This article originally appeared in the print version of She Shreds Issue #15, which was released in July, 2018.
Of the core elements of music, tone might be among the least apparent to the conscious mind, but the one that hits the hardest on emotional and physical levels. A musical tone has several components including duration, or how long a note lasts; intensity or amplitude (how loud it is); pitch, the actual frequency being played (commonly identified by note); and timbre, also referred to as tone color or quality. It all adds up to the distinct voice that comes through when you play your instrument.
While tone is crucial in all forms of music, it has a special reverence in the heavy music world, where it provides a key aesthetic factor for various styles—consider the rich, warm sounds associated with classic hard rock and proto-metal versus icy black metal guitar—even though lines between subgenres are increasingly blurred. It also serves a functional role in building layers of atmosphere, contrasts, and sounds; metal guitarists and bassists who tour with multiple amplifiers aren’t just in it for the volume. And anyone who loves doom or heavy psych will tell you that the ultimate concerts are multisensory experiences where tone helps make the music feel so alive and enormous it can simultaneously excite, soothe, and rattle you to the core.
“Do you want a little bit, or do you want a lot?” responded Stevie Floyd, guitarist and vocalist for sludgy doom two-piece Dark Castle and experimental metal duo Taurus, when asked what tone means to her. “Because this is really big to me. Tone is everything.”
I had caught up with Floyd, who also owns Portland extreme music and art retailer Devout Records, several months after Dark Castle appeared at the 2017 Psycho Las Vegas, the annual heavy psych and metal festival where I’d spoken to members of VHÖL, Heavy Temple, Royal Thunder, and Year of the Cobra about their tone. The band, which she formed with drummer Rob Shaffer in St. Augustine, Florida in 2005, had recently reunited following a hiatus, and their set was among the most anticipated of the Psycho bill. The band sounded amazing, but Floyd says that since they were playing on gear supplied by the organizers, the performance did not provide a good representation of her tone. ”If I don’t have my own shit, it’s not really going to be Dark Castle,” she says. “When you fly to a fest, using backline is standard. I’m not complaining about that at all, but people are most comfortable when they use their own equipment.”
Unwilling to sacrifice a dynamic, full-bodied sound due to the band’s minimalist lineup, Floyd had worked especially hard to develop her tone. “I’m always trying to overcompensate for not having a bass player. I always play through a bass rig as well as guitar rig—I had three guitar rigs and a bass rig for a long time, just to have different speakers.”
Before Dark Castle, Floyd had played in a Florida death metal band where she used a compressor to get a crunchy tone to match their lightning-fast music. But doom, with its slow, sometimes crawling tempos, and earthshaking low end, demanded a different approach: “With Dark Castle, there are still riffs in there that are death metal, so I can’t just have this big, blown-out tone. I need clarity, and I need it to be kind of tight… I’m running one signal through my pedal, but through four amps that each sound completely different—it’s just like how the color black looks blacker if the color white is next to it.” Adding to it all is the sound of her signature Monson Morningstar guitar, which was designed based on her music and artistic vision.
Ultimately, Floyd says there are a number of variables to consider when it comes to tone, and musicians often focus on one at the expense of others, which ultimately comes out in their sound. “You want to be loud as hell, but it’s not about loud, it’s about contrast,” she says. “Sure, 10 Orange stacks are loud, but if you have amps that have contrasting tones, like cleaner tones through a solid state amp, a big loud one through a tube amp, and a bass that’s clean, you’re going to hear the notes, and you can have way more dynamics.”
Year of the Cobra is a doomy two-piece that draws from its founders’ West Coast roots in punk, hardcore, and stoner rock—a genre that emerged out of the California underground in the early-‘90s with bands such as Kyuss, Acid King, and Sleep and remains one of metal’s most pervasive influences today. “Tone really defines the band,” says bassist/vocalist Amy Tung Barrysmith. “When Kyuss came out, Josh Homme was so specific in his guitar tone, and it hadn’t been heard before, so all of these people are trying to copy that or create their own. It can’t just be any distortion, it has to be the right distortion, with the right guitar, with the right amp head. It has to be perfect for whatever you are trying to do.”
