Welcome to the Tone Obsession with Michael Watts here at Guitarbench.com.
Michael is an award winning guitarist and runs The North American Guitar, dealing in fine guitars!
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Tone Obsession with Michael Watts
“I’ve practiced my tone for almost 50 years, and if I can’t hear my
tone, I can’t play. If I can’t play, then I won’t get paid. If I don’t get
paid, then I lose the house, you know? It’s like a chain reaction. If
I lose my tone, I …can’t do nothin’. I’ll just walk into the ocean and
die, if I lose my tone.” – Miles Davis
Hi, my name is Michael Watts and I am obsessed with the sound of the guitar. In
particular the tonal possibilities afforded to the players of modern luthier-built
instruments as well as the legendary vintage guitars of the past.
The guitar is my voice as a composer and performer and has been a vital part of my
life since childhood. From the ancient (I can still remember very vividly the sound
and response of a 1929 Gibson Nick Lucas I played some years ago) to the modern ultra
responsive thoroughbreds of luthiers such as Michael Greenfield, Jason Kostal, Linda
Manzer etc, it is no exaggeration to say that I have “gone deep” into the sonic universe of the guitar.
In this article I will be outlining some of my approaches towards generating a wide and
expressive tonal palette in order to embark on the process that Frank Zappa likened to “air sculpture”, more commonly known as playing your guitar.
I know, this magazine is about the guitar, and believe me, when it comes to guitar geekery I can hold my own, but I firmly believe that owning a an instrument is a privilege that brings with it responsibility. In this case the responsibility to make as musical a sound as possible every time you play your guitar.
In order to further our understanding of tone it helps to have a preliminary grasp of the anatomy of a sound. Any sound, from the softest (think a gut strung 19th Century Martin) to the most aggressive (an EMG-loaded Les Paul perhaps, through a Death by Audio “Apocalypse” fuzz pedal, maybe, into a row of Marshall plexi’s ), is comprised of four parts the attack, the decay, the sustain, and the release.
While the late 1970’s were hardly a golden era for guitar manufacture,they did herald a greater understanding of sound due to the advent of the synthesiser. Early experiments in synthesis and psycho-acoustics revealed some very interesting- the fact that the human brain gets a huge amount of the information it uses to process sound from the initial attack.
I had personal experience of this in the studio, one night mixing doubled lines of cello and
baritone sax. I conducted a little experiment and faded out the initial attack of each note.
The sound of each instrument after the initial attack of the note was as close as, to be indistinguishable. Spooky!
So, this obviously has implications for us as creators of tone. Given that so much of the
identity and perceived quality of the sound we make is dependent on how our brains (and
indeed those of our audience) process the initial transients of each note then we must focus on those first milliseconds of chaos as the sound explodes into being.
Let’s try an exercise:
Grab the nearest guitar to you, it doesn’t matter what tuning it’s in, who built it or how much it cost, as long as it has at least one string on it then it will do the job.
Attack it. Seriously, move that string, shift some air. See how many UNIQUE sounds you can make (no need to fret it, just the open string will do fine). Use the tops/backs of your nails, your knuckles, the edge of your plectrum, fingertips, whatever you can think of.
Ignore anything but the initial transient. Do not look for beauty, only variation. Adjust the amount of energy going into the attack, the angle at which it hits the string and the position along the string relative to the nut and saddle.
Eventually you will hear an attack that stands out, you may not be able to explain why (and few would believe you even if you could…) but for some reason it seems more immediate, more honest, more musical… Now do it again. Repeat that EXACT attack.
It may take a little while to dial it in but eventually you should be able to duplicate this
attack a couple of times in a row.
It’s not as easy as it sounds… but you have found something, something you can call your own. Where will you use it?
Next Issue: D is for decay…