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Tone Obsession with Michael Watts “I’ve practiced my tone for almost 50 years, and if I can’t hear my tone, I can’t play. If I can’t play, then I won’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, then I lose the house, you know? It’s like a chain reaction. If I lose my tone, I ...can’t do nothin’. I’ll just walk into the ocean and die, if I lose my tone.” - Miles Davis Hi, my name is Michael Watts and I am obsessed with the sound of the guitar. In particular the tonal possibilities afforded to the players of modern luthier-built instruments as well as the legendary vintage guitars of the past. The guitar is my voice as a composer and performer and has been a vital part of my life since childhood. From the ancient (I can still remember very vividly the sound and response of a 1929 Gibson Nick Lucas I played some years ago) to the modern ultra responsive thoroughbreds of luthiers such as Michael Greenfield, Jason Kostal, Linda Manzer etc, it is no exaggeration to say that I have “gone deep” into the sonic universe of the guitar. In this article I will be outlining some of my approaches towards generating a wide and expressive tonal palette in order to embark on the process that Frank Zappa likened to “air sculpture”, more commonly known as playing your guitar. I know, this magazine is about the guitar, and believe me, when it comes to guitar geekery I can hold my own, but I firmly believe that owning a an instrument is a privilege that brings with it responsibility. In this case the responsibility to make as musical a sound as possible every time you play your guitar.

ADSR In order to further our understanding of tone it helps to have a preliminary grasp of the anatomy of a sound. Any sound, from the softest (think a gut strung 19th Century Martin) to the most aggressive (an EMG-loaded Les Paul perhaps, through a Death by Audio “Apocalypse” fuzz pedal, maybe, into a row of Marshall plexi’s ), is comprised of four parts the attack, the decay, the sustain, and the release.



Issue 4 2012

GUITARBENCH EDITOR: Terence Tan CO-EDITOR: Jessica Pau SALES/MARKETING: Jessica Pau PROOFREADER: Doug Shaker Contributing Writers: El McMeen, Ken Bonfield, Jose Bernardo WEBSITES: Our Online Magazine: www.guitarbench. com

The information and advertising set forth herein has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate. The publisher, however, does not warrant complete accuracy of such information and assumes no responsibility for any consequences arising from the use thereof or reliance thereon. Publisher reserves the right to reject or cancel any advertisement or space reservation at any time without notice. Publisher shall not be liable for any costs or damages if for any reason it fails to publish an advertisement. This publication may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Copyright Š. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.

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The Attack While the late 1970’s were hardly a golden era for guitar manufacture,they did herald a greater understanding of sound due to the advent of the synthesiser. Early experiments in synthesis and psycho-acoustics revealed some very interesting- the fact that the human brain gets a huge amount of the information it uses to process sound from the initial attack. I had personal experience of this in the studio, one night mixing doubled lines of cello and baritone sax. I conducted a little experiment and faded out the initial attack of each note. The sound of each instrument after the initial attack of the note was as close as, to be indistinguishable. Spooky! So, this obviously has implications for us as creators of tone. Given that so much of the identity and perceived quality of the sound we make is dependent on how our brains (and indeed those of our audience) process the initial transients of each note then we must focus on those first milliseconds of chaos as the sound explodes into being. Let’s try an exercise: Grab the nearest guitar to you, it doesn’t matter what tuning it’s in, who built it or how much it cost, as long as it has at least one string on it then it will do the job. Attack it. Seriously, move that string, shift some air. See how many UNIQUE sounds you can make (no need to fret it, just the open string will do fine). Use the tops/backs of your nails, your knuckles, the edge of your plectrum, fingertips, whatever you can think of. Ignore anything but the initial transient. Do not look for beauty, only variation. Adjust the amount of energy going into the attack, the angle at which it hits the string and the position along the string relative to the nut and saddle.

Eventually you will hear an attack that stands out, you may not be able to explain why (and few would believe you even if you could…) but for some reason it seems more immediate, more honest, more musical… Now do it again. Repeat that EXACT attack. It may take a little while to dial it in but eventually you should be able to duplicate this attack a couple of times in a row. Then five… Then ten… It’s not as easy as it sounds… but you have found something, something you can call your own. Where will you use it? Next Issue: D is for decay…

Michael Watts is an award-winning fingerstyle guitarist based in the UK. He has demonstrated the work of some of the world’s greatest luthiers at numerous international guitar festivals and runs The North American Guitar,, a company specialising in bespoke luthierbuilt guitars. He can be reached at: or by clicking on the image below!


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Guitarbench Magazine Issue 4. Tone Obsession with Michael Watts  

Find out more about tone from player extraordinaire, Michael Watts from bench Magazine Issue 4. Guitarbench magazine: Acoustic and classical...

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