Normal Guitar - Tuck-like Tone
Tuck Andress
1/99 - updated 5/1/99
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My recording guitar: 1953 Gibson L-5CES with Ernie Ball roundwound strings (.011, .014, .018 plain, .028, .046, .056 except "Heaven Down Here:" .012, .015, .020) and medium-high action (12/64 inch from 12th fret to top of sixth string; 8/64 from 12th fret to top of first string), bone nut and Tune-O-Matic bridge with metal inserts. Single Bartolini 1HCX3 pickup (neck position, angled 23/64 inch from pickup to sixth string, 10/64 inch from pickup to first string).

My live guitar: Same except: 1949 L-5, Bartolini 1CTA pickup.

Note the pickup angle implied by the above: Very close to the first string; much farther from the sixth string. It lets me boost the bass for tone without having low notes feed back or overwhelm high notes. It really makes the high end sing without having to play too hard. I do it on every guitar, including ones I play in bands. This is a trick of the trade.

Tone settings: On guitars that don't have built-in preamps, tone controls only subtract, and this is conceptually the wrong point at which to do it. Therefore always run the tone control wide open. Better yet rewire your guitar to bypass it. It's amazing how much it colors the tone even when it's on 10.

This also applies to the switch that combines the two pickups. At the risk of throwing away functionality of the guitar, bypassing that switch (and thus losing the use of the second pickup) will also clean up the tone somewhat. You'd have to experiment by rewiring back and forth to discover how much and where the tradeoff should be. The principle of minimum signal path, including wire and switches, is important as long as the signal is high impedance, which virtually every pickup is.

It is tedious to do this kind of experiment, but it's worth it because you learn a lot from it, and your tone improves. We've made ourselves do countless A/B tests of pickups (at least 20 different ones), cables, power cables, etc., all the way down the line to the speakers the sound finally comes out of. Patti has the golden ears and good sense, and I get to be the patient scientist.

For guitars, one approach is to temporarily install RCA jacks everywhere inside your guitar so you can just reconnect them to bypass pots, switches, etc. Once you decide what internal signal path works best for you, hard wire it, getting rid of the RCA jacks, which introduce their own degradation and unreliability, unless you decide that you want to be able to rewire easily to play with a band by replugging internally (still a pain; it's a lot easier to have two guitars). If you try a buffer preamp, this would also make it possible to mock up what it would sound like built into the guitar by taping it to the guitar and connecting it to the pickup output via the RCA jack you would add before the pickup goes to anything else.

Amp gain structure: Not knowing your specific amp, I will reason from generalities. Gain: Run the guitar as hot as possible to allow yourself however much headroom you will need. In other words, your peak guitar volume setting of the night should always be 10, then figure down from there. With high impedance pickups, the tone gets more muffled as you turn the volume down. Run the first gain stage (channel volume) as high as possible prior to distorting the preamp on peaks (assuming you are after a clean tone). This lets you run the master volume as low as possible, minimizing amplifier noise. The easiest approach is to run the master volume wide open, then use the channel volume as your volume control. This is fine also, provided amplifier noise is not a problem, but the former approach is more theoretically correct: Get all the gain possible short of distortion at the earliest point you can. The same principle applies to studio consoles, etc., incidentally.

Amp tone: At the risk of sounding discouraging, the odds of your getting very close to the tone you are used to hearing from me are low using a different, high impedance guitar and the limited tone controls of any guitar amp. The amount of EQ we do in mixing (and live) is drastic. As a minimum, I would check out a foot pedal buffer preamp (TC is best, as far as I know) to help you lose less tone before you hit the amp. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't optimize your tone settings. I'm going to have to cop out on this one and say experiment. You could go so far as to set up a somewhat scientific experiment where you put your amp in between your stereo speakers or studio monitors and compare your sound to my recorded sound. Be sure to listen at sufficient distance because of the different ways the speakers might project. Guitar amps sound very different up close (especially off axis). If you're working on a direct tone, run a CD player into two mixer inputs and your electronics' output into two others, then compare through the same monitor speakers.

If you were to insert a 1/3 octave EQ somewhere, you could probably get closer. I believe that part of the self-education of every modern musician (equally including singers, Patti would add) should be to learn about frequencies, tone, and how to use EQ to modify or achieve tone. Nobody will ever care as much about your sound as you do, so it falls on your shoulders.

I've never seen a guitar amp whose EQ approaches the level of control that you can get from 1/3 octave or enough bands of parametric. Of course I should add that in the last 20 years I have put very little energy into experimenting with guitar amps since I started creating my sound the other way.

Make it a goal to spend a lot of time with both types of EQ. Try to talk somebody into loaning them to you, but start with 1/3 octave because it is easier to relate to. Ideally do this in several situations:

(1) Patched into the effects loop of your amp, or between the preamp and power amp. If you plug the guitar directly into the EQ, you will suffer from noise due to level mismatch and loss of clarity in signal due to impedance mismatch unless you use a buffer preamp or direct box (buffer preamp is better).

