I get a lot of questions about my guitar “tone” in my videos.
Ok, yes it has improved since I first started posting videos. But, this brings to mind a very valuable music lesson I once had from my mentor which I’d like to share with you.
Nerd speaks for one sentence: For this video, I use a Maton guitar, a fresh set of uncoated phosphor bronze strings, 2 RODE mics, and a DI, into Garage band. (For more detailed CD-type recording my setup varies slightly.)
I recorded this song about 25 times in my home studio the day prior as practice.
I searched, listened, and allowed magic to pop up, I discarded ideas that did not work, and I voiced the same chords “umpteen” ways until I found just the “right” way.
This was not an analytical process….it was intuitive, creative, and gut level. Right and left brain had to work together to realize the overall sound I wanted.
During the practice session, I had a myriad of tones, dynamics, grooves, tempos…
Each practice recording sounded totally different from the next in color and timbre. Of course, I worked on technical things, but it was all in the service of the sound.
When one practices a performance or crafts an arrangement it requires searching for “just the right sound.” The small changes made over time are like the low flame that turns a pot of chopped vegetables and water into a “savory soup”.
This “savory soup” does not come only from a Maton guitar, a fresh set of uncoated phosphor bronze strings, 2 RODE mics, and a DI, into Garage band. It comes from listening and undergoing the process I have described.
Looking back, I can remember 20 years ago asking my mentor about the sound of my guitar. At the time I was trying to decide whether “flat wound” or “round wound” guitar strings had a better tone.
He told me “the tone you seek is inside.” 20 years later I see what he meant!
Until next time….Enjoy!
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Heidi Browning says
I enjoyed reading this Adam. I had lots of guitar music around me at the kitchen table in my early years, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to learn. I appriciate the sound and I’ve always felt soothed by it. Happily my 12 yr old daughter is learning guitar and when I watch her play I can see the look on face while she is playing and you know she has faded into that lovely Theta brainwave and the magic poors write through her fingers. Mind you she is just learning but she has a knack for any instrument she touches and its all music to my ears…Anyway Thanks for sharing, Sending you lots of light and love and positive vibes your way… 🙂
Thanks for the comment. I think if it soothes you…keep listening and enjoy. We all find our way to joy, peace and good vibes in different ways.
I can’t wait to hear your little girl make music!
Heidi Browning says
We have a few little video’s on youtube your welcome to check out under twotwinsouls or you can look under my vids on fb ie: Heid Bedford Browning. She is just learning but she picks up pretty quick. If you have time to check them out let me know what you think….
Sweet. I dig.
Blessings from San Diego!
Wow in all my years never considered this valuable point. Though I practice this process I never process the steps so clearly describe by Adam. Thanks so much learning and growing is always. So exciting !
One thing I heard a long time ago – all the songs in the world are inside that guitar, it is your job as the guitarist to release them and draw them out.
Connor Low says
Thanks Adam for always sharing so much helpful knowledge !! That was really great and so true !! You are such an inspiration !! You Rock!! \m/(-_-)\m/
David Keary says
Great posts here Adam, thank you….
I have finally arrived at that level where I can intellectually and technically search for the right chord or inversion and sound, It does just take a lot of working with a song and as Frank Vignola and Bucky Pizzarelli said in a workshop, play a lot of songs. That has helped a lot….
Yes, play more songs – you get more fluent, like a language! Thanks Dave!!!
round wound, flat wound, 80/20’s blah blah… your teacher is right the tone is within.
To me, all that stuff is just the way the icing on the cake is swirled with a knife. Whether it looked pretty or not before you ate it; it’s the way it taste in the end that counts.
I love my Breedlove’s (with the JLD’s in them) the tone just goes right to my soul, but I can pick up a junker and still find myself saying, hey sometime special happen there for me too.
Same BS goes for playing with nails or flesh or “proper techniques”. My younger sons is very acoustic fingerstyle oriented now with no pushing on my part. I like what I’m hearing from him and I’m not going to “force” a right hand technique on him. Pattern books like Giuliani’s I will hand him but I leave his right hand alone to find these patterns that will improve him. I’ve seen too many great players with way different techniques to say there is only one way.
