Lead Tone 2: Core Concepts for Good Tone

This post looks at the balancing act of getting a good tone.


The Good and the Bad

Unfortunately what makes great tone so elusive is that usually any one change can have good or bad effects, depending on the situation. For instance, in the last post I mentioned how ‘scooping’ (cutting) the mids could create a smoother tone, but might also rob the tone of its ‘balls’; or how boosting the highs could create a brighter, more articulate sound, but might also cause your tone to become ear-bleedingly shrill and ‘ice-picky’.

Complexity vs. Focus / Interest vs. Simplicity

Unfortunately almost every decision you will make for your tone involves some kind of trade-off like this. To make tone decisions easier it’s helpful to think in terms of trading complexity for focus, and trading interest for simplicity.

The more complex your tone becomes, the harder it is for the listener to be able to comprehend what they are hearing. For instance, a twelve string guitar, with fuzz and distortion through two delay units and a hall reverb, would be incredibly complex in theory, but in reality it would simply sound unintelligible. Conversely, the simpler your tone is, the less interesting it becomes. Such as a cheap guitar, with characterless overtones, played in a dead room, and a boom-box instead of an amp.

It’s like language: very simple language is off-putting because it is too simplistic to communicate anything of value; on the other hand, overly flowery and difficult language is equally off-putting since it masks the meaning.

Balancing Complexity, Focus, Interest and Simplicity

Heavy style players usually use very clean pickups – such as EMGs, Dimarzios or similar – because they have a more focused, simpler sound which will respond well to plenty of complex distortion. Blues players on the other hand, will choose a more complex sounding pickup – with plenty of harmonic content and a characterful EQ curve – but have their amps at much lower gain settings, which allows the tone to retain some focus.

Few people choose to use pickups like EMGs for 100% clean tones since the simplistic tone is uninteresting and often described as sounding ‘sterile’. Similarly, few people match a complex sounding pickup like a P-90, with high gain amplifiers, since this usually just results in ‘mush’.

Of course, so far the concepts of complexity, focus, interest and simplicity, are over simplified (ha ha) – but read on through the coming series and you’ll get a better idea of what I mean.

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