Tone Terminology

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How to talk like a guitar expert

Like wine lovers and foodies, guitar players wield colorful lingo to describe “flavors.” The good news: Guitar talk translates into definable qualities of sound. The flip side: Our ears, like our taste buds or senses of smell, are wired in many different ways, and we each have our own impressions and preferences. Case in point: “Bright” tone can have a positive or negative connotation depending on the listener’s perspective and musical context.

Despite his depth of knowledge about tonal characteristics (or perhaps because of it), master designer Andy Powers is often wary of the ways words are used to describe sounds — even though we do it all the time — due to the different interpretations often associated with those words.

He also emphasizes that there’s a lot going on sonically when guitar notes resonate.

“A note is not a simple, single-frequency tone; it’s a composite of multiple tones originating from one fundamental frequency,” Andy says. “What we hear is a summation of a frequency, with various degrees of complementary frequencies responding and blending with the primary pitch. The composite will take on different characteristics that subtly affect how the note is perceived over the beginning, middle and end of the sound.”  

That said, getting a handle on some frequently used terms provides a helpful reference for talking about tone. Some of these are more technical; others are more descriptive. And these really just scratch the surface. If nothing else, hopefully they’ll help you deepen your appreciation for the different sonic characteristics that shape a guitar’s musical personality.

Attack: The front-end trajectory of a guitar’s tonal response — how quickly it reaches its peak volume. This can be heavily influenced by the type of pick a player uses. Attack can also be used to describe the intensity of the player’s strokes on the strings. Related terms that follow the continuing progression of the sound as it resonates are “sustain” and “decay.”

Boomy: Bass-dominant or bottom-heavy tone, often lacking tonal definition. This can be interpreted differently based on personal preferences and musical applications. Some players favor a big, powerful bass response, often associated with a larger guitar. But in recording scenarios, a boomy guitar can overpower other frequencies in a mix. One of the benefits of Taylor’s V-Class bracing in the Grand Pacific is that the bass response isn’t boomy; it produces clear low-end power.

Bright: Treble emphasized, or with a lower degree of bass.

Buttery: Rich and smooth, with multiple notes easily blending together as if they could be spread from individual notes into a single harmonic entity, especially when the tone of the individual notes has a warm, low-frequency emphasis. These notes usually lack a sharp or fast attack and have a smooth beginning, middle and end.

Ceiling: A defined boundary, often used in reference to volume. A guitar or wood’s ceiling is the point at which it stops delivering volume or tone.

Complex: Rich with sonic detail, often featuring harmonic content from overtones. A rosewood guitar tends to produce a high degree of tonal complexity, especially in the treble frequencies.

Compressed: At Taylor we usually talk about compression in the context of a hardwood top like mahogany and the natural leveling effect it produces. A softer wood like spruce vibrates more freely and often produces a more open and dynamic response, while mahogany, being denser, will control the response of the note, leveling it out to create a more linear or balanced sound. The leveling effect can help smooth out an aggressive strummer. It also helps produce clear, well-behaved amplified sound for live performance.

Crisp: Clear and well-defined, typically with more treble emphasis and without lingering overtones.

Cutting: Often used in the context of a guitar’s ability to “cut through in a mix” with other instruments, either in live performance in a band setting or for recording. Essentially, it means some combination of volume, clarity and definition.

Dark: Bass tones emphasized or tone with a lower degree of treble.

Decay: The way a sustained, ringing note diminishes over time.

Dry: Tone with a strong fundamental focus and minimal overtones. Mahogany’s focused midrange is often described as dry.

Fundamental: The true frequency, or pitch, of a note. A low E, for example, vibrates at a frequency of 82.407 hertz (Hz). (1 Hz = 1 vibration per second.)

Growl: A certain rasp or overdriven sound that a bigger-bodied guitar puts off, often as the result of aggressive playing.

High-Fidelity: Usually used to describe acoustic guitar tone with pleasing clarity and tonal definition, often with more discernible sonic detail from harmonic overtones, and lacking distortion. (Also see “Piano-like.”) Rosewood guitars often have a high-fidelity quality to their voice due in part to the bell-like sparkle of the treble overtones.

Honky: A nasally sound, usually focused in the midrange frequencies.

Meaty: Lots of midrange, usually with a full low end. Also referred to as fat, full or thick.

Midrange: On car stereo or home audio systems, the frequency response often ranges between 20 Hz to 20 kilohertz (kHz). Midrange covers from 110 Hz, which is a low A string, up as high as 3 kHz. High-frequency (treble) tones tend to reside beyond that. If one considers where an acoustic guitar’s pitch range falls, predominantly all the notes on the fretboard occupy the midrange of the frequency spectrum that can be heard. It’s where the human voice resides; it’s the middle part of a piano.

Muddy: Lacking clarity or definition. It’s usually used in the context of describing bass or lower midrange frequencies.

Overtones: Multiples of a fundamental frequency, also referred to as harmonics, which occur as a string vibrates, creates wave patterns, and the harmonics stack up. The term “bloom” is used to describe the sonic effect of the overtones as they stack up over the decay of the note. Although overtones tend to be more subtle than the fundamental, they add richness and complexity to a sound.

Piano-like: Exactly what it sounds like. As if you packed a grand piano inside a guitar’s body and put strings on it. The sound has a bell-like, high-fidelity quality and a brilliance of note separation.

Presence: Generally, the treble frequencies that provide articulation and definition. If you put your hand over your mouth and talk, your voice has less presence. One can still hear and understand the words, but they will have less presence because they lack the articulation of a clearly defined high frequency.

Projection: How the tonal output is propelled and travels from the guitar. The physical range of the sound.

Punchy: Strong tonal output and projection, often focused in the midrange frequencies. An immediate and percussive attack.

Scooped: Attenuated, or slightly diminished. Picture the visual connotation, like on a graphic equalizer. If you scoop the midrange, you dip those middle sliders down a bit, which would look like a smiley-face curve. The result would be a level low end and high end, but a little less of the midrange.

Sparkle: In a general sense, the opposite of warm; some excited high frequencies. Koa or maple tends to have a high-end sparkle. Same idea as “zing.” Sparkling treble frequencies might also be described as “zesty.” If they appear to linger, you might say they “shimmer.”

Sustain: The length of time a note audibly resonates.

Throaty: An extremely beefy midrange. The origin might be based partly on the fact that the human voice tends to occupy midrange frequencies.

Warm: A sound with very little low-frequency damping. That lower-frequency emphasis is present in the composition of every note, including the midrange and high-frequency pitches. This is often heard as a note with lots of “body” supporting the note, and often reminds a listener of the naturally firm, strong support of wood, leading to a closely related description of “woody.”

Woody: A seasoned, well broken-in dry tone, often with softer high frequencies. A vintage mahogany guitar will have an especially woody sound.

Woofy: Similar to boomy, a dominant low-end sound, usually lacking clarity, giving it a “muddy” or “mushy” quality. This can interfere with other notes and cause feedback.

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