Articles

Introduction to Tone

Hello Everyone. My name is Andrew Farnham and I'll be spending the next couple of editions of geared talking to you about guitar tone.

Guitarists are always in search of the magical piece of equipment that will improve their sound instantly. Rarely does just adding a box or rack summon the magic tone fairy. So, in this article I'll be outlining some of the things that can help save your tone, and hopefully help you make more considered purchasing decisions.

Tone is a personal and individualistic thing. That having been said, there are some things that people who are considered to have good tone have in common: clarity, impact and an interesting timbre.

We need clarity so that we can be heard without having to turn up excruciatingly loud. 'Amp Wars' will result, and your sound guy(girl) won't be happy having to compensate for your volume battles. Some amps change tone at different volumes. So, by hiking your volume higher and higher you'll be destroying all of your carefully considered EQ settings.

Impact means that our tone doesn't sound hollow or weak and that what we're 'saying' is going to have an affect on our listeners. Clarity has a lot to do with impact, because if you're 'mumbling', what you have to say won't really affect the audience because they just can't hear you.

'Timbre' is a term used to describe the way a sound sounds. From a technical point of view, timbre has to do with the harmonic makeup of your sound. If you want a more technical definition, search for timbre on http://www.wikipedia.org . Basically, the richer and more complex the set of harmonics our sound contains, the warmer and fatter it will sound. Rich, fat tones have a real emotional impact on the listener (yourself included) so its an important thing to cultivate. Hitting a note with a rich, warm tone is enough to inspire the rest of your performance.

Below are the four steps that go into producing your tone. All of these things directly affect your Timbre, Impact and Clarity.

  1. The Player: The way that you fret, hit and hold the guitar. Even what picks you use have a huge impact on your sound.
  2. Your Guitar: Its not just the pickups or body timber that make a big difference in sound. The condition of your frets, your pickup height and fingerboard timber all count.
  3. Everything in between: Leads, stomp boxes, multi-effects pedals and wireless systems. All of these things suck the life out of your tone. How much depends on the quality of the equipment that your using and how cleverly you put it all together.
  4. Your Amp: Most amplifier EQ is weird compared to normal audio EQ, and most people set their EQ without really listening.
I'll be covering these in detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any specific guitar tone questions that you'd like to have answered. Please drop us an email on help@independentmusic.com.au
The Player and Tone

Hello Everyone,

Last month I promised to cover in details all of the elements that make up a good tone. This time I'll be talking about 'The Player':


'The Player' is where it all starts. If the tone you're producing isn't good, then nothing else in the chain afterward is going to save it. When you hear a great guitarist, it doesn't matter what instrument they're playing, it always sounds like them and it always sounds great. So what makes a player produce good sound? Let's break it down into the following:


Pick:

The material as well as the thickness of a pick makes a difference in tone. I avoid picks made out of 'glossy' materials. Thinner picks tend to produce more harmonics, and also a brighter attack. Thick picks are good for a jazzy tone as they produce that marimba-like tone necessary for a classic jazz sound.

Grip:

How tightly do you hold the pick?. Gripping tightly tends to create a very bright, brittle tone (it also makes your strings more likely break). A loose grip will give you a fatter, rounder tone. Try it yourself and listen closely to the sound. Sometimes (like if your playing surf music) an extremely bright tone works well.


Angle of Attack (vertical):

When you swing the pick does it travel parallel to your fingerboard, or does it tend to arc down towards the body of your instrument. Swinging parallel will increase your sustain and give you a clearer tone. If you angle your picking action down into the fingerboard, string 'crash' will result. This produces a shorter, slightly strangled tone. Sometimes this is cool, but you should be able to do it on demand, rather than have it happen randomly.


Angle of Attack (horizontal):

Try hitting the string with the face of the pick parallel to the string, and then try rotating your pick so that the edge strikes the string first. With the string rotated you should get a fair bit of 'scrape'.


Placement of Attack:

Between where you're fretting the note and the bridge, there is a lot of string to play with. Experiment picking at different places within that length of string. Picking somewhere in the middle of the string length will produce the most volume, and the sweetest tone. Picking up against the bridge will give you a bright tone, moving towards the fretting hand will give you a rounder tone.


Synchronisation:

Having both hands arrive at the same time, i.e. your fretting hand touches down on the string at exactly the same time as your picking hand strikes it. This will increase sustain, give you clearer tone and a habit of listening closely to what you do.


