Getting a Great Guitar Tone: Part 1
Great tone is a very subjective thing that is unique and personal to every person. Let me begin this article by saying that. Let me also say that tone is caused by many things which all go into a blender so to speak and as a result you have a “tone.” While I freely admit to being a guitar geek when it comes to gear, this article is not going to dive into whether Seymour Duncan or EMG makes better pickups or whether you ought to use Ernie Ball or GHS strings. We have harmony central message boards for that, but what I am hoping to accomplish is more so a broad or general how to, on how to get a great tone for you and your needs.
The Guitar: Between your hands and the guitar are three vital things. The pick, the strings and the guitar’s pickups. Each item is worth looking at.
Do you use a thin, medium or heavy pick? Each pick is excellent at causing a certain tone and vibe. If you’re playing hard rock, I would suggest you use a heavy pick. If strumming chords on an acoustic, it’s preference, but lighter picks often sound beautiful in that application. Also for finger picking you can buy finger picks.
What gauge strings are you using? This should depend on what you tune to, and what your style is. Light gauge strings are brighter and give more when played. With 8 or 9 gauge strings player can do 2 whole step bends and playing and vibrato are very easy. With heavy strings, 10s or 11s, the player can dig in more and the guitar plays heavier with more resistance like an acoustic guitar. Also, if you drop tune think of this equation. If you use 9s in standard tuning and want to tune down to Eb use a higher gauge string like a 10. The resistance will feel similar and strings wont be too easily bent or feel loose.
What pickups are in the guitar? Are they the stock pickups that came with your guitar, or are they higher grade makes from companies that only are know for making pickups. I would tell you to go for pickups made from manufactures who only make pickups. In general they are just better and often time great pickups in an inexpensive guitar can sound just as good as average or stock pickups in an expensive guitar. Also, are your pickups passive and use magnets, or are they active and use a battery? Again this difference is enormous. Passive pickups allow the guitar’s tonal character from the wood and glue to be heard more so than active pickups. Please remember that pickups are a key in getting certain tones from your guitar.
The Amp: If I had to have a great guitar and a so so amp, or a so so guitar and a great amp I would take the latter. An amp has so much to do with your tone. If you plug into a Fender Twin and expect high gain rock sound you won’t like what you find. You really need to search for what it is that you are looking for tonally from an amp. Do you want a beautiful clean channel? A searing metal lead sound? Think of what sound you are really going for, and then do your research. In general I think of amps in families for lack of a better idea. If I want a nice clean channel for blues, or jazz, or some pop I would go with a Fender-type amp. These amps typically stay clean even when very loud and do not distort very easily. If I want a rock or hard rock sound I would go with a Marshall-type of amp. These amps distort and have a vocal mid-range that lets you cut through a rock-type rhythm section. If I want a more metal sound, I would go for a Mesa Boogie-type of amp. These amps sound punishing and very aggressive with a heavy low end sound.
When looking at an amp you need to know a few other things as well. Are they tube or solid state? Tube amps are know to “sound better,” and are often preferred over solid state. That being said, solid state amps such as Randall have amazing metal sounds and Roland Jazz chorus amps have amazing clean tones. If you decide to buy a tube amp, know what tubes they use. Marshall-type amps usually use EL34 tubes which break up and distort right away. On the other hand, Fender-type amps use 6L6 tubes which do not break up much even at high volumes preserving their clean tone. There are many tubes on the market so again do your research.
Do you want an effects loop? Often times people run certain effects into an effects loop so that the effect(s) perform at their best. An effects loop comes between an amp’s preamp and power amp section. Think of it as a cup holder between the front seat and passenger seat in a car. Here people place effects like delay or effects that they do not want before their amp’s preamp if they run it with a lot of gain.
Lastly with amps, do you want a combo or a head and cabinet? Combo amps are usually seen in amps like a Fender Twin while Marshall stacks are a head and cabinet. Remember to look into what speakers are in your combo amp or cabinet. Changing the speakers or using different speakers can cause very different tones. For example low watt speakers like Celestion Greenbacks distort at lower volumes than say Celestion vintage 30s which break up or distort at higher volumes. Often times blending speakers in your cab (using multiple different speakers) can cause cool results since you can get a wide array of tones in one cab or combo.
I hope that this helps anyone out there trying to get a basic idea of your tonal options in guitars and amps. Of course I could go into more detail but this is an excellent starting point for anyone who isn’t a guitar geek like me. One last tip though, play your guitar!