More guitar tips from Grammy-winning Jason Vieaux:
Tone is really in the ears. I know that may sound funny, but if you don’t know the tone or sound you want aesthetically, what it should sound like, then it’s a lot harder for the hands and fingers to find it. The end part of the process is in the hands, certainly, but that connection between your hands and your heart is really your ears. A lot of experimentation mixed with, hopefully, a good teacher that plays well can be a path to finding your tone or sound. When I was practicing as a kid growing up in Buffalo, I was not afraid to improvise and compose and jump (briefly!) off my studies, simply because I loved the sound of the guitar for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities. I prepared my lesson assignments with absolute seriousness, but my excursions into pure guitar sound were brief—little commentaries on the piece I was playing for my own amusement, or some improv off of the material I was practicing, again, only for the joy of finding the sound I wanted to find at that particular time.
This exercise is particularly good for classical guitarists, where the tone and sound is “finished” through their fingertips. We have to find a very specific sound for a specific character in a musical piece, section, or passage to honor the composer and their stated desires. The only conduit is our ears and fingers, whereas an electric guitarist would achieve their same goal in most cases through a more complex and varied chain of technology. Which I love, by the way. When listening to electric guitarists, I love how Stephen Carpenter, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Chilton, Adrian Belew, and Pat Metheny, among others, get to their place, however they do that. As I’m writing this, I realize that I probably listened to more electric guitarists than acoustic this year—hmmm.
The main thing is, try a lot of different things. Try different nail lengths, nail shapes, angles of attack to the string. It’s not all that helpful for one to be super goal-oriented in this kind of exercise—it’s a lovely journey. John Holmquist, my professor at Cleveland Institute of Music, had this great teaching exercise where, once I found a more acceptable sound/tone to his liking, he would say, “OK, now play me what you sounded like before.” And that command would make you think about how you executed your previous “different” tone/sound. It’s such a fantastic way to teach, because it takes you out of yourself and you start to hear sound as it really is. And it made you think how you physically produced both sounds.
For classical guitarists, try to study with as many of your favorite tone or sound guitarists as you can. We’re pretty approachable for the most part, and willing to share what we do and how we do it.