Les Paul model LPSTLTDFICHP

Generally I really enjoy visiting guitar forums. I've learned a lot of trivia, plenty of tricks, discovered many new players and made lots of great friends on forums. But there's one thing guaranteed to make me rage-quit my browser and go looking for cute kitty pictures instead: Tone.

Discussions about tone are enough to make me go cross-eyed sometimes. It always goes in circles. Do you need your favorite player's exact gear to get their sound? Do you need to know their specific amp settings, string gauge, pick thickness, strap height and inseam measurement to be able to play their licks? Then how come you don't instantly sound like that player when you plug in their signature guitar?

I'm a big fan of signature gear. I really like the idea of a great player distilling their knowledge, preferences and experiences into a piece of equipment that you can pick up and turn into a part of your own musical history. If a signature guitar makes you feel closer to the music that inspires you, and drives you to create your own musical masterpieces, I say go for it! But there's a little more to sounding like your favorite player than simply copying their gear. And it comes down to the difference between two seemingly similar things:

Tone and sound.

The way I see it, tone can be summed up as the sonic characteristics that you get when you combine specific pieces of gear with specific setup measurements and equipment settings. It's the stuff that you could scientifically measure and reproduce, all things being equal, across time. If you have identical gear to your favorite player, right down to the exact same amp settings, cables, strings and all those other fun things, and were to pluck an open string with exactly the same velocity and in exactly the same location as another player who also had that exact same rig, then it stands to reason that you would both have the same tone as your favorite player. You could analyze the frequencies and see exactly how similar they are. But then if you and your identically-rigged doppelganger were to both start playing, would either of you sound like that favorite player whose gear you're copying?

Probably not. Because there's something else that goes into making each player unique. Let's call it their sound. It's different to tone because it's not necessarily related to the exact combination of gear they're using. For instance, over the years I've interviewed a lot of different guitarists, including Steve Lukather, Steve Vai and Dweezil Zappa, who have all said that Edward Van Halen has played through their gear, yet he sounded like Edward rather than Steve, Steve or Dweezil. Why? We've all heard the term 'tone is in the fingers.' I get it and I agree, I'm not entirely sure that's the most accurate way to say it. I think tone - and more specifically, sound - is in the ears. Eddie sounds like Eddie because he knows what he wants to hear coming out of his guitar, and he knows how to apply exactly the right finger pressure, picking strength and phrasing to achieve it.

So should you abandon all hope that you'll ever sound like your favorite guitarist? Heck no! If that's your goal, you just need to pay extra attention to nailing their phrasing choices, picking strength and all those other little details. You may even find, as I have, that if you can single out a few specific phrasing characteristics from a certain player, you'll be able to conjure up a sound which is similar to them no matter what gear you're using. And this comes from the same general place as the whole 'Eddie sounds like Eddie through anything' phenomenon.

Years ago I used to go to blues jam nights at a bar in Canberra, Australia. The house band could play pretty much anything, and they could do it with plenty of personality and, above all, fun. I had a blast playing with those guys, and I really miss those days. They liked when I brought my guitar down to jam because they'd get me to do my party trick: mimicking various players on demand. They'd call out names - "Steve Vai! Stevie Ray Vaughan! Mark Knopfler! Jimmy Page!" - and I'd have to play something the style of whichever guitarist they called out, until they called out the name of another guitarist to copy. It was a really fun exercise, whether I did a passable impression of the players or not. It kept me on my toes and it made me think about different phrasing and picking techniques, which I could then apply back to my own compositions and my own soloing style. And it's something I'd highly recommend for any player to do. Because every little phrasing nuance that you become familiar with is another than you can file away and call upon when needed.

I guess what I'm saying is this: getting a player's exact gear can get you their tone, but if you really want to sound like them, you need to play like them. And being able to play like them doesn't mean somehow stealing their hands. It means learning to recognize what makes them so distinctive, and then drawing from your own experiences as a player to get those same qualities out of your own hands.