October 4, 2021

The Trinity Of Tone – Michiel Niessen of Meantone

In a supremely in-depth piece, Meantone mainman Michiel Niessen (second left) gets into the real heavy detail about our favourite medium. This is a leviathan article, so get comfy!

-JTD

Let’s talk about tone, related to the plectrum…

A complete and utter can of worms, and fully objective, some will passionately disagree with everything here, some may adamantly agree.

So why should I have something at all to say about tone? Well, mostly because I bring some knowledge and experience from a related, but at the same time quite remote field.

For the most part of my now more than 35 years’ experience as a musician, I have been a lutenist, a lute player. The lute is a plucked instrument, whose heyday was in the 17th Century. The lute was like a guitar back then: you could likely find one in practically every household. It was the instrument of choice for both the wayfaring minstrel and the delicate young noble lady, and everyone in-between. The lute was used to play dances at the village fest, or used to play horrendously difficult intabulations of five-, six- or even seven-voice madrigals. But the lute as an instrument group was certainly not without flaws, many flaws.

  • It was never a very loud instrument, so in order to be heard, one had to play the lute at its technical limits in order to even be heard among other instruments. That is never good for your tone.
  • The lute was strung in courses, pairs of strings tuned in unison or in octave, with both strings struck at the same time. Think of a modern 12-string guitar. Problems here are that the gut strings of the era were not very consistent in intonation, so tuning the unisons was always problematic. (Most of today’s 12-string guitars still suffer a little bit from this problem, but the consistency in metal string production nowadays means that the slight intonation problems of a 12-string add a pleasant washiness to the sound of the instrument. We affectionally call it jangle now).
  • The string arrangement in courses also meant that the pulling load on the already thin soundboard of the lute was doubled, causing an almost double amount of stress on the soundboard and the slender glued-on bridge. So transfer of energy of the strings to the soundboard suffered quite a lot of loss.
  • Frets on a lute were never made of metal strips (if you ever see a lute with metal frets, back away), but of tied on gut, usually recycled playing strings. Gut frets are softer than metal frets, so there too energy loss can be found, especially when the frets get worn down with playing, typically after a week or two of normal use… that wear also causes the action to change locally. Never a great idea.
  • Gut strings. We’re finding out more and more about period gut strings, especially the fact that modern manufacture of gut strings for purposes as varied as stringing tennis racquets, sewing stitches and stringing musical instruments, is quite different from the old way of making musical gut strings. So plain gut strings of modern manufacture probably behave quite differently from period gut strings. Even so, both kinds, traditional and modern, were not without their problems. Strings with a metal winding were only just being experimented with at the time of the lute, and bass strings for the lute were usually several plain gut strings wound together into a very thick bass string. These did indeed produce a bass tone, but were highly impractical, and mostly quite erratic in intonation.
  • “Tone is in the fingers”, it is said often these days, and usually whenever that remark is spoken, the names of Gilmour, Beck and Clapton will be uttered. It’s certainly also true of the lute, which is plucked with either the fingertips or the nails. And, similar to the better known “nail war” of the 19th C. guitarists, the 17th and 18th C. lute players were bitterly divided over the use of nails or fingertips. 

Okay, I have now spent several paragraphs dissing the instrument that I have played professionally and passionately for more than 35 years. The instrument and its tone that I love deeply. A tone that is unique and instantly recognisable. A sound that is sweet and pliable, and the perfect companion to the human voice. And so far, not a plectrum in sight.

So why complain about the lute, when clearly I love it so much? Because the only way to make the lute do its beautiful thing, to lure the listener into its rich overtones, to support the singer with harmony and rhythm, is to make a strong, rich, and beautiful tone. Using fingertips or nails. Defeating all of those pesky problems mentioned earlier. Not to pretend to equal mssrs Gilmour, Beck, Clapton and so many other tone geniuses, but on the lute, that’s where tone truly resides. In the fingers.

Plucking with the fingers hurts, after about five minutes. That is why fingertip players of the lute very quickly develop callouses also on their plucking fingers. A callous is a hard, thickened area of skin that develops usually from friction or irritation over time. Such a hardened area often leaves one less sensitive to the touch. Callouses also cause a significant volume increase over the volume of a string plucked by an uncalloused finger. The slightly warmer, richer in overtones, sound compared to fingernail players, remains.

Here we get a first mention of material influencing a string’s tone. Flesh versus callous. Feeble versus present, vague vs focused.


Let’s introduce the fingernail. Keratin, strictly speaking. Alpha-Keratin, to be precise, which is a polymer. There will be more polymers later on. But it’s good to know that polymers are the combination of many (polus=many) large molecules (mer=part) into a compound that is tough, hard, impermeable, amorphous and elastic. Quite an ideal material, really, and we’ll see many of these terms return in connection with artificial compounds.

