Guitar tone can be a frustrating, ambiguous mystery.
You invest in decent gear, learn proper technique, plug in and the tone is just bad.
There isn’t an obvious reason. You haven’t cut any corners or neglected to invest in your rig.
Still, it just doesn’t sound right.
What do you do? What’s the way to troubleshoot your tone?
The truth is that there’s a lot of variables in play that are generally related to one of two things: either the gear you’re using or the technique you’re employing.
Guitar Tone-Related Gear Recommendations
- Roadie Automatic Guitar Tuner
- Dunlop Tortex Picks
- Elixir Strings
- Seymour Duncan Invader Pickups
- Gotham Low Capacitance Cable
- Gold Pedal Couplers
- Boss GE-7 EQ
- Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble
- GHS Fast Fret
- Skullcandy Crusher Headphones
- Rocktron Hush Super C
- DBX 215 15-Band EQ
- TC Electronic G Major 2
- Behringer FCB1010 MIDI Foot Controller
Together, these two areas give us plenty of things we can do right now to improve our tone.
We’ll show you how to troubleshoot hard-to-spot problem areas in both your guitar rig and your playing technique that can quickly help make your guitar tone better and more professional sounding.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Table of Contents
23. Practice clean
35. Go more analog
36. Play fewer notes
57. Target and practice one technique at a time (bends, vibrato, etc.)
If you have decent gear and you still can’t dial in a guitar tone that you’re happy with, this list will help get you over the hump.
Let’s begin our quest for a better tone:
1. Change worn out amp tubes
A lot of folks (including me at one point) don’t realize that tubes in a tube amplifier actually wear out and need to be replaced.
Tubes for amplifiers wear out after awhile, just like a light bulb. | Flickr Commons Image via Panal Lira
The shelf-life varies but, it’s worth getting in touch with the manufacturer to see if your poor tone might be the result of old tubes that need to be refreshed.
Most are less than $40 each.
2. Keep the guitar’s volume knob maxed
Volume changes should almost always be handled away from the guitar, at the amp or pedal level.
A good best practice to have is to keep your guitar’s volume knob always maxed at 10.
The guitar’s volume knob always stays up. | Flickr Commons Image via idraw1
Cutting volume back on the guitar itself will thin out the gain and cause you to lose a lot of tonal character.
Don’t do it.
3. If possible, use an amp-based distortion
The distortion that comes directly from your amplifier is almost always preferable to an external pedal.
If you research pro guitar rigs, you’ll notice that nearly all of them make use of a dirty and clean amp channel, where the dirty channel is their main distortion source.
Take Tom Morello’s rig from from Audioslave in 2004:
Tom Morello’s pedalboard, mysteriously missing a distortion pedal. | Image via Guitar.com
Some pedals, to be sure, but no distortion stompbox.
The culprit is the Marshall JCM800 that runs Morello’s clean and dirty channels.
In this case, the amp is more than capable of handling distortion duties.
No pedal needed.
Obviously, this only holds true if your amp meets reasonable quality standards.
4. Use modulation to boost your clean signal
The common refrain is that pedals mask or “muddy” your tone.
However, in the right context, modulation effects can brighten your tone and should be used as a means of thickening your sound.
An old Phase 90 pedal from MXR, perhaps one of the most popular modulation effects in existence. | Flickr Commons Image via Roadside Guitars
Chorus, flangers, and phasers are the most typical modulation effects options.
Use them when your clean tone sounds too thin or too subtle for certain melodies or fills.
5. Run a compressor and noise reducer at the end of your pedal chain
Compressors and noise reducers are frequently prescribed antidotes for guitar tone problems.
I run both at the end of my effects chain and have them on most of the time.
How I setup a compressor and noise gate in my pedal chain. | View Larger Image
I’ve seen some that keep the noise gate higher in the chain, but I can only speak from experience.
Having it towards the end has gotten me the best results.
6. Use a thicker pick
Electric guitars are usually more responsive to heavier picks, rather than the lighter variety.
Lighter picks, like your guitars volume knob, tend to weaken your guitar’s gain and output.
Take your pick. | Flickr Commons Image via Domzkie Rocks
When tone is an issue, it’s best to get the root of your signal (your guitar) to be as full and loud as possible.
Thicken up with something like the Dunlop Tortex purples.
7. Use a coated string
Coated strings, like the ones from Elixir, are marketed primarily for their longer shelf-life.
However, they also have a brighter and more resonant tone that is usually a noticeable upgrade over the non-coated versions.
Give them a try for an instant guitar tone upgrade.
8. Add reverb to a treble-friendly EQ
Start with the following three-band EQ on your amplifier:
TREBLE: 8 / MID: 7 / BASS: 4
Once you’ve got that dialed in, add a little bit of reverb (around 10 - 15%) for some extra flavor.
