Acoustic Guitar Tone & the L1®

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Fountain Pen

This article is an editorial and expresses the opinion and experience of the author. Please post comments in the discussion page.
Thank you.

by Tom Munch



Here are some initial ideas on getting acoustic guitar tone.

I feel that great tone is in your fingers & how you adjust to what you hear. I played three guitars at the gig last night - a Collings flattop, a Godin nylon solid body, & a Yamaha L5 copy. All of them sounded great according to a couple guitarists I respect in the audience. I spent just a little time getting the right presets before the gig, & the rest was just listening & adjusting attack & style in the first couple minutes of playing each guitar during the performance - no EQ changes, just volume, pick or finger angle, attack, & muting.

I'm convinced most guitarists just don't listen & adjust to the minute differences that make good tone great. Some are also deaf or have different ideas of what makes good tone. I've had other guitarists pick up one of my guitars that I can't get good tone out of & within a minute have tone I've never gotten out of that instrument.

From the forum "Tom Munch's Acoustic Guitar Sound" 5/4/2006[1]

Let's talk about acoustic tone. I searched for the holy grail for years. I have a couple dozen pickups & a dozen high-end preamps to show for it.

The funny thing about my rig in Big Sur was that I had 2 guitars with completely different pickup systems & 2 different preamp systems, so it couldn't have been the pickups or the preamps that made the tone. Right? Well, yes, & no. I'm assuming that Ken liked the tone of both guitars.

The pickups for both guitars were very nice & had been tweaked a lot to get the sound I wanted.

One guitar was a Goodall grand concert with a Sunrise, a Fishman SBT (soundboard transducer), & a Joe Mills mic. A custom 4-conductor plug & jack (TRRS) fed each of the pickup signals through a 9-conductor cord (built for 3 discrete mic signals) to 2 Fishman Pocket Blender preamps. Blender 1 processed the Sunrise & SBT & mixed those to the pickup channel on Blender 2 while the Joe Mills went to the mic channel on Blender 2. The Sunrise was EQ'd with bass full up & the treble full down. The SBT was flat on bass & to 3 o'clock on the treble. The Mills mic was EQ'd with bass at 3 o'clock (or full up, I can't remember) & the treble about 11:00. The output of Blender 2 then went to channel 3 of the L1.

Tom and his Pederson taken at Big Sur April 2006

The other guitar was a Pederson small body custom guitar with a triple system from Pickup-the-World (2 top sensors & 1 under-saddle sensor) & a Joe Mills mic. The combined PUTW pickups & the Mills mic went through a stereo jack & plug through a Mogami 6-conductor cord (built for 2 discrete mic signals) to a Rane AP 13 preamp. The PUTW was EQ'd with the 40 Hz at 6dB boost & the rest flat, & the Mills mic was EQ'd with the Low Cut at about 250 Hz & the rest flat.

The Mills mic was the only common element of both systems.

Here's the kicker. Most of this stuff is old tech with all of the modeling technology & newer stuff out there. My philosophy is to get your tone in the ballpark & then do the rest with your fingers. There was a great post at Christmastime a year ago by a great bass player who said he got most of his tone from his fingers. He prided himself on being able to get good sound on most any bass & any system. I feel that is also where most of my tone comes from. Pick or nail angle, attack, amount of flesh, etc. are as important as all the outboard gear.

I experimented last weekend with this concept by taking an old guitar out to the gig with an average pickup system & forcing myself to get good tone out of it. It took a couple tunes, but I got it dialed in where I was pretty content.

I used to like to do unconventional things like play an electric guitar through a keyboard amp to prove to myself that the gear didn't matter that much. At the end of the night I had people saying they loved my tone & asking what I was using. Go figure.

My best advice is to really listen & be intuitive to get good tone. I've heard some great guitars sound horrible & some bad guitars sound pretty good over the years. At least the L1 really lets you hear what tone you are making, so you are halfway there. Use your ears & experiment. Every situation is different.

Ken mentioned something about the room. The beauty of the L1 is that the room doesn't interfere with guitar tone near as much, & feedback is not near the issue that it is with standard systems. When I play with a full band my tone is just as cutting as the lead guitar player. That had never happened before the L1.

There are lots of good pickups on the market these days, & lots of guitars with high-end pickups already built in. My best advice is to get the best guitar with the best pickup system you can, & then really listen to your tone (through an L1, of course). Listen to when your tone sounds squashed from overplaying. Listen to when your pick angle or finger technique makes the guitar sound more acoustic & more real. Be attentive to this sound & work to make that attention an unconscious part of your playing & sound. The unconscious attention is the key to most good playing anyway. You could call it being in the zone too.

Cliff Henricksen's comments in the same thread:

Working with Ron Carter and tweaking his sound with my 1/3 octave (EQ), Ron looked at me, smiled, held up his right hand, fingers spread apart, and said "here's MY equalizer". I said "oh yeah, you are so right".

I think that what it comes down to in the quest for tone is the goal of the player, what they want to hear. Often this is the result of hearing really fine tone, like what Tom delivered in the Hidden Barn (at Big Sur). While I'm touched, as always, to hear that our technology empowered Tom to achieve his tone, it's really his thoughts that allowed him to get there and not the technology.

So many string players, especially the experienced ones, will tell you "it's in the fingers". It's so true. And so, for the tone-pilgrim that has yet to arrive in the land of The Magic, stay steadfast in your search and it will all happen. Just have faith, be patient and work, work, work.

Another thought from me on that thread:

One of the things that is most important is the touch. You hear great players talk about this all the time. What I posted vocally about playing at 40% with intensity - that's what it's all about for me. It's like stroking a cat softly around the ears, or feathering your car's throttle ever so lightly, or kissing your love with great passion & gentle tenderness. Do the same thing for your guitar. (I know how odd this sounds - LOL.)

Here's what I had posted about vocals... of the things I did was turn up the master to 2 o'clock & then whisper into the mic. I believe in playing with intensity at 40% instead of the 80% that most guys like to play at. That can make a HUGE difference in tone.

Another thought - 3/13/2007, Finding the Sweet Spot

Another way to express these thoughts is "finding the sweet spot". That is a phrase that applies to an awful lot of life. The best tone is in that sweet spot guitar-wise, vocally, in any instrument & performance. Find that sweet spot of tone that really gets you off & work with it. There are sweet spots in many ranges & volumes on every instrument. There are also sweet spots with mics & even the L1. Find those magical ranges & work in them to find every nuance & expressive conduit available.

Related: Vocal and Guitar Performance Techniques Video by Tom Munch

  1. Tom Munch's Acoustic Guitar Sound discussion on the Bose Musician's Message Boards