The Sound and the Technology

Erik Broess, a doctoral candidate in musicology, studies how electric guitar gear influences the kinds of music guitarists create—and the kinds of music histories that get shared.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

By Duyen Nguyen

Erik Broess, a doctoral candidate in musicology

Courtesy of Erik Broess

Ask a room full of guitar players what makes a great guitarist and they’ll probably all tell you the same thing: a memorable tone.

Guitar tone refers to the sound that’s produced as a result of the interaction between a guitar player and the gear—amplifiers, pedals, and other technologies—at their disposal. “For guitarists, it’s all about sound,” says Erik Broess, a Ph.D. candidate in musicology who’s researching how electric guitar gear, specifically, shapes the discourse on tone.

A guitarist himself, Broess has noticed a resurgence over the last two decades in the use of vintage analog technologies, like amplifiers and guitars from the 1950s through the 1960s. Some of this gear is even older, adapted from turn-of-the-century technology. For his dissertation, he set out to find out why.

“Vintage analog gear has an undeniably unique sound that can’t be replicated with digital technologies,” Broess explains. But what makes a good tone is much more contested.

“The way guitarists talk about sound is not entirely empirical,” says Broess. “The things they identify in sound or tone are also ideological.” At this year’s American Musicological Society (AMS) conference, for instance, Broess gave a presentation on the Klon Centaur, a now-discontinued pedal developed between 1990 and 1994 that’s attracted a cult following thanks in part to the black goop covering its circuit board, obscuring how it works. The “mythological aura” of esoteric gear like the Klon Centaur, he argues, can “psychologically condition the way you play.”

Broess’s previous research on posthumous duets—think Natalie Cole’s recording of “Unforgettable” with her late father, Nat King Cole—and the music and sounds of seances also explored the ideas and ideals that influence how we experience music. “With both seances and guitar gear, people can easily trick themselves into hearing things that aren’t there or convince themselves much more so than they could with sight,” Broess explains, noting the number of expressions, like “hearing voices,” that associate the sense with doubt.

For guitar players, though, the gear can sometimes corroborate what they hear.

“Many guitarists never learn to read music. They don’t talk about pitch. They don’t talk about harmony. They don’t have the same theoretical knowledge that a classical musician might have. But what they do have is very sophisticated language for talking about tone,” Broess says. “And part of that comes from the way they ground their listening practice in the material objects at their disposal.”

If the Klon Centaur is any indication, the gear may even have its own stories to tell. At AMS, Broess also participated in a roundtable on overlooked sound objects, where he presented on volume and radio knobs, asking what kinds of music histories the objects themselves might reveal. More accurately, then, Broess’s research explores the liminal space between ideology and empiricism—between the technologies and the narratives that develop around them.

“The way guitarists talk about sound is not entirely empirical. The things they identify in sound or tone are also ideological.”

Another question that Broess asks is who gets to have good tone? This gets at the cultural politics of tone, “the different ways that guitarists engage with the quality of their sound,” he explains.

“If the most important parameter of your music is sound—specifically sound that’s mediated by technology—that’s going to be an inherently masculine group because technology has been coded masculine,” Broess observes. But, by applying a gear framework, he shifts the narrative away from so-called “guitar gods” toward lesser-known contributors, like the women who overwhelmingly made up the workforce at guitar factories. “It is their hands that physically shaped guitar history, not the inventors,” notes Broess, “yet these women are never associated with ‘good tone.’”

Abigail Ybarra is one overlooked figure whom Broess’s research spotlights. From 1956 to 2013, Ybarra worked at Fender winding pickups—the part of the electric guitar that translates the string’s vibrations into an electrical signal—a painstaking process in which the slightest variations would have a noticeable effect on the guitar’s tone. “Ybarra’s skillful work is quite literally responsible for the sound of popular music since the 1950s,” Broess says.

With the Covid-19 pandemic moving guitar conventions and music conferences into virtual spaces, attention to the gear’s materiality has also become a way to open up conversations about tone to more participants.

“When I talk to builders or collectors, that’s often one of the things that we will do together—that is, look at a piece of gear. We’ll be sitting in a Zoom and someone will say ‘hold on’ and go grab a piece of gear,” Broess reflects. “What I’m really interested in is how these guitarists read the gear themselves, how they’re able to turn these little black boxes into rich texts that can tell them something about the history of music that they love.”