50 Low-Cost Ways To Improve Your Guitar Tone
We can all be guilty of spending more time obsessing about gear than learning how to get the best from what we’ve already got. Read on for 50 pro and expert tone tips to find out how you can sound better today without breaking the bank…
1. EXPAND YOUR MIND
Guthrie Govan says: “We all find ourselves feeling devoid of inspiration from time to time: even if you have the most finely honed ear imaginable, there might be times when you just can’t think of anything worth playing. This dilemma can be addressed by simply expanding your listening diet: by constantly seeking out fresh music and trying to listen to it actively and intelligently, you’ll absorb all kinds of new phrasing ideas on a subconscious level, and aspects of this will start to emerge in your playing, keeping things sounding reassuringly fresh. This is essentially a musical version of the old adage: ‘you are what you eat’!”
2. NO FX!
Any additional cabling will introduce extra capacitance, which in turn contributes to high-end roll off. Try plugging a quality lead straight into your amp and compare it to the sound with your pedals or pedalboard in the chain.
With the right amp and a treble bleed circuit (see tip 19) you can get plenty of clean and dirty mileage out of your guitar’s volume control. Bluesman du jour JD Simo agrees: “I’m a minimalist. I am actually inspired more by limitations than by options. It’s about using the volume and the tone controls [on the guitar] and trying to play with dynamics. The organic, simple approach inspires me.”
Tastes have evolved and this simple mod transforms the versatility of the Strat bridge pickup, giving you access to humbucker-like tones, especially in combination with mid-rich drive: locate the wire that connects the second tone pot to the switch and solder a short section of wire between that tag and the next tag along towards the middle of the switch.
Your rear tone control now rolls off highs from your bridge pickup, too. It’s a rocking secret weapon.
4. BACKLINE OF BEST FIT
Big gig, big amp. Small gig, small amp. Right? Not necessarily, and it all depends on how clean you need your tone to be. Often at small gigs you’ll be unmic’d in the corner of a pub with no monitoring, so if you want a fighting chance of keeping your tone squeaky clean and audible over a loud drummer you’ll need to think about using an amp packing at least 30 watts.
If you don’t need a loud clean tone you might be able to get away with cranking up a 15- or 18-watter, and you’ll sound all the more glorious for it. Move up to a large club with a proper PA and it’s a different story: you can forget about the soundman letting you crank that 30-watt amp for a start, but you might find that decent monitoring allows you to mic up a smaller amp operating at its sweet spot. When it comes to perceived volume, speaker efficiency plays its part (see tip 6), as does the position of your amp (see tip 8).
And then you play on a big outdoor stage at a festival and suddenly find that the amp that’s deafening in a pub sounds like a practice combo and you wish you had a wall of stacks. Don’t worry, you probably haven’t had a soundcheck and the soundman is almost certainly mixing the rhythm guitar channel higher than your solo, rendering it inaudible.
5. FITTER, HAPPIER
Whether it’s hand position or overall posture, the majority of us have bad habits as guitar players that, if unchecked, could ultimately lead to us struggling to play the instrument at all, let alone achieve a great tone. And we’re not talking about the kind of habits that involve supporting illegal economies in South America, either.
If the old ‘tone is in the fingers’ cliché holds true, it makes sense to look after those digits, right? Virtuoso acoustic player Jon Gomm: “There are two elements to this: one is your hands and wrists, the other is posture. Every time I play guitar or do a gig, afterwards I stretch. I have five or six stretches on each hand, my fingers, palms and tendons from my forearms through to my fingers.
That’s how you avoid getting injured. It [guitar playing] is an unnatural activity and not very good for you. Nearly 15 years ago, I had tendonitis in my shoulder and had to have surgery. “Since then I’ve been very careful about stretching and posture. If you’re worried about your posture or get any kind of pain, discomfort or numbness you need to find out what’s wrong with your posture, the sooner the better. Don’t take it lightly, I’ve been there and it’s not great.”
6. MISTER SPEAKER
Despite the voodoo ascribed to NOS valves, the influence of your choice of speaker on your guitar tone is a much bigger part of the aural equation. The right speaker won’t just make you sound better, it can also better match your volume to your environment.
