Do you remember the first time you heard that blistering guitar solo that made the hair on your arms stand straight up? You thought to yourself “I want to sound like that when I play! But where do I start?”. This question often haunts guitar players, who end up on an endless search for that one amazing sound.
Getting good guitar tone can seem like an impossible feat for both beginners and experienced players alike. There is always something to tweak or change, and just when you think you’ve got the exact sound you want, you find something new to search out. Learning how to choose and set up a few of the basics will set a foundation that will make it easier to help you build and define your sound.
Does The Guitar Really Matter?
Some players can pick up a toy acoustic guitar and rip off a Jimi Hendrix solo. Remember, these players have devoted a lot of time to learning the instrument and mastering how to play. If you’re not there yet, that’s ok, everyone started somewhere and everyone is still on their learning journey.
The player’s fingers and playing style have a lot to do with the sound you will hear, and yes, when people say “tone comes from the player” they are partially correct. You can greatly increase your chances of sounding the way you want, though, by choosing the right guitar to help shape your sound.
Two critical aspects to think about when choosing a guitar are pickups and construction. Listen to a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul and you will be able to tell exactly why these two pieces are important.
When considering guitar construction, you need to decide on two things, solid body or hollow body and bolt on neck or set neck. The direction you go depends on what you need and what you like the look of.
For electric guitars, solid body is most common, this is because the guitar doesn’t need to project the sound since that’s the amp’s job. Solid body guitars are easier to make so you save some money with them, however, you won’t get as much sustain and resonance. Similarly, bolt on neck guitars are easier to make than set neck guitars so are often less expensive, but again you won’t get as much sustain and resonance.
You’ll also want to consider weight when choosing a guitar. If you’re going to slinging it over your shoulder for several hours at a time, you want to make sure it’s going to be comfortable for you.
Once you’ve decided on the construction of the guitar you’ll need to consider pickups. There are many variants on the market but most people use one of three kinds, single coil, humbucker or P90. This article doesn’t go in to what makes each of these work and sound different, but, choosing between them will impact your sound.
If you like a bright sound and use light to moderate distortion, a single coil pickup may be what you need (eg. country, jazz, surf). If you’re looking for a warmer tone or use thicker distortion you’ll likely want to check out something with humbuckers (eg. blues, hard rock, metal). P90’s fall somewhere in the middle, they’re a little warmer than a single coil but don’t have the output of a humbucker, you likely wouldn’t choose these if you use heavy distortion.
These are the reasons you see Slash playing Les Pauls, BB Ling playing ES-335s, Eric Clapton playing Strats and Brad Paisley playing Teles. In general, if you follow what the greats in your genre of choosing are playing, and pick up something similar, you can create a tone that fits what you’re looking for.
Overall, you’re investing in an instrument that you’re going to spend a lot of hours playing. Make sure you choose something that you like the look of, can handle the weight of and can generate the sound you want. Always play before you buy, preferably on your own amp, to see how the instrument feels and sounds. If it doesn’t wow you, keep looking.
The Power of The Amp
The second piece of equipment that greatly impacts your tone and you want to be careful in selecting is your amplifier. Since this is what projects the sound from your guitar, it has a lot to do with what will be heard. There are several factors to consider when thinking about your amp. Here we will discuss three of the basics: tube amp vs. solid state, different brands for different sounds and how to dial in settings.
There are generally two camps when it comes to amplifiers, those who swear by tube amps and those who love solid state amps. Having used both, I can tell you there are pros and cons to each. A tube amp will generally sound a bit warmer and will tend to cut through the mix better when playing in a band setting. The drawback is that they are typically heavy, more expensive and will require ongoing maintenance as tubes need to be replaced when they wear out. The good news is that many solid state amps are now available that model the tube sound and feel very, very well. While tubes will always be the choice for many, solid state options have come a long way and make it a lot easier to lug gear In and out of a jam hall or gig.
As far as brands go, there are lots of them on the market which can make it confusing to know what to choose. Some of the most common are Fender, Marshall, Vox, Orange and Mesa Boogie. The best advice here is to try out as many as you can until you find one that seems to do what you want. A word of caution, if you’re trying amps in a guitar store, be wary that they will sound drastically different when you get them home. This is the nature of the acoustics on a big open space vs. an enclosed one. What you will quickly notice is that most amps only do one thing really well. They will either have an amazing clean sound or a dirty, thick overdrive sound, but generally not both. Decide early which sound you will use the most and choose an amp to meet that taste. I have found the best success by choosing an amp with an amazing clean sound and then using various pedals to get the right overdriven sound.
The settings on your amp need to be adjusted to suit the situation you are in. You may set up an amazing tone in your basement while you’re practicing only to find it is completely washed out when you go to a rehearsal. To help minimize this effect, work from the settings you created at home but dial your bass and mid range down and your treble up. When you think you’ve added too much treble, add a little more. This helps the guitar’s sonic qualities carry over the rest of the band.
I can’t stress enough the importance of trying an amp with your guitar at a volume you’re going to play it at before buying it. If it’s possible to rent before you buy, this is a great option to really test drive how the amp will react to your gear and the settings you play in.
Beef up That Clean Sound
There is nothing worse than a lifeless, dry clean sound. It doesn’t compliment the tone of the guitar and often isn’t overly pleasant to the ear. Luckily, there are a few easy things you can do to warm up your clean tone and really make it turn heads. To do this you’re going to want to experiment with reverb and delay.
Many amps will have a built in reverb feature. This can be an analog reverb, such as the legendary Fender spring reverb or a digital reverb which emulates an analog reverb. Either way, this effect as depth and fullness to the guitar tone and makes it sound more natural. Experiment with the amount and the various settings on your amp or pedal until you find settings that complement your sound. Just be cautious that too much can cause your sound to be muddy or have excessive feedback when also using distortion.
Delay is similar to reverb in that it creates an echo. Because a delay effect is more pronounced, you only need a little to add a lot of depth. You’re going for a very subtle effect to add depth and complement the reverb, so the effect level should be fairly low. Adding in ambient delay will add a layer of depth and warmth to your clean tone.
Experimenting with different levels of each effect will generate some interesting results. Play around with all the settings for your reverb and delay to become familiar with them and to add that little extra warmth and depth to your clean tone.
Getting Down And Dirty
For many genres, the magic is in the overdriven and distorted tones. Settings can range from a mild tube amp like overdrive to an all out growling distorted scream. Understanding what you need to suit what you’re playing is a bit of instinct and a bit of following what the other people you’re playing with are doing. Most often you’ll want to match the level of distortion with the rest of your band or the track you are playing with.
In most circumstances you’ll want to balance the distortion level with the amount of articulation you need from the notes you are playing. Surprisingly, most tracks have lower distortion levels than you think. Most of the time, a little goes a long way, but with overdrive and distortion there is a lot to play with, so spend a good amount of time getting familiar with your amp channel and pedals so that you understand what each setting does to your sound.
Most players will have one tone for their rhythm playing and another set up for their leads. This helps to distinguish between the parts and allows for a boost in volume to help the solo cut through the mix. You may also want to set up different sounds for different songs or tweak settings on the fly, this is why knowing your equipment is extremely important.
Putting it All Together
Getting good guitar tone is not as complicated as it seems. Staring with a basic foundation built on selecting the right equipment for your needs followed by ample time to really understand how the equipment works will set you up for long term success. Experiment as much as you need to with effects to create depth and warmth, take time to really understand how your rig reacts to different pedals and overdrives. Spending this time up front will make it much easier to dial in great tones in any situation.
Leave me a comment and let me know how you dial in your killer tone and what effects you have in your rig!