The Lexicon of Tone

Unfortunately, there just aren't very many words in the English language to describe the "color" and "shape" of sound.  Nevertheless, guitarists have invented a lot of terminology to convey the tones of various instruments.  Here are a handful.

Many of these terms is tossed around informally, so opinions invariably differ and these terms are often misapplied... especially by over-eager guitar retailers and in on-line forums.  Since this language has never been officially codified, I can't even say that these are correct, but here are definitions (and accompanying examples wherever possible) of this jargon.
  • Bright -  Having more high end (i.e., trebly), much like a fully depressed wah-wah pedal.  Usually used to describe single coil pickups.
  • Brittle -  Tone consisting almost exclusively of higher frequencies.
  • Brown -  Eddie Van Halen's signature tone in the late '70s and early '80s, although many apply this term far more broadly than is reasonable.
  • Glassy -  Almost exclusively used to describe the clean sound of a Stratocaster, particularly one weilded by David Gilmour.
  • Honk -  (see quack)
  • Jangly -  Typically use to described the Byrds-era Rickenbaker clean sound or some of Peter Buck's mid-period work in REM.
  • Nasal -  Prominant midrange with attenuated high end.
  • Percussive -  prominently physical component such as pick noise and/or left-hand muting.  Typical sounds like a "click" by itself or preceeding a note.
  • Quack -  Typically used to describe the signature sound of piezo pickups as found in acoustic-electrics (and an increasing number of actual electrics).
  • Throaty -  Consisting of a narrow peak in the midrange frequencies, much like an old transistor radio.  Can be achieved in approximately the middle of the sweep of a wah-wah pedal.
  • Twangy -  Usually applied to describe (in particular) the bridge pickup tone of a Telecaster.
  • Warm -  Having more low and midrange freuquencies without a prominent high end, as with a fully retracted wah-wah pedal.  Usually used to describe humbucking pickups, particularly in jazz applications.

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