You are on the search for a great guitar tone, so what do you do? You might start by heading down to the music store to find the best guitar, amp, or effects pedal that you can afford.
At the same time, there are many examples out there of guitarist with great gear, yet not great tone. Wewe all know the story of the two famous guitar players (one typically being Van Halen, and another whose name changes) sounding just like themselves when playing in each other’s gear. How does this work?
Here’s the deal. Ours ears aren’t perfect. And often times when people are referring to "tone", it doesn’t have anything to down with the timbre of the gear you are using.
Though it is also incorrect saying that all tone comes from your fingers: of course your amps and pedals will shape the sound! Think about it in terms of your tone STARTING at your fingers. Practicing the way you play your guitar is going to be what improves your sound.
The same goes for something like running. Practicing running is what’s going to make you run faster and more efficiently. Buying new shoes won’t make you more fit, the same as buying a fancy amp isn’t going to make you better at guitar. The musician always comes before the instrument.
This is where you might start saying things like "hey but I’ve played power chords on my friends amp, and it sounded just the same as when they played it". Well, continue reading to find out why not only is this not right, but how you can actually start practicing to improve your tone.
Give Your Guitar A Tune Up
The intonation on your guitar plays a big role in the sound of your guitar, yet is something that often goes ignored for long periods of time.
How can this be checked? Go grab your guitar and see if the harmonic that happens at the 12th fret is the same note as what you get by fretting the same string at the 12th fret.
If your intonation is off, then you will never be able to fully tune your guitar. And when your guitar is not tuned properly, this is not a great place to begin working on your tone. The notes that are too sharp will end up sounding quite piercing, and the flat ones will sound lifeless.
What ends up happening is that not only will you hear an off pitch, but it will also sound like your tone is off. You can do all the tinkering with your amp that you want, but theres no getting rid of this if you have bad intonation.
If you don’t know how to set up your own intonation, take it in to most music stores to have someone else do it for you. And remember: Never skip out on tuning your guitar!
Make Sure Your Fingers Are Tuned
Try this experiment. Grab your guitar and play a fretted note, but play it while pressing as firmly on the string as you possibly can. Now play the same note, except with a much lighter touch.
What differences do you hear? You will probably find that the firmly pressed note comes out a little sharp and shrill. You might think "Okay, then I’ll just tune down slightly". But in doing this, your open strings will come out sounding flat.
This is where having complete control over your fingering technique starts to come into play. How you pick and how you fret the strings all works to influence your tone. Are you fretting too firmly? Or maybe accidentally bending the strings? When you are intentionally bending strings, is it being done correctly?
All these little things are what add up to make your guitar tone sound good.
Make Sure To Use The Right Pick
The right pick will change depending on who you ask and what you are using it for. But it’s worth understanding how different kinds of picks will produce different kinds of sound.
A big factor in what makes certain players achieve a better tone using the same rig is control in dynamics. For instance, when someone is able to control the dynamic (volume) of each note they play or which notes they want to accent.
This can all be much more easily controlled when using a heavier pick. The thinner to medium picks won’t hold up properly against hard picking. (Thinner picks work better for strumming an acoustic guitar).
Maybe you are someone who enjoys using a thin or medium pick, and more power to you! But the truth is that if you are looking to work on the dynamics in your playing, you will have a much easier time with this when you chose a heavier pick. The better control you have on your dynamics, the better your tone will sound.
To learn more about this, check out this video:
Pick The Strings Like You Mean It
Something else you can do to shape your tone is learn how to properly pick with more force. Again, this is easier to do with a heavier pick.
What happens when you do this? Well, obviously the notes will sounds louder. But also, it gives the notes a rich harmonic sound. No matter how much distortion or compression you use, hard picking will produce a noticeable effect.
Everyone’s familiar with the classic Stevie Ray Vaughn tone. That doesn’t just come from the strings or guitar he uses, or even from his distortion pedal (with the original Japanese chip). It comes from him hittinh those strings with all he’s got. He does not hold back.
You might have heard people tell you that Stevie uses heavy strings on his instrument, which explains his tone. Well in fact, his tone explains why he uses heavy strings. If he didn’t, the strings would break all the time. Heavy strings don’t automatically come sounding that way: you have to work for it.
Practice Your Timing
When it comes to working on the sound that you produce with your guitar, something that often goes overlooked is timing. I mean, what does playing in time have to do with your tone?
I’ve had many students come to me in the past with great technique. They were in tune, playing with good gear, and doing most the things I previously mentioned pretty well. But something still felt not quite right. It took some time to figure it out, but eventually it was clear to see that what was throwing things off was their timing.
I realize that it seems weird that something like timing can effect tone, but like I said, our hearing isn’t perfect. When you are consistently playing too early (like most beginners do), listeners will interpret that as a tone issue.
So don’t forget to spend some quality time with a metronome.
Work On Your Vibrato
It’s not enough to just incorporate vibrato into your playing. You have to use it right. When it’s not used right, your ear will "interpret" that sound as a poor tone. A vibrato that is played in time and in the proper pitch gives your a rick and full tone. A vibrato that is just winged will make your tone sound weak and thin.
The same is true (and well-known) for other stringed instruments as well, such as cello, viola or violin. A well placed vibrato is what makes the performance. If you aren’t sure of the best way to work on your vibrato, check out this video:
Get More Familiar With Your Tone And Volume Knobs
The final thing that most guitar players don’t spend enough time getting familiar with (when it comes to improving tone) is the volume and tone controls on their guitar.
Where the knobs on your guitar should sit all depends on the sound you want to achieve. You will want to have both the volume and tone controls sitting at a solid 10 if it is hard rock or metal that you are playing. If its an overdriven blues you want, you may try using the bridge pick up and have the tone knob sitting at about half way.
The volume knob too can do much for your tone. Most people think the volume control is simply for how loud or soft you want your sound to be. But actually, it shapes the tone and the frequencies you hear.
For instance, when you have you volume set lower you end up losing the higher frequencies or "sparkle" (known as "tone sucking"). This might be used if you were looking to get a warmer sound.
Make up for the lower volume by (slightly!) increasing the gain or the volume in your amp. The amp and the guitar work together in a lot more ways than people realize, so spend some time playing around with both.
Notice how none of these tips require you to spend any more money than you already have (as long as you have an instrument). So next time you are feeling displeased with the sound you are getting from your instrument, spend some time to make sure you got these techniques down before you go out and drop loads of cash on new gear.
And remember to have fun during this process!