In classical music discourse we often hear tone being talked about as if sound lies on a spectrum of good and bad - “her tone is so warm”, “her tone is too jagged” etc. We live, however, in a world and a time where the coarse, nasal crooning of Bob Dylan and the honey-like warmth of Mariah Carey are some of the most celebrated and loved voices. Music is more than a sound which is pleasing to our ears, it is a medium through which stories are told, emotions are expressed and personalities are created. So it seems only natural that we talk about tone simply as the raw unique identity of a musician’s voice, whether it be singing, bowing, strumming or plucking, not how a musician plays, but how they sound while they are playing.
Finding your tone is a matter of chasing what you think sounds the best on your instrument and letting the qualities of your instrument and your physicality define the rest. In this article we’ll discuss the elements that contribute to tone on the instrument, the things you can control and change and where to start looking for your unique sound.
The Elements of Tone
1. Your instrument
The instrument you play has massive bearing on the tone that you produce, and the sound you want to produce is therefore something you should take into consideration when choosing an instrument.
Most classical guitars are either made from spruce or cedar wood due to the natural tonal properties of these softwoods.
Spruce has historically been the most popular wood for use in guitar building, Torres, Bouchet, Hauser and almost all legendary guitar builders in the modern classical guitar’s history have used spruce tops for their instruments. Spruce is bright, punchy and clear which allows for a nuanced and wide tone pallet and due to the overtones produced the sound is more direct and linear than that of a cedar top from which the sound emanates from the instrument.
Cedar tends to produce a naturally warmer sound and where spruce will develop and change sonically over time, cedar tends to be more consistent. This being said, the identity of every single piece of wood used for soundboards is unique. Trees, like humans or grape vines used for wine, all live a life in which their identity is shaped and enhanced by their seedling beginnings, the conditions of their life (in a tree’s case weather, climate, light, access to water) and the moment at which their produce is harvested.
In addition to this the transformation from sheet of wood to each guitar is a long and complicated process that depends on not only the builder of the instrument, but a plethora of inimitable conditions.
This is just one of the reasons why it is important to not buy an instrument based solely on the name of the builder, or the expectation of a certain price tag, but to hold the instrument and play it before purchase to make sure that you are acquiring an instrument that feels like an extension of yourself.
If you’re struggling to narrow down the parameters on which you should choose an instrument, here is a handy guide to choosing the right instrument to get you started!
2. Your strings
Once you have an instrument that reflects the tone you feel is most akin to your personal voice the next most important exploration and ultimately decision is the strings that you put on that instrument. We made a complete guide to the sea of strings with tips for what to look for here!
Once you have settled on a string set that you like it’s also important to keep in mind that the maintenance of those strings also contributes to the tone you ultimately produce on the instrument, keep your nails smooth and your right hand attack intentional to prevent creating small holes in the string that can interrupt your sound. Be sure to always wash your hands before playing the instrument and wipe down the instrument and the strings with a microfibre cloth post playing, this helps prevent and remove buildup of moisture, grime and residue on the strings which can cause premature oxidization and deterioration.
3. Your nails
As with everything music related, the shape of nails that will produce the tone you desire will be unique to you. It is therefore more important to become acquainted with how your nails sound when they are shaped in a particular way than to copy what works for Ana Vidovic or David Russell. As a starting point for self-exploration smooth and rounded nail shapes tend to work as a basic template for all players, for further information and guidance on searching for the nail shape that best fits you check out Bahar Ossareh’s advice on nail shape and nail shaping techniques here! Or read this in-depth classical guitar nails article we put together!
4. Your touch
Through all of the changeable elements one thing remains relatively steady, your touch. You can increase the ease of volume in the hand, play more tasto or more ponticello, you can exert more or less pressure, adjust the angle of the hand, change the movement of the fingers, but the connection and touch that you have on the instrument will always have a raw center of sound that is unique to you, your playing and your physicality. Tone development at this point is therefore about harnessing that voice and allowing it to sound louder, more clearly or more in depth.
It is a little like getting the most out of a vinyl, with a little more weight on the arm, a slightly different cartridge, a different preamp or speakers you can play the same record and have a completely different sonic experience.
I think the most important thing when searching for tips on how to improve a particular facet of our playing is to localize the reason we started searching, whether it be internal or external impetus, what was missing, what made you search for this topic in particular, what are you looking for? Most of the time we have the real answers already within us, it is simply finding the information that resonates the most with our own explorative journey. Happy searching and good luck!