If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

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Bruce Weldy
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If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#1 Post by Bruce Weldy » Mon Apr 17, 2017 2:28 pm

I've often railed about lousy guitar tone, so a year or so ago I got a wild hair and wrote an article about it.....submitted it to a magazine and never heard back. Pretty much forgot about it until now, but after hearing dozens of guitarists with crappy tone over the last few years and especially a couple of weeks ago, I thought I'd dump it on you guys.


As a guitarist who also owns a small sound company, I’ve seen and heard a few things over the years. Guitarists don’t listen to sound men, nor do they listen much to other guitarists, but having been both, I feel I’ve earned the right to at least talk about ‘em. Some will see themselves…..some will see others….some will immediately stop reading this and drool over the new pedal advertisement on the next page. They can’t help it – it’s like yelling “squirrel” to a dog.

Today’s topic is tone and how it has disappeared from our musical palette. There are players out there with a thousand bucks tied up in their Marshall/Boogie/Vox/(name any boutique amp) that are totally wasted because the sounds emanating from them bear no resemblance to any of them at all. They might as well have saved the money and run direct from their 17-pedal effects board.

Observations/Suggestions

- Effects have totally supplanted tone as the definition of a quality sound for most players….even some really good ones.

- I’d love to see guitarists go through 3 practices with their bands with NO pedal board. Just the channel switcher on the amp. Dial up a fat clean sound and a nice overdrive. If it’s a one channel amp, add a single overdrive pedal for leads. Play this way for awhile – THEN begin to add in effects one at a time and let them truly be an effect – only used on certain songs in certain places.

- Too many people are trying to play live using their “bedroom” tone – you know, the one that sounds soooooo great – all that delay, chorus, and distortion. It makes you sound like a one-man band. Unfortunately, that tone sucks for playing with other people. What guitarists don’t seem to understand is that all of the effects get somewhat buried and lost within the sound of the band – so, if your root tone is covered by effects and the effects get buried in the band……what’s left? Not much except for a really dark, buried sound out front.

- All guitarists complain about keyboard players who are heavy on the left hand. Why? Because it stomps all over everyone’s sonic space, right? Well, guitar players are doing the exact same thing with their giant, fat, lush, wall of sound. For a band to work – every instrument should be heard clearly….so, guitarists – get out of the way!

- Consideration for what the band sounds like out front has become secondary to “how I want me to sound as I play to the back of my legs because I refuse to raise my amp or put it far enough back to hear what’s actually coming out of the speaker”. In order to get the treble I need way up at my ears – I’m killing the people in the audience with a shrill, screeching, ear assault.

- Want to be a better player? Then practice at home with no effects and no distortion. If you can make that solo sing through a clean amp – then you are ready to add effects. Not to mention, you will uncover many problems in your technique and you will spend more time on actual practicing than finding new “sounds” to cover up your playing.

CASE STUDY

Recently, I went to hear a local guitarist and his band. He’s a great blues and rock player, great singer, and has a great band. However, they sounded anything but great.

He asked if I’d listen and help him get the band balanced in the PA once they got started. As they began, his guitar was right there on rhythm, but his leads were buried. So, I went to the board and turned up his guitar mic. The band got louder, but the guitar was still buried. After a few songs, the crowd (they sit really close at this venue) starting telling the guitarist that they couldn’t hear him – even though he was really loud on stage.

I knew what the problem was, so when they took their first break – we took a look at his amp settings. He was using a 3-channel Marshall head. The bass on all channels was dimed. So, we had a short discussion about sonic space, not using his “bedroom” tone and thinning it up some so it would cut through. He really was cringing at the thought of dialing back the bottom, but he trusted me and did it anyway.

After one song, he asked the patrons up front if they could hear him – the answer was yes. Sitting further out where I was – the guitar was now coming cleanly through the PA and you could hear every note of the solos. The bonus was - now that he was no longer muddying up the bottom with his guitar - the bass jumped out of the mix and was clean and every note was discernible.

This guitar player admitted that he was struggling with the sound since it was so different to his ear, but the audience convinced him it was the right thing to do, so he was going to keep the settings that way. A few weeks later, he told me he was playing a gig with a different band that he had played with many times and the drummer commented that he could actually hear the guitar for the first time.
Finding everyone’s sonic space in the mix is extremely important and the majority of the time it’s the guitar that’s messing it up (the other times it’s that left-hand-heavy piano player).

Experiment

I challenge you to make a list of all of those great guitar solos from the past and those great guitarists that you wish to emulate – be it Hendrix, Page….. you name it. Now, get a pair of headphones and listen….I mean really listen to those parts, paying particular attention to the actual guitar tone. You are going to be amazed at how thin and clean most of those guitar lines are. Even their distorted tones are probably cleaner than your current clean tone. The reason those players and solos stand out was because of the playing, the song, and the fact that you could actually hear them pop out of the mix. So, what good is your mind-blowing solo if no one can actually hear it? Clean up your act!

