The phrase “holy grail of tone” shows up a lot in the marketing of guitar gear, a promise of perfection that seems more than a little ironic. Perfect “tone”—that nebulous term used to describe the sound produced by an ideal combination of instrument, effects, amplifier, and settings—is ever sought but never seemingly found. Guitarists bicker and advise on forums, and religiously consult the gear guides of the pros, who often deign in magazines and videos to explain their own peculiar setups.
While more and more manufacturers are promising to recreate the tone of your favorite guitarist in digital simulations, true tone-ophiles will never accept anything less than the real thing. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, a guitarist whose tone is undeniably all his own, has inspired a cottage industry of fan-made videos that teach you how to achieve “The David Gilmour Sound.” But there’s no substitute for the source.
In the clip above from a BBC documentary, Gilmour vaguely discusses “the Floyd sound” and some of the techniques he uses to get his distinctive guitar tone. Every discussion of tone will include the admonishment that tone resides in the player's fingers, not the gear. Gilmour suggests this initially. “It’s the tiniest little things,” he says, that “makes the guitar so personal. Add a hundred different tiny inflections to what you’re doing all the time. That’s what gives people their individual tone.”
It’s a true enough statement, but there are still ways to get close to the sound of Gilmour’s guitar setup, if not to actually play exactly like him. You can buy the gear he’s used over the years, or something approximating it, anyway. You can learn a few of his tricks—the bluesy bends and slides we know so well from his emotive solos. But unless you have the luxury of playing the kinds of huge stages, with huge volume, Gilmour plays, he says, you’ll never quite get it. Small amps in small rooms sound too cramped and artificial, he says.
And if you’re playing stages like that, you've probably discovered a holy grail of tone that's all your own, and legions of fans are trying to sound like you.