many a guitarist get better timing this way. ???

    Caleb–took me a while on that one. Less is more. 🙂

    Jason B & Justin–I should. Soon!

    Seth–thanks bro! Glad this site can be of use!!

    Jonathan M & Rhoy–great story! I’ve so been there. Ya, the best is when something someone writes makes you second goes yourself. They say they don’t like the harshness of a certain pedal that you play, and you start to get insecure and think maybe there is a harshness that you haven’t noticed. And you think maybe your ears are bad, and now you need to buy a different pedal……and then you realize that the guy complaining has never actually played through the pedal he knows so much about. Gotta love the internet. 😉

    • Who needs real world experience when I can watch 547,000 videos of the pedal thru the speakers of my laptop when the guy is using his laptops webcam to record. I mean I am sure I am getting the best representation of what that the pedal sounds like lol (Im guilty of this too haha)

  27. Hey Karl, what do you think of the Electro Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai? I know, I know, it’s not that impressive… I bought it when I didn’t know much about gear from the suggestion of a friend (who happens to be a bassist… never take bassists advice about tone) (just kidding, some bassists have great tone). It gets me by for what I need, and has served me alright for the last 2 years, but eventually I am upgrading to the Strymon Timeline (after I buy a Barber Tone Press, a Pt-Pro, and possibly a Loop-Master Looper). Just wanted to know what you think of it!

  28. Justin–lol May be part of a new post. 😉

    Shawn–well, I listen to demo’s through boutique quality Analogman-modded headphones. $349 is a small price to pay for quality sound. Oh you’ve never heard of them? Here, check out these youtube demo’s! 😉 😉

    Jason–the Hazarai is actually a really good delay. I think the only thing it’s missing is dotted 8ths, so you’ll have to tap them yourself. But it has a great looper and quite honestly, one of the best reverse delay modes I’ve ever heard.

    Rhoy–lol That was awesome.

    Josh–unfortunately. haha

  29. Yeah, I’ve been manually tapping in dotted 8ths for 2 years now… its not so bad when you get used to it. Haha. I really dig the modulation mode.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.