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  • Writer's pictureSteven Meloney

A Simple Guide To Guitar Tone


Guitar Tone breakdown

Searching for the best guitar tones? There are a ton of factors that contribute to the tone and sound of your guitar. In this article, I’m going to give an overview of the 7 most impactful factors that shape guitar tone. I’ll provide practical knowledge and suggestions that you can use to get better guitar tones right now. Everything I discuss here will be applicable to bass guitars as well.


Before we start, feel free to download The Guitar Tone Building Guide, which includes the step by step method I use to get great guitar tones in the studio. Let’s get some meters bouncing.


 

1. The Guitar


It's obvious that each guitar will sound different. Everything from the electronics to the materials and construction affect tone. However, there is still a lot you can do to tweak your tone with just one guitar. The most drastic tone alterations will come from changing your pick-ups, but without spending any money you can utilize your pickup selector, volume knob, and tone knob to achieve a wide variety of different sounds. These in particular are great tools for shaping tone because they can easily be tweaked during a performance. Here is a brief description of how key components of the guitar can shape tone.


Pickups


There are literally thousands of different pick-ups to choose from, but for the most part they fall broadly into three categories.

  • Signal Coil - Known for their bright, sparkly, and focused sound, but prone to hum at high gain settings.

  • Humbuckers - These are darker, warmer, and thicker sounding than single coils, but offer hum cancelling properties which are integral to the high gain sounds of rock and metal.

  • P90s - Tonally, these fall somewhere in-between the traditional single coil and humbucker sound. They have some of the spank and sparkle of single coils, but are warmer and thicker without the muddiness some people associate with humbuckers. They are more gritty than the smooth sounding humbucker. Technically, P90 pickups are a single coil design, and are therefore still prone to hum at high gain.


Of course, where the pickup is mounted on the guitar has a great affect on the tone as well, which is why many guitars have two or three pickups and the ability to switch between them. Generally speaking, pickups mounted towards the neck of the guitar will sound darker, rounder, and smoother than pickups mounted towards the bridge. In contrast, bridge mounted pickups have more bite, brightness, and chime than their neck mounted counterparts.

The middle position for pickup selectors varies from guitar to guitar depending on the pickup types used and their wiring, but often the middle position offers a thin, snappy tone that excels at delivering funk tones. On some single coil guitars, engaging both pickups in the middle position will help cancel the hum problems that arise at high gain settings, allowing the two combined single coils to act like a humbucker.



Materials and Construction


Different woods used for construction, and how those woods are cut, glued, and bolted together make a difference too. The science of tone woods is a dense topic that we can’t discuss sufficiently in this article, however there is a plethora of information available about it on the web. For our purposes, it is worth mentioning three body construction methods, and three construction techniques used to attach the neck of the guitar to the body.



Body Construction


Solid body guitars are made from solid blocks of wood. As a result, they offer excellent sustain, tight low-end, and they resist amp feedback very well. They are also known to be bit more responsive to effects. These are the guitars of rock.

Semi-hollow guitars are the middle ground between solid and hollow bodies, featuring hollow chambers in some parts of the guitar. They offer a warm, resonant tone which is darker than a solid body and brighter than a hollow body. They’re lightweight, only slightly susceptible to feedback, and offer a medium amount of sustain. Some blues players like semi-hollows for their blend of solid body tightness and focus and hollow body acoustic characteristics.


Hollow body guitars are completely hollow inside. They sound more acoustic, offering very warm tones with plenty of bass response. They are highly susceptible to feedback, and offer the least amount of sustain. Hollow body guitars are popular among jazz players.



Neck Construction


There are three main ways guitar necks are attached to their bodies:


  • Bolt-On - The neck is bolted onto the body

  • Set Neck - The neck is glued onto the body

  • Neck-Through - The neck is one piece of wood that runs through the entire length of the body


Generally, one would expect a guitar to have more snap and brightness if a bolt-on construction method is used, while a set neck or neck-through design might offer more sustain and warmth. In reality, this is not always true, as there are many other construction factors that contribute to tone including scale length, bridge design, string tension… the list goes on. In truth, the neck construction will have a larger affect on how you play than on your tone, because each design feels different in the hand.



