This is a guest post by Luthier, Ed Sculthorpe @Birchway_Sound
For any group of guitar devotees locked in a discussion of tone, it seems inevitable that one of them will say, “Yes, but it’s all in the hands.” True enough, but what does that actually mean? Instruments are energy transfer devices. Any guitar player who’s practiced their picking technique knows that you can swell or contract the emotion ~ the feel ~ of a song by the way you hit the strings. Every player does this differently, which is why you still sound like you through another player’s rig. It may not be your ideal tone, but it won’t sound like the rig’s owner either. It’s your playing that differentiates you from others ~ because it’s all in the hands. It’s the way you transfer energy through that devise that defines your playing. Tone is the way your energy sounds, and how you make those sounds is how it feels. In essence, the term “all in the hands” is referring more to the feel and less to the tone. Instruments transfer energy physically, but tone is the medium used to transform from the physical to the sonic.
That’s why discerning players allow nothing to get in the way of tone. Therein lies the importance of proper care and setup to enable that energy to transfer as directly as possible through the contact points within the instrument. The nut, frets, fretboard, saddles, bridge, mounting plates and wiring need to be kept unobstructed of road gunk and finger fungus to allow your energy to resonate clearly. The action, intonation, neck adjustment and pickup height come next but contribute equally. What components are made out of is superficial when addressing the playability ~ the energy transfer quality ~ of the guitar. If an instrument is inspiring to play it matters not who made it, when it was made or what it’s made out of. There are countless options to tweak your tone, but you need to start with an instrument that is hard to put down without even plugging in.
To get your instrument there, finding a local professional luthier that you can work with is essential. It’s well worth it, and they will be a maven of knowledge on your quest for tone. For routine maintenance there are a number of household items you can keep in your case for use in between gigs:
1. Toothbrush – To keep the nut and saddles free of debris that would absorb moisture and solidify, dulling resonance.
2. Facecloth – To wipe down the strings and fretboard after use to
3. Some cosmetic wipes with five drops of lemon oil on them in a ziplock bag to clean the fretboard between restringing. The wipes are cheap and lint-free and lemon oil is the ideal wood cleaner/conditioner.
4. 600grit sandpaper – If you have a burr in the nut or a sitar effect from a saddle, this is better than graphite lube. A small folded piece will usually do the trick.