The Never-Ending Quest for Tone

Every musician wants to sound excellent, hence we find the never-ending quest for tone. You see it everywhere: at the NAMM and Musik Messe shows, musician’s forums, and music stores. At the dawn of the internet age, everybody can call himself or herself an expert, even without qualification, and thus we see conflicting information about how to achieve great tone as a musician. What is it that can really lead us to achieve that perfect tone? As far as musical instruments are concerned, I have come to the conclusion that there are two general things that lead to great tone: musicianship and craftsmanship.

I once learned from a short video tutorial by guitar giant Steve Vai that great tone starts at your fingertips. I do believe that to be true. My piano teacher, Prof. Richelle Rivera, had always stressed that proper hand positioning, correct wrist motion, and exploiting gravity produce the desired full tone over the piano. This is the reason why seemingly thin-framed pianists like Franz Liszt as well as my teacher (a rather petite woman) could achieve a sound like thunder over the piano even though they are not muscular like John Petrucci. This is one reason why my piano teacher wanted me to practice those wrist motions as I play through pieces over and over again against a constant metronome beat, something that would result in impressive tone and robot-like precision. Guitars and violins also follow the same principle that training results in the best possible tone. Although I can find whatever note I want over a fretless violin fingerboard, I could never bow a violin properly unlike my son who years of training developing his bowing hand. It was only after a number of years of practice on the guitar that I could achieve the kind of tone I wanted on that instrument. This is why they say that every great musician will be able to play great music even on the crappiest of instruments.

Craftsmanship is the second ingredient towards a great tone. You cannot really justify that tone comes out of tonewoods. Even if you give a mediocre luthier excellent materials like hard and flamed maple, ebony, Brazilian rosewood, and cedar, all of those expensive materials will still yield an instrument that sounds like crap. Hand over plywood to an excellent luthier and he will produce a cheap $75 guitar that sounds like $3,000 one. I have a Greg Bennett CD3 that can rival the tone of an expensive Gibson Les Paul. I also have a Korean-made Axtech Stratocaster copy that sounds like a Fender Strat and have tested a Chinese-made Jay Turser guitar modeled after the Fender Thinline Telecaster that can give the original a run for its money. The point is that excellent craftsmanship will always yield an excellent tone.

We can all sum up my ramblings as follows: To acquire excellent tone, practice on your instrument regularly and listen to yourself. Afterwards, when you are about to buy your next guitar, inspect for craftmanship and test it to see whether or not it can provide the best tone you can possibly have.

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