I’m pretty sure at this point the magic in guitar music is not about “technique” or “stings” or “picks” etc.
The magic is the human soul being transmitted through this this crazy object … A box some dude made and put a few strings on it. What the F is that all about when you think about it?
That’s the crazy shit.
Ed, yes. It is the crazy s–t. But there is a balance with discpiline & creativity….all creativity with no chops developed is one extreme…..go the middle way! 🙂
JIm Greeninger says
Everyone likes my live sound but it took many years to get it to that point. Anyone else that plays my guitar with my system fails to produce the same great sound. It does indeed come from within. Miles Davis put it this way: “Man, it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” Your own personal arrangements are a big part of this as well.
Adam, did you have any special adjustments done on your guitar, like lowering the strings so you can play further down the neck like you do? Thanks, Pete.
DoC Chamberlain says
I’ve believed in this way of approaching my guitar playing for a while. The sound comes from within yourself – I now have a guitar – The Loar LH200SN – which I use the most and it is set up virtually as I like – but the sound of the music/notes etc are down to myself – I’m slowly learning how to play and introduce nuances in the sound that I like.
Thanks for your valuable thoughts and guidance Adam. I am currently going through a similar process recording the same song several times making small adjustments to the set up. Currently I am doing this with easy songs to be able to focus on my sound not being distracted by focusing on my technique. Sometimes this could be frustrating because the tone just does not feel right. This makes me think about new gear and stuff but as you said if you use reasonable gear it is just about practicing and making those little adjustments which gets you to your tone.
(occasional player for about 30 years)
It’s always both, but I find so much in my touch everyday, I just can’t blame the gear too often. I try to keep the gear basic.
Thanks a lot!!!
Keith thompson says
I have been playing an teaching since seeing the beatles on ed sulivan, owned and sold many wonderful guitars over the years, still salivate over the brand names that cost many thousands, but actual I get a wonderful sound out of my dean acoustic < 500 and my yamaha practice amp, especially when the majic starts hapenning. More importantly when it doesn;t, no amount of money spent on guitar and or amp would fix the funk…..
That said, dirty dead strings do matter…..
Keith, thanks for your comment and sorry for the late response! – AR
John Citarella says
Hey Raf..wise words from your mentor. I find the best way to feel “tone” is by playing my songs back to myself (use a cheap Zoom) and tweeking certain passages to the way I hear them in my head. Strings don’t make the difference, they’re only the tools to get you there.
Adam Rafferty says
John listening back is the best, and most painful teacher!
Dave Trump says
Great article Adam….and very sound advice…no pun intended 😉 Great ‘tone’ is elusive and a ‘savory’ mix of all the elements referenced. It is also a very personal struggle and journey which is why I loved the advice from your music teacher.
I took lessons briefly at a young age and had an instructor tell me to play ‘music’ not just ‘notes’. At the time I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated what he meant. But – as I got older I realized that making music is more than simply playing a collection of notes.
Music requires the heart and soul be fully engaged. No amount of gear (strings, amps, pedals, etc..) can ever replace or be a substitute for the heart and soul.
As I watch your video performances Adam – your great ‘tone’ is clearly evident but the real magic clearly lies deep within your soul.
Thanks Dave, I try my best!
I found this article rather fulfilling because no matter how many times you practice a song it can be changed just with little Nuance’s such as acoustics or some times keying down. I found that when I met in D rather than E it will add just that right touch in folk and blues but it also helps when I play for the Praise team at church. Sometimes it’s hard when you have a new member that does not have the right voice for the key that the song was originally based in so improvisiin has a lot do in in does circumstances. Of course being led by the Holy spirit. Has a lot to do with true voicing when that happens love your teaching methods and have even shared most of your pointers when my children and will soon be looking to open a community center based guitar class for under privileged children on the south side of Richmond Virginia. Thanks for all you do keep up the great course work and yep I will be here to take notes and improve.
