20 Quick Tone Tips for Electric Guitar
Tone, we all are searching for it. It is a lifelong pursuit that for many has no real ending point. In hunting for the perfect guitar sound satisfaction is the best most can hope for. Luckily for us, this journey is a fun and healthy one. I’ve decided to put together a list of some of the most helpful tips that I have been gifted with over the years. Some of these will be more about playability or recording, yet most will be specific to tone. While this list is general and not overly specific, all these tips are to get you playing and sounding better.
- This may seem obvious to some, but it can’t hurt to be reminded of this. The pickup is the heart of your tone. Start by really listening to the difference between hums and single coils, then dive into things like P90s, mini hums, and ‘Tron style pickups. The deeper your understanding goes, the easier your tone journey will be.
- The EQ section on your amp has A LOT of control in your overall tone. I have always been a proponent of setting everything to five method. Place all your knobs at noon, and go from treble to bass, deciding if you need more or less of each band.
- To quote the great Josh Scott, loud is more good. I get it, playing loud is a problem for many people in both live and home environments. But I have to let you know that turning up the volume is what this instrument was meant to do. So, at the very least get yourself a good attenuator.
- This may be specific to one group of players, but please try to not cut the mids too much! The guitar itself is a midrange instrument, these frequencies are where we players thrive. Especially in a band setting, you need to have some mids to stand out, so please, don’t scoop yourself into nonexistence.
- Scale length is something a lot of guitar players overlook, it’s massively important to the tone of your instrument. A longer scale length will lead to a brighter and more ringing tone, while a shorter scale lends itself to the warmer side of things. Additionally, the length of the scale will impact playability.
- I’ll tell you that some people are going to disagree with me on this one, but from what I’ve heard, the tone is there in the lighter gauges. Going heavier doesn’t always mean fatter. I played 10s and experimented with 11s for years, now they sound muddy to me. Just some food for thought.
- Yet again, do whatever works best for you. But I’ve found the switching to a thicker pick (1-2mm) has helped me to play my instrument in a more dynamic way. And I am not alone in this experience, so it’s something I recommend that everyone at least try.
- Don’t let all your hard work go to waste with something as small as your cable choice. And I am only talking about not going for those super cheapo options, like the ones that come with kit guitars. You don’t need to spend $200 on a diamond cable, just don’t be cutting corners to the extremes. Cables DO change the sound.
- Well, they may not be important for your situation, but for many players, they are. If you have a big pedalboard and or a lot of cable between you and your amp, you probably could benefit greatly from having a buffer. Just know that if you are getting a better tone going direct than though your board, you probably should learn about capacitance and buffers.
- If you have spent a lot on your pedals (who hasn’t?) then you should have a nice isolated power supply for them. Clean healthy power is a big part of getting the most out of effects pedals. IMO a nice power unit should be part of the initial investment cost when looking at getting a board.
- If you have always played with your amp on the floor then you may need to hear this. Guitar amps, rather the speakers in your cabinet, will sound completely different depending on where your ears are relative to them in the room. When sitting flat on the floor, you will miss a lot of the top end in your guitar sound. So, if you want a “truer” representation of your guitar's tone, tilt your amp up to your head.
- This is obviously only if you are playing mic’d up or recording at home, but it is very important. Moving the face of the mic just the slightest bit will completely alter the tone being picked up. A rule of thumb is the closer to the center the brighter you get, and the further out on the cone you get warmer and less punchy. But all cabs are different so it’s best to just experiment.
- It is something that most people don’t even think twice about, but speakers do have an impact. Oftentimes, changing from one speaker to another can be the deciding factor in whether or not you will like the amp you are using. I know that you probably don’t want to go out and randomly buy a speaker, so start looking up some video comparisons. You will likely be surprised by the impact that this has on guitar tone.
- I am for sure guilty on this one. Many others and I like things to be kept simple, and that’s fine to a certain extent. But the knobs on your guitar are there for a reason. Tone knobs give a whole new range of EQ to your guitar, yielding a much more versatile instrument. And volume knobs can be fantastic expression tools when dealing with gain and breakup.
- If it plays better, you too will play better and then sound better. So, make sure you’ve got your guitar setup well. This is especially true for those of you with more affordable instruments. They might not be “bad” guitars, but most cheaper ones are in need of a proper setup. While a good professional setup is usually not that expensive, you can learn to do this yourself if you prefer. Just know it will be a while before you can get this, but it is well worth the time!
- Changing out the jack, pots, and switches on your instrument can make a world of difference. Once again this is especially true for guitars of the sub $500 price range. If you want to take this tip to the max, you can even go as far as swapping out your pickups. While this can get pricey, even the most basic of electronic replacement can make for a huge improvement.
- There is a handful of easy to upgrade parts on a guitar. The tuners are the main thing here, getting some locking ones is an awesome way to improve your guitar. Additionally, you can upgrade things like your saddles and nut to further help with staying in tune, intonation and avoiding string breakage.
- Changing pickup height can both change the hotness of them and potentially solve a problem you may be having. While there are standard pickup heights for most major guitar brands, you can also just raise and lower them by ear. I like to start with everything way low and slowly raise them up to the point just before I start to hear a problem. The problem that comes with having your pickups too close to your strings is they will start to pull them out of tune. This is something to check for if you’ve never looked at your own pickup height.
- Okay, I may be exaggerating just a little bit, but IMO you should pretty much always have a base level reverb in your tone. Many people like myself just leave a little bit of amp reverb on, even if you are using a pedal for verb as well. Unless you're playing in a canyon, your guitar can sound pretty dull and uninspiring if you have a really dry tone.
- A bit apparent I know. But your ears matter more than mine or anyone else’s because we all hear things differently. It is crazy to me how you could hear one guitar tone in a completely different light than myself or others. Everything in the tone world is subjective, so go with what you hear and stick with it.
That was 20 tips to help you along your tone seeking voyage. I do hope you were able to go, “Ah-ha!” with at least a couple of these on the list. And if not, well it can’t hurt to have a reminder. As I said throughout the text above, this whole thing is very much about what you want to hear coming from your guitar. Don’t be influenced too much by my or anybody’s option. Just turn up and strum!