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Blue Collar Tone!!
By Mick Polich - 12/04/2007 - 09:48 AM EST

Tone…why is it good….or bad?

Why should we care about the kind of tone our instruments, or voices, carry?

Better git it into yer soul, chillen: EVERYTHING on the planet produces a TONE!!!

My son would be pleased with this statement – he is the king of “Arm Farts”, and volume, but more importantly, TONE, can either make or break you if you’re trying to make a spectacle of yourself to crack up your classmates and conjure half – smiles of embarrassment from adults……

For the world of musicians – there is good tone, and not-so-good tone (but what happens when you use not-so-good tone in the right context? It could be ‘good ‘ tone. Hmmmmm…). It took me a hell of a long time to figure out what these older musicians that I hung out with where talking about when they talked about tone – whaddya mean? I DON’T GET IT!!! Of course, sport –you’re a novice, a mere schmuck in the tonal world – you gots to grow up, son, and leave THE FARM TO FIND ALL THIS STUFF OUT!!!

The tone search is an incredible journey, and not just sanctioned to electric instruments, either. Consider that violin has been around for a few thousand years. Consider that drum making has been around longer. Look at a musical instrument history book, and check out how long all the planet’s beings have been making music (yeah, gotta throw insects, mammals, reptiles, Bumbles, etc. in there, too…..).

Any being with hearing, or a sense of feel, for that matter, can interpret tone –it’s a matter, though of DISTINGUISHING what you’re hearing and knowing the difference in bass, treble, and mid harmonics and frequencies. Well, gosh, Professor, I slept through that Intro To Subharmonic Frequencies class at junior college in freshman year – NOW WHAT, Mr. Nimrod ??!! Not to worry, Gilligan, we’ve got it covered, little palie!

You know how some sounds are muffled, yet some are crystal clear when you hear them? That’s not volume – volume can be involved – but it is more tone: bassy or tinny, barky or hidden (yes, those are TECHNICAL TERMS….). Our Kia Rondo wagon has all preset tone settings  -“Rock”, “Jazz”, “Classical”- for the CD and radio. In a way, this annoys me, because I don’t fully like any of those settings, so I had to go into the modifications area, and fiddle with the bass, treble, or mid range (I know, I know, Mother – not while I’m DRIVING!). In this everyday stance, we are experiencing tone - some people don’t care, while others want to maximize their listening enjoyment, especially on long road trips where good tuneage is as needed as strong coffee…..

How does this translate to music, especially musical equipment such as guitar and bass amplifiers, different types of instruments, sound reinforcement such as p.a., etc.? Let me take you back to this past summer, June, 2007: one of my best friends - who gets mentioned in this column a lot because he should, dammit - Don Myers, myself, and Mary Beth, my wife, attended the Patty Griffin concert at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens in downtown Fort Worth. Lovely place, and a pro set up for folks to come and enjoy a concert on the green, or with the green, so to speak.

I must say that whoever does the sound reinforcement for the Gardens has their act happening, because the balance, set up, and TONE were excellent that night. I have found that folk/ Americana concerts have better sound than most other shows that feel the need to be loud, just because they can mix it that way (although OzzFest back in 1998 was fairly impressive from a sound standpoint – usually metal is over mixed and distorted in concert – hey, way to go, Sharon Osbourne!!!). 

Well, Patty and her band, including the opening Austin-based Terra Moto, wowed us (including the great Ian McLagen from the Faces on keyboards for Patty – wow! Mr. Myers and I turned to one another with the biggest shite-eatin’ grins EVAH…). The musicianship, songwriting, musical arrangements – when it comes in a complete package like this, it really, really works for me. I grab different things from different music types – I mean, metal fills my love of crunching guitars and over- the – top, Spinal –Tap lyrical content while funk can move the booty, always reminding me of why James Brown matters to so many (if he don’t, he should, Jackson!!). The mixes in those styles are sometimes bass-heavy, or scooped-out midrange – it’s hard to find clarity unless care is taken during the recording process. Live stuff, like the Patty Griffin show, is a different animal – there are so many factors that you CAN’T control, unlike the studio environment. 

Volume does affect tone – positive and negative aspects are changed or amplified. I probably never did like loud for the sake of it – been to a few shows were the kick drum from a set was so loud so could feel it thru your chest (and not in a good way). Some people would say,” Dude, you don’t understand the music!” Well, dude, you don’t understand SOUND MIXING!! Can I have an  amen for BALANCE, my bruthas and sistas??? Personally, I think due to amplify certain harmonic content in music, tone has a lot of problems just hanging onto itself as volume increases. One thing I’ve noticed in the digital age has been to overcompensation of CD mixes in volume – it’s like, hey,  if the, mix sucks, just make it louder! Come on, people, we’ve got technology on our side – learn how to use it!!!

More than once in playing guitar (especially electric), I hear the phrase,” Well, I like the lead playing, but the tone is terrible. How can you tell good tone, even if you think you’re tone deaf? AND… is ‘good’ tone good for the music –is it what the music needs at the time? Is it possible, say in a style of hardcore punk, or scream - core metal, to define a tone for that particular music style? I say yes, because the music wouldn’t be that music without a definition of tone – if it sucks or not is truly up to the ear of the beholder.

