Startups and Rock and Roll – Part 3 – Guitar tone

Look at earlier posts for the first two parts of this “series”. I wrote one about how naming your band and naming your business are basically the same thing. And I wrote another about learning to play guitar and starting a band as it relates to learning to code and starting a business. They are two of my favorite posts. Anyway, on to part three…..

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Guitar players obsess about their “tone.” The sound created by mixing various Amps, effects pedals, processors, speakers, and (of course) guitars makes up the tone. And guitar players are ridiculous about getting “their” sound. Ty Tabor (King’s X guitarist) used to famously build boxes to hide his amps in on stage so no one could see what gear he was using. I spent hundreds of hours (literally) in high school tweaking every knob just right and trying different strings in an effort to get the exact sound I wanted. Truly, if you are a guitar player then you know that the importance of “tone” can not be overstated.

Which is why I find it so funny that even though most guitar players know the following two things, they still obsess about their tone.

Thing #1 – No one cares about your guitar tone. In the event someone else cares about your tone, then they are also a guitar player and they probably think your tone sucks.

I am 100% sure that no one ever heard Jimi Hendrix play “Fire” in person and said, “That would have been so much better if he’d been using a Les Paul instead of a Strat.” And no one ever saw Guns N Roses and said, “Why is Slash using a Fender Twin for “Estranged” instead of a Marshall stack? THIS SUCKS!”

99.99% of people that listen to music neither know nor care that you are using a ’65 strat reissue with a maple fingerboard through a Fender twin rocking two 12″ speakers with a Boss DS1 distortion pedal. THEY DO NOT CARE. And as I said, the few people you meet that do care are also guitar players and they either (1) think your tone sucks or (2) are spying your gear to see how they can copy you. Most of the people listening just hope the music sounds good. The rest is unimportant.

This is exactly the same as coding. 99.99% of your users don’t care if you are using PHP or Ruby or Javascript or Perl or whatever. They don’t know what MySql is or what NoSql is or what a “stack” is or who named their kid Linux. They only care that the site, program, or app they are using works correctly. The remaining .01%? Well, those are the other programmers/hackers and they either (1) think your code sucks or (2) are looking at it and thinking of ways to steal the cool features you came up with.

Thing #2 – YOu will never sound like anyone else. When I was in high school I spent a ton of time at Texas Music Emporium. It was a music store run by some older rock-n-roll dudes (both named Jim) that were really helpful to other musicians. I probably spent $200 there EVER but likely played the guitars on their walls for thousands of hours. I was not a high-yield customer.

One summer night, they rolled out a flatbed trailer and put gear on it. A local drummer and bass player came and played Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath songs with Zack Wylde. At the time, Wylde was Ozzy Osbourne’s guitar player and his guitar tone inspired a LOT of discussion. The rumor was that for the “No More Tears” album he had recorded every guitar track 4 times using Les Pauls, Marshall amps, and a single Boss SD1 overdrive pedal. The result was a blisteringly thick wall of sound that amazed almost all guitar players. We tried to recreate his setup and never came close to sounding like that tone. It was never as heavy, as thick, or as biting in our bedroom as it was on his records. So my friends and I concluded that something else was going on because that guitar, amp, and pedal combo sounded NOTHING like Wylde’s tone.

Anyway, he gets on the flatbed trailer to start playing. He had pulled a Les Paul off the wall at TME, a Marshall amp from their amp room, and an SD1 guitar pedal from behind the counter. Everything was brand new and hadn’t ever been played by Zack Wylde before, and everything matched the setup he professed to use on the “No More Tears” record. He launched in to “Purple Haze” using the exact same rig that he claimed to use. The resulting sound is best described as being like standing in the middle of an artillery range with munitions exploding around you. He was a hurricane of sonic force that evening in a way that makes a young musician go home and quit playing for a week. He was that good, that “big” with a guitar off the wall and two guys he’d never met. And the tone? It sounded EXACTLY like the No More Tears recordings.

What’s the point? Zack Wylde could walk in to a guitar store and pull a guitar off the wall and sound like Zack Wylde. Eddie Van Halen could borrow my guitar and still sound like Eddie Van Halen. Dave Mustain could make “Sweating Bullets” sound right on a Pawn Shop guitar and Peavy Amp. Tone is in the player, not the gear.

This is the same as programming and staring a business – even if you could see under the hood and read all the code of facebook or Quora or Twitter, you wouldn’t be able to recreate facebook or QUora or Twitter. If you could look at the design process that went in to Basecamp, you wouldn’t be able to recreate how Basecamp looks. Even with the exact same tools and exact same music in front of you, you will NEVER be able to “sound” like someone else when your code is finished. You will always sound like “you.” The best guitar players – like the best programmers – realize this and embrace it.

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