If you need more grunt to compete with a hamfisted oaf of a drummer, try something super-efficient such as an Eminence Red Fang (102.5 dB). Conversely, a much less efficient ceramic driver such as a Jensen C12N (98.4 dB) or Celestion G12M Greenback (98 dB) will allow you to work your amp harder without incurring the wrath of sound engineers or your bandmates…
7. THE SINGLE LIFE
Jazz players aside, who needs neck pickups? Luther Perkins, the Reverend Billy F Gibbons, Eddie Van Halen and Billie Joe Armstrong have all enjoyed the visceral thrill of a single bridge-pickup electric guitar over the years, and you should give it a whirl, too.
There’s something incredibly liberating about playing a Gibson Les Paul Junior or Fender Esquire in anger and there’s even a scientific explanation for why they sound and respond differently to their twin-pickup siblings. The abscence of a neck or middle pickup means there’s less magnetic pull exerted on the strings, which means you get longer sustain, more resonance and fewer tuning issues in exchange for your hard-earned. Don’t believe us?
Try comparing the way an otherwise identical Tele and Esquire (or LP Junior and Special) sound and feel – you will likely be able to perceive a difference acoustically, and this will become marked when you plug in.
It isn’t limiting musically, either: after a while you’ll find that you can coax warm, neck pickup-style sounds out of the instrument simply by varying the attack and position of your picking hand. The difference between picking hard down at the bridge and softly near the neck with the fleshy part of your fingers is dramatic.
8. UP OR DOWN?
When it comes to optimum cabinet position onstage, opinions differ. Some people use a stand to bring the speakers closer to head height, others enjoy the way the coupling effect with the stage reinforces bass frequencies. Some players love the three-dimensional acoustic properties of open-back pine cabs; others prefer a heavy, closed-back ply cabinet that keeps bass tight and defined and has a laser-like directional quality. Inspired by Link Wray, Black Key Dan Auerbach turns his amps sideways: “He had the amps turned away from the audience, because if they faced them it would have blasted everyone’s ears. I tried it, and it sounded so much better.” Experiment!
9. BASS YOURSELF
As any bass player will tell you, guitarists can learn an awful lot from bassists. A good bass player knows that the kick and snare drum are their twin gods and that locking in with the drummer – even to the extent of mirroring the way they accent drum fills – makes for a tight-sounding performance or recording.
A stint playing with a band in a bassist’s shoes can work wonders for a guitarist’s timing, and in turn your tone when you return to the guitar. Simple things played well and in time will always sound better, and get you more gigs, than sloppy histrionics. It’ll help you learn when to lay back or push against the beat, too.
10. PATCH THINGS UP
Assuming you’ve ignored tip 2 and decided to persevere with pedals, high-quality patch cables will go some way towards reducing high-end roll off and saving the potential embarrassment caused by your signal being reduced to crackles and splutters during a vital – or indeed any – moment of your live set. Serial pedal-flippers may consider the virtues of the expensive but excellent Lava Mini Coils (£14 each), which don’t commit you to a precise length and look and sound great. We also like the cheap but low-profile and relatively robust Hosa pancakes (less than £5 each on eBay). Try to avoid anything with a moulded plug.
11. BE A TOP WRAP ARTIST
Joe Bonamassa does it, Billy Gibbons does it, and if you’ve got a guitar with a tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece you can do it, too. Instead of threading the strings through the back of your tailpiece in the traditional manner, thread them in from the front and wrap them back over the top.
We think it gives Gibsons a slinkier feel, and Bonamassa swears that it makes a set of 11s feel like a set of 10.5s. It also allows you to screw that tailpiece right down for maximum resonance without creating a break angle over the saddles that’s too steep, thus risking string breakages.
12. SLAP HAPPY
Slapback delay isn’t only for 1950s rock ’n’ rollers and bequiffed rockabilly rebels.
Adding a short, always-on slapback echo to the end of your effects chain or in your effects loop can give your sound a more three-dimensional quality. Keep your settings restrained, so it’s more a case of ‘you only notice when it’s switched off’ rather than an audible special effect, and it’ll help enliven your sound in an acoustically dead space. It also works brilliantly as a ‘thickener’ if you’re the only electric guitarist in your band.
Some players like the treble roll-off of an analogue unit, while others prefer the crispness of a digital delay – the choice is yours.
13. FOAM PARTY
If you prefer the feel of round-wound strings to flats but are looking to achieve a more old-school, upright-style thump from your electric bass, then lightly dampening your strings down at the bridge is a quick and easy fix.
Although a variety of solutions are commerically available, we’ve had great results using a piece of soft foam or sponge dish scourer cut to size.
