Tone is in the Ear of the Beholder


New Member
Aug 24, 2012
Good Tone. What is it? That depends on who you ask. Even to me, that is a hard question to ask.. But each of us has an idea floating around in their head of what good tone is. I don't believe uou need to spend thousands of dollars to get good tone.. I have heard some guys playing $400 Fender guitars through some ratty looking amp and sound great.

So what makes Good (Great) Tone? Here are some ideas to get us going:
  • Good technique
  • A nice guitar doesn't hurt
  • Nice Tube Amp
  • good effects
  • No effects
  • a good ear for music (Guitar)

Good Technique;
What do I mean by this? I think I am an OK guitar player and I can achieve good tone. However, I know some guys who just make the guitar sing.. it is just in their blood.

Nice Guitar:
You don't have to own a 59 Les Paul, a 62 Strat, 53 Tele, or the like to make good tone.. It is nice but not critical,

Nice Tube Amp
Although I have heard some guys get great tone from a SS amp. I think tubes are warmer and nicer. OK Question of the Thread... What makes a nice Tube Amp?

I look forward to your replies...
Tube amp? I can get great tone (to me) out of a $100 Fender Champ 600...

As much as I like gear, guitar, amps, pedals and all the rest of the signal chain... I don't know who said if first but Great Tone is in the HANDS. :D

I don't know about others but there is no definitive great tone... My preferred tone evolves over time. It's funny, I couldn't stand the "Top Boost" side of my Mesa TA-30 with my Tele...but with the P22, it's the SHIZZZNITS! :biggrin:
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I'm with Rango on this one - tone is not exclusive to specific gear. Seasick Steve pulls some great sound from a single string over a broomstick with two Morris Minor hubcaps (although granted, not everyone will call that "tone"). My SE Santana sounds pretty good in my hands, but absolutely fabulous in the hands of my guitar teacher...
I'd say i'm in the camp that believes great tone or a general good sound is in the hands of a good guitarist.

But is it the actual tone we're noticing and appreciating or is it the actual playing which then top trumps the tone. Ceratainly, if the actual tone was awful we'd notice it despite the playing. But if the tone is merely ok but the playing brilliant then perhaps we selectively hear that as being great tone, if that makes any sense.

A good guitar and amp helps things without a doubt. Good gear helps inspire you and makes you play better which may equate to better tone. Then again, it's all in the ear of the beholder.
Does your tone change when you switch from the bridge pickup to the neck pickup? How about when you switch channels on your amp? How about if you switch on a pedal? Change your amp? Change from a SC to a 335? Go from humbuckers to single coils?

If the answer to any of these questions is, "yes." than you've just proven that tone is in the gear as well as the hands.

In fact, if the answer is, "No, I sound exactly the same on any instrument, with any amp," etc., go play a ukelele, make it sound just like you, and save yourself a lot of money.

A guitar is a system. The player is part of the system. So is the gear.

Record the sounds your hands make without an instrument. Probably won't sound like a guitar when you play it back.

Ignore either the player or the instrument and you miss both parts of the puzzle.
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It's completely in the ears for me. Get up and play and everything is so right. Return to the same guitar with the same settings and the same amp with the same settings a few hours later and I'm convinced the pups are shot, or the guitar is out of tune, or the tubes are going or the cable has been compromised or all of the above. Everything is so wrong. I always sound bad, but find that I sound best after a good night sleep.
Well, what do you mean by good? And: as a listener? (in what context?) Or as a player?

For me as a player, the whole thing, from my imagination to my hands (and the rest of my body, which is definitely involved if not as obviously as my hands) to the strings, the guitar, the cable, the pedals (if any), the amp, the speaker cable, the speaker, the cabinet, the air (including temperature, humidity), the room, the people in the room, and back via my ears and the rest of my body (and back through the guitar -- that's a HUGE factor in all of this IME) is a huge circuit with many, many variables. As Ken Parker says, "It's a long equation." And that's before we consider the context in which the "tone" (meaning, hmm, maybe the "perceived timbre-over-time of this whole circuit"?) exists, which can and probably should change everything, most especially the intention of the player.

