Getting great guitar tone is a constant quest for everyone that has ever picked up a guitar.
This applies equally to hobby and professional guitarists as well as acoustic and electric guitars.
In this article, I am going to go through the various stages of generating the overall tone of your guitar and talk about each in turn giving some tips and additional things to consider – focused on improving the sound that you and others will hear.
Even better, this is mainly about using the equipment you’ve got to its maximum potential and not necessarily about trying to get you to buy more expensive guitars and/or amplifiers.
I have kept this simple, not covering the use of effects pedals, processors, mixing desks, PA systems and digital recording is they are entire subjects in themselves.
You’ll struggle to get a good tone unless you understand the stages I have talked about below.
Let’s look at each stage of sound generation from your guitar:-
- Electric & Acoustic:
- Picking/plucking the strings;
- The strings;
- Fretting – how your finger holds the string to the fret;
- Guitar set up;
- The guitar wood and its construction.
- Electric and Electro-Acoustic Only;
- Guitar electronics;
- Leads and inter-connects;
- The amplifier;
- Room Acoustics.
Right, let’s get into this…
Picking/Plucking the Strings
So, nothing happens until you pick or pluck a guitar string (or strings!) in some way…
Many would say that the sound of players such as George Benson, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, Robben Ford and Joe Satriani (just to name a few) is defined by the way they “activate” the strings.
Just think of the full and dynamic sound of George Benson, the fluidity of Eric Johnson, the machine gun effect of Steve Morse and so on…it all starts with a string “activation”.
Try to vary the way you pick the strings.
- if you’re a finger picker, listen for a difference when you pluck at or caress the strings, whether you brush the top or push through;
- If you use a pick , try different picks, try angling the pick a little so it isn’t flat against the strings, try using the tip then the side of the pick. Also, try quick and slow movements;
- Legato – where you are predominantly using hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides; see how different that sounds?
As you can see, there are many variations of sound just based on how you initially set the string moving.
The strings – only the things that connect your hands and the guitar – so maybe they matter?
Obviously, nylon strings sound very different to steel and phosphor-bronze strings, but even within steel strings there are subtle differences.
On all guitars, old strings sound dull – just dull. They lose sparkle and life.
Of course, this is particularly noticeable on acoustic guitars, but electric guitars will also lose definition with old strings.
Given the importance of the strings to your guitar’s sound, I’m often surprised how long people use old strings for and how little they spend on them compared to the value of a guitar.
So, don’t forget to change strings as they become dull, and carefully consider whether to upgrade the brand/type of strings you are using.
There are subtle alterations in sound from one type of string to another, so you’ll need to experiment with what works best for you and the sound you want.
The core and winding material can be different, the coating can be different, even the way they are wound or the shape of that winding can all make subtle changes. So, try a something different next time you change strings.
Fretting – Sow Your Finger Holds the String to the Fret;
I was at a guitar clinic with Eric Johnson once, and he said about fretting “you need to find the sweet spot to get that sweet sound” – and I reckon he manages it!
Try this – fret a note on your guitar, say, the C, 5th fret G string in standard tuning:
- Move your fretting finger away from the fret (towards the head stock) – see how the fret starts to buzz and eventually, it’s just not the right note any longer?
- Now move the finger closer and closer to the fret – eventually the note sounds dull because your finger is starting to go over the fret and in some circumstances, you may actually get the next note up!
How hard you press also changes things:
- Not hard enough, the string buzzes on the fret;
- Too hard and the pitch of the note actually changes a little so it sounds out of tune.
The sweet spot Eric was talking about is the optimal place just behind the fret and with just the right pressure to sound the note clearly.
Oh, and having clean frets helps to make that note clear and to have sustain, this is why I recommend cleaning your guitar’s fretboard Regularly.
Guitar set up;
Now this is a huge topic, but suffice to say that a good set up is important in order to get a good tone from your guitar. Most of this is something you need to talk with a good guitar tech about, but there are certain elements a hobbiest can do, but I’ll write a separate article on that.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- The machine heads (tuning keys) need to be properly positioned and seated;
- The nut needs to be filed to the right height and slots are well defined and of the correct width for your strings;
- The neck needs to be as straight as possible, or with a slightly concave curve;
- The frets need to be of an even height all the way up the neck and be properly crowned (rounded at the top);
- The neck should be correctly anchored (if it is a bolt-on), firmly attached so the neck does not tilt forward/back or left/right;
- The bridge (where the strings terminate on the body) needs to be properly set up (string saddle heights, position, spring tension if a tremolo system);
- The intonation of the guitar needs to be accurate (getting the harmonic at the 12th fret to be identical to the note fretted at the 12th on each string);
- The pickups (on an electric guitar) need to be at the right height.
Yeah, loads there, but most of it is something that will get done once and then maintained, whilst other factors are something that need periodic checks (again, I’ll write a more in-depth article on that).
