7 Simple Tips To Have A Better Guitar Tone And Spend Nothing

Tommaso Zillio

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guitar tone

Most guitar players are on a quest to find a great guitar tone. One could say that this is the motor of the guitar industry: we are always searching for better guitars, amps, effect, digital modelers... some even swear by particular brands of cables or recommend to use batteries as power supplies.

And yet, we all know guitarists that have the best rig in the world and still have a bad tone. And we all know the anecdote of the two famous guitar players (the names change, though usually one is Van Halen) playing into each other's rig and still sounding like themselves. I see similar things every day. Why it is so?

The explanation is that the human ear is not a perfect machine, and in fact some of what we call "tone" in many cases has nothing to do with the actual timbre of the guitar/amp.

While it is NOT correct to say that "tone is in the fingers" (your guitar and amp DO have an influence on the sound!), it would be fair to say that tone STARTS with the fingers - and if you change the way you play (as we will see below) your tone WILL get better.

The player comes before the instrument. Better players have a better tone than not-so-good players on ANY instrument, pretty much like a great runner can still run faster than me even if they have crappy shoes (I am a horrible runner - I'll be the first to die in a zombie apocalypse)

I am fully expecting comments to this article to the tune of: "but if I play just one power chord on this gear and another player play the same power chord on the same gear then we sound the same" (this is a very common objection). Well, you are about to see why this is not true at all.

So let's see how you can make your tone better, and let's start from the basics...

Tune Your Guitar (For Real)

Before some of you think I am playing Captain Obvious here, let me ask you a question. When was the last time that you checked your guitar intonation?

That is to say, when is the last time that you checked that the harmonic at the 12th fret and the note you get by fretting the string at the same 12th fret are the same notes?

Unless the intonation of your guitar is set up correctly, then it's simply impossible to tune your guitar satisfactorily. And if your guitar is not tuned your TONE will suffer: sharp notes will sound a bit shrill and flat notes will sound a bit dull.

Yes, your brain reinterpret little variations in frequency not only as pitch but also as "tone". You can EQ on your amp as much as you want but you won't eliminate this... so if you hear your tone as being shrill check if you are not inadvertently sharp.

Action steps: set up your intonation correctly (or have someone experienced do it for you) and tune your guitar. Every. Time. You. Play.

Tune Your Fingers

Pick up your guitar, and play a fretted note while pressing as hard as you can on the string with your fingering hand. Now play the same note but use a little pressure as you can.

Can you hear the difference? When you press too much, the note goes sharp. And as we have seen above, this will sound like your tone is shrill. You may think you can compensate that by tuning your guitar down a bit, but if you do this your fretted notes will be in tune and your open strings will be flat.

This means that you have to take control of how your technique influences the pitch of the guitar. Are you pressing too hard when you fret? Are you slightly bending the strings sideways without noticing? And when you WANT to bend a string, can you bend up to a precise pitch?

Pay attention to these "small" details and you will hear the difference - in TONE.

Choose Your Pick Carefully

The matter of choosing the pick is such a can of worm that most guitar players will tell you: "choose whatever works for you" rather than get engulfed in a flame war. And yet, if we want to have a better tone, we can't simply leave it at that.

Here's another reason why some players have a better tone with the same rig: they control the dynamic of each note they play (i.e. they can play every note at a different volume, as they please) and this means that they can accent any note at will.

And this is MUCH easier to do with a rigid (heavy) pick, as a thin or medium pick will simply 'give way' when you pick harder.

(An exception to this is if you are strumming an acoustic guitar: in this case a thin pick will give some 'noise' that sound really good in a recorded mix)

Now, you can tell me: "but I prefer thin/medium picks...", and I would not dispute that. But it is a fact that you can control dynamics much better with a heavy pick, and it is a fact that better dynamics translates into better tone.

For details, you can see the video here:

Learn To Pick Harder

Another "trick" to get a better tone is to learn to pick harder (and this is another technique that is easier to do with a heavy pick).

Why does this work? Because the strings on your guitar will not just sound louder when picked harder: they also will have a richer harmonic content. Even if later you use compression, distortion, etc. picking harder gets a different sound from your strings and the effect is VERY noticeable.

You know that trademark Stevie Ray Vaughn tone? It's not the guitar, or the strings, or the amp, or the distortion pedal with the original Japanese chip inside... It's Stevie Ray hitting the strings with all the strength he has. He was pounding on that guitar!

"But, but... SRV used super-heavy strings, this is the secret of his sound" (how many times have you heard this?) Well, that's partially true: SRV used heavy strings because otherwise he would have broken them. So yes, he used heavy strings 'because of the tone', but the heavy strings per se will not give you THAT sound unless you hit them hard.

Train Your Timing

We have seen how intonation influences how we perceive the tone of your guitar - but intonation is not the only thing that does that.

One thing that I noticed very early in my career as music teacher is how some students had horrible tone even if they were doing most things right, were in tune, and playing through some good gear. For some of them I actually checked their guitars - but nope, in my hands their guitar sounded fine.

It took a bit of trial and error to find out what was happening... and when we found out it was also quite easy to fix: these students had bad tone because their timing was off. They consistently played too early on the beat rather than playing ON the beat.

Now, I know how 'rationally' it seems that timing has nothing to do with tone. But again, your ear is not a perfect sensor, and it reinterprets a consistent timing as: "good tone". So yes, working with that metronome (in an intelligent way, not mechanically) will get you a better tone.

Care About Your Vibrato

This is another case where your ear gets fooled. If your vibrato is consistent in timing, pitch and smoothness, then your tone will sound 'thicker'. If your vibrato is not consistent or out of tune then your tone will sound 'thinner' and 'weak'.

Yes, I know that some will protest that they can distinguish good/bad tone from good/bad vibrato... but that is not the case. It is well known (for instance among violin/viola/cello players) that tone gets better with the vibrato. The same is true for the guitar.

If you want to know how to get a better vibrato, watch this video:

Learn To Use The Volume And Tone Knobs On Your Guitar

Finally, here is another thing that most guitar players completely ignore in their quest for tone: the controls on-board of the guitar.

In general if you are going for a Metal/Hard Rock tone you want both Volume and Tone at 10. But for other kinds of tones, you need to know how to use these controls. For instance, you can get a great overdriven Blues tone by using the bridge pickup and taking the Tone control around half way down.

You will discover soon that the Volume control does not influence only the loudness of the signal, but also the frequency content: when you lower the volume, the tone loses the high frequency 'sparkle' (an effect often called "tone sucking"). You can use this to get a warmer sound, and you can compensate the lack in gain with your amp. A little experimentation here and will give some interesting sounds.

As you can see, NONE of the tips above requires you to get an expensive amp/digital simulation, or an expensive guitar, or to buy any guitar effects. Again, while ALL these elements have an influence on tone, the player comes before the instrument. Spend some time working on these elements and you will see how it will be MUCH easier to get a good tone out of your rig.

Finally, if you do not mind me putting a shameless plug at the end of this article, I think you will be interested in checking out all the amazing Music Theory FREE resources that you can download from this site. Have fun!


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