The Hierarchy of Tone

We’ve gone through two parts of pedalboard tone, five (and a half) parts of amp tone, and as we move into the tone of the guitar itself, I wanted to post a bit on the theories of the tone hierarchy; or, the importance by percentage of each piece of your rig as it matters to tone.

will-ferrell-kmart.jpg picture by rypdal95
(This has nothing to do with anything. Don’t try to find a transition, because there is none. But there are a lot of people who just skip to the pictures in this blog, so……trying to keep them happy, too. 🙂 This is one of my favorite pictures, and I have no idea why. If you’re not laughing yet, just look at it longer.)

Now there are a lot of different viewpoints on this, and here is how a typical conversation about the hierarchy of tone plays out:

Picture a jam night at church. Everyone’s kind of milling about the stage, talking with each other, trying to act interested in the other person’s stories about how their band Iron Serpent used to tear up the Sunset Boulevard scene in 1986, but really trying to steer the conversation back around to their solo last Sunday that just broke everyone in the congregation into immediate ‘worship tears’, but that no one in the band seemed to have noticed. The gearheads look intense as they set up their rigs, secretly hoping that someone will ask about their killer pedalboard so they can brush it off with, ‘Oh, it’s not really that complicated; I mean, there’s definitely a learning curve to it…blah, blah, blah…mid-hump…blah, blah…transparent…etc.’ In the back, the older plug-me-into-whatever-amp-happens-to-be-at-the-church-at-the-time-all-I-need-is-volume-to-solo-your-face-off guy continues, well, solo-ing everyone’s faces off at a volume that has been expertly calculated by years of solo-ing everyone’s faces off at musician’s socials to be just loud enough for no one to be able to ignore it, but just soft enough so that no one can actually call him out on the ‘Eddie Van Halen was nothing’ attitude. The vocalists look bored out of their mind. The sound tech runs around like a crazy person trying to accomodate the worship leader’s constant ‘More of me in the monitor’ request, because he is obviously incapable of running a jam session without hearing his voice and guitar at the perfect volume with the most precise bit of reverb (not too much now…no, now that’s too low) in every single monitor on the stage. The drummers and bassists are the ones talking, because their rigs usually stay set up at the church. The keyboardist is doing something, but nobody cares. (Sorry, keyboardists…I feel your pain, and I personally think keys are one of the most important parts…but sadly, you know it’s true.) If there are any other instruments, they’ve long since given up on tuning up, as they can’t hear themselves over the oh-so-proudly-played ‘Crazy Train’ by the youth kid with the amp that seems way too big for the incredibly thin sound coming from it. And somewhere, if you turn your attention to the first few rows in front of the stage, you’ll find the new people. You know, the ones who read in the bulletin that the jam nights are a great way to meet people on the worship team and maybe get involved with serving on the team once a month. They’re usually spaced out from each other by a couple seats, guitar cases still latched shut, awkwardly trying not to look awkward. A couple of them even have some cookies they brought for the worship team. (Okay, sorry, got a little too heartstrings at the end there.)

And then in walks the new guitarist. You know, the one who’s played a couple times; he’s really humble, but a decent player. Seems to really enjoy being on the team, and hasn’t yet gotten into the ‘it’s cool to pretend you’ve got better things to do’ deal. And he’s got a brand new, hmm, let’s go middle-of-the-road boutique amp here…Top Hat King Royale. And he’s kind of sheepish about bringing it in, but still wants the worship leader to know that he is serious about this gig. No one really says anything until the guy who always starts the conversations comes up. You know, the guy who you’re never really sure why he’s at these things. You never see him play, although according to him, he’s really pretty good.

