Photo by John Lill Photography
In a new article for Premier Guitar, guitarist Pete Thorn uses Van Halen guitarist and pioneer Eddie Van Halen as an example as he debates whether guitar tone comes from the player’s gear, the player’s hands, or both.
Here’s an excerpt:
It’s an often-debated subject on guitar forums. Someone will start a discussion thread with a polarizing title like “Tone Is in the Hands!” A few days and many pages later, the debate will rage on with some insisting that tone is only affected by the gear being used and others insisting it is, indeed, all in the hands. This month, I’ll share my thoughts and observations on this topic.
Interestingly, the debate is usually only among electric guitarists. I think it’s sort of a given that any acoustic guitar can sound different depending how you play it. Use a hard pick, a thin pick, or nylon pick—they will all give different sounds. Play with your fingers and no pick, and you’ll get a vastly different sound. There’s also a huge range of tonal color and dynamics that depend on where and how hard you attack the strings. The construction, materials, and size of an acoustic guitar certainly affect its sound, but a player’s chosen dynamics and technique (or lack of dynamics and technique) contributes in a massive way to the overall sound. So why would the electric guitar be any different?
I’m a firm believer that many of the tonal and dynamic variations that occur on an acoustic guitar will carry over to the electric. However, it can be said that electric guitars and amps tend to have a more limited dynamic and frequency range than acoustics. There’s usually some degree of compression going on due to the nature of tube amps and how they overdrive. Also, typical 10″ and 12″ speakers have a limited frequency range since they are generally midrange focused. So, to some degree, there’s a tonal and dynamic homogenization that occurs when compared to the rather-wide dynamic and frequency range of acoustic guitars.
When King Edward exploded on the scene in 1978, many guitarists tried to emulate his technique and his tone, but most fell short by a long shot. Even though Eddie’s core tone was relatively dirty, his overall technical fluidity and explosive right-hand attack rang through loud and clear. You may have heard the story about Van Halen opening for Ted Nugent in 1978. Ted was taken aback by young Edward’s tone while standing side stage for a Van Halen soundcheck, and asked if he could play through Eddie’s rig. When he did—lo and behold—he sounded just like… Ted!
Read the rest on PremierGuitar.com.