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Tone: What is it and how do we get some?

My interpretation of the dictionary’s definition of tone is that: tone is the quality that a musician uses to create their personal sound that will influence their audience. I thought I could easily write a quick blog on tone and be done. But after thinking acutely for three minutes and looking back on my 35+ years of musical experience in searching for the “right tone” within my own self and instruments, I must admit I still do not feel that I have achieved the perfect tone that I can settle on and say “that is me.” I am closer every day and I am happy, but even now I’m still searching for the ultimate tone. So how do I explain this to my students and their parents when they ask me what is tone and what instrument do we buy to get the “right tone?”

Is tone a note, a timbre, a color, a shade, bright, warm, dark, strident, loud? Is tone a mood, a feel or groove, an inflection, a wooden fingerboard or an ebony fingerboard, ivory or plastic, a plastic or bone saddle, an electric or acoustic instrument? Is it an acoustic resonant drum membrane or a computer sample of a drum head? Is tone a new reed, a new mouthpiece, new strings, a new bow, a new instrument, a new voice instructor, a new pickup or microphone? Is it a digital audio file or a vinyl recording? Is it an old smoky sounding singer or a pure young choir voice? Is tone the reverb sound captured in a recording made inside a huge church in New York City or is it the plugin algorithm of reverb being used in a modern day recording studio? Is it a $100k acoustic grand piano or a newer $10k digitally sampled piano with "pianistic" touch, sound and action that closely emulates the real thing for a fraction of the cost? Yes it is all of this and much more….it is YOU!

Many years ago I remember reading a guitar magazine article where a writer for that magazine had Eric Clapton in his office and he was interviewing Eric for an upcoming article. In the corner of the interviewer’s office was his cheap Yamaha electric guitar plugged into a small, cheap solid state guitar practice amplifier. Eric asked permission to pick up the guitar and play it and the reporter said sure, but that “it is really cheap and don’t expect much sound from it”. Much to the surprise of the reporter, when Eric set the tone knobs on the amp and guitar and started playing this inexpensive run of the mill instrument, it was immediately transformed in Eric’s hands into a beautifully articulate and crafted sound. Later that same reporter admitted in his subsequent article that he had never been able to coax anything near that from that same instrument and amp. The interviewer discovered that afternoon that Eric’s tone was in Eric’s fingers not in any guitar or amp or any particular instrument or setup.

I was a trumpet player in high school and I remember getting that terrific feeling when my parents bought me a new horn or I purchased a new mouthpiece or a new mute as “my sound” seemed to improve to a new level in an instant. In college I was in a pop band and my keyboard rig was expensive and current and state of the art, until the next revolution of sounds and synths were developed the next year that made my sounds obsolete. After college I studied upright and electric bass and what a difference there is in a $250 bass and a $1000 and $5000 electric bass. And then I discovered my $500 bass bow that I thought was wonderful was actually rather pathetic when I finally got to compare it with a high quality $5000 bow at a professional string luthier’s shop in Washington, DC. Does money make a difference in tone, yes it certainly can, but it is not the only step in the process. And in my experience I have learned to use caution and only to apply gobs of money AFTER you have seriously applied yourself and you are truly a serious musician.

I am not sure that I would have ever noticed the unique subtleties created by each of my personal instruments if I had stopped practicing years ago or if I had ever stopped studying and learning from each of them. Each instrument taught me vast amounts of new concepts, sound, learning styles, musical idioms, dos and don’ts and numerous things that I would be able to apply back onto my older instruments and apply forward into each new instrument that I tried. And much of what I learned could also be funneled back into my life and my relationships and into financial and life disciplines.

I spent years studying each of my personal instruments, attempting to unearth their sound, their life force, their mysteries, their truths, lies and their “soul.” I worked diligently with each and experimented and made careful measurements and calculations, to further explore my own understanding and technique. And to learn about their limits in order to be able to educate, push, control and steer them and me. I also have spent countless hours listening to myself practice and perform; as I avidly record myself in rehearsal and at gigs in search of a leg up on myself, my competition and my musicianship. I have spent hundreds of hours in lessons, recording sessions, gigs and in jam sessions with friends that cheered me, disciplined me, pressed me and guided me to try to expand my knowledge and sound and instrument qualities and understandings to another level. I also continuously go out on “research and reconnaissance missions.” I seek, listen, watch and gather information about how to play, perform, entertain and how to create better sounds, notes, feel, mood, groove, context with the music that I hear, steal, borrow, lift and emulate from others in concerts and on albums and CDs.

So again I ask….what is tone? A musical colleague and friend of mine recently expressed to me that she finds it disappointing that we professional musicians get to afford and practice on the best instruments while students start on the worst instruments devoid sometimes of tone and touch and inspiration. Then magic happens when we musicians/teachers go back and demonstrate music on a student model instrument and we achieve very similar results of high art and wonderful tone as we have learned to transcend the instrument to harness the power of music. We both agreed and wished that all of our students could borrow, practice and express themselves on higher quality instruments first hand and sooner in their lives, to allow them early on to see what they are working towards. She told me that she finds it all a bit oxymoronic that the best musicians perform and practice on a high quality instruments to advance ourselves far enough so that we can no go back and perform with quite good tone on less quality instruments.

Four years back I played a $250,000 Fazioli grand piano and wow it could almost play itself. The action was perfect, not too fast or slow and the touch of the keys were warm and inviting. Each note was expressive with hundreds of implications, dynamics and innuendos. The tone sang out from the magical frame that was just a piano, albeit a very expensive and finely crafted instrument. Each chord and note within was extremely articulate and perfect. Fast forward to now and I play a sampled synthetic Yamaha keyboard in church and I find it perfect for my needs there. When my mind and my mood and the music is in just the right place in my soul (and in the perfect moment with God in my heart) whatever instrument I am playing sounds and feels as good as that Fazioli. I believe that tone is in your hands, head and heart and it’s within the song and that is what every student and working musician needs to be aware of and working on. Of course you should still strive and work extremely hard to hone your skills and practice your personal sound and your own music. But in the end it is you that makes that perfect tone, it is not wholly the instrument, and remember that your special sound is unlike anyone else’s on this planet.

So, be bold, practice and listen to yourself, listen to your heart and listen deeply to those people and instruments and the sound of music that you wish to emulate. Be daring and work extremely hard with purpose and intensity if you believe that music is your ultimate dream. Finding your tone is just a matter of purpose, time, research, awareness , practice and patience.


Wayne Estes

Owner and Instructor

The Catoctin School of Music


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