Plenty of reverb to go around. | Flickr Commons Image via Mutant Surfing
This will give you a nice chime and gleam to your tone, ideal for Strats and Telecasters.
9. Adjust the pickup height
Pickup height, regardless of pickup type, does matter.
Adjusting them can improve tone, depending on your string gauge and playing style.
Pickup height adjustment recommendations. | Image via Kandashokai
Generally, the closer you can get the pickups to the strings, the better your tone will be.
However, getting too close can also cause problems.
The ideal spot varies between guitars and pickup varieties but, it’s something worth experimenting with and looking into.
Most pickup heights can be changed by the small screws near the middle of the pickup on opposite sides, one for the top and one for the bottom.
If you adjust them, make sure you match the height of each side.
10. Use both pickups
A lot of players tend to default to the bridge position.
However, the “default” tone should be to use both pickups.
Using one or the other exclusively are two opposite extremes.
Get used to leaving the pickup selector in the middle position as your go-to setting.
11. Shop third party (namebrand) for your pickups
Having a pickup-specific brand humbuckers or single coil rails in your guitar is one of the single best ways to improve your tone.
Seymour Duncan is my preferred brand.
The Seymour Duncan home page, littered with high-powered endorsements and notable artists. | Image via Seymour Duncan
Their Invader pickups are $79 a piece or around $150 for a set.
All three brands make excellent pickups and are ideal places to invest in your guitar tone.
12. Run only “true bypass” pedals
The true bypass tag is a feature that’s often found in boutique guitar pedals and basically means that your guitar’s signal, when the pedal is turned off, is routed directly to the amplifier without any interference from the pedal itself.
Here’s a more full explanation that Musician’s Friend delivers up:
True bypass is a method of direct signal routing for when the pedal is off.
Depending on how your pedalboard is setup and what effects you’re using, stompboxes without this technology might be causing you noise and/or tone problems.
The more pedals you have with true bypass, the better off you’ll be. However, it’s not a deal breaker and most people run a mix of both true bypass and non-true bypass pedals.
13. If you use delay, drop the repeats
It’s not always “right” to lower your delay repeats.
But in most cases, a lot of repeats means you’re introducing a good deal of chaos into your signal.
If that’s not the intention, too many repeats or too long of a delay can really make your end product sound muddy and over-saturated.
Here’s how I dial in a low-repeat delay on the DE-1 Dan Echo:
A good starting point is to keep your delay repeats down to around three echoes.
If you need more, you can dial it in manually (or use a tap tempo) but, a brief three repeats can really clean things up and make the effect count.
14. Contextualize your distortion
In other words, understand the style of music you’re playing and adjust distortion accordingly.
For example, don’t use the Boss DS-1 distortion if you’re trying to play something metal or heavy.
On the other hand, don’t use the Boss Power Stack for blues licks that are meant to be less-saturated.
Take time to get your distortion pedal settings right.
If they sound off, you might be using the wrong pedal for what you’re trying to do.
15. Research style and genre-specific tone conventions
Number 14 dictates that you must know a lot about the type of music you’re trying to play.
While there are plenty of broad best practices, the real tone-shaping occurs when you know what (or who) you want to sound like.
Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to nail-down a Stevie Ray Vaughan tone and it just doesn’t sound like him.
What can you do?
Well, here are a few obvious, but perhaps easily overlooked, suggestions:
- Listen to and study his music, looking for consistent themes and characteristics of his tone.
- Research the type of gear he used.
- Since he was a blues guy, get familiar with conventional blues amp settings.
Doing this kind of book work will be the control in your experiment.
Once you get familiar with what you want to emulate, it’ll make your job a lot more intuitive and straightforward.
16. Try the low gain approach
Sometimes a little bit of distortion can really make an otherwise clean tone “pop” and fill a room.
Start with a solid clean EQ as your base.
Something like this will work:
A good starting point for a basic clean EQ. | Image via PositiveGrid
From there, add a small amount of gain, enough to slightly distort and thicken the signal but, not enough to significantly boost the volume.
If your gain knob is touchy, drop the master volume a bit to even things out.
Combine the end result with a jolt of modulation or delay and you’ll have a punchier signal that has retained its clean appeal.
17. Lower your note count (avoid overplaying)
Every note you play should have a purpose.
If you’re in the habit of a playing a lot, either as a rhythm or lead guitarist, you might consider cutting down the amount of fills or layers that you’re adding to a piece of music.
Indeed it is. | Flickr Commons Image via Dicko2007
Less is more on the electric guitar and if you want your tone to be the focus, play less so your tone doesn’t get drowned out by constant strumming or picking, where only a subtle additive is necessary.