Without citing specific players (I don’t want to jump on a band wagon, I just want to get some people thinking about the tone thing…) for their greatness, or lack of it, in the Tone Department, I’ll just give some examples of some tone representatives ‘round the music horn. The most famous, and obvious, is Eric Clapton. The ‘woman tone’ as his sound is know in some circles, yes, Clapton is distinctly Clapton when you hear the first few notes of the “Sunshine Of Your Love” solo, or the “Layla” intro – distinct (probably picked up a thing or two from one of his heroes, B.B. King…).

O.k., let’s stick with guitarists: Santana is another one who I can tell right away that it’s him - one note, and it’s my bro’ Carlos! Hendrix would be an obviously next choice. Of course, this is old-school – I can name a few newer players (Tom Delonge from Blink 182, Kurt Cobain – hmm, o.k., NEWER?? Tool, as a band, has a distinctive tone. Yeah, I know, so-last-decade – o.k., smartass, YOU pitch ‘em out to us!!!). 

As for horn players, yep, distinct tone is there, also. I would say, coming up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, from a pop music standpoint, David Sanborn has a recognizable tone and sound (and he probably swiped some stuff from Jr. Walker along the way…).  Of course, I can recognize John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and, fortunately, or unfortunately, Kenny G. For better or worse, tone plays a big part in distinguishing someone’s sound.  For the listener, and player, EXPERIENCE in knowing what makes up a good, or bad tone, is vital.

Thing is, anyone who’s done some critical listening to music over a long time period can be a ‘tone candidate’ (again, the ‘critical listening’ part is, um, critical…). For this, good self-analysis on WHAT and WHY instruments make the tone they’re making, and the reason to listen if it helps or hinders the music. Quite possibly, what is considered bad tone in one genre might be good tone in another area (i.e., punk/hardcore v.s. country).

Sometimes tone is just what comes with the package off the truck at that point –ya gots what ya gots, and not a lot can be done. One album that comes to mind as far as one of the most brilliant albums recorded, but the CRAPPIEST sounding one is Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power”.  Literally recorded in a haze of booze and drugs (and some will say there’s the tragedy, and the genius, right there…), the Stooge’s last pantheon to the gods of a music form they didn’t know that they were creating – American punk rock – is considered a classic mess.

I bought “Raw Power” on cassette back in the early 1990s – as per my personal custom, I usually go back to dig into some old music I might have bypassed back in the day (while moving forward to find new stuff…) – I like to dig a bit deeper to see what I missed in the first go-round. Epochal, but poorly mixed songs – I would argue the Stooges at their most disjointed, but most interesting. At that point, they were too strung out to care -  I mean, cat running on the mixing board faders could have done better. But upon further inspection – what a glorious mess of an album! “World’s Forgotten Boy”, “Gimme Danger” – this is the stuff every post-punk pop band from the mid-1990’s on wishes they had the cajones to pull off. This is where the wrong tone goes RIGHT…

An example of GREAT tone, album – wise? Man, there are so very, very many, but you know what, I am just going to pull the rabbit out of the hat quickly and pick a current re-issue that grabs me fancy right away – “The Joshua Tree” album by U2. U2 has captivated me for various reasons for over 20 years, and I remember when this album originally came out in the late 1980’s – sonically, it was the first U2 CD that really brought me into their realm and style. Bono’s  passionate vocals, the ethereal, trademark sound of Edge’s guitar tones, but really, the songwriting was impeccable. The shimmering, glass-like guitar work and searching lyrics on “ I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” give a most meaningful tone palette while “Bullet the Blue Sky” gives me the same eerie quality today as back then – images of American excess while Third World dictator fighter planes threaten the villages of innocent people – the most effective use of guitar feedback to an unsettling degree since Hendrix de-constructed the National Anthem….

Tone is an acquired taste and feel, for sure – it works well in some areas while not working too well in others. Some may say, “ Great tone is EVERYTHING!”, which is very true for most applications. Do punk/hardcore guitarists need good tone? Well,

(Said audience will say, “It’s punk and hardcore, there’s your problem right THERE!!) they need a tone that fits their sound and music, I will say that. And I think experience is the key to if the tone fits for the music being put across.

So, what’s to be garnered from all this belly flappin’? I jest want to git ya thinkin’ about some more aspects of music that I think get overlooked (or looked over when heard, or overheard, or… oh, forget it, OY!! YOU KNOW!). You know, music is for EVERYBODY, thus EVERYBODY has an opinion on the matter. Tone is everywhere in everything we listen to during a day: cars, birds, the swatting of a tennis racket against a ball… it’s just THERE. Do we need to analyze all that stuff as we go thru our day? Hell no,  just realize the basic sound principles: anything that makes a sound, makes a tone. When we listen to music, we’re fine-tuning our ears. I believe if you listen to a complex musical spectrum –jazz, classical, pop, country, blues, even electronic and some ‘ Muzik

Concrete’ stuff, you will tune up the ol’ ears to really recognize and appreciate different sounds, forms, and music.

Then again, you could just listen ABBA all the time and shut yourself off from EVERYTHING!!! (Hope you guys know when I’m kidding…)

I know I didn’t cover other musical areas for tone, like equipment, or music types like jazz, country, and blues, which have their own unique tone systems, but, a dude has only so much space to write in one article before people doze off, then snap back to life, and say, “ What?? Reagan was PRESIDENT???!!!”

Just remember, the door to knowing about tones and where they come from in our world is ALWAYS unlocked, people!

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