We all have heard the old saying “tone is in your hands”. Though there might be some truth in that popular phrase, it is not the complete story. Many factors have to be accounted for in order to get good tone, and your hands are just one part of a much more complex equation.
This post series will focus on electric guitar playing since the acoustic guitar has a very different set of variables due to its sonic nature, and amplification methods. In order to keep things in perspective I decided to split this argument in three parts: Guitar, amplifier and player.
The Right Guitar for the Right Tone
Different guitars will not only sound different, they will also make you play differently. The shape, neck contour, they way that it sits while standing up or sitting down, the electronics are some of the variables that could make you gravitate towards certain techniques and habits. For example, lets look at the Gibson Flying V.
Due to the V-shaped body, your forearm sits in a very different position than if you were playing a Telecaster, for example. The clearance that you get makes your hand sit on the bridge very comfortably allowing you to rip through riffs and licks with ease. Because of the added comfort, your right hand technique my allow you to be more relaxed, thus reducing fatigue.
The flatter 12 inch fretboard radius also makes the neck very easy to play, further freeing the player to achieve the desired sound. The angle that the neck sits makes it very inviting to indulge in some lead playing of the shredding variety. This angle changes very little while sitting down or standing up; something that a lot of other guitar designs cannot replicate.
Here is an example of a V-shaped guitar from one of my favorites: Michael Schenker.
In contrast, lets examine the Fender Telecaster. The Tele is basically a slab of wood as far as the body is concerned. It is a very utilitarian type of instrument in that is simple and to the point. The body sits very differently depending on your playing position. Stand up, and you have to really angle your forearm – unless you adopt the right shoulder approach popular with players like Albert Collins.
The Telecaster neck is also a very different world from that of the Flying V. The vintage fretboard radius is a rounder 7 1/2 inches while the modern version is 9 1/2 inches. Not exactly shredding territory, but great for playing chords – Leo Fender’s original idea.
I don’t know about you, but when I play a Tele I don’t really get the urge to tear up through some Slayer riffs. The guitar really dictates certain styles. Blues, country, rock, even Jazz.
Here are a couple of examples from the amazing Danny Gatton – one of the best Tele players ever.
Blues guitar legend Albert Collins had a very unique way of holding his Telecaster. This surely contributed to his approach and tone.
The Right Guitar Pickups
Pickups are also extremely important on getting the right tone. You wouldn’t play Heavy Metal with vintage single-coil pickups, just like you wouldn’t play the Blues with active EMG humbuckers – well maybe you would, but you would only get an approximation to the real tone. The point is that you have to get the right electronics for the tone you are trying to get in order to get the best results. There is a reason why we have so many different kinds of pickups and electronic components out there. If your pickups are not right, you wont get a tone that inspires you to play.
Feeling that you are not fighting your guitar to get the right sound is an enormous advantage to your creativity, and a huge factor to obtaining good tone. Some players like a little fight, but too much and you might just want to put the guitar away.
The amount of options that guitar players have available today is overwhelming to say the least. Choosing the right guitar will definitely influence your tone and playing style. Do your research, and you should be rewarded with the right tool for the job.
I hope this comparisons serve as food for thought. The “tone is in the hands” argument definitely has some validity, but we really have to look a little further. The gear you use greatly influences your tone, and has a big part on defining you as a player.