18. Focus on short melodies
You’ve got to crawl before you can walk.
Short melodies are where you should practice showcasing your tone before you graduate to faster playing.
Focus on short, melodic runs, even with just three or four notes and work on letting the natural tone of your guitar and amp do the work.
For example, instead of this thick, eighth note pattern:
Go with a slower quarter-note arrangement, stretching things out over two measures:
Keep in mind, tone comes from your own technique, just as much as your gear.
To develop that technique, start simple with a short note count that focuses on melody.
19. Nail down alternate picking
Alternate picking is a quick road to better tone, simply because it makes your right hand more efficient.
Moreover, it’s easy to learn.
If you don’t know, alternate picking is just the act of picking a string both on the way down and on the way back up.
The alternative is to pick on the way down, bring your hand back above the strings and pick again on the way down the second time.
Think Green Day for that sort of thing.
Billie Joe Armstrong isn’t one to do much alternate picking. | Flickr Commons Image via bourgol
Sometimes it seems like this guy doesn’t know anything but down-strokes.
In most cases, that’s simply not as efficient as grabbing notes going both directions, especially for lead patterns and solos.
20. Use low-capacitance cables
Guitar pickups are more prone to naturally aggravate and increase the impact of cable capacitance on your overall tone.
Basically, capacitance cuts the higher frequency of your signal down, meaning your have to push the treble on your EQ unnaturally high.
This can result in more bite, hiss, and is an often unknown culprit of bad guitar tone.
Part of the solution is to go with a low-capacitance cable, particularly the one that’s connecting your guitar to the beginning of your pedal chain:
- Gotham GAC Premium Low Capacitance Cable (25 ft.): $30
- Lava Premium Cables Extreme Low Capacitance (10 ft.): $40
- Gotham Patch Cables Low Capacitance (pack of 5): $31
If you can, make sure that the longest cables in your rig (amp to pedals - pedals to guitar) are a low-capacitance cable.
Adding the LC patch cables between each pedal would be a bonus.
21. Reduce cable length in your pedalboard
Avoid using long instrument cables for linking pedals together.
In fact, make the investment in some patch cables and pedal couplers to get cable length down as much as possible.
In addition to the low-capacitance cables mentioned in #20, here are a couple other products I’d target:
- Straight Pedal Couplers (great for Boss pedals)
- Angled Couplers (for when the height of the two jacks are off)
- Coupler Crank (Seismic Audio)
Which ones you use will depend on your pedals and your board setup but use them wherever possible.
22. Lower the bass in your EQ
Depending on your gear, too much bass in your EQ can really muddy your tone, especially if you’re playing with a bass player.
Try the following dials:
It works particularly well with Fender amps, since they tend to be a bit more smooth and heavy to begin with.
However, if you’re finding that your tone is too muddy or thick with any amp, cutting the bass in the EQ should be your first step.
23. Practice clean
Clean practicing can be challenging and isn’t often preferred.
Yet it’s an exercise in tone every time you do it.
Practicing without modulation or distortion exposes only your ability to play with great tone and gives you an opportunity to see where your technique is costing you.
Play clean and look for mistakes that effects might have been covering up.
A few common ones:
- Incomplete chords
- Buzzing or half-muted notes
- Messy chord transitions
- Messy soloing sequences
Once you start to see them, work on cleaning them up and polishing the problem areas.
24. Change strings more often
Even if a guitar lays around the house without being played, strings will age.
Consistent playing (and especially sweat) will cause them to age that much quicker.
An easy solution for immediate tone improvement is to simply get into the habit of changing them.
For Elixirs or a coated string, it’s roughly every six months, depending on how often you play.
For regular non-coated strings, you’re looking at every two to three months.
25. Minimize your chords
You don’t always have to play a full open G chord.
For example, you could take this shape:
E|--3-- B|--3-- G|--0-- D|--0-- A|--x-- E|--3--
And knock it down to this simple dyad:
E|----- B|--3-- G|--0-- D|----- A|----- E|-----
In any situation where you’re playing a chord, see if the less-is-more approach might be a better fit than the full chord.
It can make your tone fit a lot better in more subtle, musical situations.
26. Play in your niche or comfort zone
Everyone has their musical niche.
What is yours?
Are you constantly trying to play outside of it?
There’s a point where nothing is familiar to you and all your guitar playing involves is learning new things.
However, once you get past the beginner stage, you’ll start to develop areas and tendencies that feel comfortable to you. If you play in those areas, your tone will sound better than if you’re trying to function in unfamiliar territory.
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with developing a comfort zone and staying in it.
You’ll find that it’s one of the single best ways you can consistently have a good guitar tone.
