Chasing That Perfect Guitar Tone
In my last blog I discussed some basics of guitar amplifiers. This post deals more with what to do with an amplifier, namely, dialing in a guitar good tone. I make sure that with every student I spend at least one guitar lesson just talking about dialing in a good tone. I usually have them bring in some of their gear and their amp.
That word itself, “tone” seems to be ambiguous and illusive. What exactly does it mean? Where and how do you get perfect tone? Is it in the gear? Is it in the fingers? Is it in the ears? While the fingers certainly play a role in your tone, the truth is tone is a complicated thing and has many variables. Each and every little thing can change your tone. Picks, strings, amplifiers, pedals, guitars, (and yes, even your fingers) all of it can color your tone.
One of the more complicated elements of your tone is your amp. In my previous article I explained the nature of the pre-amp and power amp and the difference between tubes and transistors. The tube vs transistor debate is certainly one place to start in tone, but even certain types of tubes can produce a wide range of tones based on combination and number of tubes. This is why Fender, Vox and Marshall amps all have such drastically different sounds. Seymour Duncan has a great list of the common types of power and preamp tubes which you can find here.
Eq-ing Your Amplifier
Enough about the tubes, this is about using your guitar amp to get the best sound you can get. The first thing I recommend is dialing the eq knobs (treble, bass and mid) to noon. I am not the first suggest this ( an article from Premier Guitar does the same). However, I have found this to be extremely useful in figuring out what the amp is capable of.
A quick word on EQ: DON’T SCOOP the mids. The key to great amplifier tone is balanced EQ. You want to keep the bass at a level that gives you a full bottom end. Mids to drive your solos (yes it is actually the mids that boost your solos not the screaming highs). Finally, your highs to make sure you cut through the mix. Mids are a key part to actually being able to get a balanced tone that will make your presence felt in a band mix. There is a reason why some guitars come with a mid boost option and not a bass boost.
Volume and Gain Controls
The rest of your amp tone is located in your volume and gain knobs. It seems strange but too much gain flattens your tone and takes away everything from your dynamics. Try dialing back the gain and letting your attack push your signal. In addition, set the master volume at an appropriate volume as see what the preamp volume will do for you. Some extra hints and info on speakers in combo amps can be found in this article.
Your guitar has a number of factors that play in to its tone. Aside from the wood itself, those factors will be the electronics (your tone and volume knobs), your pickups, hardware and even your strings. Each one of these things will have a bearing on what your tone will sound like.
There is a pretty big debate about the effectiveness of tonewoods on an electric guitar. If you aren’t familiar with tonewoods Guitar Player has a good post on what they are and how they affect sound. For my part I’m a believer in the concept of tonewood. I’ve spent enough time with local Colorado luthiers and asked enough questions to come to some sort of opinion on this. Each piece is different and will resonate differently due to density, wood grain spacing and a host of other things. I believe it is even the case with electric guitars which brings me to a crucial point about electrics: Pickups.
Pickups can have a massive effect on your tone. How they are wound and where they are placed (position on the guitar, angle, height etc.) determine how those tonewoods will be perceived. That isn’t to say tone woods are and irrelevant, but pickups will color your sound. Pickups can be active or passive and the degree they will influence your tone varies widely. Cheap pickups my have high output but low clarity which will mean you have to fight them to dial in your sound. To figure out how your pickups respond try varying your volume and tone knobs on your guitar. Don’t always play at 10. Give yourself some head room and see how the tone changes as your volume goes up. The same advice can be said with the tone knob.
Strings and Beyond
Strings and hardware can also play a role in how your guitar sounds. Bridges effect sustain based on the type of bridge, placement, and quality of construction. For example A stop tailpiece will resonate against the body where a floating bridge will do that to a lesser extent resulting in different levels of sustain. Part of this is how the strings pass through (or don’t) the body. Strings in and of themselves can, to a small extent, affect your tone. Generally thicker strings carry a bit more punch, but a lot of that can be compensated through eq, pickups, and pedals to the point it doesn’t matter as much.
Trying different brands and will give you an idea of different feel, gauges and what you prefer. I use D’Addario 10s on my electrics because I like the mid-range punch and the fact that I can dig in a little bit. However, I know my business partner Mark Young prefers Ernie Ball 9s. So, to each their tone.
One of the biggest factors to coloring your tone is your pedal or digital effects. Whatever you use you can be sure it will add (or subtract) from your tone. I suggest start by dialing in your guitar and amp as these are the two things that are the most important with the least (comparatively) amount variables.
True Bypass vs Buffered
Guitar pedals come in two types true bypass and buffered. True bypass is frequently touted as the gold standard because it means that your signal isn’t altered as it goes through the pedal. But, true bypass also has its own problems (most notably switching noise). However, buffered means that your signal is always being processed through some element of the pedal (even if the effect is not engaged). This will obviously color your tone. My advice on this is to test out the pedals and see how they work within your main rig. I have a lot of true bypass pedals on my board and one or two (depending upon the gig) buffered pedals. The key is dialing them in to get the tone you are after.
Pedal Tone Controls
Dialing the pedal tone can be a whole different set of complications. I had one player tell me, “the knobs you have the more chance you have to screw up your tone.” Generally this is true, so choose pedals carefully. On the other hand, it does mean you have some flexibility when you need to adjust your guitar in a band situation. I frequently do church gigs where the low ends tend to dominate (usually due to the nature of the room and the subs in the house).Consequently, I run a little bit brighter in the mix. To aid the sound engineer I tweak my tone knobs a little to the right to brighten things up. I also play more with my bridge and middle pick up on my guitar. And so we come back to the guitar and amplifier for adjusting tone.
The truth is the tone dragon is elusive, ever shifting, changing in different settings and venues, and even with your own tastes. Spend time with your gear and be comfortable really tweaking stuff from time to time. Change guitars. If you have a secondary one you may find you play it more at different settings than just chopping and changing with your regular rig. For example, I don’t like running my 7 string Jackson through the same Vox Ac15 I play my Suhr through.
Tone is somewhat subjective, yet there are some key things to keep an eye (or ear out for) namely clarity. Keep the bass tight and not muddy, the mids need to stand out and let your highs soar. Let your whole guitar be heard and to do that you need to take the time to listen all of your gear.