Tone Be or Not Tone Be

Tone Be or Not Tone Be
(That is not the question)

Shakespeare was a pedal steel guitar player. Yes, yes, he was also a poet , or a writer, or something like that, and he wrote the words you see in the title above. Yes, he did. This is what he really wrote and it got misprinted, or misinterpreted somehow along the line. Even then, he knew the secret that everybody has been trying to discover for the last 150 years. He was talking about tone…that wonderful sound that a great pedal steel guitar player makes when everything is just right.


Steel guitar players have spent ever increasing amounts of money on guitars, amplifiers, effects units, and palm readers looking for that tone. And yet, it escapes most of us. The reason is simple, we are looking in all the wrong places.

While it is true that we must have a minimum of equipment in order to get some tone, like a guitar, an amplifier, and a volume pedal. That, in this age, is of little or no concern. I have not seen a guitar made in the last 20 years that is not of good quality, or an amp for pedal steel that won’t do the trick. There was a time when I have played some guitars that literally let the note die before the pick got off the strings. I haven’t seen one of those guitars in years though.

The question is then: just what does it take to get a tone like John Hughey, or Paul Franklin Jr? I can tell you from 40 years of playing with and sitting with all the best players in the world, it has nothing to do with what kind of guitar the man is playing. The guitar is a man’s preference only because it “feels” mechanically sound to him. It may be in how it looks as well.

I am personally convinced that any red guitar will play faster notes than all the others. My only complaint is that they have sold other people red guitars, and now they can all play faster than I can, or at least equally as fast. I was told I would be the only person on earth with a red guitar.

Everybody wants to buy some tone. It ain’t for sale! It isn’t a thing. It is a sound, like a spirit. You can’t hold it, see it, steal it buy it, give it away, or understand it. You either have it, or you don’t.

Those that have it, got it by accident, like a gift from God. It comes with time and it manifests itself through the hands.

Tone is in the hands.

There are little camps of all knowing, all seeing pedal steel guitar players everywhere you go, and all of them have discovered the secret of tone. A black 1965 Emmons push-pull guitar is one of those discoveries. Get one, it will make you sound like Buddy Emmons. And while you are at it, get a wife that looks just like his, and you might as well move to Nashville and sleep in his bed. Do all these things and you will get his tone, won’t you?

Consider who in all the world we esteem to have the best tone. If you could sit right next to, or directly in front of, all the great players of notorious fame, as I most certainly have after 40 years of playing and living in Nashville, you could undoubtedly see the answer in a heartbeat. They all play, or have played every kind of guitar made. They have all played every kind of amplifier manufactured. Yet, they all have this wonderful thing called tone.

It is in their right hand. It is in the way they place it left and right down the string length. It is in the shape of the fingers, and in the way they strike the strings. Some play down, some up and back, and yet some in several distinctly different moves for different colors of tones.

The right hand is a paint brush in the hands of an artist. Each artist sees, or hears notes in his personal style. He adjusts his right hand to paint the color he sees best for any certain line of notes. It changes. Great players are moving the right hand left and right, forward and back all the time. The picks change the angle of attack from one line of notes to another. This thing is a science all to itself.

How hard the picks hit the string makes a tremendous difference in the tone the pickup sends to the amp. Tone comes from the left hand in the form of vibrato. Vibrato is the very voice and breath of life in this instrument. It can either make sustain, or destroy it.

People who argue that tone comes from the name on the front of a guitar, or from some effects unit, or some amplifier, have never studied a truly great player’s right hand. That is the last thing most of us watch when we listen to a live performance. We watch the pedals, and the left hand sending that bar from left to right. We are all watching for something we can steal from this guy, that is why we call it “steel” guitar isn’t it? We don’t watch the right hand, it doesn’t do anything we can really benefit from does it? It is doing everything that makes the left hand, and the pedals sound great.

And then there is the final argument. Of all the those little camps of players who are so sure they have the cosmic truth about great tone, have we ever really stopped to listen to their playing and their tone instead of their incessant bickering about how who gets it?

There is an old English proverb I think: The proof is in the pudding. Do these soothsayers of truth make good pudding? Do they themselves make the kind of pudding you like to eat? If not, I would suggest that they avail themselves to enough of it to cover themselves from the belly up. And you need to find another cook.

Stop looking for a good reason why you don’t sound great. The problem is you and your hands. You don’t need another guitar, this one will do. You don’t need another amp, this one will do. You certainly don’t need effects units, Jimmy Day has proven that.

When you have discarded all these lame excuses you will be left with your ears and your hands. Gee, you had those all this time. Each pedal steel guitar player is issued two of each, twice as many as you really need. What a deal!

Jeff Newman