Here’s some quick and easy tone tips on how you can improve your overall guitar tone on the cheap! Remember half of the battle of being seen as being a great guitarist, is sounding the part! So, I wanted to share fifteen ways you can go through your entire guitar rig from top to bottom to improve your sound. I use most of these in my daily playing, and studio work!
1) Picks are Your Friends:
Many guitarists underestimate the difference a simple change in their choice of guitar pick can make on their overall tone. Smart guitarists will keep a multitude of choices around to swap at a moment’s notice. That dear reader, is why I conveniently have a giant bowl of picks in my teaching space that holds picks of all shapes, sizes and materials.
I tend to find lighter gauge picks are much more suitable for thinner strumming patterns and having acoustics stand out in a band mix, and heavier gauge picks can help your soloing pop out through the band mix more. Even changes in material of picks can make a world of difference. For example, The Edge from U2 uses Dunlop picks with small dimple dots for grip. Even stranger is he holds the picks backwards so the dimple dot side plucks the strings. It adds a chewier texture to the delayed arpeggios he’s known for. Billy Gibbons was noted to have used a Mexican peso as a guitar pick on “Pearly Gates” for years. It adds a brash thumping twang to a Les Paul’s distorted tone.
You can’t argue that for just a few bucks you can make a world of difference to your guitar tone.
2. Not Getting Enough Sustain? Try Upgrading Your Guitar’s Nut!
One of the things I get asked a lot from students on a weekly basis is how I am getting so much sustain out of my guitar plugged straight in to a Fender combo amp. Great question. Asides from having my guitar’s restrung at its optimum time, making sure its intonated properly, and having a good electrical connection to the amp in question, the last thing that really sets my guitar tone apart is the resonance I get from a properly carved bone nut.
Chances are on your guitar you bought at a music retailer comes with something like corian, or in worst case scenario plastic. The problem with these materials is that they do not allow the sound waves produced by your electric guitar’s string to have a full translation of vibration to the wood. A guitar nut made of out something like plastic essentially deadens the notes hang time after you pluck a string. Bone is a much more resonant material, which is why it has been used in instrument making for thousands of years. Bone properly allows string vibration to transfer from the string directly to the wood of your instrument. The more energy you successfully transfer the more projection you get out of your guitar!
Ask Kenny and Tyler to hand make you a bone nut at Texas Guitar Workshop and I guarantee you’ll hear the difference. They’ll even throw in a setup with the bone nut! Nut replacements are $120.
3. Change Your Strings, Change Your Style:
Guitar strings come in a wide-variety of tonal colors and gauge sizes. If you’re looking to turn that Stratocaster, or Telecaster, you’re playing into a jazzier guitar for a few weeks without buying another guitar, try switching to flatwounds. The flatwounds will give you a much mellower overall guitar tone that can be manipulated by your tone controls into more of a L-5 type tone. You can get a jazzier ES-335 tone too!
Looking to get into a Stevie Ray Vaughan type tone? Light gauge strings aren’t going to cut it. They sound thin. Go up to at least 11’s, get a pack of GHS Nickle Rockers, and tune down to E flat. Dropping the guitar down a semi tone will also help you get a deeper, richer guitar tone like Stevie while still being able to bend the strings!
The $6 cost of strings is an affordable way to experiment with guitar tone!
4. Go Wireless:
This is what I like to refer to as practicing without plugging your guitar into anything. You might find this at first to be somewhat sacrilege, after all, the visual most of us have of amazing guitar players in our minds is of guitarists playing loud guitar amps, but practicing without amplification can force you to really learn how to get the most of your sound with your hands. This will help make sure you’re not using volume, or gain from a distortion pedal to cover up any mistakes in your playing.
Try getting the best possible tone out of your instruments with just your fingers and let the rest follow. The best part is playing unplugged costs nothing!
5. Like Your Amp’s Feel but Need More Tone? Try Changing Your Speakers:
Maybe you like the way your amp feels when you turn it up but you aren’t in love with the tone. Before you run to the store to upgrade to something that might costs in the upwards of thousands of dollars, try upgrading your amp’s speaker. More efficient speakers can actually make you sound thicker and louder overall. They also can tame unruly harsh high end and tighten the low end. The best part is speakers don’t cost very much to upgrade to. So, for roughly $150 you can really get something great for your amplifier.
6. Call Up Matt Tapp the Cable Guy!
Cheap quality instrument cables can suck your life out of your guitar tone. Upgrading to low impedance cables with high quality connectors will really up your guitar tone, and really help if you’re using a pedalboard. While certain companies sell cabling kits to make your own cables, I prefer calling up Matt Tapp of Sabre Cable in Austin, TX and having some made for my project as needed. Matt always uses Mogami wire and high quality neutrik ends in his cable builds. They sound fantastic. You can typically get enough cables to power a rig of a guitar, small pedalboard, and amp for under $150 and Matt ships two days after ordering. That’s a lot better than making your own and you don’t have to deal with the eventual soldering iron burns!
7. Move Over!
Try playing some of those licks you play on the high e, B and G strings onto the bass side of your guitar. While it will take much more control and finger strength to bend the thicker strings, you will get a larger output in tone thanks to the increased mass of the vibrating strings. This might be the reason Doyle Bramhall ii can get such a powerful sustaining tone out of his guitars. The other reason… well he’s Doyle Bramhall ii dude.
