Guitar tone, of course, is very subjective, and we all have our own interpretation of what makes for good tone. I bet we all at some point have tried to emulate the tones of our favourite players. I’m pretty sure many of us have wasted a lot of money chasing that elusive tone, that always seems to stay just out of reach.
I’ve been around the block a few times in my guitar playing journey, and today I’m going to share some pearls of wisdom fr anyone who’s starting out you’re starting out on their’s. These are basics that you really should be aware of, and they’ll also show you how to best implement them on your guitar.
First things first: ‘Make sure your guitar is in tune’. Yes, I know this sounds obvious. However, I’d love to have a pound for every time I have worked with bands in the studio and the guitar either isn’t in tune, or is intonated in a way that really shows up, thus making the band sound terrible.
So, it’s easy to learn how to properly tune and intonate a guitar. You don’t need a degree in engineering, or expensive equipment. I would urge you to get on YouTube and dig out some of the various videos on how to properly intonate and tune your guitars.
Once your guitar is properly tuned, you need to make sure that it plays the way you like it, so get your action set up in a way that feels comfortable for you. I would always advise setting a slightly higher action, as it will let your strings ring out and give you better sustain. Again, this sounds obvious, but I’ve played so many guitars with poor actions that were set too low and that killed the guitar’s tone.
Now, my next tip is use both your Volume and Tone pots. That is honestly where the ‘magic tones’ reside. Clapton got his ‘Woman Tone’ from using the controls on his SG and dialling out the high frequencies on the guitar. When you’re recording, it’s easier to turn those control knobs on your guitar, rather than cycling through loads of presets on virtual amps and effects, or fiddling for ages with mixing desk faders. Plus, with dual control layout guitars like a Les Paul, SG or PRS, you can set up two tones and use them for different parts in your song, giving you more defined dynamics in your music without even having to use a pedal to do so.
Next, make sure your Tone and Volume pots are clean, as noisy pots will spoil the fun of dialling in those magic tones. You can use a can of switch cleaner to clean your pots and stop them crackling. You really should already own some, but if you don’t, go buy a can as it’ll last you years and save you lots of money in the long term, as you can keep your instrument properly maintained. I’d recommend something like Switchcraft’s Switch Cleaner to clean your pots and switches. Also, make sure that you clean the jack plugs on your guitar cables and your guitar’s output jack using the same switch cleaner.
Pickup height also makes a big difference to the tonality of a guitar. Is there a perfect height? Well, yes and no. Too close and the magnets of the pickup mess up your sustain, as they pull on the guitars strings making them vibrate less. Too far away and your guitar sounds quieter. This can, however, actually can get you some great tones. My advice is to adjust to taste and make sure you set the pickup heights whilst you have the guitar plugged in, so that you can hear the differences as you tweak the heights.
For me, playing dynamics – how hard or soft and where you hit the guitar string – are the ultimate ingredient in tone. This is the one you really need to nail. Every one of us goes into ‘default mode’, and this is what makes us sound like ourselves. Your guitar idols all do the same, I’m sure. So you need to look at how hard/soft you hit those strings and where on the string you play. These last things ultimately make the most impact on your tone. There is no doubt that where you play that string along its length has a huge impact on how it sounds, especially when it’s amplified.
As I stated at the beginning none of this should cost you a penny (okay, except the switch cleaner). I guarantee that all of these things will help you achieve great tone and you really should invest some serious time into making sure all these aspects are covered before you spend money on yet another overdrive pedal, boutique pickup upgrade or vintage matched preamp tubes.