Experiment with all of these things, and listen closely to the results. Record them if you can, and you'll start to get a feel for ways that you can improve your tone dramatically.


As always, if you have any questions. Please drop us an email on help@independentmusic.com.au

Guitars and Tone

Hello everyone,

This month we'll be talking about your guitar in relation to tone, and what role your guitar plays in your overall sound.

Body Timber:

Strangely, people often consider timber an unimportant factor when choosing an electric guitar. Listen to the guitar with the volume turned completely off to get a good idea of what the guitar really sounds like. At least if it has good tone acoustically, and not so good when its amplified, you'll know that its not the guitar itself. Replacing the pickups should give you a better tone. Common woods are Ash, Swamp Ash, Alder and Mahogony. Try to play as many guitars as possible with varied body wood. This will give you a feel for what the different timbers sound like.

Fingerboard Material:

Fingerboard material plays a big role in the make-up of your sound. The two most common types of fingerboard materials are rosewood and maple. Rosewood tends to be darker in tone. Maple needs to be lacquered to stop it from absorbing moisture. This layer of lacquer, in combination with the timbers natural sound gives the maple fingerboard a much brighter sound compared with rosewood.

Strings:

Thin strings tend to give you a thin sound. The thicker the gauge of string, the rounder your tone will be. Keep in mind that you'll get less 'bite' out of really thick strings, so try to find a set that gives you enough treble as well as being thick enough to give you body to your tone. You can choose steel or nickel strings. Nickel tends to produce a more mellow tone than steel strings. Steel will give you a higher out put volume and a brighter sound in comparison.

Scale Length:

The distance between the nut and the bridge is called the 'scale length'. Aside from having an effect on feel (and thus how you vibrato on the instrument), a shorter scale length will produce a darker sound than a longer scale length guitar. Scale lengths of full size guitars vary from 24" to 25.5".

Pickup Height:

Getting out a screw driver and having a fiddle with the screws that control pickup height can be a really rewarding exercise. As the pickups get closer to the strings, not only will they produce more output, but also your tone will get brighter.

Volume Control:

The volume control does more than just effect your volume. As you back your volume away from maximum towards zero, you'll find that the top-end (treble) is reduced. This is a handy trick for getting different tones with only a subtle adjustment.

Obviously there are many more variables in getting a good tone from your guitar. Due to the limited size of these articles, I've had to cut out a lot of information. In the interest of completeness I've put the full length article as well all of the previous articles in this series on my website: www.andrewfarnham.com As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au.

Leads, FX and Tone

Everything in Between

So you've sorted out your technique, got your guitar set up to produce a good tone and still your tone sucks. What's going wrong? Well, its probably everything in between you your guitar and your amplifier. What can we do about it? Well lets see what things get in the road of our tone as it heads towards your amplifier.

Guitar Leads: A lead is a lead, right? Wrong! The first thing you should do is get yourself into a quiet room with your amp, get some leads and A/B them. Plug in one lead, play a phrase, and then plug in another and repeat the phrase. Switch between the two. Can you hear the difference?

Different length leads will give you different tones. I've found that longer leads reduce the amount of top-end in your sound. You can reduce the impact of a long lead run by using a 'line driver' which changes the impedance of your guitar signal. A 'line driver' will allow you to have long lead runs without loss of signal quality. Lead quality is also a big deal when it comes to tone. Just buy good quality leads.

Try experimenting with leads that use varied jack plug materials. Chrome ends are brighter in sound than brass ends, which give a rounder sound. Also, try a curly lead (like what you see Hendrix using). The curly lead produces a darker tone compared to its straight cousin.

Stomp Boxes: So, you've noticed the difference between different leads, Lets plug in some stomp-boxes. Now that you're listening closely, you'll probably notice that your tone is different with a stomp-box in the signal path compared to how it was without the pedal, even without the pedal switched on.

Effects pedals add metres of cable length to your signal chain. Your tone has to travel through the entire length of the printed circuit board of your pedal unit. This can be a long way, and this is why your tone suffers when a stomp box is added to your setup. This problem is compounded as you add more effects to the chain. To add to this, stomp-boxes are relatively inexpensive devices and the components in them often aren't the best quality. Have a listen to your sound with the effect turned on and off and see how much the frequency response of your sound suffers. If you notice a lot of treble or bass frequency loss, then your pedal probably hasn't got the best of components in it.

