So many variables here. What type of music do you play and how do you play it, with a pick, your bare thumb or with nails, flat pick, finger and thumb picks? Do you play unamplified, in front of a mic, or via onboard electronics – or some combination of those things?
Then there are physical aspects related to judging tone. How good is your hearing? How’s your finger strength and are you able to vary how you attack the strings?
I don’t have the answers for those questions because we’re all different. I can only relate my own experiences in trying to attain what I consider the best possible tone. And the thing is, my standards have changed and evolved many times over the many years I’ve played the guitar. So here goes.
It’s important to state right off the bat that I don’t play big venues anymore; mostly I play coffee shops, galleries, private functions, wedding ceremonies and the like. When I’m home I play in my studio most of the time and it has quite good acoustic qualities in spite of having a vaulted ceiling and lots of junk (my wife’s term!) hanging on the walls. Sometimes I enjoy playing outside if the weather is right. If I was still playing large venues and festivals like back in the days when I toured with fiddler Marie Rhines, things would be different. Banging away on my Martin D-28 of the time produced the tone that I needed; loud and percussive, the rest was up to the sound man. But now I totally control my sound wherever I play.
I’m not going to get into the intricacies of electronics as they relate to tone. That is a huge and separate subject. No, I’m talking about the player’s perception of sound from an acoustic guitar as he or she plays. I will relate one bit about the use of electronics though. One of the things that I’ve found quite astounding in the last few years at my weekly gig at the Daily Brew Café is that my sound seems to get more muffled or “mushy” the more I play. It took a while but I finally figured out that this is because I play with the pads of my fingers (not nails) and as the playing progresses I think those finger tips soften up. I fix this by boosting the treble control on my RedEye pre-amp (a wonderful little device by the way, highly recommended) that gives my guitar that is equipped with a K&K pick-up a bit more bite in the high strings.
This same obvious change in my fingers takes place while I’m teaching too, when I hardly ever play amplified. My guitars sound quite different the first couple lessons of the day compared to later. I thought this was just my perception but I’ve been able to confirm it via the CD recordings that I do during each lesson. The same song, played the same way, sounds much muddier later in the day. Seeking that crisp sound again, I sometimes run the side of my thumb across the string instead of the tip and the difference in sound is remarkable. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to actually PLAY that way but you get my drift. I’ve begun pointing this out to students who complain about not getting clear tone and are working hard on finger picking. Not much you can do about it I guess, but at least understanding why that guitar sounds better when one begins practicing than later on – even if the mechanics of playing have improved over the course of the practice session – seems to help a bit with their frustration.
Ah, the mechanics of playing. That’s what we think about all the time when we practice, and rightly so. Buzzes, muffled notes, scratchy sounds…. many of those things can and should be corrected with good technique. Let’s assume you’re OK in that department or at least you know what’s causing those annoyances.
Another thing to consider in searching for good tone should be quite obvious but is almost always overlooked by players: you’re sitting BEHIND the guitar when you play! Acoustic guitars are designed to project their sound AWAY from you! So it can be very difficult to truly judge whether or not your overall tonality is good from that perspective. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tuned up a student’s guitar at the beginning of a lesson and played it a bit, to hear them say: wow, I wish my guitar sounded that good when I play it! Sometimes this comes down to my playing experience versus theirs but in some cases, they sound just as good as I do. This is especially true with students who own very nice guitars. I have a few students right now who own very expensive Martin, Taylor and Gibson guitars and when they play and I listen the glorious sound of those guitars comes through just fine. But they have trouble hearing it. This assumes those nice guitars don’t have dead strings of course. Buy new strings for those nice guitars!!!
To counteract this I sometimes urge them to play a few feet directly in front of a wall in their house. The reflected sound can be much more gratifying and pleasing compared to playing in a wide-open space. I discovered this a few years ago in my studio when I was figuring out songs I had on my computer, which is on a desk against a wall. Suddenly a guitar that didn’t sound all that good took on a whole new personality. Try it!
So what do I consider “good tone”? I seek a combination of clarity, resonance, a kind of melding of the sound of the strings with no one register overpowering another. With a well-made guitar a player should be able to accentuate any of those attributes as needed. Unfortunately the guitar that gives me all those things perfectly hasn’t crossed my path just yet.
Maybe it never will. Because our perception of sound is just too changeable. That’s my conclusion anyway! And one final note. Never discount the emotional aspect of the perception of sound from a guitar. Here’s a prime example. A few weeks ago I put down my Eastman AC422CE, which I’ve been using at playing engagements for about two years because I thought the tone was not satisfying anymore, or at least not as much as it used to be. I’d been feeling that way for a couple months and I have to admit it affected how well I was playing. I began using my Martin D-35 at gigs. It sounded great, my playing was better, and I felt better about my playing. But dreadnoughts are big and to me at least, much more unwieldy than they were in my younger days. So today I brought my Eastman to my regular Daily Brew gig and you know what? It sounded GREAT, played like butter (which it always has) and the result was I played better than I have in while, and damn, that felt good! I think the Eastman is back in the rotation. For now, at least.
Peace & good music,