There's a lot of pressure as a guitar player to achieve the best guitar tone you possibly can. This usually involves an expensive journey of purchasing various guitars, effect pedals, and amps.
However, we still see guitarists with a sub-par tone who seem to have all the best gear out there. We have all heard the story of what happens when the two famous guitarists (usually one being Van Halen) play using each others rig, but still end up with their signature sound. I see stuff like this happen all the time. But why?
The explanation is that the human ear is not a perfect machine, and in fact some of what we call "one" in many cases has nothing to do with the actual timbre of the guitar/amp.
At the same time, it would be false to say that tone is all in the fingers, as what ever gear you are using definitely will influence the sound. However, tone does start in the fingers. And by changing the way you use your instrument, your tone will improve.
Music always comes from the person first, not from the instrument. Same with how the performance of a great athlete (say, a runner) comes from directly from the person and how hard they practice, not how great their shoes are.
Of course, now I am anticipating an onslaught of comments like “well I’ve played a power chord on my friends gear that sounds exactly the same as when my friend plays it”. This is a frequent objection. Keep reading to find out why it is not technically true, and how you can get better.
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!
There is a lot more to playing the guitar than picking up your instrument and strumming a few notes. Try this. Fret a note and play it while pressing on the string as hard as your can. Next, try playing the same note as light as you can.
Notice the differences in sound that you are producing here. A firmer touch will result in a sharper pitch, which will make it seem as though you have a shrill tone. Perhaps you might then try just tuning the guitar down slightly. However, then your open strings will sound flat.
What you have to do is to spend some time understanding how your playing technique can influence the sound and pitch you produce. Noticing if you are potentially pressing too hard, or maybe bending the strings unintentionally.
When you start taking these little things into consideration, your tone will start to improve.
Often times people will just think, “a pick is a pick”, and use whatever they find. On the other hand, some people will go down in a flame war defending their pick of choice.
Wherever you land, it is pertinent to understand that the pick you choose will influence the sound you create. A big thing you will find among people with good tone is that they are able to control the dynamic (i.e. the volume) of every note they play.
Accomplishing this is easier to do when using a heavy pick. Thin and medium picks will give way too much when you need to pick harder. If you are simply strumming an acoustic guitar, that’s when medium or thin picks can be useful.
If you are someone who prefers a thinner pick, I’m not saying you are wrong. But just know that the lighter picks make it more difficult to control your dynamics, which makes it more difficult to control your tone.
I talk more about this in the following video:
A lot of people don’t realize just how much the force at which you can and should pick your guitar strings (this is where the heavy pick can be useful).
A stronger pick of the strings actually does more than increase the volume. It also adds to the harmonic content of the sound. No matter how many effects you put on, picking heavily will create a noticeable change in your tone.
Take Stevie Ray Vaughn for example. He has an undeniable sound that is completely his. This doesn’t come from the amp, the guitar, or even the strings. SRV hits those strings hard. He plucks with all of his might.
But now you might be thinking of every place you read about Stevie using super-heavy strings on his guitar, and how you heard that is actually what effects his tone. The fact is that if he wasn’t using heavier strings, he would be breaking them constantly. It is more true to say that his choice of tone shapes which strings he chooses.
You can master all the previous tips I have discussed; have your intonation checked and be using the thickest pick you can find. Yet somehow, your tone can still sound a bit off if you don’t also have this next think in check.
Timing. Even the best technique in the world can’t help you if your timing is off. Even playing just a little to early or late is enough to distract the listener from the sound. Music is all about groove, and if you can’t properly feel the groove, neither will your listeners.
Technically speaking, it would seem that timing has little to do with the actual sound of your guitar. But again, our ears aren’t flawless. We will hear something like bad timing and interpret it as poor tone.
I know this sounds surprising. Don’t just trust me and try it yourself! Record a track with good timing and then the same track with so-so timing, then ask a friend “which one has the best tone?”
So dust off those metronomes and get to practicing.
When used correctly, vibrato will make your tone sound full and impressive. When not used correctly, it can leave your tone sounding thin and shaky. The difference between the two is in the timing, smoothness, and pitch of the vibrato you play.
A lot of people think that they can separate bad vibrato from good tone. However, again, our ears are not perfect machines and will interpret a bad vibrato as “bad tone”. You can check yourself by recording a few samples and having a friend listen.
This is the same - and it is a well-known effect - for other stringed instruments as well (such as violin, cello, etc..). Tone always improves when the vibrato does.
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.
So now you know what actually needs to be done to improve your tone, you can no longer use the excuse “I can’t afford it”. Like I said, the equipment you are using will influence the sound of your guitar, but the person playing the instrument always comes first.
Spend some time working on your technique and playing before you go lay down hundreds of dollars on new gear. You’ll be happier if you do it!
Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.
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