Simply keep trimming and experiment with position until you get the desired sound: the tension of the strings will hold the foam in place even in sweaty gig conditions. Funk Brother Bob Babbitt used this method, and he knew a thing or two.
14. ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
In a full-band recording, acoustic guitar rhythm tracks are often used as much for their textural, percussive quality as the actual chord shapes being played. To accentuate this, try the ‘Johnny Cash trick’ that the Man In Black used with Luther Perkins (electric guitar) and Marshall Grant (upright bass) before the arrival of drummer WS Holland in 1960 expanded his backing band The Tennessee Two into The Tennessee Three.
Thread a bank note (make it an American dollar bill for added authenticity… or a $100 bill if you are a flash bastard) between the strings around the 12th fret or down by the bridge, as per the picture below.
Simply strum your acoustic like a train for a snare-like rattle that works brilliantly for early rock ’n’ roll and gives stripped-down acoustic sessions more of a rhythmic element. It also looks extremely cool, and if anyone wonders what you are doing you can just look them in the eye, shrug your shoulders and say, “Johnny Cash did it”. If it was good enough for him…
15. RIP UP THE RULEBOOK
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. If it sounds good, it is good. Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil describes working with producer Rich Costey on the band’s recent album Ellipsis: “I wasn’t above doing anything weird.
There were points where Rich would have my guitar going through 16 pedals. We wouldn’t even know which ones were switched on. Rich is a bit of a vibe merchant. He doesn’t worry if things are over-distorted or if the needle is in the red. It’s all about the sound. Whenever we were saying, ‘Oh the needle’s in the red there’, he’d be like, ‘Who gives a shit? Does it sound good or not?’ And that was a really good mindset.”
16. THE SIMPLE LIFE
Something simple, played well, is always more impressive and toneful than over-reaching and fluffing it. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t push yourself out of your comfort zone and take risks as a player, but in the context of a gig or a blues jam, try playing fewer notes and leave breathing space between phrases. And always stay out of the way of the lead vocal.
Endless flurries are tiresome listening for the audience and dilute the impact of any fireworks you do throw in. Approach a guitar solo as if you are telling a joke or short story: avoid meandering, build to a climax and don’t reveal the punchline too early!
17. OLD STRINGS ATTACHED
We’ve encountered producers who refuse to record guitars that don’t have fresh strings on them, and The Edge apparently insists on a new set on each of his 20-plus touring guitars every single night. For most electric guitar applications, we tend to prefer a spanking new set that have been thoroughly stretched in, but on basses and acoustics, it’s a different story.
Brand-new strings can introduce nasty clanks and top-end zing that can cause problems later in the mix. We always prefer the warmer sound of played-in acoustic strings, while legend has it that James Jamerson never changed his bass strings unless they broke. He sounded pretty good.
18. STACK ’EM UP, PUNK
If you rely on pedals for overdrive, try using two at the same time. If you can find a combination of drive pedals that play nicely together, then it’s a quick and easy way to maximise the versatility of your rig without shelling out for additional dirtboxes.
Running a TS Mini Tube Screamer (set to a medium gain level) and J Rockett Archer Ikon (set as a clean boost) into a clean-ish amp, as per the picture above, gives you four distinct gears: the pure sound of the amp itself, a boosted amp tone (Archer only), a dirtier crunch tone (Tube Screamer only) and a harmonically rich lead tone with plenty of sustain (both pedals on). As usual, experimentation is key…
19. LET IT BLEED
Although ‘cleans up nicely with your guitar’s volume control’ has become as much of a guitar journalism cliché as ‘plays like butter’ or ‘the dusty end’, the reality is that many instruments muddy up when you roll back the volume, limiting the mileage of plugging straight in to an overdriven amp and using your guitar’s controls to regulate drive (see tip 2).
The answer is a simple mod known as a treble bleed circuit that involves wiring a capacitor (typically between 680-1,000pF) between the input and output lugs on your guitar’s volume pot. Some also wire a resistor (typically 150k for a 250k pot or 330k for a 500k pot) in parallel. Bluesman Dan Patlansky explains the appeal: “It’s a cheap thing to do, but you can get so many different textures.
Every notch of the volume knob has completely different tonal textures. The lower my volume goes, the more jangly my sound becomes because of the capacitor. On a standard Strat, when you pull the volume back the sound becomes muffled as if the top end has been shaved off. As soon as you put on a capacitor and you take your volume down, it starts to bleed treble back into the circuit, so you get more of a silvery texture. Just in your volume knob, there is a world of different textures. It’s endless.”
