The guitar industry can put a lot of pressure on guitarists to constantly buy new equipment in order to achieve the best tone. It's what keeps them going.
At the same time, there are many examples out there of guitarist with great gear, yet not great tone. Wewe all know the story of the two famous guitar players (one typically being Van Halen, and another whose name changes) sounding just like themselves when playing in each other's gear. How does this work?
Here's the deal. Ours ears aren't perfect. And often times when people are referring to "tone", it doesn't have anything to down with the timbre of the gear you are using.
Though it is also incorrect saying that all tone comes from your fingers: of course your amps and pedals will shape the sound! Think about it in terms of your tone STARTING at your fingers. Practicing the way you play your guitar is going to be what improves your sound.
The same goes for something like running. Practicing running is what's going to make you run faster and more efficiently. Buying new shoes won't make you more fit, the same as buying a fancy amp isn't going to make you better at guitar. The musician always comes before the instrument.
This is where you might start saying things like "hey but I've played power chords on my friends amp, and it sounded just the same as when they played it". Well, continue reading to find out why not only is this not right, but how you can actually start practicing to improve your tone.
This might sound like I am just stating the obvious here, but take a moment to really think. When did you last check the intonation on your guitar?
For instance, when was the last time you simply made sure that the 12 fret harmonic sounded the same as the note you get by fretting the string also at the 12th fret?
When your intonation starts to go, theres no hope in tuning your guitar correctly. And no one wants to work on their tone using an out of tune guitar. Your flat notes will sound especially dull, and your sharp notes will sound shrill, and this will all leave you thinking "what am I doing wrong?"
You will start to hear these intonation problems as problems with your tone. And there is no amount of EQ-ing you can do on your gear to really fix this problem. So if this sounds like something thats been happening to you, it might be time to get your guitar checked out.
IF you are unsure how to check the intonation yourself, feel free to bring it in to have a professional look at it. Oh and also, please never forget to tune your guitar before playing. I beg you.
There is a lot more to playing the guitar than picking up your instrument and strumming a few notes. Try this. Fret a note and play it while pressing on the string as hard as your can. Next, try playing the same note as light as you can.
Notice the differences in sound that you are producing here. A firmer touch will result in a sharper pitch, which will make it seem as though you have a shrill tone. Perhaps you might then try just tuning the guitar down slightly. However, then your open strings will sound flat.
What you have to do is to spend some time understanding how your playing technique can influence the sound and pitch you produce. Noticing if you are potentially pressing too hard, or maybe bending the strings unintentionally.
When you start taking these little things into consideration, your tone will start to improve.
The right pick will change depending on who you ask and what you are using it for. But it's worth understanding how different kinds of picks will produce different kinds of sound.
A big factor in what makes certain players achieve a better tone using the same rig is control in dynamics. For instance, when someone is able to control the dynamic (volume) of each note they play or which notes they want to accent.
This can all be much more easily controlled when using a heavier pick. The thinner to medium picks won't hold up properly against hard picking. (Thinner picks work better for strumming an acoustic guitar).
Maybe you are someone who enjoys using a thin or medium pick, and more power to you! But the truth is that if you are looking to work on the dynamics in your playing, you will have a much easier time with this when you chose a heavier pick. The better control you have on your dynamics, the better your tone will sound.
To learn more about this, check out this video:
A lot of people don't realize just how much the force at which you can and should pick your guitar strings (this is where the heavy pick can be useful).
A stronger pick of the strings actually does more than increase the volume. It also adds to the harmonic content of the sound. No matter how many effects you put on, picking heavily will create a noticeable change in your tone.
Take Stevie Ray Vaughn for example. He has an undeniable sound that is completely his. This doesn't come from the amp, the guitar, or even the strings. SRV hits those strings hard. He plucks with all of his might.
But now you might be thinking of every place you read about Stevie using super-heavy strings on his guitar, and how you heard that is actually what effects his tone. The fact is that if he wasn't using heavier strings, he would be breaking them constantly. It is more true to say that his choice of tone shapes which strings he chooses.
You can master all the previous tips I have discussed; have your intonation checked and be using the thickest pick you can find. Yet somehow, your tone can still sound a bit off if you don't also have this next think in check.
Timing. Even the best technique in the world can't help you if your timing is off. Even playing just a little to early or late is enough to distract the listener from the sound. Music is all about groove, and if you can't properly feel the groove, neither will your listeners.
Technically speaking, it would seem that timing has little to do with the actual sound of your guitar. But again, our ears aren't flawless. We will hear something like bad timing and interpret it as poor tone.
I know this sounds surprising. Don't just trust me and try it yourself! Record a track with good timing and then the same track with so-so timing, then ask a friend "which one has the best tone?"
So dust off those metronomes and get to practicing.
It's not enough to just incorporate vibrato into your playing. You have to use it right. When it's not used right, your ear will "interpret" that sound as a poor tone. A vibrato that is played in time and in the proper pitch gives your a rick and full tone. A vibrato that is just winged will make your tone sound weak and thin.
The same is true (and well-known) for other stringed instruments as well, such as cello, viola or violin. A well placed vibrato is what makes the performance. If you aren't sure of the best way to work on your vibrato, check out this video:
Instead of just blindly twisting the knobs on your guitar up and down until you "think" it sounds good, take some time to really understand what the knobs are actually doing.
Depending on what genre you are playing, the knobs will work best in particular ways. If you are playing metal or hard rock music, you will want both knobs cranked at 10. If its an overdriven blues vibe you are going for, you may instead want to use the bridge pickup and have your tone knob dimed about half-way.
When it comes to the volume knob, it actually does more than simply increase or decrease the volume of the sound. Along with the tone knob, it too shapes your tone and the frequency content of the sound.
The lower the volume, the less high frequencies you will get (often referred to as "tone sucking"). This works if it's a warmer sound you are wanting to achieve, and the lack of gain can be made up for in your amp.
Take some time to experiment with this to see what kinds of sounds you like best.
Notice how none of these tips require you to spend any more money than you already have (as long as you have an instrument). So next time you are feeling displeased with the sound you are getting from your instrument, spend some time to make sure you got these techniques down before you go out and drop loads of cash on new gear.
And remember to have fun during this process!