Rebuttal

I’m sure a few of you are crying foul. I know….you just can’t play without your tone. Well, guess what – your tone sucks. If your tone is the most important thing in your musical life, then stay in the bedroom and play away. But, if you intend to play in front of an audience, then your job is to entertain them – which means, how you sound to THEM is more important than how you sound to YOU. You are the guy who demands that you must have your tone, then gripes that you can’t hear your amazing solo in the iPhone recording that you girlfriend did. There’s a reason for that – start at the top and read again.

Conclusion

As a guitarist, you might recognize some of the above issues in your own setup – we all are guilty of some of them occasionally…..some are guilty of them all the time.

But, don’t fret – fix it! Adam and Eve didn’t know they were naked until they gained knowledge. Now you have the knowledge – don’t be showing your ass!

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"A system with a few knobs set up by someone who knows what they are doing is always better than one with a lot of knobs set up by someone who doesn't."

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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#2 Post by T_Gowan » Mon Apr 17, 2017 3:54 pm

Amen brother Amen!!!
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himhimself
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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#3 Post by himhimself » Mon Apr 17, 2017 6:04 pm

Ah, so enlightening when the scales finally drop from your eyes. I was one of those left-hand heavy keyboard players, but fortunately worked with a great producer that helped me see the light fairly early on. Mud on stage sucks, whether from the guitarist, keyboard player, or...drummer. Here's a quick tale of a lesson learned on a second tour with one of my bands long ago. Our drummer's snare was deafening and forced everything else on stage to go to 11 to try and be heard, at which point stage volume crushed the house in all but the largest venues. So I worked with my drummer, as we were both a bit e-geeky, and we filled his snare with foam and placed several transducers between the foam and the snare head. Still felt like a snare to play. We triggered a snare sample with it and fed to the house (and he started wearing headphones so he could play this big reverby snare sound that he loved). Our sound man was thrilled since he could finally control the mix out front and we weren't deaf by the end of each show. That was ages ago before all the electronic kits came out, certainly before in ear monitoring. Bottom line though was we sounded soooo much better, to ourselves and our audience, especially in small venues. Win, win, eh?
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Bruce Weldy
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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#4 Post by Bruce Weldy » Mon Apr 17, 2017 7:59 pm

himhimself wrote:Ah, so enlightening when the scales finally drop from your eyes. I was one of those left-hand heavy keyboard players, but fortunately worked with a great producer that helped me see the light fairly early on. Mud on stage sucks, whether from the guitarist, keyboard player, or...drummer. Here's a quick tale of a lesson learned on a second tour with one of my bands long ago. Our drummer's snare was deafening and forced everything else on stage to go to 11 to try and be heard, at which point stage volume crushed the house in all but the largest venues. So I worked with my drummer, as we were both a bit e-geeky, and we filled his snare with foam and placed several transducers between the foam and the snare head. Still felt like a snare to play. We triggered a snare sample with it and fed to the house (and he started wearing headphones so he could play this big reverby snare sound that he loved). Our sound man was thrilled since he could finally control the mix out front and we weren't deaf by the end of each show. That was ages ago before all the electronic kits came out, certainly before in ear monitoring. Bottom line though was we sounded soooo much better, to ourselves and our audience, especially in small venues. Win, win, eh?
Absolutely!

I've been playing direct with all my bands since 1998. Sometimes acoustic drums, but mostly Roland kits. Stage volume is as loud as we decide since it's all through monitors and the audience hears a great sound out front.

Fortunately, I've played with guys who think the audience comes first, then us.

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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#5 Post by ChrisDowning » Sat Mar 09, 2019 11:50 am

Hahahaha - the truth hurts. As a guitarist for 60 years and having been fortunate to speak to many really good players - you are spot on with that analysis - and the good players do exactly what you're saying.

But it looks like your message didn't go down well - this thread died a death ! haha!!
I like to get paid for what I sound like - not what I spent.

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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#6 Post by nivlek » Sat Mar 09, 2019 2:21 pm

Bruce has done everyone a huge favor, and he is spot-on correct. He is the sound of experience speaking. Good job Mr. Weldy!

Bass players aren't immune...but a slightly different issue lives with them due to the wave lengths being so long.

Being a bass player for over 50 years, and a sound guy just as long. I've seen and heard a lot of acoustic wrecks, sonic crowding, etc. I've even been involved in some too...then I began to try to figure it out.

The problem I'm referring to is the mid bass "boo" sound in a hard, echoing or reverberant room...think gymnasiums, warehouses, skating rinks, national guard armories, etc. Every room with parallel surfaces and a lack of acoustic damping is a candidate for the long wavelength (read low frequency) crowding, just due to the dimensions and the propensity of the musicians to be unaware of how the acoustics react. We were not born knowing this stuff.

If not recognized by the band and the sound guy, the band will sound like they suck, when in fact, they are many times great musicians, that are simply unaware of what the room is 'doing to them'.

The struggle is real...read on.

I've found a few ways to curb the 'boo' is to once again, 'thin out' the tone of the guitars, the floor toms, the vocal mikes if needed, and to a smaller degree the keyboards, but not enough to make them sound like a toy. Sound check them for tone, one at a time. Make each one thinnish sounding alone, just not brittle and piercing to the ears. Just subtle bass thinning where each individual instrument just has the absence of that lush fat full sound that sounds so good alone...its poison to a good mix.

