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Achieving Great Tone

Friday, August 5, 2011
Tone.  It’s the guitar player’s holy grail.  Those who have it are instantly recognizable.  Have you ever listened to a player and say “Man, he sounds so great.  How does he get that tone?

It doesn’t matter whetheryou play acoustic or electric, the sound of a great guitar can turn a few simple notes from blah to amazing. So, getting the best tone from your instrument is something that we can all strive for.

Your guitar’s “sound” is dependant on many things.  For an acoustic guitar, types of wood, bracing, age and a host of other factors contribute to the sound.  For an electric guitar, sound is produced by the pickups, embellished with the effects, connected together with the cables, and made possible through the amp.  So you can see there are a lot of factors that can add or detract from the sound of your guitar along the way.

Here are five simple rules that I have found when looking to achieve that ever-elusive great tone.

tone dial

1) Don’t Skimp on Pickups.  The sound of your electric guitar is created in the pickups.  It’s well worth seriously researching your pickups and pickup preferences.  Find a pickup sound that you like then research different makers of that type. Then, pick the best types of pickups you can afford.  If you don’t like the stock pickups that came with your guitar then change them out.  Changing out your pickups is a fairly easy job that can make a huge difference in your sound.

2) Know the Sounds You Can Pull Out of Your Own Guitar.  You can get a tremendous array of tonal colors without spending any money by simply using the volume, tone, and pickup combinations already on your guitar. Experiment with the sounds that your guitar can make.  For example, I constantly adjust what pickups I’m using during a song.  Maybe I’ll start out on the neck pickup for the intro of a song then go somewhere else for the verse, then to the bridge pickup for the solo and back again.

3) Your Amp: The Voice Box for Your Guitar.  A great amp can make a big difference in your sound.  A great sounding amp is not always connected with price, manufacturer, or wattage.  For example, at our Guitar Gathering conference, Will McFarlane (Musician’s Hall of Fame guitarist) had the most amazing tone. He was using a small ’69 12-watt Princeton Reverb.  Don’t be fooled into thinking more wattage equals better sound.  Experiment with lots of different amps, decide what sound works for you.  Buy an amp for sound - not for wattage, someone else’s recommendation, or a particular manufacturer.

4) Quality Matters with Effects.  Lower quality effects pedals use lower quality electronics, which alters your sound negatively - even when they aren’t engaged.  Avoid cheap pedals.  A good quality effect should leave the tone of your guitar intact while adding the desired effect to your sound.

5) Most of Your Tone is in Your Fingers.  If Stevie Ray Vaughn and I swapped guitars (if he were still around) - he would still sound like SRV and I would still sound like me, even with different guitars.  Your phrasing, your ideas, and your touch on the instrument are the single main contributor to your tone - not expensive amps, guitars, or boutique effects pedals.  Most of your “tone” is in your fingers, not on your pedal board.

The most important thing is for you to get “your” tone, not someone else’s.  Many players spend too much time and money worrying about copying someone else’s tone and too little time and effort in the practice room developing their own sound.

Keep up the great work!

- Steve
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