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Philosophy of Guitar Tone • Chapter 1

I’m writing this at 37,000 feet on a flight  from Phoenix to Pittsburgh- leaving one gig and heading to the next. I just spent the weekend with my wife at the Biltmore Resort because I was asked to perform the music for a wedding ceremony. Now I’m en route to a week of in-store clinics for a guitar manufacturer where I’ll discuss and demonstrate the nuances of body shapes, tone woods, and onboard pickup circuitry and how they all work in coordination to affect the tone of a guitar.

I’m thinking back on the last couple days and looking forward to the next handful and I think I’m able to come up with some rules of tone just from the experiences of this span of seven days on the road.

Seize The Moment
For starters, Mrs. Tone Chef and I drove from our home in Orange County, CA to Phoenix on Friday. In hindsight, I realize that I turned on music for the first 5 minutes of the trip and then we ended up turning the tunes off just to enjoy five and a half hours of drive time together. Normally, I’d plan for a road trip like that by loading the iPod with all the new music I’ve purchased but in this case it was more important to enjoy the rare opportunity to talk with the woman who married me. As guitar players, sometimes we prepare for gigs by collecting stompboxes, collecting guitars, and learning tunes so that when the gig shows up we can enjoy that preparation. But it’s just as important for the performing guitarist to be able to put aside the preparation and just go with the emotion of the situation. I have gotten more nods for the times when I was able to add an in-the-moment guitar part than for the hundreds of times I acted as a good soldier and did exactly what was expected of me. You’d be amazed at how eye-opening a little vibrato-laden octave fuzz at the right time can be.

Killing It Softly

Mini travel board with M9 Line 6

the mini-me pedalboard

For the wedding, I was asked to perform all of the music for the ceremony which meant I needed to have pre-service tunes available for anywhere from 10-25 minutes depending on how late they started. I also needed to have facility with chord melody versions of 1) “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” 2) a Beatles tune, 3) a Garth Brooks tune, and 4) a James Taylor tune. I was the only musician and I was doing all of this on a James Tyler Classic strat through a small Line 6 M9-based pedalboard rig into an Egnater Tweaker head and cab. Not only is a wedding sacred, but also, when you’re the only musician, your touch becomes substantially more important. Everything should come off the strings gracefully so it’s important to know your gig material so well that you don’t have to fight the chords grips and changes out of the instrument. Tension in your shoulders, hands, and head will translate through your amplifier. Tone begins in your hands and a softer touch is better for your playing and improvisation. Take deep breaths, say a prayer, perform positive self-talk- whatever it takes to get your head and your hands to play nicely with one another.

Be Prepared to Both Zig AND Zag
Since I wasn’t sure of the venue, I needed to bring enough gear to cover any and every possible scenario. I wasn’t sure if it was indoor or outdoor, I wasn’t sure if there would be power close by or if I’d have to run 50ft of extension cord, I wasn’t sure if they’d hear the electric and then change their mind to want acoustic, I wasn’t sure of the weather so I brought a carbon fiber acoustic along just in case the weather created a scenario where i wouldn’t want my one-off custom acoustic out there, and so on and so on. On top of that, knowing that I’d be leaving one gig to fly right to the next, I packed enough gear to be able to do the fly-dates in Pennsylvania. Good guitar tone is not just about plugging the right guitars into the right stompboxes into the right amps. It’s also about having enough tonal options to cover any possibility. Of course, you’ll never be able to cover every possible scenario- but more often than not, I have found that bringing a couple of distinct tone options to any gig has made the hiring party feel like you’re delivering what they’ve hired you to do.

As a first article here at TheToneChef.com, I think it’s important to point out that good tone goes beyond your purchases. Please check back regularly as I’ll be diving deep into what it takes to serve up tasty tone in a variety of gigging situations.

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  • Jeff Taylor May 29, 2010, 4:21 am

    Thanks Tone Chef! This will be a great tool for me and my guys (or gals). Looking forward to future installments on the site.