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Holy-Grail Guitar tone - Forge your own path

by vaughn skow October 29, 2013 4 min read

Big Al Anderson Guitar Hero

          "Big" Al Anderson, real-life guitar hero!

For going on 15 years now I have taught audio, acoustics, and sound engineering at a local college. As part of my introductory day-one lecture, I always make the statement

“I’m going to teach you the rules. Once you have learned the rules, I fully expect, and in fact hope that you will go out and break them”. 

In any discussion of guitar tone, this exact same statement can be made.  Perhaps nowhere is the statement that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” more applicable than in the hazy, nearly intangible, and oft hotly debated realm of guitar tone. Case in point: a dozen or so years back I had the opportunity to engineer and produce famed NRBQ guitarist “Big Al” Anderson. Al, who really is in fact VERY big, showed up with a vintage PLASTIC guitar, a ¾-size model made for first-time beginners on a tight budget. Between you and me, it was a piece of crap deluxe. Now I don’t know how you would have felt in this situation, but I was a bit, no … make that a lot, concerned. To make matters even more interesting, Al had the little plastic guitar-like thingy tuned down a full step. Those strings were just a flappin’ in the wind; intonation was nonexistent. What the heck?

Then he played.

The dark grey clouds parted and the light of shear rapture flooded my very person. To this day, I couldn’t tell you just exactly how he did it, but Al had used his considerable talent and decades of experience to accomplish something I doubt any other guitar player could. He took everything that made that little toy guitar sound like crap and used it to his ultimate advantage. Every single imperfection, tempered with God-given talent, road-dog experience, and hard work, added up to one seriously cool, totally unique, and absolutely PERFECT guitar sound. But that’s just one obscure example of a much bigger truth: Most, if not all guitar heroes did not obtain their iconic tones by following anyone’s example.  

It is generally accepted that if you want to “sound” like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you probably should play a Strat (mostly avoiding the bridge pickup) through something like a Fender Super Reverb or better yet a VibroVerb if ya got the coin. Throw in a pair of Tube-Screamer style over-drive pedals and a cry-baby and there you are.  Cool tone? Yea, I think so, but it’s HIS tone. What’s YOUR tone? If this is something you have never seriously contemplated, you are far from alone, most players never REALLY do. We spend so much time trying to nail someone else’s holy-grail tone that we lose sight of the fact that folks like Scotty Moore, Ry Cooder, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, James Burton, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie VanHalen , didn’t really sound like ANYBODY else.  That’s exactly WHY we know their names, and that the mere mention of their names instantly causes guitar players to “hear” in their mind the mentioned player’s iconic tone and style.

Not yet convinced? Kurt Cobain, Tony Iommi, The Edge, Mark Knophler, BB King, I should stop, but I can’t. Billy Gibbons, Jack White, Angus Young, Brian May, David Gilmour. Seriously, you heard it, right? All those wonderful, Iconic, yet very different “holy grail” tones. Plenty of other blogs, articles, and various gushing love-fests have been written on how to achieve the tone and/or style of all the afore mentioned guitar players. By all means, read all of them you can! Learn the rules of tone as written by those who made the rules. Then flatter those Guitar-Gods of yore by not simply COPYING what they did, but by actually DOING exactly what they did: Break all the rules. In so doing, you may just find YOUR own personal holy-grail tone.

Les Paul through a Marshall? Cool tone, but you are most certainly not going to stand out from the crowd with that tone, more like blend in. Montgomery Wards Airline through a Silvertone Amp? Cool idea. Been done. Come on, you’re a GUITAR PLAYER, a creative person by nature. Use that creativity. Don’t think in terms of “hey I remember when I heard fill-in-the-blank guitar superstar do this weird crazy thing … maybe I could try that”. No! Challenge yourself to come up with what’s NEVER been done. Yea, I know, that’s like trying to come up with a never before played super catchy riff on the low E and A strings. I didn’t say it was easy, just that the rewards could be great.

In my little blues trio, I’ve been playing a traditional mountain dulcimer on a song or two … through a unique proprietary condenser element pickup. I can honestly say that I have never, ever heard that sound in a blues band before. Neither have most of the audience members we encounter. And it’s not just “weird” either, it’s cool. Seriously. When I wail away on my Strat all up on the neck-pickup doing my best SRV, I might get a few claps and hoots but when I start strumming the dulcimer I almost instantly hear the noise of the room die down as everyone stops what they are doing to actually LISTEN to that SOUND. And afterwards the place erupts in applause. In those moments I think I know how Jimmy Paige felt when he first pulled out a bow on his Les Paul, or how Tony Iommi felt when folks first heard the growl of his tuned-down guitars. Shoot, I’ll go ahead and say that I even know how Big Al felt when he whipped out his little plastic guitar. I understand that little sparkle in his eye when he pulled that thing out. He knew something that I did not. He knew that I was going to be totally and utterly blown away, and that he was going to be the one to do it. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.

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