8. Stomp Some Overdrive
Fall in love with that overdrive pedal because sometimes it can really help give you some inspiration. You won’t always be able to crank a tube amp up into natural overdrive. Whether that reason is due to upsetting your girlfriend, wife, and or neighbors, it’s always cool to have a backup to power tube distortion. Popular overdrives like the Klon, King of Tone, or the old standby Ibanez Tube Screamer can help you get the feeling of sustain you get from power tube distortion, but with the control that comes with a level knob. This way you can always control how loud you are at any given time while still getting the distortion tone you love.
Before getting into picking an overdrive pedal, make sure the amp you’ve chosen sounds all around great to you without any pedals! Remember effect units shouldn’t take bad amp tones and make them great, they should instead compliment each other. If your amp tone isn’t too good, adding pedals to the equation won’t make anything better.
9. Turn Down Your Bass!
Next time you plug into your amplifier turn the bass down. Trust me. Most players have a tendency to turn the bass frequencies all the way up, or too much to where they muddy up the mix when playing with a band. It’s one thing to adjust the tone of your bass frequencies when you’re playing with yourself, but when you’re in a band context a good simple EQ job can be the difference between everyone hearing your amazing playing, and the band’s bassist covering it up.
I recommend starting with your amp’s EQ at noon, and then cutting the bass to taste with your amp.
10. Invest in a Buffer:
So, if you’re like me and love your guitar pedals a little too much, you’ll have noticed the more pedals you plug into the more sonic degradation you’ll have. Don’t believe me? Plug into your pedalboard and play around from 10 mins. Then switch to just plugging into your amplifier. Notice how much more present your guitar sounds when going through the amplifier? That’s because there is so much circuitry for the signal to pass through before it hits the amplifier and you’re losing both high and low end.
The best way to make up for that signal loss is to add a respectable audio buffer to your guitar rig. Buffers help push the electronic signal from your guitar through a lengthy pedalboard more effectively to where you won’t lose any of your precious audio signal. No loss of audio signal equals more tone folks. Both JHS and TC Electronics have two really affordable buffers that work great for most standard boards. But the crème de la crème is the Durham Electronics BMP. It’s one of the best buffers in the industry, as well as a master volume control for your pedalboard so you can easily balance effects between multiple guitars. Oh, and don’t forget the wonderful preamp built inside as well.
11. Dial Back the Saturation:
The maximum amount of distortion saturation that you love to play with at home just doesn’t cut it when you’re playing with actual people. Too much gain robs your guitar playing of the subtle characteristics that define what makes you, well you. Dialing back on the distortion/gain will actually clear up the sound of your playing and let all the good that you do get heard by audiences.
Remember this doesn’t always apply to things like Fuzz Faces, Big Muffs, or Tonebenders. Sometimes the sound you’re looking for IS TURNED TO MAXIMUM. Use your ears to decide!
12. Get Out of Your Own Way:
Remember to get out of your own way sometimes. Sometimes when you’re playing, we forget that the most important thing about music is letting your own voice be heard. Things like technology, nerves, and ultimately lack of technique can get in the way of doing that. Our voice on the instrument is largely defined by how we attack the strings with both our left and right hands, or what is known as “playing dynamics”. Learn to embrace the variable that is playing dynamics. The slightest change in your right-hand picking attack can produce a different sounding tone, as is how tense or light your touch is with your left hand while fretting notes. Try adjusting in the middle of playing with different degrees of touch and use your ears to highlight the differences between approaches. Once you master it, you’ll really take your playing to new heights.
13. Think About Adding the Stevie Ray Vaughan Mod to Your Stratocaster
If you’re looking to get a few more sounds out of your Fender Stratocaster, I recommend investing in what we lovingly refer to in Texas as the Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Mod. The SRV mod is swapping out your bridge pot on your Stratocaster for a push pull pot that allows you to add the bridge in any position. This effectively changes your guitar from a 5-way pickup switch to a 7 way. When you’re in the neck position you can add the bridge, which turns your Strat into a Telecaster middle position humbucker. The neck and middle position can be transformed to use all three Strat pickups at the same time a la famed Stratocaster master Dick Dale.
This is a really great mod to add to your Stratocaster. You can get a huge upgrade in tone without losing any signal loss from pedals. It really sounds thick and huge!
14. Adjust to the Room You’re Playing In:
Think about adapting your guitar tone to different rooms and playing situations. Think about it. If you’re playing in a club with a power-trio like Jimi Hendrix, a situation where you don’t have a keyboard player, you can get much more experimental with guitar effects because there is space to be heard where you won’t be competing with frequencies. Likewise, if you are playing in a large hall with a 15-piece James Brown styled funk band, you might want to use things sparely so you can be heard amongst the group.
Effects like distortion, chorus, delay, reverb all work better when there are less things competing for their attention around them sonically. My happy rule is if the room is soaking up all your echo and reverb, give it more. If the room sounds too echoing, then consider turning the effects down or even off.
15. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment:
Some of the greatest, most iconic sounds in history came to be purely by accident. So don’t let my rules stop you from trying to get new sounds. Run that Fuzz Face into the ugliest low-fi graphic Eq for gated fuzz sounds. Run your reverbs directly into flangers. Break out and have fun!