Here is the bass player part: When playing, dont just hold down the strings with your left hand (for right handed players) and flog the string with your right hand fingers or pick. Let up on the back beat, so that the note goes dead IN THE ROOM before the next note is introduced, especially on a chord change. You may need to thin your tone out a tad too...as needed.

A general rule of thumb for me has been... "A little thinner than you think, will sound best when mixed together."

Most musicians do not know that the lower fequencies are where the huge, long tailed, booing, room reverb lives...usually get much
worse below 160-180 hertz. Sometimes a console will have sufficient tone controls in the channel strips, sometimes equalizers can be used to trim away at the enemy.

Stage volume: restraint is a good thing here! Resist the temptations!

I hope this helps!
Last edited by nivlek on Tue May 14, 2019 8:20 am, edited 1 time in total.

Bruce Weldy
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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#7 Post by Bruce Weldy » Sat Mar 09, 2019 3:40 pm

ChrisDowning wrote:
Sat Mar 09, 2019 11:50 am
Hahahaha - the truth hurts. As a guitarist for 60 years and having been fortunate to speak to many really good players - you are spot on with that analysis - and the good players do exactly what you're saying.

But it looks like your message didn't go down well - this thread died a death ! haha!!

I forgot that I even wrote this piece.....

Since it was written, I ended up in a band where we are playing old-school through nice, small tube amps. Three guys on Les Pauls, but everyone is a pro and there are no issues - everyone's tone is different and can be heard out front.

It's been fun playing with guys who indeed have real "tone" and not just effects.

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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#8 Post by la80vette » Thu May 09, 2019 8:46 am

Yes, yes, yes. You are totally correct Bruce.
Bassist and keyboard players too. Roll off bass boost or even cut a little. It greatly depends on the room.
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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#9 Post by Bill Fitzmaurice » Thu May 09, 2019 9:01 am

It boils down to knowing your place in the mix. Players tend to set their amps for what sounds best playing alone. If you're a single that's fine. Otherwise you need your tone to be what's best with everyone playing. As for effects, I saw a fabulous guitar player working with Edgar Winter. He used the same highly compressed tone on every song, and while it didn't sound all that bad, it didn't sound all that good either, as it was so compressed it lacked any dynamics. I doubt his level ever varied by more than 2dB. I bet it sounded great to him, but with the rest of the band playing with at least 10dB of dynamic range it wasn't what it should have been.

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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#10 Post by Bruce Weldy » Thu May 09, 2019 9:39 am

Bill Fitzmaurice wrote:
Thu May 09, 2019 9:01 am
I doubt his level ever varied by more than 2dB. I bet it sounded great to him, but with the rest of the band playing with at least 10dB of dynamic range it wasn't what it should have been.
Absolutely....

I've mixed a friend of mine's band off and on for a few years and I've constantly been trying to get them to understand dynamics individually and as a band. That, and occasionally playing a clean guitar part and not always dirty.

The constant drone of a never-changing guitar sound is draining to the audience. I recently told my buddy that I felt like there was a big ball of goo in the middle of the mix. It was like feeling bloated - I just want a little relief now and then as a listener - a chance to let my ears breath.

I'm taking matters into my own hands this Friday when I mix them - the distorted guitar player has agreed to give me a direct out from his guitar to mix in with his miked amp. It may be a disaster, but I'm hoping it will give me just enough sparkle to mix in to keep everything from sounding so overdriven all the time. My plan is to pull back the mic channel some when he plays rhythm and add more in when he takes a lead. I'm hoping I can add some pseudo dynamics by at least changing the sound of the guitar once in a while. It's not a substitute for actual tone, but it's wearing me out listening to the constant drone of dirty guitars with too much bottom end - in other words....bedroom tone.

6 - T39 4-25" 2-22" 3012LF
4 - OT12 2512 Melded/NSD2005
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"A system with a few knobs set up by someone who knows what they are doing is always better than one with a lot of knobs set up by someone who doesn't."

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Re: If you aren't a guitarist, you'll love this. If you are a guitarist, you need this.

#11 Post by AcousticScience » Mon Jul 08, 2019 2:54 pm

True. I once played through a guitar rig with a "subwoofer" with all the bottom end when I was noodling around at home. Well it was an HH Electronic 15" cab for bass and a Marshall 8020 for highs and it thundered especially during palm mutes, but such a tone would have muddied out a bass player in a band.

The other issue is guitar and vocals competing for sonic space. Someone commented you should use a midrange heavy guitar but I think a scooped guitar sound (some energy taken out between 400 and 1200 Hz to fit the singer, but also bass rolled off below 250 for the bass player and also above 4k for the singer and hi-hat to come through. This is why you can hear the lyrics well in a Metallica song. Note I haven't mixed a live band and have only home recording experience so I don't want to come off as an armchair expert. If there's one drum that is never loud enough compared to the rest of the kit it's the hi-hat. I mean if you want that delicate treble not just smashing it like a cymbal.

Not to mention the average 4 x 12 has similar dispersion to an LRAD. Squealing highs right in front of it and muffled tone everywhere else including the guitarist's ears!

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