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What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Tone?

philip smith

When I walk into my local Guitar Center I hear Angus Young wailing away from a TV set; setting the standard for “tone.”  A Gibson SG, a Marshall tube amp - it makes sense… It’s worked for years… If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  Right?!  But really—what is tone?  Is it a knob beneath the volume?  Does it make things more or less muffled?  Is it enhanced by having an Ibanez TS808 in your pedalboard?  

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives quite a few descriptions of tone.  A portion are as follows:   

1. Vocal or musical sound of a specific quality (spoke in low tones) ; especially :  musical sound with respect to timbre and manner of expression

2.    a) A sound of definite pitch and vibration

b) A whole step 

3. Accent or inflection expressive of a mood or emotion.          

This being stated, can one assume having “good tone” means possessing the ability to express mood or emotion through vibration that is pleasing to the human ear?  And if so; where does this “good tone” come from?  Is it universal?  

 Maybe getting in a time machine and visiting Aristotle could help us answer this question, for it was he who said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Could tone be a soul of sorts?  A gateway beyond the notes into another spectrum of art yet to be properly defined.  

I was recently watching a popular Youtube guitar rig review series where a phenomenal player criticized other pickers for not using their tone knob and then cited Van Halen as an influence!  I’m personally starting to believe good tone was a conspiracy invented to sell more pedals!  


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