Tone Talk with Amber DeBellis

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Photo by Ro Lorenzen
       

Hello there! My name is Amber DeBellis. I am a Twin Cities-based Jackson-sponsored artist. I play guitar in the trans-fronted eclectic punk band Alien Book Club and the genre-hopping hyperpop project Anita Velveeta. I’m also a session musician, guitar instructor, and somewhere along the line, I stumbled into being one of those social media influencer types.

Like a lot of us, I started out in the bedroom—or dorm room, really. I was 18, had just picked up guitar, and was jamming out to and learning from games, apps, and YouTube videos. A few years after graduating (in English, shout-out to books!), I started working at a record store and made friends with the people who would eventually become my bandmates. More and more, music became the focal point of my life as I began gigging, recording, and touring.

In the summer of 2021, Jackson’s artist relations manager reached out to me, and I had the honor to become the first transwoman of color to be a Jackson Artist. Recently, I even had the opportunity to do an Artist Takeover on Jackson’s Instagram! It is difficult to fathom that I am in any way associated with my own personal guitar heroes—people like Marty Friedman, Jeff Loomis, or Guthrie Govan.

Not only that, but Alien Book Club will be releasing our first full-length LP in February, Anita Velveeta is releasing an LP sometime after, there are talks of a coastal tour, I’m collaborating with amazing musicians and artists in the Twin Cities queer and punk scenes, collaborating with people all over the country and the world… Heck, I’m getting a Tone Talk! I love Tone Talk! What?!

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Tone is the final voice of your instrument. It’s the end product of the chain that runs from your inner voice to your fingers, to your guitar, to your pedals, and to your amp (even through the venue PA if you’re mic’d up). If you’re doing it right, what you’re hearing should speak to you and inspire you.

Now, rather than boxing myself into the idea of “My Tone™,” I like to think of my guitar tone in a similar way that a voice actor thinks of, well, their voice! I have my own personal spin on a blues tone, my own country quack, and my own high-octane lead voicings that I love. Developing your voice (or voices) requires you to understand what it is you want to hear – which can be inspired by musicians past and present – to craft something unique to yourself.

As for how my tone has changed? Well, it’s changed a lot from when I first started gigging. Back in the day, I was using a beat-up, off-brand, 30-year-old guitar I bought for $100, a 25-year-old junker of an amp that weighed as much as it cost, and no pedals because pedals were expensive (and therefore overrated—who needs ‘em!). Tone came purely from the fingers, so this set-up was awesome… okay no, not really. As much as technique and touch can shape your sound, investing in quality equipment kept me from sounding like a bee in a tin can, and that improved my confidence on stage by quite a bit.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I’ve spent the majority of my time this last year with my eldest daughter, the Jackson Pro Series Dinky DK Modern Ash HT6. The DK Modern has Fishman Fluence Open Core humbuckers which offer multiple voicings such as single coil and hot-rodded humbucker. That comes in handy as someone who hops from a metal tone to a country tone to a funk tone (and more!) in a single set—sometimes, I’ll even have several drastic tone changes in a single song. The Jackson stork recently dropped off an MJ Series Soloist SL2 at my doorstep, which is quickly becoming a favorite since the fretboard plays as smooth as all get-out and the Gotoh double-locking trem lets me do all those silly whammy bar tricks.

As for amps, I use a Vox AC15 both on stage and for studio recording and then use Amplitube 5 (running on REAPER) for my social media content. The Vox is reliable, plays well with our frontwoman’s Orange, and cuts through most any mix; Amplitube 5 lets me mess with all sorts of tones at my desktop without annoying anyone else in my apartment!

My pedalboard is focused on versatility and efficiency: BOSS TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, BOSS CP-1X Compressor, EQD Spatial Delivery Envelope Filter, Wampler Tom Quayle Dual Fusion Overdrive, OBNE Reflector Chorus, OBNE Dark Star Pad Reverb, and a Keeley Caverns Delay/Reverb. I have no affiliation with them but props to Old Blood Noise Endeavors for making creative, mystical pedals.

What about strings?
I hop around from brand to brand with strings, but right now, I’m using 9-gauge Elixir Nanowebs. Strings have a habit of snapping on me since I have a habit of being rough with them, so durability is my biggest concern.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
I have the most fun in the studio when we’re recording as many instruments as we can at once, going through the whole song rather than section by section. That old-fashioned way of doing things lends a lot of life to the final product. Aside from that, I always like to set up my mics away from the center of the amp speaker to keep the tone more rounded. 

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
Rather than consistency, I focus on having a good sound for each individual show. Not every venue is going to have an ideal sound system. Gig long enough, and something will come up that will force you to improvise. Understanding your gear goes a long way to achieving a flexible enough sound that can stand up to most scenarios.

What does your practice consist of?
If I’m at home and I’m free, then there’s probably a guitar in my hands, especially if life isn’t being super cool to me (we don’t always get along). No matter how I’m feeling, I can always rely on the good ol’ axe to push the Bad Thoughts away. Whether I’m jamming out or exercising to the metronome, when I’m playing my guitar, it takes up 100% of my brain space. My relationship with the guitar is more about comfort and fun than discipline.

That being said, if I see or hear something cool—usually on YouTube—then I’ll try and learn that myself. Maybe slow it down and try to learn it by ear (but sometimes I cut myself slack and look at tabs, don’t tell anyone!). If it’s giving me difficulty, then I’ll pull out the metronome.

My metronome practice has become a process. I start by playing the chosen lick to a turtle-mode bpm at a quarter-note beat. Then an eighth note beat. Then, eighth note triplets. Sixteenth notes, maybe. Sixteenth note triplets if I’m feelin’ extra spicy. Bump up that bpm and repeat. All this while watching YouTube videos or listening to a podcast.

Honestly, though, I can’t say there’s much rhyme or reason to the time I spend with guitar. I just follow my whims, and it turns out to work well enough!

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?
I was a Guitar Hero kid, so it’s hard to pick just one: Freebird, Hangar 18, Beast and the Harlot, Through the Fire and Flames… My taste has changed a bit since then, but anything with fast noodly-noodly impressed and enticed Kid Amber. When I actually started to play guitar in college, I was heavy into metal, and most of all, heavy into Megadeth!

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
You deserve to work with people who make your life brighter. It took a couple of years of bumping into sexist sound guys and insecure musicians to find myself thriving in the sunlight of others’ kindness, but it did eventually happen. It can be hard to keep pushing when things look bleak, but I know there’s a space out there for you.

Ever since transitioning, I’ve held this fear around my identity as a transwoman that people would reject me if I was too open with who I was. As I started out on social media, I faced a lot of bullying in Facebook groups and YouTube comments which didn’t leave me with a lot of hope or confidence. At one point, I even started to worry that my sponsors would be upset with me if they found out I was trans, thinking that I’d cause them more grief with internet trolls than I was worth. That couldn’t have been further from the truth!

As I’ve continued to put myself out there, I have made so many new friends, people who love and support me and whom I love and support. Bandmates, collaborators, industry professionals, fellow musicians from around the globe… A community of wonderful people is out there, and I feel so incredibly grateful for that. The world can be a tough place, but I believe we’re all going to make it. Together!