Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Down the Guitar Tone Rabbit Hole

If you have been reading this series, you probably know that I am a fan of Lee Anderson’s Play Guitar Podcast. Lee is an excellent teacher and his passion for the guitar shines through in everything he does. I took much of my current practice regime from his template and it has been a revelation for me. On a recent podcast, Lee introduced a tone challenge for the summer. Since I began recording my guitar playing regularly around the time I started this series, I have wanted to dial in some better tones.  This week, I started working on it in earnest.

It didn’t go great.

Actually, I fell face-first down the rabbit-hole.

Good tone is a complicated thing. It has a lot to do with context in my opinion. I might love a certain tone in one context and find it annoying in another. Fortunately for me, the context is always the same- it’s playing by myself in my basement. Usually, I play with a clean tone, my guitar- an Epiphone Sheraton- set on the middle pick-up setting (splitting the two humbuckers) with a little reverb from the amp’s built in effects and that is that. That tone is fine for me for sitting down and practicing every day. It is a good guitar tone.

Or I thought it was until I started recording it. It didn’t sound bad recorded. It needed a few tweaks, to be sure. The bass was a bit too much and I found I needed to boost the highs a little, but it was still a good tone. The problem was, it was just one tone. Since I was recording to hear my leads over my rhythm playing, I needed a lead tone and- potentially- several other rhythm tones to give the music separation. In my first recordings, some of which you can find in the older Diary entries, just messed around until I got something that worked for one track and then for the other. I wasn’t making Sgt Pepper’s here, I just needed to get some basic ideas on tape.

Now, however, I am starting to think more seriously about my playing and I want to find “my sound” on the guitar. I am fortunate enough to have two pieces of gear that I really like to help me out here. My Epiphone Sheraton might not be a vintage Gibson 335 (the guitar it is modeled after), but it is a great hollowbody electric that is extremely versatile. It has been with me for 20 years and required just a little fretwork over the years. I also have a Vox Valvetronix amp, a strange little tube practice amp that models the sound of a number of classic amps by mimicking their tube settings. It is a bizarre concept and the execution is hit or miss -it does a good job mimicking a few of the classic amps it is supposed to emulate- the Fender blackface, the Fender Tweeds, and the Vox AC30, but it misses on the Marshalls and other high-gain models.

The issue with the Valvetronix is not so much what it sounds like compared to other amps- it’s good but not great, more versatile than it is good at any one thing. The issue is that it has too damn many possibilities. Even without considering an effects beyond a little reverb and not bothering with any of the Marshall-style set-ups on the amp, I have to pick between four settings for the amp model, tweak all the tone settings for each and combine this with three pick-up positions. The end result being that I spent at least half my practice time this week doing the guitar equivalent of an eye exam- better like this? Or Better like this? How about now? More treble? Less bass? How about now?

I wish I could say that I found a few good sounds that I am excited to share with everyone, but I have not. I am not even close. I have learned a lot. I am getting there. But it has been mind numbing at points. I knew I had hit a low point two days ago, when I thought something was wrong with my volume control because it wasn’t getting louder and everything just kept sounding the same no matter what I changed.

My guitar wasn’t pulled into the amp.

Welcome to the Rabbit Hole.

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