27. Calibrate your amp’s EQ
Here’s what I mean by “calibrate:”
Everyone’s amp is different, thus the settings that might work are a bit unpredictable.
You need to sort of feel out your own amplifier.
Start from square one and then test both extremes.
First, point everything to 12 o’clock:
BASS: 5 / MIDS: 5 / TREBLE: 5 / PRESENCE: 5
Then, record the result:
How would you describe the sound of your amp’s tone?
GREAT / GOOD / NEUTRAL / BAD / AWFUL
Second, test both extremes:
BASS: 0 / MIDS: 0 / TREBLE: 0 / PRESENCE: 0
BASS: 10 / MIDS: 10 / TREBLE: 10/ PRESENCES: 10
Record the result for both.
GREAT / GOOD / NEUTRAL / BAD / AWFUL
Third, test your EQ at 33%:
BASS: 3.5 / MIDS: 3.5 / TREBLE: 3.5 / PRESENCE: 3.5
Once again, record the result:
GREAT / GOOD / NEUTRAL / BAD / AWFUL
Finally, test your EQ at 66%:
BASS: 6.5 / MIDS: 6.5 / TREBLE: 6.5 / PRESENCE: 6.5
And one more time, record the result:
GREAT / GOOD / NEUTRAL / BAD / AWFUL
Whichever spot sounded the closest to GREAT is where you want to do your tweaking and finishing touches.
Set your dials there and then make minor adjustments, to taste.
If it’s a little shrill, cut back treble.
If there’s too much thud, cut back bass.
Not full enough? Push bass up.
You get the idea.
28. Make sure you’re hitting the middle of each fret
Getting in the habit of hitting the middle of the fret (right between the separators) is an easy and instant tone upgrade.
Take one note at a time, perhaps from a pentatonic scale guitar pattern, and just run through it.
Make sure each note you press lands right in the center of the fret.
29. Practice on an acoustic guitar
Acoustic guitar practices improves your electric abilities in terms of strength and durability, simply because it’s hard to play lead on acoustic strings.
If you force yourself through a lot of lead work on an acoustic guitar, the strength and dexterity improvements will help your tone when you switch back to a solid body guitar.
30. If you have a Stratocaster, consider adding the Seymour Duncan Antiquity or Hot Rails pickups
The Antiquity and Hot Rails pickups from Seymour Duncan are quite possibly the nicest pickup upgrades available for the Fender Stratocaster.
And in most situations, they’re fairly affordable.
You can even get pick-guards that come preloaded with these pickups in various configurations.
A few of the Stratocaster pickups for sale on Seymour Duncan’s website. | Image via Seymour Duncan
These single coils are designed specifically for Stratocasters and have made their way into a number of high-profile Fender signature Strats over the years, including Ritchie Blackmore and David Gilmour.
31. Put an EQ pedal at the end of your pedal chain
EQ pedals are lesson common than they used to be, though still viable tone-shaping solutions.
If you use the Boss GE-7, Roland recommends putting it in the middle of your chain.
The Boss GE-7 EQ at the bottom left hand side, right in the middle of the pedal chain. | Image via Roland
Personally, I’d recommend putting this at the end of your chain, behind your compressor but, in front of your noise suppressor.
The GE-7 gives you a seven-band EQ plus a level knob.
Tom Morello has an old DOD EQ in his rig and (allegedly) only uses it as a booster for solos.
Tom Morello’s pedalboard, from year’s gone by, with the DOD EQ in the middle of the chain. | Image via Guitar.com
It’s worth noting that Morello keeps the EQ before his modulation (flanger) pedal, which is what the Roland diagram also recommends.
Worth a try?
I’d say yes.
32. Turn down your chorus pedal depth
It’s a contextual solution, but if you like to go heavy on the chorus pedal, try turning down the depth.
I use the Boss CE-5 Ensemble and find the following settings to work well, producing a nice, subtle chorus tone:
The settings I use for a “toned-down” chorus effect. | View Larger Image
It’s a bit difficult to see since this CE-5 is fairly old and dusty (also, please ignore the 12pm sticker on the front).
But, here are the numbers:
LEVEL: 5 / RATE: 6 / DEPTH: 4 / FILTER: 8 & 10
It creates a lush, yet subtle chorus effect that I like to use for thickening up clean melodies and slow chord progressions.
33. Use GHS Fast-Fret string lubricant
Personally, I’ve never used GHS Fast-Fret because it almost seems like cheating.
But, I know plenty who do and swear by it.
On the other hand, anything that you can do to make your guitar easier to play will improve your tone.
And at only $10 it lasts a long time.
34. Try a moderately-priced set of headphones
Some rooms can just be bad for guitar tone.
In that case, it’s helpful to have a nice set of headphone to turn to, which will allow you to hear to hear the unaffected tone of your amp without any external influences.