20. THE GREAT OUTDOORS
As we alluded to in tip 4, when it comes to outdoor gigs, even at major festivals, all bets are off. A light breeze can make your sound wash in and out as if you’ve employed an extra modulation effect set to an ‘underwater’ preset, and your normally very loud amp will suddenly seem underpowered to the extent that you might think something’s wrong with it.
Don’t panic, but when you venture into the wild, we’d heartily recommend packing the amp you own that has the most headroom. Even small one-day festivals often have hired backline available for use (typically a modern Marshall or Fender Twin), and it’ll likely be louder and more stage-filling than your pub-friendly combo. It’s not the worst idea to have a ‘festival board’ equipped with a couple of extra dirtboxes so that you can quickly get close to your preferred sound through any loud clean channel.
If you don’t have to bring an amp, it will make changeovers quicker (popular with festival crew) and load-ins easier (popular with your spine). If you don’t use many pedals, consider a rechargeable power supply such as Pedaltrain’s Volto (£89) for your pedalboard as added insurance, just in case there are no power points close to the front of the stage. And don’t forget to charge it!
21. RAISIN’ SADDLES
The pursuit of a low action can inhibit string vibration and lead to choking out. Resist the temptation of an easy ride and try a setup with a slighly higher action than you’d usually go for: you’ll find that the strings resonate more freely, sustain for longer and chords and single notes sound better.
Once you’ve got used to the extra ‘fight’ required from the fretting hand, you’ll also be able to ‘dig in’ under the strings a little more when bending. The whole playing experience becomes more expressive and if you dabble with slide, you might even find that your action is now high enough to negate the need for a separate guitar for bottleneck duties.
22. SPRING WATCH
Name-players as stylistically disaparate as Johnny Marr and Joe Bonamassa are fans of old-fashioned spring reverb as an always-on effect in the recording studio. For Bonamassa, it’s an essential component of his studio toolkit: “There’s always a reverb tank. I use one of the brown Fender spring reverbs, but you can use a brown or a blackface one.
A reissue is fine, they all sound the same. I use a reverb tank because I like the chime that it gives, and the microphone in the studio doesn’t hear the reverb as much as live. Live, you’re swimming! I always leave the reverb on a little bit and it just gives it a nice sheen.”
23. THINK LIKE A SINGER
And we don’t mean turn up late or refuse to carry any equipment during the load-in. As discussed in tip 16, simple melodies are usually much more memorable and toneful than unnecessarily complex ones, even in the polyrhythmic world of prog-metal, as Dream Theater’s John Petrucci acknowledges: “I approach [melody lines] like a singer would.
I’m a lyricist, so I’m constantly writing vocal melodies. The melodic ins and outs of chord progressions are always at the forefront of my thinking, so when I’m playing guitar in songs where it’s really the voice, I’m almost singing it to myself and it comes out of the guitar.”
24. DON’T BE PRECIOUS
You might have spent a small fortune on a pedalboard overflowing with boutique stompboxes and honed your rig to perfection, but live performance and volume are the great levellers. What sounds full and rich at home often won’t cut through a crowded midrange, especially if your band has a second guitarist, keys player or horn section.
The worst thing you can do at this point is to keep turning your amp’s volume control up – think of the overall mix as a layer cake and accentuate the upper-midrange frequencies where the electric guitar is most at home.
Don’t be wedded to a particular pickup choice, either, just because it sounds right in isolation – it’s about making your tone work in the context of the band and the room you are in. If you have the luxury of a soundcheck, it’s well worth stepping out into the area where most of the audience will be standing to hear the front of house mix from their perspective. You might be surprised!
25. A SHURE THANG?
The Shure SM57 (£91) has been the industry standard live and studio mic for guitar speaker cabinets for many years now. It’s great for capturing aggressive rock tones, but you might find that a different mic better suits your purposes.
Dynamic mics with high SPL handling are generally the best option in the cut and thrust of a loud stage environment, but for quieter gigs and studio recording, ribbon and condenser units – or even a combination of two or three different mic types – may better capture the subtleties of your performance and offer a smoother, more 3D representation of the sound coming out of the cabinet.
