Written by Simon Cheong

Sunday, 25 July 2004 23:32

This article written by me was published in the Classical Guitar Society Malaysia‘s website and is reproduced here.

What is a good tone?

I will conclude that any tone is a good tone. It is more how each tone is used and in what situation it is used. How do we describe a good tone?

Generally, a good tone is one that contains some of these elements, as it has been described all so often –

  • a strong tone
  • a clear tone
  • has good projection
  • well rounded and has body

As opposed to –


  • a weak tone
  • an unclear tone
  • has no projection
  • a thin tone with no body


Apart from loud and soft, tone has also many descriptions that generally use expressions such as – your tone is so


  • sweet
  • warm
  • hard
  • dark
  • bright


For the guitarist, a good tone must exclude the following –


  • notes that buzz
  • muffled notes
  • notes that break through excessive force in playing loudly
  • squeaks from the left hand (usually caused by a very dry finger sliding on the string whenever the finger is not properly lifted for a note or chord change)
  • scratchy sounds made by the right hand nails (usually improper filing of the nails)


Why can’t I hear any differences between this tone and that?


The ability to differentiate sound quality needs to be developed. This is achieved by a constant search and experiment using some of the words above with a very concentrated listening attention. While doing this, one actually gets confused and will be terribly frustrated. Fret not, as in the learning process this does happen with everyone and one can overcome this as long as one does not give up. If you do not give up, in due time you will be able to differentiate the tone qualities.


Here is an example of a situation that I always use with my students in my endeavour to enlighten them:


This usually involves the student and his guitar. Most students can’t afford a professional guitar and they usually start off with a decently cheap guitar. After a while, I do recommend that the students should upgrade. It is at this point that the students want to know the differences and the need for this upgrade.


I am usually able to convince the students by their trust in me. Those who trusted my judgment to date, I have received no complaints. In fact, when these students realised the truth of what I said, I was able to say ‘I told you so’. Why is that so?


I will explain it this way: say a person who has been listening to a cheap 50 ringgit radio is given a thousand ringgit one for his birthday. He will feel the difference in the sound quality at once. However this difference he feels is but only a very small difference for a person with no experience in listening to quality sounds. He will not know how big the difference is until he has lived with the thousand ringgit radio over a period of time. When he tunes in to the fifty ringgit radio after not having heard it for some time… wow! … he will not want to have anything to do with that 50 ringgit radio anymore! Can you imagine if he were to have a hundred thousand ringgit hifi system?! ( The equivalent – a RM300 beginner guitar to a RM3000 advanced student model as opposed to … a professional guitar costing RM30,000!)


The above real-life example serves as a valuable lesson in that, unless one has experienced something through living with it and having it, you will never know the real meaning in its differences.


Simon Cheong


25 July 2004

by admin