50-years of experience has taught me that tone is always elusive and completely subjective. One day you have it and the next day you think it´s gone. In fact I´ve caught myself again and again changing pickups, selling guitars and amps, reworking and trading away great sounding guitars because they didn´t capture a certain tone I was seeking at that moment. I could kick myself for that today.
Yet- great tone is also a matter of quality,old-school craftsmanship, and the thoughtful combination of pick ups and wood and also a few secrets.
You probably heard:„I want my tele to sound as fat and warm as Brent Mason, yet as sparkly as Vince Gill, as spanky as Ray Flacke then again as percussive as Albert Lee. I like that raunchy sound of Brad and that dry twang of Pete Anderson. Don´t forget Danny Gatton,Arlen Roth etc. “ ALL THESE TONES IN ONE GUITAR?
Well I´m sorry to say that I haven´t been able to do that up to now nor ever will. I won´t tell you that my guitars can capture all those tones.
I will tell you though that my guitars go through a very critical testing and setting up phase. Believe me, my ears are very critical! You will get an all-round tone that is very satisfying and also balanced to deliver a professional instrument.
„Oh that 50´s Nocaster was the best Tele I ever heard!“ – but, let´s be honest- if I played it today it just might be a bit disapointing. This is all subjective and alot depends on your mood at the moment. That´s the whole fad behind artificial roadworn guitars. They sound great because they look old! Silly crap, isn´t it? Fads were always silly.
„My strat is painted with nitro. It resonates because of the nitro! Nitro guitars simply sound better.“
Well I played some old nitro strats that sounded great. I also played some polyester strats that sounded great. Does the strat sound great because of the nitro or does a great sounding guitar just happen to be painted in (don´t forget cheap) nitro? It would sound great painted with anything. Yet the nitro hype goes on and on capturing unsuspecting guitar lovers.
I´ve played some really old teles that sounded dead or with a real boomy muddy bass not at all „tele –like“. One even sounded ice-picky. Not at all what you would expect! Seymour Duncan is very honest and recalls having the same experience.
Well, cheap teles tend to sound ice-picky and I hate that sound. A tele should sound fat and dry and spanky with lots of musical overtones in the upper midrange.
BEWARE! You can´t add spank or brightness to a tele – you can only deduct it. So once its gone you won´t get it back no matter what pick-ups you use! That means if you use body and neck woods that have an inherent „dark tone“ to them, you won´t get brightness into these guitars through bright sounding pickups alone. Often you will get these guitars to sound thin. You don´t want that!
You can though, get a very bright sounding wood to get a warmer richer tone by the use of correct pickups and the corresponding magnets. This is the road I take.
So I try to find a happy medium between spank, brightness and sustain using highest quality woods and wood choices. So, please don´t ask me to put on a rosewood neck on a great sounding strat or tele with a one piece maple neck on it. It will change the tone.
CRAFTSMANSHIP: My motto, NO SHORTCUTS…..period.
Sustain is the goal here. If everything is put together perfectly, and fits and sits the way it should then you´ve got your sustain. I sometimes rework the bridge saddles or smooth out the bottom of the bridge to get it to sit as flat as possible.
SECRET 1: I also add a few millimeters to the distance from neck to bridge. This way the saddles are closer to the end of the bridge and you have a steeper angle of string to saddle. The string through body comes closer to the magical 90 degrees.That means the strings go over the saddle and straight down into the body and ferrules. In this way you have the most string pressure on the saddles and this gives you more sustain. Simple math, no rocket science and very logical.
In fact, I sometimes go to quite some length and have to drill the holes to ferrules to get this all to work and get the intonation perfect. I also heighten the neck cavity giving the neck about a milimeter more of height. You have to raise the saddles giving you more pressure and more sustain. A factory guitar doesn´t have this advantage because it is just too time consuming.
Test it yourself by timing the sustain of , lets say a cheap tele with string through bridge with a better tele and string through body. The string through bridge barely has a 20 degree angle of the string over saddle. Instead of sustain you get a „PLUNK“. The string through body tele has a 40 degree angle of string over saddle and therefore much more pressure on the saddle.
The Pearlvibes come close to 70 degrees – mostly about 655 degrees. Very close to the limit. I crave sustain and will not accept a guitar if it doesn´t have it.
SECRET 2: String height or action.
You can get your strings very close to the fingerboard.This is comfortable but it won´t help your sustain or tone. It will actually hinder tone, attack, sustain and playing style. You have to find the right compromise between tone and comfort. Listen and look at great Tele players like Brent Mason or even Brad Paisley or strat players like John Mayer or even Eric Clapton and you´ll notice relatively high action. Tele great Ray Flacke gave away the secret on his Homespun Tapes Series. He actually recomends tele players to raise string height quite a bit to increase pop, tone and sustain. You need lots of room to get that spank and twang without being afraid of strings buzzing or dieing out on you. Again logical. Most Tele and Strat greats have done this without thinking twice about it.
I try to find the sweet spot between twang and comfort so that my customers can attack their strings with real emotion and get that sweet snap, pop and bright overtones that adds character and soul to their sound.
SECRET 4: String trees are silly!
Well, atleast they are cheap. They not only clutter up a beautiful neck headstock but are innefective when it comes to real sustain.Many add tuning problems because they snag. The angle of string to nut to headstock is much too small so that there is little downward pressure on the nut. If you play really hard you will hear unpleasant nut buzz. Some teles have only one stringtree for the E and B strings.
Important: You need something to press all 6 strings to the nut – EVENLY. I use a thin goldplated metal strip placed 3 centimeters behind the nut and screwed securely into the headstock. The strings go under this strip and over the nut. You can choose how much downward pressure you want. Again a compromise is needed. Screw the strip almost down tot he wood give you the most sustain but your strings will snag and give you tuning headaches. Release it somewhat to get great sustain but leave the strings to move and tune freely.
SECRET 5: Pick up choice.
First of all, I will change the pick ups in my guitars up to four times to get the best sound. I do this during set up of my guitars and play the guitars extensively on a Dr. Z amp, then the Fender Princeton and then a Yamaha transistor amp. I record the guitar as a reference.
How do you know which pickups to use and which criteria apply here?
Your most important pick up is the bridge pick up that Leo called the LEAD pick up. This is the crucial testing area. The neck pickup is not that crucial and much easier to control.
Well, I first classify the sounds of my tele bodies. I do this by knocking and listening for tonal traits. I USE A STETHOSCOPE just like a doctor to hear the wood very clearly. This has helped greatly in classifying my wood tones. I am really surprised that other builders don´t use a stethoscope.
Using my experience and intuition I choose the best suited Pickup MAGNETS. This is a very complicated process.These magnets can have a great effect on tone. I generally choose pickups with vintage specs – NOT OVERWOUND! That means pups with a very clear and not muddy sound. The choice of magnets are essential to bring out the best in each wood choice.
The magnets are the trick for that fat,dry vintage tone especially in the bridge position – not overwinding. If you overwind your pickups you may get a nice fat distorted sound but you will sacrifice that for that chimy clean tele sound.
Brent Mason and Albert Lee use a combination of Alnico 2,3 or 5. I do the same. Jerry Donahue uses Alnico 3´s. I love his sound. They all have great tone.
SECRET 6: That thin hard layer of shell or abalone is very musical. Pearl is used on drums and bells and has a high bell-like quality. It hads a high percussive snap to wood that fits perfectly to teles and strats. I discovered this by accident.