Adam, I really enjoy your playing, it is very Jazzy. I am having a good time listening to you. Thanks and Blessings too you
Hi Adam! First post as a new member here. What you say is incredibly true. As I read this it reminded me of something Todd Sharp said once- (paraphrasing here) “If you want tone, put your pick down and use your fingers”. While a lot of different sounds come from different picks (and the same one sometimes), I was amazed at the amount of truly beautiful tones can come from variations of skin and nail, regardless of strings.
Thank you so much for your insights!!!
Sometimes I wish it weren’t true 🙂 Read my most recent post where I talk about how I tried different techniques and a close friend heard zero difference 🙂
Pick or fingers – the guitar feels different every day, and is simply an extension of my mind…crazy and spooky!
matthias weston says
Now your’e using fingers more are you a fan of the nic jones / martin simpson funk flick technique? I can imagine it working with your music..
Adam Rafferty says
I guess that’s what I now do….and I am sure it will change again!
Indeed tone is from within! Adam, you are a shining example of this- and where you rise to the top echelon of players is how you make me feel the groove. You and Don Ross are the absolute best groove players I’ve heard.
Yes, tone woods, strings, picks, pickups, etc. all matter when achieving a sound you are “looking for”, but it always comes down to how you touch the instrument. I say “looking for” because those of us who have played guitar for any length of time know that finding the ever elusive holy grail of tone is kind of a fruitless search. After spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on the next best gear, anxiously awaiting the next NAMM show, we ultimately realize how finicky we are in our choices. I have found that most of what I find I like to hear in my playing simply comes from becoming a better player. Nothing is better than utilizing the tools that God gave you to make an instrument sing like you want it to. In the case of playing acoustic guitar- it’s all in the fingers 🙂
Thank you Sean!
Brou H says
I enjoyed your lessons and articles alot. I’d read your (first) article on what to practice to be “good” at guitar soloing, i think like 4 stages of practice to acquire the skills to fingerstyle soloing including finger independency and such.
Do you offer such a short course just for that?
Adam Rafferty says
What style are you looking to improve in? Rock? Jazz? Let me know….
Samoan Joe says
Wow Adam I experienced this very thing recently.
I hadn’t touched a guitar in 3 years and just before Christmas 2018 I had this overwhelming urge to play again. I’ve been on beginner level since I was 12. I’m 42 now.
Anyway it was late afternoon I couldn’t control the urge any longer. The music store had closed and my budget was $400 NZD. I was hanging out like an heroin addict going through withdrawal. I browsed an auction site in search of the closest seller and got me a guitar within the hour.
Thinking the well known brand was a bargain it turned out to be dud. It sounds horrible.
3 weeks later I buy me a brand new Taylor. It met my high expectation and I was pleased.
My bro in-law comes over and sees my first guitar. I tell him how bad it sounds and that it was a waste of money. He picks it up and starts playing some beautiful clean sounding music that caught me off guard. It became obvious to me it was my playing that is horrible and not the guitar.
Adam Rafferty says
Don’t be too hard on yourself! It was probably a crap guitar – that he could make sound good. Enjoy the Taylor!
That was a really helpful and informative piece. I went back to playing (mid life crisis!) not having played since my teens. I suspect I’m not practising enough before moving on to new tunes, impatience, so I half-know a lot of tunes. Having read your piece, I want to try recording a tune over and over to get it right and make me focus on playing the whole thing through correctly.
Adam Rafferty says
Aidan how’s the practicing going? I am a tad late here. Let me know.
Bob Lohse says
I play violin as well. 🙁 Any way, I was at a fiddle contest and went outside with another contestant. He wanted me to play his violin, so I did. He sat back in his chair and said “Wow” You can get tone out of my fiddle like I can never get. We tried to figure that out. Our conclusion was I have a special “touch” to get a smoother tone than he could. I guess I have witnessed that before. I tried out about 300 violins all over Texas before I decided to buy the one I have. Most of the ones I liked started at over $12,000. I played others and hit the high e-string and just went “yuck” before I put it down after about 30 seconds. There was a few places I went and there was absolutely nothing I liked. The other one I liked was $14,000. So when you say your tone comes from your inside, you are absolutely right!
Thank you! Yes pianists know it very well because they can not change strings in their instruments very often 😉 And they know how to change the sound from inside.