Experiment with angles and proximity, too. Affordable alternatives to the 57 include the Sontronics Halo (£129) Sennheiser e609 (£89) and the Audio Technica MB 2k (£45). The Beatles achieved a reasonable degree of success in the studio with large-diaphragm Neumann U47 condensers positioned between a foot and 18 inches away from the amp – according to engineer Geoff Emerick: “where it sounded good” during Revolver sessions. If you’re chasing the sound on more of a budget, an ‘affordable’ soundalike is the Peluso 22 47, for a still eye-watering £1,299. Yikes.
26. STRING THEORY
How far would we get without strings? Not very. It’s an intensely subjective area and there are several examples of legendary players who created massive signature guitar tones with very light strings – Brian May, Billy Gibbons and Tony Iommi to name three – with Gibbons going as low as .007 on his Dunlop Rev Willy’s Mexican Lottery Brand signature sets.
Generally speaking, we prefer the sound and feel of a set of (at least) .010 or .011 gauge strings on electric and .012s or 0.013s on acoustic. Try going up a gauge – you may need to tighten your truss rod a quarter turn to compensate – and see if you enjoy the extra physical and tonal girth.
27. GO TO EXTREMES
When setting your amp EQ, listen with your ears and not your eyes. Don’t be afraid to set the controls in a way that looks unusual, even if this involves rolling off the bass and maxing out the mids.
Amps have their own individual voicings and quirks and are best regarded as instruments in their own right – you should always ensure that you adjust the EQ at the volume at which you are playing and not default to bedroom-friendly settings in a band mix. At volume, you are better off with a ‘frown’ than a ‘smile’, even for metal. Just ask Slayer’s Kerry King: “When I used an EQ, everyone would look at it and it would be the exact opposite of what people thought it would be. If you were to look at my EQ, it would look like a frown rather than a smile.
I liked the mids, because everything else I could get from my head. I used to play a show with a Marshall JCM800 and a Boss 10-band EQ, and I would have my sound. That, to everyone’s surprise, including Marshall, was that frown. The EQ would start at zero and go all the way up for the mids and then back down to zero for the treble. It wasn’t for leads, it was for rhythm. It made them full and chunky. If I dialled in a lead sound, I wouldn’t like it for my rhythm sound. And since my rhythm is the majority of the set, that’s what I base it on.”
28. SPLENDID ISOLATION
Are you plagued by irritating buzzing or high-pitched whining? It might not be the sound of your bandmates complaining; it could be because your pedalboard is suffering from PSU issues.
A proper, isolated power supply is a must if you are serious about maximising the sonic potential of your gear. Some units allow you to run nine-volt pedals at 18 volts – if you own a Fulltone OCD, you’ll find it delivers more punch and headroom as a result. As always, consult the manual first. For small boards, the T-Rex Fuel Tank Junior (£79) comes highly recommended. Head to thegigrig.com if your requirements are more complex.
29. COMBINATION LOCKED
Prejudices about the way certain instruments sound can derive from using them in combination with amps that accentuate their less-desirable tonal characteristics, rather than complementing them. There’s every chance that if your main experiences of bridge single-coils have been playing them through a blackface Fender amp, you might consider them too weedy and ice-picky.
Through a fat tweed amp, vintage-style Fender bridge pickups are a different animal altogether, capable of real power and raunch. Similarly, one of our absolute favourite combinations is a mid-rich Les Paul or ES-335 through a Deluxe Reverb or AC30…
30. BONE UP
It’s hard, dense, relatively durable and light and was used extensively by some of the biggest brands in the industry, so it’s no wonder that many luthiers prefer natural bone for nuts and acoustic bridge saddles.
Aside from benefits in sustain and tuning stability, bone is also mildly self-lubricating and porous, so it absorbs any additional lube applied and stays slippery, reducing friction. Most bone used in guitar manufacture is a by-product of animal farming – vegetarian and vegan-friendly alternatives include Micarta (a compound of phenolic resins) and Tusq (a man-made alternative to ivory).
31. ATTENUATING GAME
One of the commonest problems we’ve all experienced when using valve amplifiers is getting the sound and feel you like at a volume level that’s deemed acceptable by bandmates/sound engineers/neighbours/the other half. Hearing damage isn’t big or clever, but that doesn’t change the fact that a cranked valve amplifier can be a beautiful thing to hear.