Room acoustics and humidity levels will have no say.
At home, I use a Skull Candy over-ear set with an adapter.
Both are fairly cheap from Amazon:
And the adapter:
In an ideal world, guitar tone would sound great in any room.
However, it’s worth a modest investment to give yourself the ability to bypass your environment whenever necessary.
It’s also worth noting that even in an average pair of headphones (such as these) most guitar rigs will sound quite good.
35. Go more analog
In the guitar gear world, the more analog you can include in your rig, the better off you’ll be.
This is obviously most directly related to your pedalboard, though amps are also a consideration.
The more on the analog side of the fence you are, the better your tone will be. | Flickr Commons Image via Tabsinthe
If possible, add a couple analog pedals and look into a tube amplifier.
36. Play fewer notes
Particularly when it comes to electric guitar, I’ve found that every note should serve a purpose.
This means that there should be no wasted noise.
For example, if you have a melody that you want to play and you decide to use a kind of staggered arpeggio, don’t pick through each note more often than you have to.
Play slow enough that you hit the root note, a couple intervals and then just let them ring.
Let the guitar do the work.
If your tone is bad, it could be that you’re just not letting your notes breathe and you’re picking far too many of them.
37. Adjust volume so you can attack the strings confidently
If your volume is so high that you’re nervous about being too loud, don’t just play softer. Turn it down.
Yes, you need to play with touch but, in general, your volume shouldn’t be so loud that you can’t attack the strings confidently with your picking hand.
Turn down just enough (whether it’s directly from your amp or in your mix) so that you’re not nervously strumming or picking.
This will help your tone in that you’ll be able to pick intentionally without hesitating and thus softening each note’s resonance.
38. Lower your guitar’s action
The way you lower a guitar’s action will vary between brand and model.
An easy method is to take it to a local guitar shop and pay someone to do this for you, which is an almost essential move if you bought your guitar brand new.
Lower action will be easier to play and will sound better, provided you don’t go too low and incur buzzing.
A lot of folks like to have about a quarter’s width from the 12th fret to the bottom of the sixth string.
A typical action height test is to put a quarter in between the 12th fret and two low strings. | Flickr Commons Image via TT Zop
Local Guitar Centers can take care of this type of thing as well.
39. Understand the difference between gain and volume
Gain and volume are often used interchangeably, despite the fact they are two completely different things.
Assuming your guitar amp has a gain knob and a volume knob, it means that your amp works in two different stages.
The first stage is the preamp, which receives a weak signal from the guitar and then controls the strength of that signal. The degree to which the preamp boosts the guitar’s signal is called “gain” or “drive.”
Gain determines how hard you’re driving the preamp section of your amp. - Jeff Owens, Fender
That’s how gain controls distortion, by overloading the preamp before it gets to the second stage, which then controls the master volume.
The master volume is your amp’s overall or “final” output.
So while gain can impact volume, it’s primarily a tone control.
Here’s how my brain sketches it out:
Gain controls the strength of the raw signal going into the preamp while volume controls the output of the resulting signal. | View Larger Image
40. Use two separate channels and EQs for dirty and clean settings
If you’re privileged to have an amp with multiple channels, I’d recommend setting up at least two:
- One for your clean settings
- One for your distorted or “dirty” settings
Each one should have their own individual EQ, gain and volume settings.
Your clean channel might look like this:
VOLUME: 5 / GAIN: 0 / BASS: 4 / MID: 6 / TREBLE: 5 / REVERB: 2
Then your dirty channel can be adjusted to take advantage of the distortion:
VOLUME: 5 / GAIN: 8 / BASS: 5 / MID: 5 / TREBLE: 7 / REVERB: 0
Actual settings will vary, but the idea is that you don’t use the same EQ for both channels as they can and should be uniquely set.
41. Migrate modulation to a rackmount effects processor and MIDI foot controller
You’ll have to spend a little money to get here, but it’s cheaper than you might think and an effective way to improve your guitar tone.
Moving all your basic modulation effects to a rack-mounted unit does a couple of things:
First, it gives you a far less noisy rig by consolidating a lot of would-be stomboxes into one location.
Second, it gives you more flexibility with how you route the effects, particularly with a MIDI controller.
Here’s a good combo I’d recommend:
This is how a lot of the pros do it and it is especially ideal for those who don’t want to fool around with too many stompboxes.
42. Use an all-tube amplifier
Tube amplifiers are almost universally used by the pros.
Just go over to guitar.com and checkout some of their rig diagrams.
It seems like everyone is running a Marshall JCM or some sort of Mesa Boogie outfit.
And it’s always tube powered.