Strings and Tuning


New strings always offer improved tone, as old strings rust and dull out over time. Different gauges of strings lend a noticeable change in tone too, as do altered tunings. A simple half-step detune can really fatten up your sound. Lighter gauge strings offer less mud and bottom end than lower gauge strings, however to optimize your string gauge, you should choose one based your preferred tuning and string tension.



Pick


When you use a really stiff pick, the string gets plucked immediately when you strike it. A thin pick on the other hand bends and gives a bit before it plucks the string, causing a slight delay and different amount of pressure on the string. A thicker pick will have more attack and sound darker, while a thinner pick offers brighter and more gentle tones.



>> To improve your tone with your guitar right now, try these things:

  • Experiment with different pick-up, volume, and tone control settings

  • Try different tunings, strings, and picks

  • Change your pickups



2. The Amplifier


Amplifiers are used to boost the signal coming from your guitar to a louder signal that is played out of a speaker. There are different methods for achieving this boost and they each sound different.


  • Tube Amps - use vacuum tubes (aka valves) to boost the signal. Typically players associate warm, organic tones with tube amps, and love them for the natural overdrive that occurs when running a lot of signal through the tubes. The higher you crank the volume, the more overdriven your tone becomes.

  • Solid State Amps - use transistors to boost the signal. Solid state amps don’t exhibit the same overdrive from turning up the volume as tube driven amps, and stay clean all the way to 10. This is very useful for players who want to maintain a clean signal at louder volumes, although some people think solid state amps lack the character that tubes offer.

  • Modeling Amps - use digital processing in attempts to recreate the sounds of other amps. Modeling amps are popular among players who are still trying to identify their sound, or like to have a wide variety of tones available to them in one box. An advantage to using modeling amps is the ability to save and instantly recall settings, which offers consistent and reliable tone.



Speaker Cabinet


The speaker and cabinet design matter here too. A larger speaker will produce lower tones with more accuracy and have a top end that might be called creamy, while a smaller speaker will exhibit a more detailed high end and less boomy-ness. Speaker cabinets can be left open in the back, allowing the sound to spill out and providing more micing opportunities. Open back cabs are usually brighter and more open sounding, while closed back cabs are darker and offer more focused lows and mids.


On most amps, you'll have a gain control, a volume control, and some sort of EQ control. Adjustments to these parameters alter your tone as well, and the better acquainted you are with them, the more useful they will be to you. Make sure to take some time to understand how your gear works. On Fender amps for example, 10 is flat - no EQ applied! Turning the EQ knobs down cuts frequencies.



>> To improve your amp tone right now, try these things:

  • Remove the back of your speaker cabinet, or cover it up if your cab is already an open back design

  • Switch to a different brand or size speaker

  • Familiarize yourself further with the tone controls your amp has



3. Pedals and FX

When you're happy with your guitar and your amp, pedals and effects are the next big factor in shaping your tone.



Types of Pedals and FX


Compression can add attack, bite, and definition to your sound, and can increase the guitar’s sensitivity to touch. With a compressor pedal, you can make your guitar tone more snappy, squishy, or punchy, or you can enhance the nuances of subtle and delicate passages.


Wah-wah is technically an envelope filter, filtering out low frequencies when the wah pedal is rocked into its forward position, and filtering out high frequencies when the pedal is rocked into its back position. The main thing that differentiates one wah pedal from another is the amount of frequencies that are cut as the pedal is rocked back and forth. Some wah pedals don’t have a rocker on them, and instead employ a traditional on/off stomp box-style design. These are called auto-wah’s. Many auto-wah’s adjust their envelope filters in response to the dynamics of your playing (how loud or soft you play). Other auto-wah filters are controlled by a low-frequency oscillator (LFO).


EQ, or equalization, allows you to adjust the volume of different frequencies independently. Most EQ pedals offer more versatility than the simple three-band EQ controls found on most amps, sometimes offering seven or more bands.


Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz clip the peaks of your guitar signal off, and add harmonic density to the signal, making the sound gritty, fuzzy, crunchy, or saturated.


