Clean, Crunch, and Lead

Clean, crunch, and lead…

They’re the holy trinity of tone among guitarists – endlessly discussed, tweaked, and refined. We’ve all heard dozens of variations on each in popular music.

Clean is the sparkling guitar tone in the introduction to Boston’s “More than a Feeling.”

Crunch is the thick, meaty  tone that opens Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”

Lead is the soaring, incendiary tone on famous guitar solos – think Eddie Van Halen’s seminal “Eruption.”

Guitarists obsess over these three separate, but related, guitar tones; famous ones are analyzed at ridiculous lengths by guitar magazines, and a billion-dollar industry exists in the trafficking of tone replication gear . Most of the famous amplifiers in guitar history are discussed reverently in terms of these tones.

“How’s the clean? Is it Fender clean? Does it have Marshall crunch? Does it have Engl lead?”

Google any new amp and you’ll invariably find someone reviewing it on the merits of these three basic tones. They’re the foundation of every songwriting session, studio recording, and live performance that uses an electric guitar.

Boston | Boston | AlbumAs fervently as guitarists work to craft each one of these tones in their performing rigs, they’re also conscious that all three need to work together to sound like a tonal family. A warm, sparkling clean sound can’t transition into a cold, sterile crunch or lead; a singing, musical lead tone can’t move into a dull, woofy crunch or a dry, undefined clean sound. All three need to transition seamlessly from one to another during the course of a song, and all three need to sound as if you’re listening to variations on a central, core guitar tone.

Listen to Tom Scholz transition through his tones on the early Boston albums, or Jimi Hendrix’s seemingly infinite continuum of tones and sounds, and you’ll notice that despite a broad variety of tonal characteristics, you always know who’s playing. There’s unity in the variation, a sonic anchor to the innovation and creativity.

That’s no accident.

Van HalenThere are, literally, thousands of hours invested in those tones. Knobs have been twiddled and tweaked; effects like compression and chorus added, subtracted, changed, substituted, tossed in disgust. Fantastic tones in one area have been developed to the nth degree – and then chucked wholesale when they didn’t work in the tonal family. There’sinvestment in building those tones – layer by layer, frequency by frequency, effect by effect – to work together perfectly. They’re also remarkably consistent over time – that’s why you could turn on the radio in 1977 or 1987 or 1997 or 2007 and say, “sounds like Eddie Van Halen.”

Good leadership across a wide variety of business conditions is a great deal like guitar tone. There’s not one fixed style and managerial ‘voice’ that works for every situation you’ll encounter in business. As circumstances change, your leadership style has to change with it – whether the horizon looks ‘clean,’ whether you’re in a deadline ‘crunch,’ or whether things have begun to unravel and you really need to ‘lead.’

There are a few basic questions to ask yourself about your own leadership style in relation to business challenges.

First, have you invested the time to develop a stylistic variant for each of these different situations? What will you change about your core leadership style – your ‘anchor tone’ – for each situation?

Second, will your group, division, company, corporation recognize each of those leadership style variations as different aspects of the same core style? In other words, do the changes you apply to different leadership situations still reflect a ‘tonal family?’

If you can’t answer each of these in the affirmative, there’s danger ahead. Your everyday management style might not work in a ‘crunch’ – and if you’re not ready, with a recognizable and effective ‘variant’ on that style, it’s easy to fail in pulling your team through a difficult time – or keeping their attention and respect.

We’ve all worked with, and for, managers who were fantastic as long as there were clear skies ahead, but came apart under pressure situations or simply couldn’t manage through a crisis. Make sure you’re not one of them by crafting and honing a leadership ‘tone family’ that can meet every business challenge.

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Dave Mayer is EVP & Executive Director of Aristeia, Inc.
He can be reached at

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~ by Dave Mayer on December 21, 2009.

One Response to “Clean, Crunch, and Lead”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by aristeia_dave: What on earth do tube amps have to do with leadership? More than you might suspect. New Rockstar Leader blog post at

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