Steel guitar players argue about the “Emmons Tone”, but I’m not always quite sure what they’re talking about – the person or the eponymous steel guitar?
Buddy Emmons gets a monster tone out of any guitar he plays, and it’s quite distinctive, but it’s more than just tone. It’s technique, soul, chops, feeling – or whatever you want to call everything that comprises Buddy’s ability to play better than anyone else, and to sum it up as “tone”.
Buddy’s had a number of tones over the years. It’s beyond the scope of my organizational skills to categorize and analyze his various and sundry tones, but I will say that my favorite Buddy Emmons tone, a Beagle’s ears notwithstanding, is the one he got with the Blade on albums like the “Black Album”, Jones live at Dancetown, Nancy Sinatra’s country album, Roger Miller’s ”Trip In The Country”, and a whole bunch of other recordings from that era, which spanned what, 20-30 years? It’s the definitive steel guitar tone, as far as I’m concerned, but that’s just my personal preference, and it’s what inspires me, as well as so many other players, to play as well as possible, for whatever that’s worth.
OTOH, there’s the tone that an Emmons P/P guitar produces, no matter who plays it. Even a beginner can get a great sound by just picking, say, the 6th string at the third fret and letting it ring. You’ll hear that magic tone. According to Buddy, and other sources, some guitars are better than others, but a discerning ear can hear the quality of a good P/P when the strings are just strummed, even if it’s not plugged into an amp. Buddy’s original inspired design back in the 60‘s made it an incomparable steel guitar, a benchmark by which all guitars have been judged.
This “Emmons tone” isn’t for everyone, of course. Plenty of great players have made their mark playing other brands, with their own distinctive sound, and that’s all well and good. Hell, not everybody likes ’57 Chevies or old Panheads, either. Or Taylor Swift. But you like what you like, and you don’t have to justify or explain your tastes to anyone, even if you somehow feel compelled to do so, because it’s all subjective, and there’s no clarification necessary for something subjective. It’s just you. If you would kill for that Emmons tone, good for you. If an old Bigsby or a Fender 1000 does it for you that’s good, too. We’re all just steel guitar players, and if everyone pursued the same sound the steel guitar world would be constricted to a banal, ho-hum sub-genre of country music.