Noise Gates are a type of dynamics processor that won't allow sound to pass through them unless the sound goes over a certain volume level (the threshold). They are useful for players who want to eliminate unwanted hiss and noise from their sound. Noise gates can also be used to create a choppy rhythmic effect that is popular among some metal players and an essential part of the sound of djent music.


Tremolo, Vibrato, Chorus, Phase Shifter, and Flange, are all part of the modulation family of pedals. They create their effect by changing some parameter over some time interval. Use these pedals to add movement and lusciousness to your sound.

  • Tremolo modulates volume, creating a quivering effect.

  • Vibrato modulates pitch, creating a sense of wobbling or wavering.

  • Chorus is vibrato mixed with your dry signal. Sometimes the vibrato signal is also slightly delayed in relation to the dry signal. Chorus creates a doubling or thickening effect, giving a sense of depth and shimmer.

  • Phase Shifters modulate the phase relationships between multiple copies of your dry signal, essentially sweeping a series of EQ notches (sharp EQ cuts) through your frequencies over time. This creates a sweeping, swooshing, or swirling sounding motion.

  • Flangers work like chorus’s but employ much shorter delay times (~1-5ms) to the copied signal, and utilize regenerative delays. They typically exhibit a metallic, swishing sound.

Delay and Reverb create their effect by producing echoes. You can think of reverb as many echoes all spaced very close together. They can add a sense of space or ambiance to your sound.


Signal Flow


Pedals and FX can be introduced into your guitar signal in front of the amp, or in the effects loop if the amp features one. With pedals in front of the amp, they'll affect the signal before the amplifiers pre-amp stage. This distinction becomes especially important if you use a lot of pre-amp distortion from your amp, like most rock and metal players do. If this is you, do you want to distort your reverb, or reverberate your distortion? Most likely, you want to add reverb to your distorted signal, so the reverb pedal should be used in the effects loop - after the preamp. It is not uncommon to run some pedals in front of the amp while also running some in the effects loop. You just need to think of your signal flow as a whole chain. In fact, it also matters a great deal what order your pedals go in! While there is no right or wrong way to cable up your pedals, most players generally follow this order:


guitar > compression > wah-wah > overdrives and distortions (including amp distortion if you use it!) > EQ > noise gate > modulation effects > delay > reverb


Just remember that all that really matters is whether or not you like the sound you're getting.

Guitar signal flow chain

>> To improve your tone with pedals right now, try these things:

  • Change the order of the pedals

  • Use the effects loop of your amp

  • Experiment with different pedal settings



4. The Room

Anytime we listen to sound, the environment we’re in makes a big difference in what we hear. This is because the sound we hear comes partially from the speaker directly, and partially from sound bouncing off of walls, ceilings, and floors. If you’ve ever sang in a parking garage or bathroom, you know what I’m talking about. The point is that your tone settings might need to change from one environment to the next. If you’re playing in a very reverberant room, you might dial your reverb pedal back.



>> To improve your room tone right now, try these things:

  • Adjust your tone to the room

  • Move to a different room

  • Add absorptive or diffusive materials to your room



5. The Microphone

If you are micing your guitar amp, the microphone you use and it's placement can have drastic affects on your tone. Even a centimeter of difference in placement matters a great deal. There are few guidelines I can offer as to which type of microphone is best for micing guitar amps, but let’s go over a general description of the most common types of microphones.



Dynamic Microphones


Often the least expensive and most robust, dynamics mics are usually the first choice for guitar amps, as they can generally handle very loud volumes with ease. Popular models for guitar amps include the Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421, and Sennheiser e609. These microphones all have a presence bump in the higher end of their frequency response curves, helping them excel at capturing a bright and present tone.


Ribbon Microphones


Ribbon microphones are highly revered among sound engineers for their warm, rich, or buttery tone. The Royer R-121 is considered an industry standard for guitar amps. It has a flatter response curve and captures more low end than a Shure SM57. It is very common to use an R-121 in conjunction with an SM57. Other popular ribbon models include the Cascade Fathead II, and Beyerdynamic M160.


