The Never Ending Search for Beautiful Sound

I’m sure you’ve heard me rattle on about this particular subject in some form before, but I think it’s worth talking about again today.

So what do I mean when I say beautiful sound? Well, just as there are apparently several ways to skin a cat (although I’m not sure why one would want to do that, so perhaps we should retire that particular analogy….), there are also several ways to play a guitar.

Some of these ways sound indescribably delicious. Others not so. Some of these ways are  full-bodied, lush, rounded, full, glassy, shimmering, shining, voluptuous. Others are thin, tinny, shrill and brittle. As guitarists we have such a range of sounds and tones available to us. Pianists in comparison (and I play a bit of piano too, so I’m not picking on pianists in particular) have a relatively limited palette with which to paint and have their standard tone quality pretty much handed to them. Guitarists on the other hand, we have to do all the hard and exciting exploratory work to cultivate a beautiful sound.

Why is this so important?

Well, I can’t talk for you, dear reader, but if given a choice I’d rather hear a simple piece played with a round, full tone, rather than something much more complicated with a thin, lack lustre tone. It’s our job as performers, players, guitarists (however you want to describe yourself) to make the music we’re producing sound as beautiful as possible – every single note (not just the “special” points in the music), open strings and fifth or seventh position second or third string notes alike. Think about having gorgeous tone as standard.

I’m not saying that we all have to have exactly the same sound – that would be indescribably boring! And probably not achievable anyway, even if that were the case – we all have different guitars, made with different woods, with different strings, played with different fingernails and fingers, from different body shapes, driven by different brains. A beautiful tone is something you can cultivate, which is recognisably beautiful, but also recognisably yours.

And the key to achieving a beautiful sound and a gorgeous tone quality is to always, always be listening and being aware of what and how you’re playing. Not just hearing what we’re playing, but listening, and asking yourself “is that the sound I want to make?” Yes or no? If yes, excellent! Carry on! If no, what do you need to do differently to play with your own beautiful tone.

So what’s your favourite tone colour then?

Lumiere Grand Colour Palette by Ben Nye.
Colour palette – not just the preserve of the painter eh? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or thinking about tone colour when approaching a new classical guitar piece for the first time

Following on from a recent post (, I received comments that folks would like some more of my thoughts on learning a new piece for the very first time. And who am I not to oblige!

So today I thought I’d focus on chosing and using tone colour to aid your learning and understanding of a piece.

Firstly, what do we mean by tone colour?
The tone colour (or timbre) refers to the quality or nature of the tone – round, full, rich and fruity which one may use to describe a molto tasto sound (playing close to or over the fretboard). Thin, metallic and zingy which one may use to describe a molto ponticello sound (playing way back next to the bridge of the guitar). The classical guitar actually has a bountiful variety of tone colours or timbres and there are a myriad of tone colours produced in between these two examples, as there are between red and violet in the colours of the rainbow.

Okay now we’ve got that sorted.

How do we figure out how we want to use tone in the new piece?

Well, the first indicator might be the title of the piece. OK, that’s not going to help you if it’s something like “Study No.12”, but if you’ve got a dance like a gigue, something named after a place (Mallorca) or something named as directly as The Sorrow of the Lady of the Wood (Houghton) that can help give you a good starting point to think about the general mood and tone colour for the piece.

The second indicator, if exists, is the musical direction at the start of the piece. This usually gives a very good indication as to the composer’s intention for the general feeling of the piece, or at least its first section. Is it sprightly and bright, for example? If so, what kind of tone colour would help convey that from the outset? Should you use that tone colour throughout? Where should you change it?

Then you might want to go on and think about some other questions:

  • What the dynamic markings are within the piece and what do they indicate?
  • What kind of tone colour would help convey that and, again, where should you change it?
  • Are there repeated sections or reuse of same or similar themes?
  • If so, could the tone colours be treated differently or the same?

On playing the piece through a couple of times does anything leap out at you or lend itself to a particular feeling or colour? Have a play around and see if different tones produce distinctive or unexpected effects.

At this point it is worth remembering that we can also produce varying tones colours with our left hand. It is possible to play the same note in a number of locations around the fretboard and each of these notes, including those played on the open strings, has its own unique nuances in tone colour. Explore where you get the best balance for you between playability, movement and flow in the musical phrases and the differing tones produced by the same notes in different locations around the fretboard.

Have fun colouring in!