“A Signature Sound”
by Tony Scaltz
Having a productive discussion about guitar tone is akin to examining how one creates a distinctive voice in art. Both are elusive pursuits and seem to carry connotations of “you’re either born with it or not”, or “great tone comes from years of experimentation…if you’re lucky”. Such sentiments are useless for students in terms of musical growth, so today I will be so bold to suggest unorthodox approaches toward the cultivation of a signature sound to your playing, one that you can continue to develop over time yet feel comfortable enough with to settle into and express fluent musical ideas.
I love the adage “tone is in the fingers”. It makes me a bit giddy actually, but what we need to teach ourselves and students is that a malleable voice on our instruments comes not just from the fingers themselves but from the sum total of movements our fingers make on a dynamic string. For me, the essence of establishing a signature voice in your playing is first gaining an understanding that “string tone” is an array of dynamic interactions between harmonic nodes, player attacks, and tensions and releases applied to string manipulations.
To begin, let’s consider how the brain is able to differentiate between the sound produced via a fretted violin note and that of a guitar. Physically, the strings on both instruments are similar types of wire, and the mechanics for producing pitch on these strings also share similarities. So, how can our ears separate the harmonic elements of string A from string B, then instantly identify the sources for the tones produced as unique to each instrument? The answer lies in a type of musical string DNA: properties of the string itself, harmonic overtones, and interactions with the player come together in a “soup” that bears a signature for that tone on that instrument.
Now, consider the variations of physical movements that influence our string attacks, sustains, vibratos, and decays. If we can now make these physical movements on a string deliberate, then we can start to influence the string dynamics to create a wider timbral palette.
For example, let’s say that I am approaching a high D on the B string at the end of a melodic phrase. I know that D has a mellow richness to it, being only two semi-tones away from C, which also carries an inherent color of lightness. I want to establish a “character” to the warm color that D exudes. What is the best way for me to execute warmth on this final tone of my phrase? Apply a medium-light attack on a the B string closer to the neck, while simultaneously allowing the pitch to “breathe” for the equivalent of a 1/16th note before I apply a deep, but not wide or erratic vibrato. I want to elongate the sustain of this note and intermittently apply a small bend or vibrato, then before decay try striking the string on another location to access a different harmonic node. All the while, keep your fretting finger stable yet relaxed and aware of small movements of the string in the moment of the attack.
Now here’s the trick: allow your fretting finger to increase and decrease tension on the board to extract a diverse palette of color around this tonal center. I do this by listening not just to the “aggregate” pitch, but all of the underlying harmonics in the fretted note and move my finger around the fret space to pull out some of these partials.
Once I get a feel for timbral movements within the tone, I can extend to a larger musical phrase by emulating a more “vocal” approach to my attack and think about how I can “tense and release” my finger movements within a fret space to simulate what happens when singers “shape” their embouchure and glottal regions. I play a few more notes in both directions of my tonal center (in this case, D) and use the contour (directional shape) of the line I’m making as the basis for adjustments to my finger movements.
Try this too: a sneaky little movement that many guitarists don’t know about (I didn’t myself up until a few years back) is to make microtonal adjustments to any fretted pitch by pushing the string toward the bridge with your fretted finger. Thanks to Steve Kimock, who wrote extensively on the nature of purer guitar tunings and techniques such as the above mentioned to help us compensate for the effects of fretting on “accurate tone”.
When I work with students, I set up exercises such as these as studio explorations to see what effects on the string produce the most usable effects and disregard the movements with the least amount of timbral change from the string. In the studio, I’ve found that as students mature musically these nuances to their playing dominate more of their attention as they play through phrasing…and that’s good: we want to become highly proficient on our instruments so we can move beyond the “note” into regions that form a stronger basis for art.
And if you’re more a “just grab my guitar and enjoy what comes out” type of player, imagine if you could play the same note 50 times, each time with a different character.
Experiment, experiment, experiment….and do all of this while recording.
As my teachers used to tell me, “you want to be recognized for your tone? Well, tape doesn’t lie!”