Guy Who Never Actually Plays: ‘Whoa, nice amp, big guy!’
Top Hat Amp Guitarist: ‘Oh, thanks, man.’
Guy Who Never Actually Plays: ‘Bet that cost a good chunk of change.’
Top Hat Amp Guitarist: ‘Well…I got a good deal…’
Gearhead Guitarist 1 (acting like he’s coming to the rescue): ‘Ya, they’re not that expensive really anymore. I mean, they’re great amps, but once they started building them in mass, they stopped handwiring them, and you know, you can get a pcb one like this…you can tell it’s a later model pcb because of that particular shade of black on the logo…for like, $1500.’
Bassist (who Gearhead 1 knew he’d get a reaction from): ‘$1500! And that’s relatively cheap?!’
Gearhead 1: ‘Oh, ya. My D13 was around $2450, and that was a sweet deal. The tone is just pristine, man. Really haunting mids.’
Bassist: ‘Whoa.’
Worship Leader: ‘More in the monitor.’
Gearhead Guitarist 2: ‘Dude, get a clean boost hitting the front end of a good cheap tube amp, and it’ll sound just like a Divided by 13. I mean, your tone’s great, bro, but my Barber Direct Drive will do pretty much the same thing.’
Solo-ing Eddie Van Halen guy: ‘Tone is in the hands, man.’
Gearhead 2: ‘Well, ya, but having good gear helps get that tone out of your hands. I mean, how would Stevie Ray Vaughan have sounded out of a Crate? But give him a Barber Direct Drive like I’ve got, running into that Crate–‘
Eddie Van Halen: ‘Man, I remember one time I saw Eric Clapton, man. His amp went out in the middle of a song, so he just walked over to the house amp. Some no-name, little 8 inch speaker. He plugged in, turned a couple knobs, and sounded like…well…like Clapton.’
Gearhead 1: ‘Sure, but imagine Clapton with my D13.’
Worship Leader: ‘I’m hearing a bit too much reverb in the drum monitor.’
Original Guy with the Top Hat: ‘Well, eventually I want to get a Divided by 13 amp, and some Barber pedals, and I’m trying to practice more, too; but for right now, I’m just saving up and using what I’ve got.’
Gearhead Guitarist 3: ‘What’re you playing through that beast?’
Top Hat Guy: ‘Uh, a Fender Stratocaster.’
Gearhead 3: ‘Made in Mexico, or USA?’
Top Hat Guy: ‘Uh……’
Gearhead 3: ‘What’s the serial number?’
Top Hat Guy: ‘Uh……well, I’m not sure, but it sounds really good to me–‘
Drummer: ‘How loud is that thing? It looks small.’
Worship Leader: ‘My voice sounds muffled over here.’
Gearhead 3: ‘What you need to do is sell that amp, get a Fender because there’s really no difference, and use the money to get a really good guitar. Like a PRS or something.’
Gearhead 1: ‘Well, make sure it’s a pre-1995 PRS.’
Guy who Nobody Knows Why He’s There: ‘Hey, like Carlos Santana!’
Worship Leader: ‘I think that feedback is coming from the bass monitor!’
Bassist (walking over): ‘No, it’s not. You always turn down my monitor and then I can’t hear myself over the drums.’
Worship Leader (completely serious): ‘Well, you’re just playing bass, do you really need to hear yourself that much?’
Drummer: ‘So…how loud is that amp?’
Top Hat Guy: ‘Um, I think it’s like 35 watts…’
Eddie Van Halen: ‘Man, you’re as loud as you play, man.’
Gearhead 2: ‘It just depends on what pedals you stack in front of it. I use this Zendrive…’
Worship Leader: ‘Am I the only one hearing that buzz?’
Keyboardist: ‘………………………………………………………………..’
Top Hat Guy: ‘Well, I guess I should go set up now…’
Gearhead 1 (with his head inside the back of the Top Hat): ‘You still have the stock tubes in here?!’
Vocalist 1: ‘Want to get some coffee?’
Vocalist 2: ‘Yes.’
Worship Leader: ‘Does my voice sound like I’m singing into a pillow? Is this monitor even on? Give it some more reverb. Ya…more…there ya go. No, too much. Less. Wait. Little more. Sorry, I don’t mean to be a jerk, but…ya, little more. No, wait. Now bring my guitar up. No, down. Is there reverb on the guitar yet? How come? How do all my settings get changed in between Sundays?!’
Youth Kid Guitarist, now inexplicably with a mic in front of him: ‘Goin’ off the rails, on a crazy train…’
New People: (They don’t say anything, because nobody has noticed them yet.)

jealous-fisherman.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Still no tie-in. Just an excuse to show some of my favorite pictures.)

And I’m sure you’ve been in situations like that. Or at least in conversations like that. So I’ll tell you right off, there is no right answer, because in order to get a great finished product, i.e. a beautiful sound from your instrument that fits well in the mix, adds to the overall sound, and pushes the overall music to another level, there needs to be all of these ingredients. Don’t look at the most important, and just do that one. None of these are anything without the other. But there is a hierarchy, at least as I see it, that’s important to focus on so that we don’t spend all of our time dialing in the best sound ever on our phaser pedal, but never change our strings, practice our guitar, or search for a better sounding amp. So, here’s the hierarchy of tone as I see it.