At least once, all guitarists owe it to themselves to stand in front of a Marshall stack, turn the volume up to 10 and bang out a few powerchords. Back in the realms of everyday rehearsals, gigs and home noodling sessions, a good power attenuator can be the key to achieving a decent-sounding compromise and allow you to turn your amp up while turning your overall level down. While there are a range of high-quality options on the market these days, such as the Bad Cat Unleash V2 (£449) and Dr. Z Brake Lite (£199), they don’t often come cheap.
As usual, our resident genius Huw Price has the solution. Back in June 2016, Huw’s DIY Workshop feature explained how to build your own attenuator for as little as £40 in parts. We can confirm that his Elevenator design works brilliantly and requires only a basic grasp of electronics to put together. Visit bit.ly/elevenator to see a step-by-step guide to the build.
32. GET THE CHOP
From Billy Strange’s haunting guitar lines in Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) to Johnny Marr’s iconic How Soon Is Now? and beyond, tremolo is a timeless effect that’s been with us since World War II.
Unlike other modulation effects such as chorus (the 1980s) or the phaser (the 70s), it’s not shackled to a specific era or genre in the minds of the listener, and sounds much fresher as a result. For the ultimate tremolo experience, a blackface Fender amp is where it’s at, but there are many affordable stompbox options these days, including the Mooer Trelicopter (£49) which we’ve even seen on pro boards.
33. RECORD EVERYTHING
These days, almost all of us have a decent-quality audio and video recorder in our pockets built into our mobile telephones. Record your practice sessions and rehearsals and review the results in the cold light of day – it can give you useful pointers about your tone and your playing, which are two sides of the same coin. Maybe that verse section needs a lighter touch? Perhaps that solo boost needs more treble to help it cut through? Even relatively unsophisticated ‘room’ audio can be very revealing. If you don’t like what you hear, it gives you the opportunity to refine your sound before taking your rig out in public.
34. RIGHT-HAND FAN
Or indeed left-hand. Regardless of which hand you favour, out there in the real world where melody and rhythm matter more to an audience than fretboard athleticism, the most important aspect of guitar technique is picking/strumming hand attack and timing.
Whether you are sweep picking or chord comping in a slow waltz, there’s no point having an impeccable command of the fretboard unless you are locking in with the rhythm section and know instictively when to lay back or push against it. Do your homework: listen to Pete Townshend, Nile Rodgers and former James Brown Band member Jimmy Nolen.
35. MIC THE STRINGS?
Yes, really. In the studio, setting up a microphone to record the natural acoustic sound of the guitar strings can add percussive character when blended with the amplified sound, especially if you are aiming to capture old-school archtop tones for jazz or roots styles such as Western swing. For best results, the guitar needs to be isolated from the amp to prevent excessive bleed.
This technique gives a good front-end attack to the sound and plenty of definition, which can be mixed in with the amplified sound to taste. A small condenser microphone is the best mic for the job, and it’s also worth using a high-pass filter.
36. CLEAR YOUR PLATE
This writer remembers being told off by his mother for removing the spring cavity plate on a Squier Stratocaster during a spot of juvenile electric guitar maintenance – she was worrying unnecessarily about the risk of electrocution from the exposed ground wire.
However, there is a school of thought that says removing the plate improves the acoustic and amplified voice of the instrument by negating the dampening effect of the plastic. Texan tonehound and nine-volt battery aficionado Eric Johnson agrees: “The backplates are removed from all my guitars, because I think they sound better with them off.”
37. FIT A BIGSBY
Throw all of your preconceptions about Bigsby vibratos from the nearest window right now! A correctly set-up Bigsby won’t just stay in tune when played in anger, it’ll unlock a whole world of expression and creativity, revitalising your guitar playing and songwriting along the way.
There’s something about the smooth shimmer of a Bigsby that sounds and feels like no other vibrato system and every time we’ve fitted one to an archtop electric guitar, it’s been more more stable, more in tune and more resonant as a result. Add spring reverb and the subtle throb of a vintage amp-style tremolo circuit to the mix and enjoy…
This may be a good thing if you’re using a particularly shrill guitar and those coiled cables of the late 60s and early 70s probably helped, rather than hindered, the likes of Hendrix and Brian May. We’re big fans of Neutrik jacks for their chunky roadworthiness – if you’d like to tailor your cable to accentuate or attenuate your guitar’s natural voice, Van Damme’s Silver Series (www.van-damme.com) features low, flat and high-capacitance cable options.
