That Tone Thing

The other day, as the train was lumbering towards my terminal station, a great Mr. Big song came on. From their Raw like Sushi Vol. 2 album, the song was Road to Ruin with the Paul Gilbert guitar solo appended at the end. I turned up the volume, and basked in the glory that is Paul Gilbert and reminisced about that elusive thing that all guitarists chase: “Tone”.

It wasn’t a particularly great solo, yes, as expected technical proficiency, some ginormous moves, and a couple of gaffes (you can tell that Paul wings it to some degree, unlike Yngwie Malmsteen). But that fat, ballsy, ripping tone.

I could plop down the bucks and buy a Paul Gilbert custom Ibanez Fireman guitar (his signature axe), and a stack of Laney amps. I could probably put together his signal path, and match it perfectly, but you know what? I would still not sound like Paul.

Early in my 3+ decades of playing, I spent a lot of money chasing the tone. The latest fuzz box, better amps, all tube, bigger speakers. And I was lost. I would religiously read GFPM (Guitar for the Practicing Musician) and try to duplicate the signal chains. I had digital delays, chorus pedals, DOD distortion boxes. I even chased the elusive Ibanez stomp boxes that are so revered today that original ones often sell for $500 or more on ebay.

The more I chased it, the less satisfied I was. Ultimately, I got away from all the gear. I kept my two main amps (Gallien Krueger 250ML, and a phat Fender Super 60), but along the way I shed all the extraneous gear.

I began working on my technique. I realized that the killer sounds weren’t magic from some analog of digital processing, but they come from your fingers and your guitar. What pickup, how you attack the strings, where you pick them (or mute them), that these were what made the great players sound great.

Alas, I finally “discovered” the secrets that I chased. Of course, there are some things that you can’t do, a good stereo chorus, or a phaser effect. But get a decent eq setting, and a solid overdrive, and rely on your skills, and you are golden.

I just wish I had the discipline to practice as much now as I could in my early 20’s (and also that the arthritis didn’t halt a lot of my practice sessions short). But that’s life.