The human fingernail (I don’t know of any non-humans that use their nails to make music) is usually a fairly elegant and thin affair, when compared with the nails of other primates. We don’t usually use our nails for digging anymore, so the need for toughness is gone, we don’t need to hold on to prey with razor sharp talons, in fact, we don’t use our fingernails for much anymore. Haven’t done for a long time. Our fingernails have become relatively thin, relatively fragile and relatively small. But they are now ideal for plucking one or two strings.

Here we are, we can now compare two auto-grown ways to pluck a string, the callous and the fingernail. Thickened skin versus a keratin polymer. Let’s look at the already numerous differences.

  • Surface area. The callous presents quite a lot more surface area to the string than the fingernail. Typically this translates in a longer contact time before release for the callous, which typically means a warmer or richer tone. The fingernail is thin and slender and offers very little contact time before release, which usually translates into a thinner tone.

There are ways around the typical tone production of a material or shape, but before we go off on a tangent, we’ll stick with the typical properties of the materials we’re discussing.

  • Shape. The callous is amorphous, typically a roughly circular patch of thicker skin growing on top of your fingertip skin. The nail has a fairly distinct shape, it is thin and curved and presents a narrow, rounded contact surface to the string.
    Shape gives us the first major influence in the creation of tone. It influences several important tone-shaping criteria: contact area, contact duration, contact direction.
  • Material. Although both produced by our own body, the callous and the fingernail could be called different materials, each with their influence on tone.

Now would be a good time to go back in this text and see what we have so far. The title of this article is “Trinity of Tone”, but if we count, we’re already at two times three.

Two Trinities.

To recap, the first Trinity:
Surface
Shape
Stuff (Material, obviously, but the three S’s look good)

And the secondary Trinity:
Contact Area
Contact Duration
Contact Direction

Two Trinities already constitute a lot of criteria, and there are several more underlying criteria. Strangely, if you get the right combination of the two Trinities right, the underlying criteria don’t matter so much. 

That is my conviction. You’d think several of these criteria would be crucial; what about the instrument you’re using your pick on, for instance? Classical, Acoustic, Electric.

What about the signal chain when you’re playing amplified? The model of the guitar, the pickups, the pedalboard, the amp, the speaker, the components inside the control cavity of the guitar? What about the strings you’re using, at what tension? With all these influences, we should be surprised that there is a discernible difference between picks at all, and why can’t we do away with complicated and expensive picks, and just all use the same plectrum? Well, in fact we were well underway on that path, and it’s a good thing that there is now a growing community of plectriers who are all dedicated to looking for better or more tone.

Back to the Trinities. Imagine having a stompbox with six dials, labelled Surface, Shape, Stuff, Area, Duration and Direction. And all dials influence each other. You’d be in for a long time of tweaking, so let’s lay down some rules for each of these dials.

Surface.
We started off with the difference in surface quality, and this dial could conceivably be a toggle switch, rather than a dial: Rough/Smooth.

That was the first tonal difference we started with, the difference between a callous and a nail. The callous is usually textured and could be labelled ‘rough’, whereas the nail can be polished to a very smooth edge.

Surface quality has a major influence on two other dials: Contact Area and Contact Duration. A rougher callous offers a greater contact area and a longer contact duration on the string. Experience tells us that these translate to a slightly duller or warmer tone, rich in overtones but slightly down in volume.

Given roughly the same stroke or plucking action, a polished fingernail has a smaller contact area and a shorter contact duration on the string. Experience again tells us that this translates to a brighter but thinner tone, with more volume, or, due to the brightness, the perception of more volume.

Given that we want to end up with a tone that is both strong in volume, but not overly bright or dull, we will need to make some adjustments, both to the callous and to the nail.

Starting with the nail, if we have an overly bright tone, the nail may have the wrong shape. If it is too pointy, the contact duration will be too short, which translates to brightness. In changing the shape so that the contact duration is longer, you make a minute change in the way the string vibrates, which will translate to a rounder tone. Rounder shape, rounder tone.

Similarly, if the contact area of the nail is rough, you again change the vibration of the string in a minute way, giving more ‘attack’ to your note. You gain the perception of more volume, but you pay for it in tone quality. Smoother shape (edge), smoother tone.

The callous is a different story. For one, you can’t really change the shape of the callous much. It’s just there where it’s most needed, placed there by your body in exactly the spot where irritation occurs repeatedly. You can’t change the shape much, not like you can finely shape a fingernail. Luckily, the general shape of a callous is round, which, as we’ve seen, translates to a round tone. Which is generally what we’re after. You can change the surface of the callous somewhat, you can make it smoother, but generally you’d want to keep some structure in order to keep volume.