1. Mind.
To me, this is the most important part of tone. Give me a musician who can think on the fly, and come up with good supporting lines and chords and riffs and solos and harmonies and textures over someone with good tone or finger dexterity any day. Obviously, good finger dexterity is important to play everything your mind comes up with properly, and good tone helps make those great textures actually sound good; but it begins with the mind. That is what truly makes a musician.

2. Hands
This is so evident if you ever get the opportunity to watch a few musicians jamming on the same rig. All the variables are the same, but they will sound incredibly different. Some will sound great…others, not so much. And some will sound great, but different. If you have no feel in the way you play, the best sounding gear in the world will not help one bit. However, the best feel in the world would sound so much better through good sounding gear. So, they definitely go hand in hand (hehe, stupid pun). But overall, I’d take the player with good tone and feel in their hands and bad-sounding gear, over the one with no feel, and good-sounding gear. However, if you gave me that choice, I would choose neither. I’d go look for the one with both. We get too caught up in one being right and the other wrong, sometimes. There are tools to good sound, and you need them all.

3. Tuner
For the love of all that’s good in this world, the rest means nothing if you’re not in tune.

4. Guitar (along with pickups and wood)
Now this is where I’ll get some disagreement. A lot of people would rather have a good amp and a bad guitar. I would rather have a good amp and a good guitar, but again, if I had to choose, I would put the most effort into a good guitar. And this can only really be properly felt if you’ve ever played a really, really good guitar. And I don’t mean that to sound snobbish. It doesn’t have to be a really expensive guitar. But I mean, a really, really, good guitar.
One, for the tone. I have heard good guitars take junky amps to amazing levels. I’ve even, once, heard a ’60’s Gibson 335 take a PA and confuse me into thinking it was a Bassman. Now, amps can do the same thing for bad guitars, but I haven’t heard it sound quite as real than the other way around.
And two, for the feel. If tone is mostly in your hands, you do want a guitar that feels good to play. Good intonation, good action, stays in tune, all the stuff that in my younger guitar years, I sloughed off as, ‘Pretty boy stuff. Just give me a guitar that sounds good, and I’ll deal with all the feel stuff.’ But if you don’t have a guitar that feels good, a few things happen. One, you’re not motivated to play and practice. Two, you end up compensating sub-consciously for the bad feel by playing differently. Three, you end up over-playing and forcing the strings out of tune. And four, you’re not able to relax and have fun while playing, which is one of the biggest factors in keeping the most important part of tone, your mind, at the top of its game.
So, I cannot stress this enough. Go do some research, and see if you can’t get a deal somewhere on a really good, handmade guitar. I’m talking one piece body, one piece neck, hand-wound pickup coils, good pickup magnets, set up properly to stay in tune and feel good, and one that you really bond with. I know when I finally did that, the world just opened up with love and rejoicing. Literally.

5. Strings
A good guitar is nothing without strings. This, the pick, and the speakers are the only three actual acoustic things in the electric guitar rig. Spend a lot of time on them.

6. Pick
Yep. The literal first part of your sound, after your mind and hands.

7. Amp (along with tubes)
Now of course, I just got done saying how a guitar is more important than the amp. But remember, although I believe that to be true, one is still pretty close to nothing without the other. Electric guitars, by their nature, were made for amplifiers. It’s very, very close to being one instrument. The amp is taking your guitar’s tone and making it real. They work together, and you need to find ones that compliment each other.

8. Speakers (along with wood)
I could have put this in with the amp, but as it is one of the three parts of your rig that is actually acoustic, it deserves it’s own place. Speaker and cabinet choice are hugely important to the sound of a good amp.

9. Cables
Yep, ahead of pedals. Even with just your guitar plugged straight into the amp, the cable will make a world of difference.

10. Boost/PreAmp Pedals
Stuff that you’re using almost as parts of your pickups. I don’t use these, but a lot of people do, and get great results. Clean boosts and preamps; stuff that’s always on.

11. Delay Pedals
hehe Not the effect kind, as much as I’d like to say it. 😉 These are the pedals you use as part of your amp’s tone, almost. Reverb, delay, pitch shifter pedals, modulation pedals; again, things that you leave on all the time.