While it’s not always possible to switch out your amp, put it on the to-do list to bring in something that’s completely tube powered if you’re running solid state.
Instant tone upgrade.
43. Put a preamp at the beginning of your signal
You can get preamps in the rack-mounted or stompbox variety.
Personally, I think this is a good pedal to have at your feet.
Note too that it should be the first pedal in your chain, receiving the signal directly from your guitar.
Here are a few good options:
- Behringer Tube Ultragain MIC200: $49
- EHX LBP-1 Linear Power Booster: $40
- Xotic Effects BB Preamp: $168
- Eden World Direct Box Preamp: $145
For the most part they do the same thing, which is to allow you some manipulation of your signal before it ever reaches your amplifier.
The two more expensive options give you additional equalizing and tone control.
44. Go with a separate amp and speaker cab
Another thing you’ll notice about the pro’s rigs:
They almost never run a combo amp.
Not that there’s anything wrong with combo amps, but getting a chance to select your amp head and speaker cab separately gives you some additional say and control over your tone.
It also (in some cases) allows you to run multiple speaker cabinets from the same amp.
45. Try adding a rackmount 15-band EQ
If you already have a rack-mount system in place, adding a 15-band EQ is an inexpensive way to give yourself a lot more control over your tone.
It also saves you from the pedal version, which can be difficult to control from your feet.
Something like the DBX 215 with two channels would be ideal.
46. Route loops to two different amps
To do this properly you first need some kind of an A/B/Y switch.
The most popular is the Morley offering: Morley ABY Channel Switcher
However, any kind of channel switcher will do the trick.
Once you have one in place, you can route different pedals to different amplifiers or different channels in your mix.
For example, you might have noisier pedals that you don’t use as much and might want to put into a different loop.
Being able to do this saves you excess noise and means you don’t need to include those pedals in the signal until you actually need to use them.
47. Use an effects loop
A similar tactic is to use what’s called an effects loop.
The following pieces of gear can have an effects loop built-in:
- Combo Amps
- Amp Heads
- Power Amps
Thus, the most likely scenario is that you’ll be plugging your effects into a loop going through your amplifier.
This means that your essentially placing your effects after the preamp (the one in your amplifier) on their own dedicated signal, which is also why placing a pedal preamp at the beginning of your effects chain can be so ideal.
Using an effects loop means impedance is more consistent and the tone is generally clearer and more true to the amp’s natural sound.
48. If you use a compressor make sure to match the outputs and turn down sensitivity
Unless you want to use your compressor as a booster pedal ( which you certainly can) make sure to adjust the output knob until it matches the master volume on your amp.
All level dials are different, so this will take some trial and error.
Just make sure that if you’re using a compressor that you don’t incur an unwanted volume boost or drop when it’s turned on.
From there you can cut down the sensitivity to make sure it doesn’t zap all the dynamics from your picking.
Here’s a shot of how I set my MXR Dyna Comp compressor:
49. If you use distortion, make sure it’s about 5% louder than your clean signal
Anytime you move from a clean to distorted tone, especially within the same piece of music, your distorted tone should have about a five percent volume boost.
If you have an amp with two channels, this can be easily done by setting the volume on both channels accordingly.
For a distortion pedal, you’ve got to a little bit of trial and error.
Also keep in mind what we covered about the differences between gain and volume. That info will come in handy when trying to nail down something like this.
50. Use lighter picks for acoustic guitar work
It’s not always required but, particularly for strumming, lighter picks tend to work and sound better with acoustic guitars.
Personally, I like the orange Dunlop picks for light acoustic picking.
They’re about .6 mm thick.
51. Use the L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI for acoustic guitar rigs
The Para Acoustic DI box from L.R. Baggs provides a five-band EQ, gain control, feedback control, and is one of the most popular acoustic tone-shaping options.
It comes with both XLR and 1/4″ outputs, so you can go into an acoustic amp or straight into your mixing board.
While tone shaping doesn’t always mean tone improving, giving yourself more control over your signal is a good place to start.
52. Keep sweat off your strings
Sweat is not an issue for everybody.
Maybe you play sitting down or you just don’t sweat much.
Otherwise, getting too much sweat on your strings can really age them quickly, causing both short and long-term tonal concerns.
Sweat bands on your strumming wrist is a quick, cheap, and easy fix.
53. If possible, listen to the house mix
When you’re playing live, into a PA system, try to listen to both your own mix (whatever is in your headphones or monitor) and the house mix with the rest of the band as well.
Hearing both will help you make meaningful volume and EQ adjustments.
It’s a simple, yet often overlooked tone-improving step.
54. Use a rackmount noise reduction unit
Once again, it’s preferable to get functionality off the floor and onto a rack space.
The Rocktron Hush Super C is a great option and can be had for around $160.
