In search of the perfect guitar tone – an obsession and passion shared by guitarists from around the world. But what is tone? A quick Google search for the definition of tone and I found, “a musical or vocal sound with reference to its pitch, quality, and strength” and “the general character or attitude of a place, piece of writing, situation, etc.” Seems kind of cold and clinical doesn’t it?
To me, tone is the feeling you get when you hear yourself playing, derived in part by your instrument and amplification but also by how well you play your guitar. I’ve seen it all around, in different endeavours. Amateur golfers who spend hundreds of dollars buying the best equipment but who never took a lesson. Amateur skiers who do the same, thinking their equipment will make them that much better. Amateur photographers who continually obsess over the latest advances in camera technology but never bother to study their craft.
I’m afraid guitarists suffer the same sort of delusions. Does $1500 guitar make you sound that much better than a $600 or $700 guitar? Most of the time, probably not. I’ve had the same $300 acoustic for over 10 years and I just love it. To me it sounds just fine. Don’t get me wrong. I know having the best quality equipment for recording or playing live does make a difference but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that’s all it takes.
Tone also comes from practice and study. Hours and hours of lonely study and practice. Paraphrasing from one of Steve Vai’s instructional videos I saw recently, you will need a minimum of 10,000 hours of solid practice before you become proficient. And as my high school basketball coach told us, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” That is profound on so many levels.
Perfect practice means practicing the right things. Perfect practice also means taking practice seriously. Perfect practice also involves study. Mindlessly repeating scales and arpeggios will make your hands and fingers more dexterous but understanding what they mean and how they are formed, and why they are formed the way they are will take your understanding that much further.