What can we do to solve these problems? Well, a line driver will fix the length of line problems. The cheap component issue can be fixed by sending your unit off to the various places advertised on the web who do component upgrades. Also, try not to run too many effects units in a chain at once. Think carefully about what effects you really need and cut down to just that.

Amplifiers and Tone

Amplifiers and Tone

This is the first part of a two part article on amplifiers and tone. There's just too much going on here to fit it into one article, so here goes part one:

Pre-Amp Distortion

Always use as little distortion as possible. This will give you punch and clarity. Too much distortion makes your tone sound mushy, and sometimes scratchy and nasty. If you've got a screaming legato style lead solo to do, then of course you'll need a lot more gain than when you're playing a rhythm part.

Listen to recordings of your favourite artist and try to hear how little distortion they use. You'll often find that its a lot less than you thought at first. In a recording situation, the heavier guitar tones are often beefed up by doubling, or quadrupling etc. the guitar part in the recording.

EQ

Guitarists often set their amplifier EQ in what we call the 'smiley face' setting. Scooping all of the mid-range frequencies out and boosting the bass and the treble. This sounds good in the bedroom, or when you're playing by yourself. When you put this sort of EQ setting into a live or recording situation, the guitar will often sound mushy and will make the whole mix messy unclear. Players often try to combat this by pushing more high frequencies into the sound, unfortunately this just hurts your ears and doesn't do a great deal for clarity.

Getting rid of the mid-frequencies also gives us a false sense of security, in that it 'covers' our playing mistakes to some extent and allows us to not pay attention to the other factors that make up our tone (how we strike the string etc.).

Try setting your amp with all of the controls set flat (no boost or cut, this is usually around '12 o'clock' on most amps), and adjust the way that you strike the strings, the way your volume and tone controls are set on the guitar and play around with leads and effects units in between the guitar and the amp. Then subtly alter your EQ to change any problems that you hear.

Guitarists often forget that they're not bass players, and boost the bass frequencies to give them a 'fat' sound. What we hear on record is often the combination of a guitar and a bass guitar being played together. Don't try to replicate this sound by yourself (unless you have no bass player in your band / recording). Lose us much bass frequency as you can stand, and that way you won't interfere with the bass player's part of the frequency spectrum. You'll find that your bands sound is much clearer and has much more impact if you're all giving each other a clear slice of the frequency spectrum to operate in.

In the next edition, I'm going to cover Power Amp distortion, Power Soaks / Breaks, Output Ratings, Solid State vs. Valve amps and different amplifier classes. In the meantime, play with that amp!

Choosing a Teacher

Its that time of year again:

Christmas has gone, Holidays are coming to and end and New Years resolutions are starting to be tested. I find that a lot of people decide to start playing an instrument or start learning to sing around about now. So if you're a player already and have decided to improve your skills, or you're starting from scratch, I've put together a little guide to finding a great teacher.

Ability to Play:

Having a teacher that can play to a very high standard is really important. If your teacher can't play well, then they're not going to have any idea of how to get you to play well because they've not been through the process themselves.

Experience Playing:

Having a teacher with performance experience is important to you as a student regardless of what level of player you are. The mental skills required for performance in front of an audience are something that, if passed on, will help you learn to play well.

Passion:

If your teacher isn't passionate about music then they're not the sort of person that you should be learning from. This is an absolutely essential ingredient.

Listen:

Your teacher must listen to you and what you want. At the same time I'd have to say, if you've got a good teacher, make sure that you listen to them. Also, the teacher should have broad listening taste and be willing to listen and explore the music that you bring to them wanting to learn.

Improving themselves:

If the teacher is working on their own playing and still trying to improve, learn more and advance their knowledge, then they're the sort of person that you want. They'll very much be in touch with the learning process and will understand what its like for you to be learning new things, because they are constantly learning themselves. Students often marvel at the patience of this sort of teacher.

Offer a trial lesson:

I think its a nice touch if the teacher offers a free, no obligation lesson so that you can come along a 'try out' their teaching. That way you can get a feel for what they'll be able to do for you and you'll be able to compare with any other lesson experiences that you've had.

Teach technique and how to learn / practice:

If your teacher doesn't try to teach you some fundamental physical technique on your instrument, then there is something wrong. Technique is simply the study of making playing easy. So if you want to learn in the fastest way possible, make sure that your teacher covers physical technique, as well as teaching how to practice.

So if you've made a New Years resolution to start playing or singing, or if you've decided to get back into it from when you've played in the past. Make sure that you find someone who's going to help you stick to your commitment and get the best out of your lessons.