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.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: performance, opinion, @musings info

"Tone", amps and players

I wrote this about a year ago, as I was approaching my 49th birthday. It's my attempt to deal with the "tone is in the fingers" argument.

My formative musical influences were the folk, pop, hard rock and psychedelic music of the mid-60s through mid-70s. While most of these drew heavily from the blues for their own influences, I never really appreciated the blues for its own sake. There's just not enough variation in the blues form to hold my interest. In the past couple years I've developed an interest in some modern metal as well as jazz progressions and voicings, and I'm trying to apply some of what I'm learning to the kind of music I grew up with.

"Tone" as guitarists (and especially, gear marketers) use it is laden with all sorts of associations. It seems that there's a confusion (intentional, no doubt, on the part of the marketers) between technique (note choice, attack, phrasing, vibrato, etc.) and sound (touch sensitivity, frequency response, loudness, etc.)

To your point that I'm always going to sound like me, no matter what the guitar, amp, effects, settings, ... I wholeheartedly agree.

I started playing in my early teens with a simple rig - a cheap guitar and a cheap tube amp. Over the years I started using - and building - effects. I also did guitar customization and setups, and modded and built amps. In my twenties I got married and moved away from the electric guitar to acoustic. After a while, I stopped playing regularly.

Four years ago, I started playing electric guitar again. (Coincidentally, I got divorced shortly after that.) I had a pretty good cash flow, and went through a lot of gear in search of my sound. I started out with fairly complex rigs - first digital modelling, then channel switching tube amps with lots of effects. Over time, I phased out the effects and stopped switching channels. In the past year, I've gotten into single-channel non-MV amps with just a cord to my guitar. And I've never been happier with my sound or my playing.

Why? Because I realized that the music isn't in the gear, certainly. But more importantly, I realized that complexity gets in the way of good sound.

It has been said that "Tone is really what comes out of your heart and soul, this is what gets transferred to your fingers", and with that much I agree wholeheartedly.


When I plug into ten different amps, I can play the same notes but will get a different sound from each amp. Even amps that are similar with respect to speaker configuration, power tubes, number of gain stages, etc. I'll grant you that the differences are subtle, but they're not so subtle as to be lost on an audience.

Touch sensitivity is a big thing for me. Some amps do this better than others.

The frequencies emphasized by an amp affect how my sound fits in a band mix. This is probably the biggest reason people choose different amps for different styles. Also, the interaction between guitar and amp depends upon both the guitar and amp - that's a fancy way of saying that you can't substitute guitars any more than you can substitute amps and keep your "sound".

I've been through twelve amps in the past four years. They're pretty much all variations on a theme, granted.

This afternoon I A/B'd six of the seven amps I still own and came to the conclusion that amps make a big difference in how my playing sounds, in how easy it is to dial in a particular sound, and in how the guitar and amp combination feels at performance volumes.

And that's my point. Yes, I'm still going to play the same music regardless of which amp I plug my guitar into. But some amps work better for me than others.

Bottom line: I can get by with one, perhaps two good amps. I'm inclined to sell off most of my amps. But which ones I keep, that makes a difference...

April 03 2004 17:25:30 GMT