Top Tips for Finding Your Guitar Tone
Use these pointers when embarking on your tone quest.
By Mike Duffy
There is no one way to find your guitar tone. Everybody has their own way to reach what will become their signature sound, and that sound will likely continue to develop and refine throughout their musical journey.
But while there may not be a one-size-fits-all formula for amazing tone, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind on your tone quest:
1. Get Creative with Effects Like Reverb, Delay and Distortion
Effects pedals are a terrific way to develop your own tonal identity. One basic thing to remember while turning your pedal board into your sonic playground is that certain types of effects sound best when placed in a specific order. While there’s no rigidly “right” way to arrange your pedals, many frequency-shifting effects can disrupt the signal path, discolor the tone or cause clipping when placed in certain sequences with other kinds of effects.
Three of the most-used effects are reverb, delay and distortion.
Reverb and delay are time-based effects that manipulate time as it refers to the signal and can shape the depth and dimension of sounds within the mix. Reverb is the natural result of a sound reflection against the surface of a room. It's usually created by a mechanical or digital reproduction. Delay can be created with a pedal or an amp. It's an echo effect that takes what you play and repeats it several times depending on your settings.
Distortion, meanwhile, is a gain-based effect. This is an umbrella term for any “dirty” guitar sound, regardless of what causes it, be it a torn speaker, a stomp box, a rack effect or an amp cranked up past its capacity for producing a clean sound. Without delving into loads of complicated audio science — and there’s a lot of it — you can generally think of distortion as any signal that’s not clean.
These are good effects to start with as you explore new tonal frontiers.
2. Know Your Pickups, Switches and Knobs
Pickups, the magnets that pick up the vibrations of the guitar strings that create a signal that can be amplified, are essential to your tone. Guitars typically come with either one, two or three of them, with each one providing a different sound and tone quality. The pickup closest to the bridge (sometimes called the lead pickup) generally has a tighter, more biting tone. Middle pickup can have less bite, more warmth and a chimey tone. The pickup closest to the neck pickup is called the rhythm pickup and boasts a warmer, rounder tone.
You can toggle between each of your guitar's pickups - or combine them - with a selector switch. Guitars also have volume and tone knobs (and sometimes slide switches and thumbwheel controls) to manipulate the circuits. All pickups are not the same, however. Each one has different tonal characteristics based on factors like the type of magnets used, the amount of wire windings and amount of coils.
But generally, pickups can be split into two categories - single-coil and humbucking pickups. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it would benefit you to try out different combinations to find your preference.
Single-coil pickups are characterized by having a sound that is clearer and with more high frequencies. They are a noisier design and can have an unwanted hum while you are not playing. Although they sound great with distortion, when played without distortion they sound bright and clean.
A humbucking pickup, or "humbucker," is made up of two single coils that are wired in opposition of one another. They were made in an effort to combat the unwanted hum of a single coil pickup, hence the name humbucker. This wiring changed the sound captured by the pickups, which is characterized as thick sound with more volume. A humbucker also works great with distortion to unlock dirty tones.
3. Properly Intonate Your Instrument
Climate change, storage and even just everyday use can throw your instrument out of intonation. Making sure that your guitar is properly intonated is a fundamental way to keep its tone in good shape. If you’re uncomfortable making adjustments to your instrument, have a qualified service pro do it for you. As far as some rough basics on intonation, here are four useful steps:
First, sound a note at the 12th fret.
Then play the 12th-fret harmonic of the same note by lightly touching the string with your fretting hand just above the actual 12th fret wire, and sounding the note with your picking hand.
Compare the two pitches. If the fretted note is flatter than the harmonic, move the string’s bridge saddle very slightly forward (toward the center of the guitar) until the fretted and harmonic pitches match. If the fretted note is sharper than the harmonic, move the bridge saddle very slightly back (away from the center of the guitar) until the fretted and harmonic pitches match. Repeat for each string.
4. Know Your Strings
Changing strings regularly is always a good way to keep your tone sounding fresh. But changing the type of strings you use can be a real and welcome game changer. Many players don’t realize how easily they can test-drive a totally new sound at a very minimal cost simply by changing the kind of strings they use.
If you’re used to playing with nickel-wound strings, which typically produce a rounder vintage-style tone, try a set of stainless steel strings for brighter sound with more prominent sustain. If your strings deteriorate quickly from grime and heavy use, try longer-lasting coated strings.
The type of winding also determines how strings sound. Jazz guitarists and blues bassists, for example, often choose flat-wound strings for their warmer, mellower and harmonically rich tone. Rock and country guitarists typically go with round-wound strings for their brightness and articulation.
5. Use Quality Cables
Cable shopping can be intimidating for those not armed with the right info. All those styles and prices can be confusing and a little daunting. “It’s just a cable,” you say. “Does it really make a difference?”
Simply put, yes. A well-designed cable can do wonders for your tone. That doesn’t mean you have to spend $100 on one—“good” isn’t always a matter of cost. In most cases it’s a matter of capacitance, or the manner in which your cable handles the signal produced by the pickups. Guitar cables are essentially long capacitors comprising two conductors separated by an insulator. Generally speaking, the longer the cable, the higher the capacitance, and the more high end you’ll lose.
Think about how much cable you use, especially if you have a lot of pedals. Why invest thousands in that high-end guitar only to have your tone muddied by an extra-long cable? Using a low-capacitance cable can help prevent signal loss and keep your high end intact. Consider the opposite, however, if your sound is too bright and you’d prefer a more prominent midrange.
Avoiding kinks, coils and strain in your cable can also help your signal. A cable with more protective shielding—the material that insulates the signal wire at the core of the cable—will prevent handling noise and help maintain your overall sound.
Of course, the other half of the formula for great tone is a great amplifier. Even with a well-maintained guitar and the right accessories, proper amp care can make a huge difference in your sound.
The best part about all of this is that there is no 100-percent correct answer to reaching the apex of your tone quest. Experimentation is not only key, it's fun. So try new things and come up with a tone all your own.
If you'd like to learn more about how to shape your tone and all things guitar, check out Fender Play. And if you're not a member yet, click here for a free trial.