In my personal experience, I pluck the strings of my lute with fingernails, which are filed and polished to a curved and smooth edge, bevelling ‘away’ from the string, so that the striking action is at quite a complicated angle. It’s the shape and angle I found works best with the lute. The thumb, however, is way overpowered if I use the nail. So I play my lute with a calloused thumb: the greater contact area and the softer contact surface tame the stroke of the thumb down to fit well with the stroke of the fingernails. Sometimes, during long rehearsal sessions, the surface of my thumb callous becomes to rough, and I can file that down to the appropriate smoothness again.

Shape.

We leave the fingers behind to finally end up with what we’re really after: the plectrum. But not after noticing that picks, more often than not, copy the shape of the ancestor-pick, the fingernail. Especially when we look at shapes of vintage picks from the era when picks first became mass-produced products. These picks, wildly varying in shape and size, often mimicked fingernails, or other naturally occurring materials, often used for picks in the past, like bird feathers, reeds, antler, horn, bone. But not only did they mimic shape in the beginning. It is probably no coincidence that the materials early picks were made of at first were naturally occurring materials with properties similar to fingernails. Birds’ feathers, tortoise, bone, tusk.It is also probably no coincidence that when the first artificial plastics were developed, that these would exhibit properties that gave them something tactile and natural-feeling. More about this in the ‘Stuff’ paragraph.

Think of a plectrum for guitar, and what is the likely shape you’re thinking of?

Exactly – the 351.

The 351 is a success story. A versatile shape, offering not just one playing point, but two shoulders of a greater radius that can be used for playing as well. It can be scaled up, it is symmetrical, so that lefties can use it, it can be used in all thicknesses and in many materials. The 351 isn’t picky. And standardising that shape made perfect sense for the manufacturers. Just one mould, for pressing blanks out of sheets of material, just one size for finishing. Levelling the playing field.

But the plectrum came late to the guitar. Throughout the ages, the guitar was a finger-plucked, or finger-strummed instrument, with an odd exception or two, like the wire-strung 17th C. chitarra battente, an instrument that would have made no sense without a plectrum. The mandolin was the absolute expert of the plectrum through the ages. And with the advent of wire-strung guitars, around the turn of the 20th C., and once the large scale production of both guitars and mandolins was in the hands of single manufacturers like Gibson, it would have made perfect sense for guitarists to initially play their newly wire-strung guitars with picks widely used for mandolin.

Standardising the 351 shape for guitar was a brilliant move.

So, for about two or three generations of guitar players, a pick meant 351 shape. It’s only in recent years that boutique plectrum makers and curious guitarists started to check out vintage shapes, to discover that in the first half of the 20th C. there was a staggering amount of different shapes on offer. The brave soul who would want to categorise them would end up putting them in families of a few basic shapes, but would be left with many in-between shapes.

For the purpose of this article, when discussing shape and tone, luckily there is a simple division: rounded / pointy.

Imagine for this ‘Shape’ dial a potentiometer with a central click point, which is roughly the curvature of the 351 tip. Turn the dial to the left, more rounded, and contact duration with the string increases, giving more overtones and a warmer tone, with possibly a small price to pay in volume. Turn to the right, towards pointy, and the contact duration decreases, giving a brighter, thinner tone, usually with a volume increase.

The workings of shape on tone can probably be explained reasonably well by existing laws of physics, even if it would require a lab full of strings vibrating under controlled conditions, keenly watched and recorded by a host of stroboscopes and high-speed cameras. The real mystery ingredient is yet to come:

Stuff. What they’re made of.

Therein lies the biggest mystery. We’re all familiar with the hard-surface-bounce-test of guitar picks: drop one from a couple of cms or inches height on a hard surface and the pick will ring when it lands and bounces. Some have a clear bouncy and bright ring to their landing sound, some will make no sound but a dull thud.

That test alone gives some indication of the influence of material on the tone of your guitar. Empirical evidence. I cannot begin to claim to know how the physics for each material in relation to your string work, but I have a strong suspicion it has a lot to do with density of the material at hand. Varying density will vary the amount of energy that is absorbed by the plectrum when striking a string. And I even suspect that the absorption of energy will take place on different wavelengths in different materials, which could account for our sensation of one material sounding warmer or brighter than another, or a material sounding more ‘transparent’ versus ‘woolly’ than another.

Luckily for us, like with tone woods, so with plectrum materials: their physical properties usually predict their influence on tone: a hard, dense material will pass on a maximum of energy to the string, causing an energetic tone, whereas a softer, open structured material will absorb some energy and cause a mellower tone.