For now, just take away that a good set up is important and that there are many elements that balance up to make a guitar play well and sound good.
The guitar wood and its construction.
You can probably guess that the types of woods used alter the tone of a guitar in subtle ways, particularly with acoustic guitars and the way the guitar is built together with the quality of that build also subtly effects tone.
This is one element where you are going to struggle to change your guitar yourself! You might want to replace the neck of a bolt on guitar, but really you’d only do this if the neck is worn out or damaged – or, just a very badly warped neck. I’m including this section for completeness!
For electric guitars the change is more subtle, but there are very minor differences in the character of the sound.
The internet is full of sites claiming different properties for woods, and guess what, they claim the expensive ones are better!
My honest opinion is that, yes, the woods do make a difference and strikingly so with acoustics, but the types of wood are more important in terms of stability and durability plus appearance and weight.
In terms of electric guitars, there are two key construction methods that will alter the tone – but actually the sustain more so.
Bolt on necks where there are 3, 4 or even 5 screws attaching the neck to the body, and “neck through” construction where the neck actually extends into the body of the guitar and some highly accurate carpentry means the body “wraps around” the neck before being glued in place.
The neck through construction is likely to have more sustain and take on more character from the body woods.
Of course, the electronics in your guitar (electric plus electro-acoustic) will have a huge influence on the tone(s) you can get.
Quality of components as well as the style, quality and height of pickups will all change the character of the tone.
An element often overlooked is maintenance – you should definitely clean the electronics periodically (either bowling out with compressed air or with specialized cleaners), you should also consider using specific lubricants on switches and pots.
And, don’t forget to keep the jack socket clean as well – a bad contact here will degrade the quality of sound.
Adjusting volume, tone and pickup configuration will of course change your tone, but subtlety is the key here, and remember, you are unlikely to get a Les Paul sound from a Stratocaster, so be realistic with the sound you are trying to achieve (which is hopefully why you bought the style of guitar you did in the first place).
In terms of electro-acoustics, much the same applies, but here, you might want to consider adjusting the position of the microphone (if it is that type) as well – and keep it clear of dust and so on.
Finally, check shielding on your guitar to remove electro-magnetic interference. This is something that some manufacturers don’t do properly and it can improve the tone by removing interference quite substantially.
I’ll write a separate article on how to shield your guitar, but there are some good articles out there like this one.
Leads and inter-connects;
As well as keeping the jack plugs clean so the electrical conduct is as good as it can be, you also need to have a decent set of cables.
Whether it’s the cable from your guitar to the amp, or you have multiple cables running to effects pedals and so on, there is a significant chance that there will be signal degradation and possibly electro-magnetic interference (from lights or other electrical equipment).
It’s worth investing in good quality cables – after all, it most likely links two big investments you made – the guitar and the amplifier.
Look out for low impedance cables that are shielded if possible and keep the connectors clean.
So, assuming you have a high quality signal arriving at your amplifier, you have more dials and switches to play with!
Firstly, though, consider what type of amp you want (assuming you haven’t got one yet or are considering upgrading).
The difference between valve (tube) amps and solid-state (transistor) is quite dramatic. In addition, some amps will have built-in effects as well as reverbs and various gain and tone adjustments.
To dial in the tone you want, make minor adjustments and creep up on the tone you want and don’t forget to go back to your guitar for additional adjustments.
It’s much better to have a tone in mind and try to achieve it, than messing around until it sounds right – because how will you know it’s right?
Finally, you can consider upgrading the speakers or you using – even on combo amps (where the speaker is built in), you can change the speaker, but be careful to match size and ohms.
Just bare in mind, the room you are playing in will make a difference to the overall sound – and not just the size of the room either!
Obviously, the difference in sound from playing in a large hall will be very different to that in a small living room – but the amount of sound damping will also change it.
Consider a tiled bathroom and a room of the same size with carpet, furniture and drapes – those two rooms will have totally different sounds again.
Obviously, the topic of room acoustics is massive, but just take this into account as you sculpt your tones.
Even floor construction (concrete or wood, for example) changes things up – and don’t talk to me about stuff rattling due to the vibration!
To Sum Up
My main message here is that there is a very great many factors that contribute to the tone of your guitar, and buying more and more expensive guitars, amplifiers and so on isn’t always the right answer – but of course, it might help!
You’ll struggle to get a good tone though, if you don’t put effort and thought into the other factors – that’s the key thing here.
Finally, have a sound in mind and try to tweak towards that sound, if you don’t, you’ll spend more time searching out a tone than playing your guitar – and that probably isn’t what you want!
Let me know what you think in the comments section, I would be interested in your own thoughts on getting great guitar tone and whether my tips above have given fresh perspective.
All the best and keep on rockin’