Condenser Microphones


Condenser mics tend to be more sensitive than dynamic microphones, and therefore excel at capturing detail and nuance. The Neumann U87 is a popular choice for guitar amps, however it’s also quite expensive. Cheaper alternatives include the Neumann TLM103, and AKG 414.


Of course, pretty much any microphone can be used to mic your amp, what’s important is that you like the sound it’s producing.


If your guitar cab has more than one speaker, pick which speaker you’re going to mic by getting your head down there and taking a listen to each one. Be careful not to blow your ears out! Decide which speaker sounds best. When placing the mic, closer to the center of the speaker cone will provide a brighter, crisper tone, and pulling it farther to the edge of the cone will make the sound darker and more full.


>> To improve your tone with a microphone right now, try these things:

  • Try a different type of microphone

  • Experiment with different mic placements

  • Combine the signals from two different microphones



6. The Mix


Our perception of the guitar tone we hear is dependent upon other sounds that are happening at the same time. This means your ideal guitar tone will be different when you are playing by yourself than when you are playing with a group. For example, if you are jamming with a bass player, their bass guitar will occupy most of the low end, so you won’t need as much lows in your own tone. In fact, you might consider pulling out some low end to make room for the bass in the overall sound of your group. As you continue on your journey to find the best guitar tones, consider searching both in solo and in group settings.


>> To improve your tone in the mix right now, try these things:

  • Listen to and evaluate the whole sound of your bands mix

  • Make tonal changes based on the that evaluation



7. The Player


Put the same guitar plugged into the same rig with all the same settings in the hands of two different players, the sound can be drastically different.

If you put the same guitar plugged into the same rig with all the same settings in the hands of two different players, the sound can be drastically different. Why? We can distinguish three main factors.

Dynamics - how hard or soft the player plucks and strums the strings throughout a piece of music

Rhythm - the player's sense for tempo and timing


Technique - how the player’s hand positions and movements produce different sounds. These include:

  • Where the string is struck - closer to the bridge = brighter and less sustain, closer to the neck = warmer and more sustain)

  • Use of muting or dampening the strings with the hand

  • Voicing of chords - bar chord vs open chord and their different inversions

  • Use of vibrato and accuracy of bends


These all affect the tone of the guitar and are worth considering when you are hunting for a certain sound.


>> To improve your tone through your playing right now, try these things:

  • Practice bending notes to perfect pitch by using a tuner while you bend

  • Improve your sense of rhythm by practicing with a metronome

  • Improve your dynamic control by practicing at lower gain settings where you can hear and feel dynamics more clearly


A Note On Vision


As you continue to improve your guitar, amp, pedals, room awareness, microphones, and contextual tone within the mix, you will eventually need to decide what you like and what you don't like. It is ultimately these decisions that will determine your tone.


The better you know what you like, the easier it will be to find great and inspiring tones. Spend some time listening to your favorite guitar player's, and practice trying to match their sound with all the things we‘ve covered in this article. You will develop a better ear from this exercise, you'll get a sense for how each individual knob alters the sound of your particular rig, and you will start to develop a clearer vision of what you actually like.


Summary


The 7 most impactful factors that determine guitar tone include:


1. The Guitar

  • Pickups

  • Materials and construction

  • String gauge and tuning

  • Pick thickness

2. The Amplifier

  • Amp and settings

  • Speaker

  • Design of cabinet

3. Pedals and FX

  • Compressors

  • Wah-wah

  • Overdrives and distortion

  • Modulation effects

  • Delays and reverb

  • The signal chain

4. The Room

  • Size of room

  • Materials and surfaces in the room

5. The Microphone

  • Type of mic (dynamic, ribbon, condenser)

  • Placement of mic

6. The Mix

  • How do the other sounds in the mix affect our perception of the guitar’s tone?

7. The Player

  • Dynamics

  • Sense of rhythm

  • Technique


Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of having a well trained ear, and clear vision of the sound you are trying to achieve.


 

It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line.

You can also download The Guitar Tone Building Guide, which includes the step by step method I use to get great guitar tones in the studio.

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