So, OK, what are some of the factors that contribute to what I would think of as a "good" sound? (bear in mind that whole issue of context; there are many, many examples of guitar sounds that would be considered "bad" by most, out of context, but put them in a certain mix and they work great. example: Pete Townshend's famed "King Kong Riffing" on Who's Next doesn't sound nearly so fabulous when isolated)
+ strong ideas and a good concept
+ a well-developed ability to coax expressivity out of the strings with one's hands and fingers and body (guitarists with "great tone" can generally make an unplugged solidbody "sing")
+ a guitar that is properly set up for the particular player and purpose, and that responds enthusiastically to the player's gestures, as well as to the sound coming out of the speaker (attention to polarity -- the phase relationship between the guitar and the speaker -- is a subtle but important issue here, IME anyway)
+ an amplifier > cabinet > speaker(s) that faithfully renders what one's hands do: timbre, dynamics, subtle adjustments over time such as vibrato and the little things one does to give the impression of a vowel-like sound throughout the life of a note. (Allan Holdsworth once described this as "going from an 'oo' to an 'ee' -- good amps go that way; bad amps only go from 'ee' to 'oo') In other words, input (hands) translates faithfully to output (speaker(s))
+ a room and atmospheric conditions that interact with the whole circuit in harmonious and pleasing ways

That's a lot to think about it, and it's just a start!
Does your tone change when you switch from the bridge pickup to the neck pickup? How about when you switch channels on your amp? How about if you switch on a pedal? Change your amp? Change from a SC to a 335? Go from humbuckers to single coils?

Of course, and No, not really. Yes the guitar and the amp and the cable and the channel you are on, all make a tonal difference. But I still sound like me. What is more, I can sound warm and alive or I can sound cold and dead, without changing anyting in the system. And, if I try to sound different than me, I just can't do it. So while it is true that if I plug in the HRD instead of the Lonestar, I won't sound exactly the same, but I'll still sound like me. So yes gear does make a big difference and that is why we buy different stuff chasing that tone in our heads, but it's only going to put the finishing touches on what you have in your hands.
Of course...Yes the guitar and the amp and the cable and the channel you are on, all make a tonal difference. ...So yes gear does make a big difference

Edited your post and fixed it for ya. ;)

In all seriousneess, though, it is as I said. A system. Your hands are part of it. Your mind is part of it. Your ears are part of it. Your gear is part of it. Frankly, even the room your amp is in is part of it.

A system has lots of parts. They all work together, as I said in my post.

You and I could play the same gear and sound different, of course. But it's more than hands. It's really more like a feedback loop. Your hands play a note, your ear hears it, your brain tells your hands to modulate the note, move on to the next one, how hard to hit the string and so on, to produce the desired sound. Etc. There's constant communication between your brain, your hands, your gear and so on.

You don't just sound the way you sound because your hands are machines that make a tone. Your brain is telling your hands to make what you want to hear from the equipment. You're an equipment operator.
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I just have to echo Schefman on this one. There are so many variables, I think that's why "tone" is not a destination, it truly is a journey. It's never over. If you have your favorite amp, favorite guitar, favorite effects, favorite cable, favorite pick etc, you still have variables to mess with you. Room sound can be a real devil sometimes and an absolute angel others. Say it all comes together one night, the perfect storm. You can't seem to find a sour note, the guitar is just singing. So, you leave everything alone and come back the next day. I would wager dollars to pesos the sound would not be there waiting for you. Something will have changed somewhere down the line and the quest begins again. It is truly never ending...
Tone is a social construct that exists inside guitar geekdom. No one outside of this world cares or gives a damn. So, what makes guitar tone "good" is a combination of years of reinforcement of everything you've heard and read about the topic.

If you were to talk about good tone regarding human voice, you would undeniably have to bring communication to the equation. A good, balanced tone of voice enhances communication. It makes it effective and enjoyable. Conversely, good guitar tone enhances the transmission of whatever message the guitar player is trying to convey. Every inflection and nuance should find its way to the listener. That is why tone is in the fingers. You can have the best equipment, but if the message is poor, there will be no communication.

My fingers cannot make a G-DEC sound like a Dumble, but they can sure make you say: "Wow, is that a... G-DEC???"

Great equipment is always a great help, but it should be treated as that, equipment. The only real plus great equipment gives you is the personal satisfaction and perception of a good overall sound, which conversely allows you to relax and free your mind to focus on the message. That is, of course, worth pursuing. But again, if there is no message, all you've got is a fancy telephone and no one to talk to.