Even though there are “insurmountable” logistical issues that preclude their widespread use in live performance situations, are mutilated loudspeaker cones the ultimate sounding electric guitar distortion effect?
By: Ringo Bones
Tales of guitarists intentionally mutilating the loudspeaker cones of their combo amps by slashing it with razor blades, poking strategic holes using a very sharp pencil or by other means in order to obtain a “unique tone” seems to be as old as the history of Rock N’ Roll music itself. Back in 1956, guitarist Paul Burlison of the Johnny Burnette Trio “accidentally” discovered that a partially broken loudspeaker cone of his combo amp that was damaged during transport during one of their band’s tours resulted in a distinctive tone that Burlison and the rest of the band found “pleasing” – i.e. resulted in a two-tone sound that produced quite clean trebles but sounded really distorted in the low frequencies which the band likened to a horn section playing full blast – but music critics and reviewers at the time noted that the resulting guitar sound as “horrible”.
During the late 1950s, guitarist Link Wray intentionally poked strategically placed holes in his electric guitar amp’s loudspeaker cones to further distort his tone. And by the way this was during the time when PP3 / 9-volt battery powered guitar distortion stomp-boxes were yet to be invented. In 1964, a fuzzy and somewhat distorted sound gained widespread popularity after guitarist Dave Davies of The Kinks used a razor blade to slash his combo amp’s loudspeaker cones to produce the distinctive tone in the band’s single “You Really Got Me” – an act which also got The Kinks dubbed as the grandfathers of Heavy Metal Music.
Even though intentionally mutilating loudspeaker cones of electric guitar amps to produce a distinctive tone seems to be a still esoteric practice a few years later, the practice probably got more popular after Brian Eno slashed the loudspeakers of the guitar amp to ribbons using a razor blade that was used during the recording session of his Nerve Net album. Eno described the tone as a little bit like those African instruments called mbiras where you have little tongues of metal that you play with your thumbs and around the base of each tongue is a piece of wire that rattles and buzzes as you play. Eno liked the resulting sound which he described as “this kind of halo that you can get on a sound. And it’s a halo of distortion really.” Thanks to Brian Eno, the most widely known use of razor blade slashed electric guitar loudspeakers in a recording session in recent years was Sonic Youth’s remake of The Carpenter’s “Superstar” in the 1994 album If I Were A Carpenter. Given that intentionally mutilating the loudspeaker cones of your electric guitar amp – why isn’t it in widespread use?
Setting aside a loudspeaker cone or a whole guitar combo amp’s loudspeaker cone to be intentionally mutilated might seem viable in recording studio situations, but if you are a touring guitarist or yet a guitarist who carries his or her 40-pound combo amp to a gig night after night, the very exercise seems to engender some logistical nightmares. The most obvious of which - is the realization which sadly only dawns upon to anyone who had performed such a stunt for a long period of time – is that a slashed loudspeaker cone or a pencil-poked loudspeaker cone’s timbre changes over time, especially if you play it loud. The timbre may change for the better or for the worse but you can never go back to a tone that was produced last week or three days ago – unless of course you have recorded that in a recording studio and it is also the very reason why bass guitar players have not experimented with mutilating their loudspeaker cones by either slashing it with razor blades or poking holes in them using a sharpened pencil. It looks like “mutilated loudspeaker cones” are for recording studio use only and leading digital guitar effects manufacturers still haven’t perfected an electric guitar effect that consistently replicates a mutilated electric guitar amp loudspeaker cone that can be used in live gigs.