Vulgar Display of Tone: The Crunch ‘n’ Cream Quotient
Opinion piece by George W. Kush
The house is burning. A wall of flame swells against my back and I’m running as fast as I can towards the door. I stumble and trip, my legs like confused rubber. The walls warp and bubble and the hallway stretches and yawns before me. I know that if I can just make it to my room, if I can just get to my guitar, everything will be okay. Somehow, after an eternity of struggling, I reach the room. I’m choking on the smoke and scrambling for my guitar in the haze when I see it. The demon. A living manifestation of every horrible thing you can imagine. It’s in my room.
It sweeps in front of me at inhuman speeds, sliding sideways on broken legs like something out of a Lovecraftian acid trip. It’s made entirely of fur and teeth and quivering viscera. It turns to speak, and I recognize its face. It’s Ms. Burns, my 3rd-grade homeroom teacher. She shrieks, “I’ve heard your latest album, and every single critic and I agree: you have shitty tone!”
What? That lying bitch! I have to defeat her. My hands close around my guitar neck, and I yank it close to me. I know it’s already plugged in, so all I have to do is switch on my amp and start playing. Somehow, I just know I can shred this demon out of existence. I reach out for my amp and my finger hits the standby switch. I prepare to let loose the heaviest riff known to man and banish the terrible succubus from this dimension, but as I’m plucking the opening notes of Dopesmoker, all I can hear is a grotesque solid-state, high-gain hiss. The atrocious tone brings me to my knees, and I start racking my brain for solutions.
No no no no NO NO NO! This can’t be happening! Maybe something’s wrong with my effects loop, maybe one of the batteries is dead! Maybe I can fix this!
I crawl towards my effects loop. I open up my pedalboard, and it’s full of blood. The demon is laughing now, as a pair of gory feathered serpents spill from her mouth. I try to ward them off with a ripping solo, but what comes out of my amp is only the most flaccid of noises; it’s the sound of a thousand Fred Dursts yelling “yeah boiiiiiii!” over a KoЯn riff as covered by the Steve Miller Band. The serpents close around my neck and she cackles, “Hah! All that expensive gear and you just sound like that lame asshole in Metallica!” I feel fangs piercing my carotid artery, and as I’m steeling myself for the cold embrace of death, something clicks in my mind: Wait a minute… there’re four lame assholes in Metallica! This is just a dream!
I awake in a cold sweat. It’s not yet dawn. Beside my bed, just below my collection of vaguely homoerotic Zakk Wylde posters, the alarm clock reads 4:20AM. I flick on the lights and head for my guitar rig. I have to be sure. My amp is sitting where I left it, seemingly unmolested. With trembling hands, I inspect the EQ knobs. Everything’s fine: the mid knob hasn’t been turned to zero and ripped off, bass and treble are at respectable levels. It’s all fine. I’m just being neurotic. But, then again, it’s been like this for a long time.
As electric guitarists, we all have our crosses to bear: Dimebag Darrell died for our sins, scooping out his tone until the bitter end, so that none of us would have to know the pain of his martyred midrange. Tosin Abasi runs a tight ship, keeping his tones as clean as you would expect they’d be after the thorough sweepings they endure. Myself, I strive for the purest combination of happenin’ mid-gain crunch, and creamy analog saturation. In short: I live for crunch and cream.
There is good reason for this. Examining the repertoire, one finds a healthy and balanced Crunch/Cream Quotient (CCQ) at the backbone of the most successful and enduring heavy music. 70s-era Sabbath’s crushing tone straddles the line between crunch and cream nicely, while the relatively lower-gain styles of distortion available to them in their prime put them at approximately 55% crunch and 45% cream (CCQ = 1.22). Sleep-era Al Cisneros’ wall of Green amps, whose tubes creameth over, is responsible for many legendary cream-dominant riffs (CCQ = .420). Conversely, the oft-reviled canonical nu-metal bands employed grating, digital tones that were neither crunchy nor creamy (CCQ = Ø). Looking at a large enough sample size, we can see a correlation emerge between the success of riffs and their proximity to midline crunch and cream (viz. the lack of staying-power seen in bands with extreme CCQ values that approach 0 or infinity). This phenomenon is not a static one. Baroness have shifted their crunch/cream dynamics over time, becoming gradually creamier from the First & Second era (CCQ = 2.3) to the Red & Blue era (CCQ = 0.75) and arguably ramping up their popularity while doing so. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe, just maybe, there exists a means of attaining an unholy combination, the ultimate blend of crunch and cream (CCQΩ) that will lead to riff-fueled immortality. It’s out there, people, and I intend to find it.
I think of the legacy I’ll leave behind, when I’m knocking back Blacktooth Grins with Randy Rhoads and Chuck Schuldiner in Satan’s crowded GuitarCenter showroom. Will my work have left me time for a family? Will my son spit on my grave, resenting me for all the time spent wiring tube amps (tiny hands are so useful for point-to-point circuitry!) instead of playing catch? Will my daughter sleep with as many unscrupulous Line6 engineers as she can find as payback for naming her “Orange”? Only time will tell. I just hope I live long enough to faithfully serve my muse, my mistress, and lifeblood: the pursuit of Crunch ‘n’ Cream.
George W. Kush currently lives in exile in the bitter Minnesota tundra. He enjoys unnecessary pinch harmonics and long walks on the beach. When he’s not obsessing over how to develop the perfect CCQ for Maeth riffs, he bides his time until he can stage a coup to reclaim his rightful title as Commander in Keif of the United States.