For many, the influence of plectrum material on tone is still a journey shrouded in mystery, but slowly several good materials for specific tones are manifesting themselves. It is fast becoming a long list of materials in several categories, and one of the more complete listings is that of the Heavy Repping website, but let me pick a few outstanding ones:

  • Early plastics, phenolic resins, like Bakelite (and a bakelite subspecies, Catalin) and Galalith (or Casein). The plastics industry hit the ground running: the early plastics could be called the best. The stuff is rock hard, transmits energy very well and polishes to a glassy smooth surface. And it often looks spectacular.
  • Modern plastics, like PEI, PEEK, POM, basically the tougher, stronger thermoplastics perform very well as a plectrum. Ultem springs to mind as the most popular for picks, but the really high-end space-age industry standard compounds like Torlon are gaining traction. These are often monochrome or transparent, and maybe visually not as inspiring.
  • Plexiglass is interesting for its light weight and flighty sound, an underrated material if you ask me.
  • Celluloid is also a historic material, highly flammable, but it has many followers for its special tone.
  • Epoxy resin has many advantages. Thoroughly modern, and extremely versatile visually, resin is neutral and at the same time strong in its tone.
  • Natural materials are plentiful, whether animal-or plant derived. Obviously, natural materials were the first to be used for plectra, but no matter our desire for authenticity, let’s not use tortoise anymore. It’s illegal, and they’re way too cute. Similarly, ivory – leave them elephants alone and stay off the black market. On the other hand, mammoth ivory (if properly documented) is fine. The mammoths don’t care, they’ve been dead for forty millennia. Woods are a very popular choice for picks, but they do need some maintenance, so I’m told. 
  • Polyester is another underrated material for plectra. It is a slightly softer compound, and the pick will not really ring when dropped onto a hard surface. That absorption gives a mellow tone, but somehow doesn’t pay for it in volume. Polyester comes in a huge amount of colours and patterns, so visually it’s a strong contender.
  • Metal. Coins. Titanium. Aluminium, Brass. Steel. We’re all familiar with the tone differences of different metals when used as bridge saddles. But best keep a nicely smooth edge finish on your metal plectrum, or you’ll saw through your string.
  • Semi-precious stones are becoming popular. Visually stunning, they are said to have an amazing tone as well. They are difficult and expensive to make, and you’d better not drop your pick on the tiled floor.

All these materials have a place on the ‘Stuff’ dial, and like no other dial, this dial influences all others. The physics of this interaction are elusive, and often the stuff of myth or opinion. But the differences are clearly there, whether you like it or not.

And all that is taking place during that fleeting moment when the pick is interacting with your string. 

The second Trinity:
Contact Area
Contact Duration
Contact Direction

These three are the more technical dials. They are not so much related to the plectrum, but more to your general playing technique. But since technique is necessary for a good and balanced tone, it is inextricably linked to the plectrum.

The Contact Area is basically the dial between pointy and rounded, much like we discussed earlier in ‘Shape’. But whether you have a rounded or pointy pick, you can still vary the contact area by changing your picking depth and your angle of attack. A bevel plays an important role here, too. The bevel, the angled surface of the contact area of the plectrum, is essential for your tone too. A bevel increases your interaction with the string dramatically, and works across the other two in this trinity, Duration and Direction.

Duration. However fleeting the contact moment may be, a lot is happening during that moment. And the player can stretch or hasten that contact moment, exerting yet another influence on his or her tone. Typically, a longer contact duration will increase overtones, causing a warmer, more rounded tone.

Direction. This is all about the angle of attack. Strike a string at right angles and you end up with a nasty shrill, thin and aggressive noise. Apparently giving the string only a sideways motion doesn’t do it for the guitar. That string needs to vibrate in a much more complicated pattern in order to release those all important overtones. You can achieve this by striking the string at an angle. I imagine that the vibrating pattern goes from a flat sideways pattern when striking at right angles, to an interesting, almost helical swing of the string when sending it on its way with at an angle.

Perhaps we can call the second trinity the Gilmour set of controls, for in these criteria, the real secret to tone may well reside. It is said of most of these tone-gods that they will create their unique tone regardless of the instrument they’re playing on, so all other criteria being equal, these fleeting moments of technical interaction with the strings may well be the defining influence on their tone.

It’s astonishing how tiny the playing field is, and how fleeting the moment of interaction. And equally astonishing how massive the differences in tone can be, that are achieved on that minute playing field during that infinitesimally short moment in time.

Therein lies the true mystery. 

But the more tangible influences, like Stuff, Shape and Surface certainly help, and give us a massive subject to explore.

The current plectrum community is well on its way to opening up the field. With an open mind for new and old materials, new and old shapes and new and old techniques, we, the players and the plectriers, will experiment more to further the plectrum’s future, and research more to learn from the plectrum’s past.


Michiel is a musician and plectrier who resides in Belgium. Versed in many instruments, he is the only member of the Guild who keeps a chicken.

@meantone_plectra