(2) In place of the preamp of your guitar amp if it is possible to access the input of the power amp. It would be very useful to subtract out the coloration of the guitar preamp as a starting point. Of course you lose overdrive and effects unless you patch in external units, and will suffer the same impedance mismatch I described above unless you insert a buffer preamp.

(3) If the future holds buying other equipment (guess what, it always does), then if in this process you begin to begin to be encouraged by some of the sounds that you are able to get, now experiment with other speakers, taking a pure component approach to constructing the sound. My ideal guitar amp setup would be a great PA speaker. If money were no object it would be a Meyer CQ-2 self-powered speaker.

(4) Do the same thing using studio monitors. This is all a recursive process: Changes you make in one part of the chain will often invite you to reconsider decisions you made earlier about another part of the chain. Eventually it will stabilize.

Of course what I am suggesting is a long and time-consuming process. Document everything you discover very carefully, just like a scientist, so it will make sense when you come back to it later (date everything and be very explicit). Preferably do it all on a computer so you can search it later.

Some tips for working with complex EQ:

(1) Your approach should be first to determine which frequencies are too prevalent such that they mask other frequencies, and cut them. Having done that, repeat the process a few times. Don't start boosting anything until you have done this. Of course your volume will keep going down the more you cut, but gradually increase the gain to compensate for this. Most people start boosting what they feel is missing, but this is typically a mistake, leading to more noise and worse sound.

(2) I find it easier to adjust a 1/3 octave EQ (we do it every night in soundcheck on the house system), but parametrics sound better due to less phase shift.

(3) If you can possibly use a programmable EQ during the experimenting stage (which never ends), it is a drastically better tool for exploring EQ. Otherwise I use an oscillator and voltmeter to reset settings and measure changes, but it can take an hour to restore all the bands on a 1/3 octave EQ this way, and much longer for a parametric (I end up using an Excel spreadsheet also for parametric matches). This makes A/B tests impossible unless you record them, which makes the whole process more unfriendly. If you can get a stereo unit, at least you can run both channels in series, then alternately bypass one while you engage the other to A/B two different curves. Document, document, document as you go!

A spectrum analyzer is a tremendously helpful tool for comparing EQ curves, and there are now affordable, software-based ones.

An easy and powerful technique is to figure out the frequencies of the notes on the guitar or piano and use this to help you get a sense of what frequencies sound like what. Here's how I do it: 80 Hz is approximately low E. The standard ISO 1/3 octave frequencies correspond to an augmented arpeggio, so E = 80, G# = 100, C = 125, E = 160, etc. Note that doubling any frequency means going up an octave. Therefore memorize one octave and successively double to get all the others. The notes on a guitar comprise almost 4 octaves of the 10 octaves that humans can theoretically hear. There are 2 more below the guitar and 4 more above. The ones above are experienced as harmonics and tone color (as well as fundamentals for notes played on higher instruments). Even if you're playing a note whose fundamental is 250 Hz (about open B), it produces harmonics at integer multiples all the way through the frequency spectrum, at 500 Hz, 750 Hz, 1000 Hz (1 kHz), 1.25 k, 1.5k, 1.75 k, 2k, etc., up to 20k. By adjusting higher bands you affect the balance of the harmonics, which affects your tone. You want to develop a feel for what the various ranges sound like when boosted or cut.

If you were to witness a typical Tuck & Patti soundcheck, you would see one of us making sound on stage and the other walking around the house advising the engineer. The terms you would hear us use would usually be specific (cut 1.5 dB at 3.15 kHz) rather than vague (rich, dark, hollow, piercing, muffled, oomph) or figurative (it just doesn't speak to me).

One other factor in all this is that with a single speaker a guitar amp simply won't put out the lowest or highest frequencies, no matter how much you boost them. So you won't get the low bass thump (below 80 Hz) or the sparkling, crystalline, air sound (7-20 kHz). Hence the need for a two-way or three-way speaker at some point. If you do have a separate high-frequency speaker, take its dispersion into account. The higher the frequency, the more sensitive it is to direction, so the first thing that disappears as you get off axis is the high frequencies.

Incidentally, your guitar is a factor, too, but not as big a one as most people think, in my experience. By the time you really optimize the electronic part of it, you can pretty much blow a great guitar away with even a mediocre guitar. On our newest album, Paradise Found, I recorded the two band tracks using a cheap Korean travel guitar (Austin Hatchet) with totally dead strings that I carry on the plane as a backup. But it is wired electronically the same as my L-5s, and a lot of EQ was used in mixing. Most people won't have any idea that it's a different guitar.

Don't be overwhelmed by this; I am describing a process that will inevitably continue over many years. But dig in, figure out ways to do it efficiently and early, learn to psych yourself into enjoying this side of it while you're doing it, and you'll reap a lot of rewards. Just don't forget to keep playing from your heart while you explore the science part of it. Even during the science part, pay a lot of attention to your intuition and follow it.

© 1999 Tuck Andress


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