39. UNDER THE COVERS
Metal pickup covers affect capacitance and can roll off high-end content from your sound. Different materials of varying thicknesses attenuate treble frequencies to a greater or lesser degree, with thin nickel silver preserving more treble content than heavy copper.
Over the years, Telecaster players inparticular have often struggled to dial in an amp tone that balances the bite of the bridge pickup with the warmth of the neck unit, but there are a couple of simple and free modifications that can help. If you want more clarity, you can improve matters by snipping the small wire that connects the cover to ground. The difference won’t be dramatic, but you should be able to hear it. Unfortunately, you’ll get a slight buzzing sound if you inadvertently touch the cover.
To really open out your tone, try removing the cover completely: it can give your neck- position tone more of a Strat-like brightness and snap. Modern pickups may have tape wrapped around the coil for protection, but vintage-style pickups are likely to have exposed coils. If you do decide to go topless, as it were, it’s worth enlisting the services of a pickup repairer to wrap the exposed coil, in order to prevent damage.
40. IT HAS SONGS IN IT
If you do have to shell out your hard-earned cash on a new or new-to-you guitar or bass, instead of spending hours browsing online getting hung up on the minutiae of the specifications, the year of manufacture or the country of origin, get out there into the real world and play as many guitars as you can.
You might find that you are drawn to something unexpected, such as a strangely attractive vintage curio – but if you find said instrument inspiring, then it could prove to be the launchpad that allows you to embark upon a whole new era of guitar tone.
The Temperance Movement guitarist Paul Sayer agrees: “If I’m shopping for a new guitar, the sign of one that I want to buy is that it makes me play something I haven’t played before. In the scheme of things, what people care about are songs, not licks. If I start playing what could become the basis of a song, I think, maybe there’s something in this guitar for me.”
41. INTONATION MATTERS
If you are the sole guitarist in a trio, the chances are that intonation problems don’t keep you awake during the small hours. Indeed, any sleeping difficulties are much more likely to be the result of an uncomfortable passenger seat in the band van or the drummer’s loud technicolour yawns making abstract paintings on the asphalt.
Guitars with ‘close enough for rock ’n’ roll’ intonation were more than sufficient to make the greatest rock music in history, but try playing that LP Junior with a wrapover bridge or three-saddle Telecaster in the context of a modern pop or R ’n’ B session – you might struggle to sound perfectly in tune in the midst of auto-tuned vocals and synthesised parts.
Some players compensate for imperfect intonation with subconscious, microtonal bends, but we’d still recommend giving yourself a fighting chance of getting called back for another session by taking your most in-tune instrument in the first place.
42. LOW GAIN, NO PAIN
Okay, we acknowledge that most guitarists treat their amplifier’s low-gain input with the kind of disdain that a 1970s rugby player would have had for alcohol-free lager. Some of you might never have even plugged into it, writing it off immediately. As Yngwie Malmsteen once said (in a rather Nigel Tufnel-esque manner): “More is more. Less is less. The idea that less is more is illogical.”
But wait, what if you want to shave a few inches off that rather flabby humbucker tone? What if you want a slightly sweeter sound that’s a little less strident and might even get on better with your effects pedals? Try plugging into the low-gain input and see how you get on, you might be pleasantly surprised. Just be sure to blow the cobwebs off it first…
43. TAKE YOUR PICK
The tone-shaping qualities of the humble plectrum – and the way you hold it – are all-too-often overlooked. Almost every attribute of your pick has an effect on your tone, including its material, thickness, texture and shape. Unless they play entirely with fingers, most modern guitarists use a nylon or plastic pick of some description – the results of a quick office straw poll suggest that members of the G&B team mostly favour grey .88mm Jim Dunlop USA Nylon picks or reissue Herco Nylon plectrums, as used by Jimmy Page and David Gilmour and numerous others back in the day.
Although some purists – or should that be sadists? – swear by genuine tortoiseshell (actually made from Atlantic Hawksbill turtle shell, an animal that isn’t a tortoise at all), happily, trade in the material was banned back in the early 1970s, so the ‘real thing’ is no longer an option.
That said, we recently reviewed a couple of different types of Snark pick (www.jhs.co.uk) that mimic the feel of vintage celluloid and tortoiseshell with a high degree of success. Whatever your choice of pick – and it’s a highly personal choice – try letting more of the pick stick out and use a softer stroke for a rounder tone or hold it closer to the tip for a sharper attack.