While her bandmate and husband, Jon Barrysmith, pummels the drums, Tung Barrysmith fills out their sound by splitting her bass signal between two cabinets. “I have one 8×10 that covers the low end and has distortion, and the other one will be EQed completely differently with highs and mids, and all the other pedals go through that. So I can turn stuff on and off, or I can have the low end tone going with a super fuzzy high tone, or a wah—there are always two totally different sounds going on,” she says. She developed her setup through a lot of trial and error, and the challenge didn’t end there. “In writing our music, I had to figure out how I could play with a low end and a high end at the same time, so it’s a really mental process.”
Sigrid Sheie, a classically trained pianist and music professor who played in San Francisco’s gothic-tinged Amber Asylum and prog-leaning Hammers of Misfortune before joining genre-pulverizing metal juggernauts VHÖL (which also features members of Agalloch, YOB, and Sheie’s Hammers bandmate and husband John Cobbett) on bass in 2012, notes that there’s more that goes into tone than killer gear. “The way that you play and your technique can affect your tone almost as much as amps. That’s why two different people can play on the same amp and it sounds totally different,” she says. Her advice for musicians searching for good tone starts with experimenting, practicing, and refining technique. “I play pretty aggressively and the bass strings will bend a little bit. You don’t always have to hammer the crap out of the bass; being able to move around to different picking styles and the way you attack a string—hammer-ons—that all affects tone,” she says.
For Mlny Parsonz, bassist and golden-throated vocalist of Atlanta’s Royal Thunder, tone is a constant evolution. Since it formed in the late-2000s, her band has shapeshifted through various flavors of hard rock and heavy psych; their latest album, 2017’s Wick (Spinefarm) wouldn’t sound out of place on mainstream rock radio despite the band’s DIY roots. “Each album is a puzzle piece, a picture of where we’re at and how we’re feeling, and I think our tones reflect that,” she says. “It’s gonna be a little gnarly when we’re wound tight and it’s gonna be cleaner, bluesier, and more laid-back when we’re just in it and existing.” Through following those instincts, she believes that a musician’s identity shows even when their tones take new shape. “When you are true to yourself, that’s always going to be an anchor in your music, but hopefully you’ll forever be open to everything you put out there. I mean, I’m not the same person I was when I started in this band.”
Philadelphia trio Heavy Temple formed in 2012 and just cemented its current lineup—bassist and vocalist High Priestess Nighthawk (Elyse Mitchell), guitarist Thunderhorse (Leanne Martz, previously of Misstallica), and drummer Siren Tempest (Tina Trex Korteland)—last spring, but they’ve already made a major impression with their ecstatic blend of fuzzed-out psych, doom, and complex groove rock. “We do jazzy stuff, then we freak out for three minutes, then I can take a break for three minutes, and then we just break our instruments for another 15 and it’s all over the place. I like that; I don’t want to be bored,” says Tempest.
“As far as the aural aesthetic of Heavy Temple, I’d say it’s more about what we don’t play than what we do play,” Nighthawk says. “We want to take our listeners on a trip rather than filling in every possible gap for them. We want people to move in the space we create. Less paint by numbers, more coloring outside the lines.”
To that end, their effect pedals help them fill out their sonic canvas. “I have an EVH 5150 head, and I usually keep it pretty clean; most of my tone comes from my pedals,” Thunderhorse says, listing Abominable Electronics’ Hail Satan Deluxe and Electro-Harmonix Canyon among her favorites. Nighthawk’s current gear includes a Warwick Star bass with MEC pickups, Electro-Harmonix pedals (Big Muff and Epitome), and while a lot of musicians with a little ‘70s atmosphere in their sound swear by tube amps, she plays out of a vintage solid state Acoustic 370. “I’m happy to say I’ll never go back to tubes—I’m sure my wallet thanks me,” she says.
Despite what some internet tutorials would have you believe, there’s no right way to develop your tone in metal (or any other style of music), and you certainly don’t have to be a gear wizard to start working toward a sound that is truly yours. “Just practice, experiment, play a lot of amps, and see what you like,” Sheie says. “Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to get help because there’s probably somebody who knows more about it than you do. Having that openness to learn is important no matter what you do.”
These concepts are echoed by all of these musicians—and so is having a good time on the way to achieving the ultimate tone. “One of my goals in this band, and probably in life, is I want women to feel they can do whatever the hell they want to do,” Thunderhorse says. “It doesn’t matter what kind of music you like or what instrument you play. I’ve worked hard, I go onstage, and I fucking have fun—I think when you work hard you should go up there and rock it.”