12. All the other Effects
Not for tone, for texture and ‘effect.’

And that’s the hierarchy of tone as I see it. This is the level of attention I give to the various parts of my rig, and as of now, I’m happy with it. I’d urge you to try different variations of this, and find out what works for you, as far as which parts of your rig you give the most attention to. Just because this is my opinion, doesn’t mean it hs to be yours. I mean, I’m right, but you don’t have to be. (hehe Kidding, just kidding.)

So next time you’re at the jam session, you’ll be the one with the ‘actual’ right answers. Stupid other people. 😉

freecandy.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And lastly……just fantastic.)


18 thoughts on “The Hierarchy of Tone

  1. hilarious dialogue you came up with! Well done. The only thing I disagree with is the pick. I would either put it down by cable or combine it with “hands” since it’s more about how you use it than how good it is IMO.

  2. I wouldn’t say it’s how you use a pick or how good it is – more WHAT it is. I’ve got some rubber picks and some plastic picks, same thickness, totally different sounds.

    Great article though! And greetings from across the pond (waves from London), I was happy going straight from guitar to amp till I found this blog and some other forums… my collection is starting to grow. I see you like the Damage Control Timeline – ever tried their Liquid Blues OD? I got myself one a little while ago, it’s huge but I really like it!

  3. Nice dialogue +1.

    I recently played with a fellow who has been at it almost 30 years. He played “smoooooooooooooth” Clapton/Santan-ish blues. He had a mexican strat with seymour duncan jazz’s and was in a Line 6 4×12 amp. Was sooo smooth sounding, but bland. WAAAAY better than me.
    I plugged my Epi LP into my Fender Super Champ, and strummed a few chords and his ears pricked. I put on my Zen drive and warmed up to a new lick which was to be defining our opening song. He kept watching me and my crappy/awkward technique. He ask what I was using for the tone. I put on my modded TS9 and his jaw dropped.
    I let him play. I have never heard such sounds come from my gear. It was amazing- inspiring. My guitar, my amp, my TS9 and Zendrive. Then, I clicked off of the pedals, and he was straight into the amp. WOW. Still good.

    His face dropped when we went back to the Line 6. Tone is 1/2 the player, 1/4 guitar, 1/8th amp, 1/8 effects.
    He almost smoked me with the Line 6. He was better player, but I had the better Amp (that actually HAD TUBEs!!) and better tone from my effects.
    If he had my rig, I would’ve burned my guitar and cried.

    I guess that shows what is important or not.
    I think you could add one more- playing with better musicians. The concept of osmosis– the people you are around will indirectly pass on their knowledge and attributes. Play with better musicians and you will get better yourself.

  4. basically for that first part i was getting at: Make the most of what you have and squeeze the best sound out of your rig—

    and/or—- realize what you have may never get there, so don’t try to force it. Use what it gives you and let it be.

  5. Hilarious stuff! It was so spot on that it reminded me of the Mixerman chronicles…haunting mids!

    the gearhead stuff never stops
    Earlier this year, I was loading out after playing with my friend, who was opening for Lincoln Brewster.
    Me: Hi, excuse me, sorry. (trying to walk out of my friend’s office crowded with people).
    Lincoln: Hey what do you got there?
    Me: uh Egnater 50 watt head
    Lincoln: Egnater? hey Dave Friedman worked with Bruce on the first amps.

  6. Mike–thanks, brother. And you make a great point on the pick. It is weird to put it above the amp, it’s just where I’m at right now as I’ve recently come across some well-made picks that just make a world of difference. But I’ll have to give you view some more thought. Great comment!

    Ben–good point on the picks. And greetings back at you from this side of the pond. Great to have you here! And no, I’ve been meaning to try the Liquid Blues; it’s just I’m afraid of falling in love with it, as my pedalboard is pretty full as it is. But it sounds like you’re loving it?

    Larry–thanks, bro. Hey, great story! I’ve had that happen before, where I’ll hear a guy who can just smoke on the guitar, and it’s like, ‘If only he had a hint of tone!’ One is definitely nothing without the other. And great point on ‘not fighting’ your gear’s sound. Each rig has a way it wants to sound, and you have to let it play you as much as you play it.