44. BLOCK PARTY
Fender originally used 10-ounce cold rolled steel vibrato blocks with shallow holes for the ball ends, and most Strat tonehounds still regard this as the best-sounding spec. To find out whether your block is steel, simply use a magnet – if the magnet falls off, it’s not.
The Callaham Stratocaster Tremolo Block (£63.75 via guitarexperience.co.uk) is widely regarded as the most toneful block on the, erm, block, but domestic equivalents are available from the likes of Wudtone (wudtone.com). Expect extra brightness, definition and sustain. Even if you don’t plan to change your block, it’s worth scraping off any paint that may be applied to the top.
45. THE POWER OF TWO
Do you crave those great dirty-clean tones that combine raunch with articulation and fatness with a crisp attack? It sounds like two amps at the same time, doesn’t it? That’s often because it is. However, you needn’t stop there – Richard Hawley’s huge-sounding live rig consists of four amps: two Fender Hot Rod Deluxes, a Fender Super-Sonic and a Blackstar Artisan 30, all running simultaneously.
“It’s an immense sound,” he enthuses. “My old soundman hated it. He was like, ‘why are you doing this? It’s too complicated’, moaning all the time. He got used to it very quickly once he heard it a few times…”
46. MO’ MONEL, NO PROBS
What was almost certainly our biggest acoustic tone revelation of recent times came courtesy of a set of Martin Retro Monel strings. If the top-end zing of a brand new set of bronze acoustic strings sets your teeth on edge as it does ours, Martin Retros may be the answer.
The nickel alloy Monel largely fell out of favour during the 1970s, as it’s difficult to machine, but Martin recently brought it back and boy are we glad; Monel strings don’t simply sound broken in straight out of the packaging, they unlock a rich woodiness that, particularly when used in combination with a mahogany-bodied guitar, imparts an old, rootsy flavour that’s extremely addictive.
47. VOLUMISE IT
We’ve all done a whole set with our guitar’s volume control maxed out, but there is another way! Some players like to sit with their volume on 7-8 as a ‘base’ rhythm tone – dialling their amp in accordingly – then when you roll it up to 10 it gives you a juicy boost for lead work and riffs.
When you roll further back, if you’ve followed tip 19 and installed a treble bleed circuit, proceedings should clean up in a mud-free manner. Another approach you can take when using a guitar with independent volume controls for both pickups is to set one on 10 for your full-bore rock sound and roll the other back to switch to a preset rhythm level.
48. FLATTEN THAT STRAT
Strats sound thin and weedy, right? There are numerous examples in rock and blues history that prove that preconception wrong, and one of the most powerful Stratocaster ‘thickening’ mods of all is free of charge.
Tuning every string down a semitone and playing in Eb has a remarkable effect on Strat tone – it’s no wonder that the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were fans and modern Strat slingers such as Philip Sayce follow suit. You may need to tweak your set-up and even go up a string gauge, too, but it’s amazing how much extra depth it imparts.
49. CAPO FANTASTIC
Sometimes you can get bored of the familiar sound of your favourite guitar. Experimenting with altered tunings is one way to spice up the marriage, and another is to employ a capo.
Don’t just think of the capo as a way to play familiar songs the same way in a different key – using a capo on the second or fourth fret really seems to suit certain guitars and have a ‘tightening’ effect on their overall tonality that makes open chords and arpeggios really sing. Johnny Marr and Keith Richards are just two players who have utilised the power of the capo to hitmaking effect over the years.
50. PLAY MORE GUITAR!
We’ve left this tip until last because it’s comfortably the most important piece of advice we can give you when it comes to guitar tone. As one member of the team said in an office discussion recently, “It’s amazing how much my tone improves when I play more guitar.” That’s no joke, either. The fastest way to sound better is to play better, and the way to play better is to practise as much as possible.
You don’t have to have a strict daily regime, build up speed with a metronome or immerse yourself in theory – simply having an exploratory noodle or strum every day will help you stay match fit. Keep a guitar in the living room so that you have no excuse or, better still, arrange a regular jam night with friends. In this increasingly digital world there’s still no substitute for the excitement that human chemistry can bring to making music.
The more you play at band volumes with other musicians, the better you’ll understand your gear, the better your timing and feel will get and the better you’ll sound as a result. Take a holistic approach and think of great guitar tone as a result of the whole experience of making music rather than an end in itself and you won’t go far wrong.
Now put this magazine down, pick up your guitar and play!
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