Tone Talk Tips: My Tips on Finding Your Own Sound!
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
There’s no one-size fits all method to apply to finding your own signature guitar sound. Every musician has their own personal musical preferences when talking about tone, and more than likely that set of preferences will evolve and refine over years spent playing guitar. I always get asked from players of all ages and skill levels on how they can begin the quest of finding what is their own unique sound. So, I wanted to compile my set of points that I think will help you become inspired with whatever tone your spirit and ears bring you!
Get Creative in Your Use of Effects:
Using guitar effects is a great way to transform a very simple musical part, or arrangement, into something otherworldly and full of power. Before you start making a giant pedalboard, think about first what is only essential towards getting your tone. Don’t load up on pedals if you only need a handful to get you where you want to go tonally. Usually most players need a wah-wah, some kind of distortion-based gain effect to boost their signal, or their amplifier, into crunchy sound territory, some kind of way to “shake the sound” with modulation like chorus, flange, or tremolo, and some way to produce echo, usually done with delay. Another popular addition is reverb, but most of the time this can be integrated into your amplifier itself with a dedicated knob. Start with just one of each effect and see how many different sounds you can get to apply in your music! I usually start by turning the effect all the way up to see what the highest setting is, then slowly turn the effect mix down until I find the blend between my original guitar signal and the effect that sounds the most pleasing to my ear!
While there is no set way on how you should use your effects, not thinking in an optimum signal flow can actually hinder your overall guitar tone. This can strip away essential frequencies like your low-end making the overall guitar sound harsher, or it can take away essential high-end frequencies that can end up making your guitar sound muddy. Some effects also “color” your overall tone based on the bypass switch, or circuit your electric guitar’s signal runs through. My favorite way to think of signal flow is to have my pedal board following this formula:
Wah-Wah>Gain effects (in order of highest gain to lowest gain)> Modulation Effects (chorus, phaser, flanger, tremolo)>Time Based Effects (delays and echoes)>Reverbs>Tuner
Wah-Wah pedal placement is totally up to the player, try it in all positions and see what works best for you. I typically like my wah pedals to be first in my chain. I also recommend having your tuner pedal being the last in your signal chain so you can quickly troubleshoot if any signal is reaching the end of your pedal board.
Know How to Use Your Pickups and Knobs While Playing:
One of the most important things you can do while playing guitar is use the controls on the guitar itself to get subtle changes in sound and overall tonality. Don’t think about trying to tap dance through multiple pedals for different sections of music. See how far you can get from just switching to different pickups mid-song, shave off some unwanted frequencies with your tone knobs, and use your volume knob to adjust your overall volume live!
Depending on your guitar, you can have as many pickups as three installed on your instrument, and you can have as few as a single pickup. Pickups are basically magnets that pickup the vibration of your guitar string, turn it into an electrical signal, and then send that signal to your guitar amplifier. Each pickup has different tones, and uses depending on the manufacturer’s recipe, and materials used in the construction like type of magnet, type of winds in the coil, and how many winds.
Typically, pickups set near the bridge, sometimes called the lead pickup, have a tighter, more cutting tone. Middle pickups have more chime and thickness compared to the bridge. The pickup closer to your guitar’s neck, sometimes called the rhythm pickup, typically have a warmer, bassier type of tone.
Most guitars feature either two kinds of pickups, single coils or humbuckers.
Single Coils are the original electric guitar pickup and are traditionally found on Fender style guitars. The single coil pickups produce a clearer tone with more high-end frequency response. Sometimes, single coils can produce unwanted 60 cycle hum which can sound like a slight, continual buzz when you’re not playing. Single Coils sound great distorted, but have their own unique clean and bright tone that happens when you play them through a clean amplifier.
Humbuckers were invented by the Gibson corporation as a response to the success of Fender’s single coil equipped solid body electric guitars. They set out to design a pickup that wouldn’t have any noise like the original Fender single coils, hence the name “Hum-bucker”. Humbucker pickups are basically two single coils wired together opposite of each other. Because they are two pickups combined together in tandem, the humbuckers have increased volume output with a thicker tonal edge when compared to their single coil cousins. When used with distortion, humbuckers can be a great tool in helping you achieve distortion with your guitar rig!
Properly Intonate Your Instrument:
Changes in your instrument’s environment like temperature, humidity, even how much you play the guitar can throw your instrument out of tonal alignment. Think of having your guitar occasionally worked on by a professional, the modern equivalent of having your car’s tires rotated and the oil changed. If you neglect these really simple maintenance tasks, your instrument-just like your car, won’t work at its optimum performance. If you’re uncomfortable with doing any intonation work on your own personal instrument, I recommend having a certified professional do it for you.
Personally, I recommend the Texas Guitar Workshop in Dallas, TX for all my tech needs!
Don’t Forget the Strings!
Changing strings regularly will keep your instrument in tip top shape. Most players don’t think about the importance fresh strings have on their overall tone. Not only do fresh strings feel better under your fingers while playing, but they do less damage to your guitar’s frets over time than worn strings, meaning you’ll have to have fret-mills done less saving you some money in the process. It also keeps the frets at perfect intonation longer.
A great way towards getting better tone could just be a pack of strings away. For roughly five bucks, you can explore a wide range of different tones. Different strings, made from different materials, wound with their own manufacturers wrap produce different tones. Many blues and jazz guitarists play “flat-wound” sets for a warmer, more mellow jazz like tone, while rock guitarists tend to go for round wound strings for better articulation when soloing, as well as brighter tone. Want to have a vintage style tone? Check out nickel strings. Try stainless steel for more brightness and sustain!
Use High-Quality Audio Grade Cables:
Cables are the oil that make your pedalboard run effectively. As such, it’s important to invest in some high-grade audio cables that won’t destroy your tone. You’ll want some highly shielded cables that transfer audio signal in pristine quality with really good connectors on the ends. Remember if you buy garbage cables, your pedalboard will ultimately sound like garbage. While you can buy high quality brand like Mogami off the wall at Guitar Center, it’s important to realize that you want the shorter cable runs possible. Why ruin the tone of your expensive electric guitar by using a cheap $7 cable you got in a fire sale at your local music mega mart?
I recommend calling Matt Tapp at Sabre Cables in Austin, TX and have him hand make you cables for your pedal board needs. That way if you want to have a certain pedal in an awkward position for your use you can have a custom cable made specifically for that interconnect.