Is There Really Such a Thing as “Bad Tone?”

Yes, I am really posing this question.  If you spend any time in any comments section on any gear review, or any forum, you will get the peanut gallery chiming in with a “this (insert piece of gear) sounds like %@#$!”

But does it, really? To me, tones are tools, and with any song you need the right tools.  Trying to fit a tone that conventional ears might indicate sounds “good” into the wrong context is like trying to tighten a philip’s head screw with a flat-head screwdriver.   However, in practice, finding the “correct” guitar tone for a song is not as easy a prescription as finding a philip’s head screwdriver for the aforementioned screw.

This is where art and experimentation comes in.  You have to listen to the song and the vibe you want it to convey.  Perhaps, even stepping outside of the gear you would normally play to just see what happens can be the spark of inspiration that takes the song to the next level.   Heck, maybe even a Metal Zone into a Line 6 Spider will create just the low-fi buzz saw sound you need to add a sense of urgency to a song.  Who knows?

I’ll use a real-life example from my limited recording experience.  The vibe we were going for on a song was frantic and aggressive.  At the time I had a Line 6 Flextone II head (I know, tone city, right?), so I tried all sorts of the models to get the right fit.  I also had this little solid-state Harmony amp from the 60’s with a blown speaker.  It sounded like a wet fart through a bullhorn, but it cut in a mix.  I don’t know what made me think to do this, but why not layer the Insane model on the Line 6, which was just an over-the-top metal type of sound, with the farting sound of the Harmony?  Sure, it wasn’t a “pleasant” tone, but darnit it set the vibe of the song.  Those two pieces of amplification that would be dismissed as having “bad tone” in the greater guitardom universe were just the prescription the tone doctor ordered.

Moral of the story; Art is subjective.  Don’t turn your nose up at cheap or unconventional gear, it has a time and a place.   Experiment.   With the technology available today, just start plugging in and playing any gear you can get your hands on and see what it sounds like in the mix.  The worst thing that can happen is you just have to hit “undo” in the DAW.   Don’t be ashamed of that Line 6 amp, fiddle some knobs and maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how a “bad” tone fits in a mix.

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