    SMC–lol Nice!! I’m pretty lucky, as my wife plays guitar, too, so she’s pretty understanding. 🙂

    Dan–sweet! Must’ve been killer to open for Lincoln Brewster. And of course, always nice to hear that the big guys are hopeless gear junkies, too! 🙂

  7. I’d like to add the “final scene” to your story.

    Sound Guy: [From up in the sound booth, he unlatches the black case. Pulling out the pieces, he puts them together, finally screwing in the barrel. Then he clips in the scope. The worship leader sees the barrel protruding over the wall of the booth. Too scared to move, his mouth drops open. The sound guy takes careful aim. He holds his breath, squeezes the trigger and
    The worship leader falls back as his monitor explodes into pieces while the Youth Kid continues to solo like there’s no tomorrow. Slowly rising to his feet, he walks up to his microphone and mumbles “Um, I think my monitor mix is ok now.” And from that day forwarded, the sound guy never heard “more me in the monitor” again.]

  8. Karl? Are you sure we haven’t played together before? That whole conversation was so familiar…

    The poor keyboardists. It’s so true.

    And the vocalists. Out for coffee, but curse them if they aren’t back on stage when it’s time to actually start playing!!! Lord knows the musicians are ready to go…

    I have to agree with your Hierarchy Karl. I think we guitarists in search for the ultimate tone forget why we search for it in the first place. For myself, anyway, I want my sound to be distinct in the mix. I’ve dialed in sounds at home and thought I had “the sound”. I showed up to practice ready to wow everyone and all of a sudden it’s flat and uninspiring. What happened? At home I’m not taking into account what tone the rest of the band is producing. I also firmly believe this phenomena is why guitarists constantly want to turn up their amps and why the sound tech keeps telling them to turn them down.

    I have found, really by using these guidelines already, that my amp doesn’t need to be very loud. If my tone is distinct (which it is because I’m using these guidelines) then it cuts through the mix and I’m able to hear it largely because it’s not the same as the other sounds going on in the band. Does that make sense? The pick you use, the cables you use, all definitely contribute to the overall sound you produce. I’ll use a very heavy Wegen pick for things that I want to sound loud and smooth, a green tortex for a rock sound, and an orange tortex for general strumming and light jazzier sounds. The difference between those sounds is amazing.

    Take my cordless drill for example…

  9. Chris–haha! I know that look!! I’ve seen it many times directed at me, cowered from it many times, when it’s been directed at the worship leader and I have the good graces of just playing guitar so I can hide, and I’m sure had it on my own face a few times, too, when I run sound!


    GuitarToma–haha Glad to see it’s not just the churches I’ve been to. And also glad to see someone else recognizes that the poor keyboardists seem to never be noticed.

    And great call on eq’ing your tone and rig to sound good in the band mix, not just at home. You gotta find your section of the mix that’s going to cut through and be heard, without overpowering. Exact same thing has happened to me so many times.

    hehe Love that cordless drill. 😉

  10. So should someone with relatively little guitar skill (not musical skill because I learned on other instruments but have only played the guitar for 1 year) not try to get good tone? Is there a heirarchy or timeline of which of these things to accomplish first? 🙂 I hate sucking at guitar.

  11. @Ben G – I say start looking for good tone right away. The better your tone, the more confident you’ll be and the more you’ll improve. If you have crap tone, nothing you play will really sound good to you and you’ll less motivated to keep playing.

  12. I think the guitar to amp ratio is pretty close in importance, but do I tend to lean towards the amp being a little more important than the guitar myself. By this I mean I’d rather have a decent guitar and a really good amp than a great guitar and a crappy amp. Early on in my playing I had an Epiphone Les Paul and I bought a 1966 Fender Bandmaster and it sounded great. Now I still have the Bandmaster and a 20th Anniversary PRS Singlecut and I’m glad I got them in that order. I don’t think it would’ve done much good to get the PRS and still use my Peavey 10 watt practice amp.

    By the way, I just discovered your page yesterday and I love all of your posts.

    God bless!

  13. Ya, I think it’s definitely important to have both of them. I remember switching from solid state to tube, and still using my el cheapo BC Rich, and thinking tubes weren’t what they were cracked up to be. Then I got a new guitar. Whoa! But at the same time, like you said, that new guitar might not be that great through a Peavey 10 watt.

    And thanks for the kind words on the site. God bless you as well!

  14. In the hierarchy, I’d change the 1st criteria from ‘Mind’ to ‘Muscianship’, and I’d completely agree with it… with the caveat that I think 1 & 3 outweigh all the others put together. I’ve heard guys who don’t play well, and don’t have the best tone, but just always seem to play the right thing at the right time… to wonderful effect. I’ll take that over tone and virtuosity playing the ‘wrong’ thing everytime…

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