David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
LCW on Bandcamp
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: attitude, evaluation, goals, human nature, @musings info

Are you happy?

Are you happy with the way you sound when you play guitar? Does it bother you to hear someone else's playing through your best rig make it sound better than you can? Do you obsess over minutiae of your signal chain? If not, good for you. But most guitar players do concern themselves with the relationship between gear and tone. It's easy - even though somewhat costly - to do. Perhaps too easy...

Analysis is a real time-killer. I used to spend countless hours A/B'ing gear, playing the same bit over and over and over while making trivial adjustments, etc. Was it a waste of time? Yes and no. "Yes" because it took up a lot of my time. And "no" because I eventually learned a lesson that I probably would have ignored if someone had simply tried to tell me the obvious conclusion. I'm stubborn like that... I realized that no matter what gear I started out with, I always ended up in pretty much the same place, tonally. The A/B comparisons actually helped me realize that the differences just weren't that important.

The other thing that the tone hunt taught me is that I have more options as a player - the "bone tone", if you will - with certain kinds of rigs. If I had just gone after a great lead tone, for example, I'd have gotten stuck on my lead-line technique to complement some kind of mid- to high-gain tone. But I was always frustrated with the dynamic limitations of those tones, and eventually learned to adapt to low-gain tones. And that adaptation put me in the right space to broaden my horizons as a player - learning more about finger-picking, dynamics, chord voicings, voice-leading, etc.

I used to go nuts over effects, too. But I ditched most of them for reasons similar to why I ditched mid- to high-gain voices: because they get in the way of what my fingers want to say. This isn't one of those macho "I just plug my guitar straight into the amp, so I'm better than all you poor misguided effects users" things. On the contrary... I love to listen to effects used creatively and effectively. I'm happy to play with someone who has a pedalboard the size of an aircraft carrier if they use it well.

Five years ago I had a thirty-pound pedal board and a channel-switching amp. Now I have three pedals: a volume pedal, echo, and an "enhancer". They rarely get used. If the amp has reverb, I use that for ambience in a small room. And sometimes I'll plug into the Leslie speaker, because I absolutely love that sound. But mostly, I go for clean tone. I've come to prefer the direct connection between what I play and what comes out of the speakers. Most pedals destroy that association - they'll add something that wasn't there, or kill the dynamics, or mask the subtle changes in overtones that come from how you handle the instrument. But then, I'm unabashedly old-school in my musical tastes. I play an odd synthesis of folk, jazz and classical. I can't get a metal tone out of my rig, and I'm OK with that...

I know some players who get a lot of mileage out of their effects. They can do some really cool things that sound only remotely like a guitar, and they can even find ways to use those sounds in a musical way. More power to `em. I don't have the patience or the interest.

Now I'm done with the tone chase. Finished. I'm happy with just about any big warm clean tone. High-gain amps, channel switching and dirt boxes are not even on the far reaches of my radar. I've resigned myself to accept the laws of physics and realize that the big warm cleans come from hot tubes, lots of iron, and multiple speakers. In other words, heavy amps. I don't play loudly. "Loud" for me is limited by what I can tolerate for a couple hours without earplugs - around 100dB average, peaks slightly higher. Any guitar amp can play that loudly. But I can't live with the congested cleans that I hear in smaller, low-powered amps. Fifty watts and two twelves or three tens is just about the bare minimum that will satisfy my ear. Two or three different amps daisy-chained gives god's own tone.

So what do you do with your copious free time, once you're done with the tone chase? You practice your instrument. Here are the five things that I think are most useful to improve the tone "in your hands":

  1. Learn other people's material - either by working with a band or on your own. Anything that works to drag you out of your comfort zone.
  2. Compose and arrange your own material. That involves an entirely different set of skills.
  3. Learn music theory, because it's not enough to copy someone else. Eventually, you have be able to generalize what you're doing so you can apply it in new ways. Knowing theory helps.
  4. Learn the fretboard. Not only the names of notes, but the intervallic relationships amongst them. Combine this with a bit of theory, and you can give a name to that cool-sounding chord that you just happened grab while your were fooling around. And then you can move that chord to other parts of the board, play inversions, etc. Take it a bit further and you can start to work out voice leading, chord melodies and other ways of developing a more expressive voice.
  5. Practice clean. Although effects can enhance any performance, they also cover a multitude of technique flaws. Perfect the technique to where your playing sounds great uneffected, then - if you want to - use effects for ... well, for effect.

As far as being satisfied with your sound and your playing... The best thing you can do for that is to have a plan for what you'd like to accomplish with your music. Find gear that's comfortable and "good enough" to support your goals, and put the rest of your effort into playing.

And yes, I really do like the way I sound. I also like the way that other players sound through my rig, even though they don't sound like me. There's always something to learn. The guitar is one of the easiest instruments to play, and one of the most difficult to master.

November 04 2004 08:14:19 GMT