In this installment of Gibson Tone Tips, I want to expend a few words on the concept of “home tone” vs. “gig tone.” This is something that experienced performing musicians know intuitively, but which often slaps newcomers to the live venue right in the face when they come up against it for the first time. To preface: there’s so much talk of “tone” these days, and so many guitarists are chasing it for all their worth, but more often than not this pursuit is undertaken in the isolation of a player’s living room, bedroom, home studio, or some other “home alone” environment. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, and these places are where we practice, learn, discover, and sometimes record the results. But honing our ultimate tone in these subjective environments can often lead to disappointment when we get out into the entirely subjective real world. Let’s find out why.
Among the net blogging tone hounds, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on guitar and amp sounds that are “smooth, warm, round, organic…” This might run to everything from the general preference for neck-pickup tones to a love of the round, thick, early breakup of heavily worn-in vintage speakers. Certainly any of these can bathe the ear in their juicy goodness when enjoyed sans distraction, and sound a lot more pleasant than anything that hints at a “harsh” or “cutting” sound. What the ear perceives from a solo electric guitar, however, and from a guitar blended into the mix of a full band are two entirely different things. In the latter, that smooth, warm, round tone too often can become… well, nothing at all.
The fundamental notes—meaning the pure, fretted notes, without any consideration of overtones (harmonics)—of guitars with 22 frets cover the frequency range from the low E at 82 Hz to a high D at 1,174 Hz. It so happens that the human voice has a range from approximately 85 Hz to 1,100 Hz. The human ear can detect frequencies from around 20 Hz (a further octave below the low E on a bass guitar) to around 20,000 Hz (or 20 kHz), but the average human’s hearing is biased toward detecting sounds in the midrange frequencies, which is to say it hears them more easily (they are perceived as louder), while upper-mid and high-frequency sounds will also jump out as being more noticeable within any blend, if not louder in the pure sense. Those midrange frequencies, it turns out, encompass the human voice as well as the guitar. As it happens, they also define a lot of what a drum kit produces (drum frequencies trample all over the spectrum), anything your bassist will create above his first octave or so, and anything a keyboard or horn section will produce. In other words, without some clever tone-shaping to distinguish the note production of each instrument, you can be left with sonic mush.
Meanwhile, thanks to the range of overtones (harmonics) that any plucked guitar string also produces, the guitar’s frequency range is actually extended far above the frequency of its highest fundamental note, and it takes up a lot more space in the sonic stew than just this chunk of around 1,000 Hz toward the center of the midrange. Put the guitar through an amplifier, especially a semi-distorted one (and most of them are, right!?), and these harmonics are accentuated further.
Revisit that “warm, smooth, round” tone that is so easy on the ear at home, and you’ll find that it achieves this quality by minimizing the aural spikes that strong harmonic overtones represent. Get it up on stage, though, amidst a drummer, bassist, vocalist, a second guitarist and maybe some keyboards, and this spike-free tone is often about as effective as a rubber crutch. Stand back from the stage, and—in a large, loud band, at least—such a tone will often be all but lost when everyone is playing, contributing more to the general sense of low-end presence and midrange body of the band’s sound, rather than ringing as a distinct part on its own. Of course, sometimes that’s exactly what you want, from a power-chord rhythm guitar part or the chunk-metal second guitar that’s backing another guitarists riffs and lead work. Also, if you’re playing in a small blues combo, with a more minimalist drummer and no extremes of volume, your smooth, rich tone might be delightful just as it is. In so many other scenarios, though, you’re likely to be hoping that your own playing will be heard for itself, and that your rhythm and lead parts alike will shine and get some attention out there in the crowd.
Often, a newbee to the live scene will just keep increasing their overall volume in an effort to get heard, which usually inspires the rest of the band to crank up, too, ultimately accentuating the mush. To get that tone heard properly, you’ll want to dial in some upper-midrange cut, some attention-getting shimmer in the highs (though without creating an ice-pick-in-the-ear for anyone in the first few rows), and a firmer low end. This might involve simply tweaking your amp’s tone and gain controls, or selecting a different pickup, but it might also require a total rethink of your rig between the current gig and the next. More drastic changes that can help might include switching to a firmer, punchier speaker, exploring a brighter guitar (or amp) with more harmonic sparkle… or you might simply need to put on some fresh strings. There isn’t room here to cover all the possible adjustments, and I’m mainly getting you to face up to the theory, but you’ll know the condition when you hear it.
It’s important to realize, too, that your tonal requirements will vary from night to night, room to room, and to remain flexible in all gigging situations. All of which is not intended to say that you should entirely scrap that warm, luscious, ear-candy tone that gives you goosebumps in the bedroom, just that you should prime yourself against being too precious about it out in the real world. When you get “your tone” set up and ready to go in sound check, then find it is lost in the ether once the band kicks in, don’t be too proud—or too stubborn—to change it. Dial some punch into the midrange, some cutting power into the higher frequencies, and some tightness into the low end, and get your tone out there to the ears that matter most to the live performance: someone else’s.