55. Give your notes more sustain
Sustain simply refers to the length of time that a note will hold or “ring.”
In the world of solid body electrics, longer sustain is a good thing and is widely considered an important attribute of good guitar tone.
The amount of sustain you have depends on two variables.
To this point, we’ve covered a lot of both.
However, I would like to highlight a few bullets, relating to both gear and technique that can help increase sustain.
Here’s what I would focus on:
- Upgrading pickups or humbuckers
- Practice improving vibrato
- Use open notes more often
- Use higher gain levels
There are plenty of other factors that come into play, but these are the four places you’ll want to start exploring the issue.
56. Place fills in songs where vocals drop out
Plan your fills strategically for each piece of music.
Good practice is to save melodic fills for when you hear a break in the lead vocals.
These are spots in a song that might feel a little thin or empty without some melodic addition.
By the same token, avoid excessive filler when vocals are front and center.
57. Target and practice one technique at a time (bends, vibrato, etc.)
Good technique can make up for a lot of poor gear.
To improve technique, take one topic at a time and work on them for as long as you can stand it.
For example, you might notice that your vibrato technique is really poor and just doesn’t sound or feel right.
Devote the next few days (weeks?) of practice to just improving vibrato.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, move onto another technique.
Let’s say you keep this up for eight months or so.
By then, you’ll have a lot of good technique under your belt and a real shot at decent guitar tone, in spite of whatever gear you’re using.
58. Work the mundane speed drills
Any kind of guitar finger exercises will be worth the time and effort, both from a strength and tone perspective.
Expect a distinct improvement in both areas if you can devote 20% of your practice time for a few weeks to just exercises.
From there, take a couple months off, then go back to 20% for another few weeks.
59. Arpeggiate chords and pick through each note to identify trouble areas
Start with a few easy open chords from the CAGED system.
Something like an open C chord will do nicely.
Arpeggiate the chord out one note at a time, like this:
E|-------------- B|-----------1-- G|--------0----- D|-----2-------- A|--3----------- E|--------------
Pick through each note individually and listen for problem areas.
They’ll be indicated by the following:
- Fretboard buzzing
- Wrong notes
- Unintentional mutes
- Half muted notes
When you notice this happening consistently in a particular note or chord, work on cleaning that part up until each note comes out clean.
You should be able to pick through all your basic guitar chords with a clean, ringing tone.
60. Play along with music you like listening to
I’ve found that one of the best ways to improve tone is to just play along with tracks of my favorite songs.
Playing along with the original guitar track helps me improve in several tone-related areas:
- Rhythmic consistency
- Dynamics (verse and chorus discrepancy)
- Volume and settings
- Chord changes
- Melody development and improvisation
All these areas (and more) improve when you play along with music you like.
Without even realizing it, you’ll begin to take on some of the habits and tonal characteristics of the guitarists that you’re listening and playing along to.
61. If you have a Fender amp, try the Magic Six settings
The Magic Six is a term coined for what many consider to be the ideal blues settings for Fender amps.
Fender amps (especially the tube variety) have a distinct warmth and thickness to them.
The following settings are thought to be the most accommodating EQ:
Here are the numbers:
Bass: 2 / Mids: 3 / Treble: 6
We get the term “Magic Six” because bass multiplied be mids equals six or treble.
For the finishing touches, cut your reverb knob up to about four.
The results (assuming you have a Fender tube amp) should be quite decent.
62. Buy a hollow body electric guitar
If you are considering adding another guitar to the mix and tone is on your mind, the hollow body electric guitars are known for their full and warm tonal responses.
In most cases, you’ll have what’s called a “chambered” body where certain parts of the guitar are hollowed out.
This is also what’s called “semi-hollow body.”
However, full hollow body is also fairly common and either one will get you a deeper and more acoustically-resonant response.
63. Try the Roadie automatic guitar tuner
Since it’s automatic, the Roadie gives you a perfect tune every time and can even sync up to your smart phone.
The Roadie tuner home page. | Image via Roadietuner.com
From a guitar tone perspective, starting with a perfectly-tuned instrument is a good policy.
How does it work?
Just set the tuning you want (via your phone or the Roadie itself) place it over the tuning peg and watch it do the dirty work.
The Roadie tuner app works with both Android and Apple mobile devices. | Image via Roadietuner.com
While it’s an indirect guitar tone issue, it still matters.
Because getting the tuning right and being able to quickly move to other tunings helps improve your tone from the ground up.
This is especially true for those of you who aren’t comfortable tuning by ear.
64. Use a glass or metal slide
While it sounds like a bit of a cheap fix, the tone you get from glass bottle and metal slides is truly incredible.
It’s also affordable.
I prefer the Jim Dunlop Moonshine slide, which is actually made of a ceramic material.
Here’s a look:
You also don’t have to be a bluegrass or country-style guitarist to use one.
Checkout Tony Rombola on Godsmack’s video for “Straight Out of Line:”
Proof that slide guitar isn’t just for lap steel country players. | Image via YouTube
If you’ve never used one it might take some getting used to and some mechanical adjustment.
Also note that there’s no “default” finger to wear it on.
Most opt for the ring finger, but it’s totally a preference issue and not a matter of “best practices.”
65. If you’re into the heavy stuff, use baritone guitar strings
A set of baritone guitar strings is basically a seven-string set without the higher E, designed for the low strings to be tuned to B and A.
The thicker strings are perfect for the heavier side of rock and lower tunings.
Ernie Ball makes a six-string baritone set that goes from .072 to .013.
I used these strings on an old PRS Santana SE with Seymour Duncan pickups for heavier guitar covers.
They did great for running through the rhythm track of “Thoughtless” by Korn:
I didn’t miss the high E string one bit.
And further, you don’t need a baritone guitar to use baritone strings.
Baritone guitars are designed for lower tunings and have larger (longer) frets to accommodate.
However, the strings work fine on most any electric.
Brian Welch and his signature Ibanez 7-string. | Flickr Commons Image via @GuillermoColuccio
This highlights the need to contextualize our tone goals.
Because I wanted to play something metal and heavy, the baritone strings were a perfect solution.
Without them, covering Korn songs wouldn’t sound right.
66. Use a switchless wah
Most wahs have a switch, like any other pedal.
To engage it, you’ve got to click the button on and then use the back and forth motion of pedal to cut the wah in and out.
Morley makes a switchless wah, the Steve Vai signature model, which engages easily by simply titling the pedal forward.
Further, it kicks back on it’s own, which means when you push it forward, it’ll come back to its original position more easily.
This makes the wah effect a lot easier to use.
Some players prefer the switch. However, if you have a hard time getting a good tone out of your wah, the Morley options might be worth a shot.
67. Combine light chorus, short delay and reverb
These three effects variations tend to work really well together.
Here’s the procedure:
- Delay (I’m using the Danelectro Dan Echo) first in the chain, then your chorus pedal and reverb from your amp.
- Put the chorus depth to about 30% and rate at 50%.
- Set the delay repeats to two
- Set reverb to 30%
The sound this produces is ethereal, but not terribly over-saturating.
It’s a go-to “effected” signal that can fit in to a lot of different areas that call for something more than a clean signal.
Here’s what it looks like on my CE-5:
And Dan Echo:
And the numbers for each:
E.LEVEL: 5 / RATE: 5 / DEPTH: 3 / HIGH FILTER: 3 / LOW FILTER: 4
MIX: 5 / SPEED: 4 / REPEATS: 3
68. Combine light distortion with short delay
Another fantastic tonal combination is a light, bluesy distortion with a short delay effect.
To dial it in, your distortion needs to have a lower gain levels with an EQ that’s not overly high-pitched or shrill.
I use the Boss DS-1 distortion with the following dials:
Once again, we add the short delay:
If it comes out right and your amp’s EQ is set right, you’ll have a tone that can be used in a number of scenarios.
It can even be thought of as a slightly thicker, more punchy clean signal.
69. Focus on arpeggiating the higher frets
An often unique and pleasing tone will come out of guitar arpeggios played on the higher register.
This tactic can be tricky, since chords are more commonly understood in an open form near the first and second frets.
If you have to use a capo to get started, that’s totally fine.
Just come up with some chord progressions that make use of higher frets, perhaps around the ninth or tenth.
From there, arpeggiate each chord out for a clean, ringing melody.
70. Try a sticky pick
A lot of guitar tone issues can be solved with more confident picking.
If you tend to drop your pick or have trouble attacking the strings, you might benefit from trying a guitar pick with some extra grip.
I use the GuitarMoose Stickygrip picks all the time.
They feel good in your hands and will make your picking and strumming more confident.
Other Tone Resources
Tone is not a static discipline.
It’s subjective, ambiguous and often hard to pin down.
However, we’ve done our level best to at least give you a starting point and have also published a number of articles on guitar tone and related best practices.
Here are a few you might like:
- Guitar Amp Settings Guide
- Line 6 DL4 Delay Settings Cookbook
- 90 Best Guitar Resources
- Distortion Pedal Settings and Best Practices
Use these guitar resources as starting points to develop your own approach to tone.
It’s a combination of how you play, the gear you own, and the way you have that gear setup.
So take the conventions with a grain of salt, read up, and then get to work on your sound.
Good luck to you.
Have thoughts on this material or additional guitar tone tips?
Let me know about it.
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