Unlike most guitar players who obsess about tone, I have to admit that I never really cared so much about achieving a guitar god-like sound when I was coming up as a guitar player in the 90’s. Playing gigs in front of hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people I used a Fender Stratocaster guitar through an ADA mp-1 digital preamp, Alesis Quadraverb (for effects), Mesa Boogie power amp, and some homemade speaker cabinets… not a completely terrible sounding rig, but nothing to write in to Guitar Player magazine about.

guitar tone knob

Although I did gradually upgrade my rig I learned the number one rule about tone from my Spartan gear- real tone is in your hands, not any piece of electrical equipment. If you have any doubts about this, give any great guitar player a crappy acoustic guitar and you’ll be amazed at how good they can make it sound. I’ve had people ask me before “how do you get so much sustain using so little overdrive?”

It’s in the fingers…

Unfortunately developing nuanced tone with your appendages takes a good number of years to accomplish. In the meantime here are 8 simple and inexpensive ways you can improve your tone without spending thousands of dollars upgrading your guitar, amp, and effects pedals:

1) Use a thicker pick – I personally prefer the 1 mm Dunlop Tortex picks (made out of DuPont Delrin plastic). They have a fuller, thicker sound than the standard Fender mediums I used for years. There are plenty of other plastic types of picks, as well as nylon picks, which tend to have a brighter, looser sound than their plastic brethren. Wood, stone, and other exotic materials also exist in pick form, the best thing to do is to try different picks and see what works the best feel and tone-wise for your playing. Also, pluck harder when soloing! I am constantly telling my rock, blues, and country students to do this. Picking harder gives you a more dynamic timbre with a bright attack and then mellowing sustain. It adds excitement and kills the monotony of soft plucked notes. Although this doesn’t apply as much to jazz players, for every style of guitar you should also be adding accents on selected notes to add interest to your phrasing.

2) Use heavier strings – I find I get more sustain by using .10 gauge strings as opposed to .09 gauge strings. Also, the type of string material will make a big difference as well. Nickel-wound strings typically have a rounder vintage-style tone, while stainless steel strings tend to be brighter with more sustain. If you play rock, blues, or country, round wound strings will give you the spank and brightness you need while flat wound strings are more suited to jazz players. Oh, and don’t forget to CHANGE YOUR STRINGS when they start to get old, corroded, and dull sounding.

3) Adjust the height of your pick ups – Research the optimal height setting for your pick ups according to the guitar you use. Start by setting the height of one pick up and then balance it so the volume of the 1st and 6th strings are equal. Then, balance the rest of your pick ups to equal loudness of the first pick up. You can always change out pick ups to pretty radically alter your tone as well.

4) Have your guitar set up – What use is the tone of Zeus if your playing is slightly out of tune. Proper intonation makes all the difference in the world between sounding sweet or sounding sour. Truss rod adjustment and proper action height setting not only increase playability (so you can focus more on producing uber-tone) but also prevents sustain killing string buzz.

5) Use high quality cables – Believe it or not the quality of instrument cable does affect your tone, I’ve done comparisons myself. As with most products, upgrading from the bottom of the barrel to mid-grade quality will yield the best bang for your buck, while shelling out major cash for the super high end version will generally get you negotiable results from the mid grade level. The length of the cable will also affect your tone as well. You tend to lose the higher frequencies in your signal with a longer cable due to capacitance, so keep your cables as short as you need them as well. Also, learn how to properly roll your cable for when it’s not in use to extend its life, if you’re not sure how to do so check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yPcJD7RVuY.

6) Change the order of your effects pedals – While there is no set-in-stone be-all-end-all rules there are some simple guidelines to get you started. Wah and compressors should be before overdrives and distortions and at the start of the effects chain. You can experiment with putting fuzz pedals before and after the Wah to see what works best. Modulations including chorus, phasers, and flangers should come next after the overdrives/distortions although rotary style effects, such as Univibes, typically work better before distortions. Delays should generally come next (although you can experiment with these) with reverbs at the end of the chain. You can also experiment with the placement of an EQ pedal, but generally you want these towards the beginning of the chain or before the delays and reverb.

7) Dial in the settings on your amp – Spend some time to really learn about the settings on your amplifier. In layman’s terms master knobs generally control the “clean” volume while volume, gain, or drive knobs control the amount of overdriven volume (unless your amp only has a single volume knob… then you just have to crank it to naturally overdrive the amp). Turning up the presence knob will generally not only make the amp brighter, it will make the brightness more spiky and dynamic to cut through the mix, hence the name. The best place to start is to set the bass, mid, treble, and presence at 12 o’clock and dial in the master volume and gain (or drive). From there determine which frequencies might be too loud or not loud enough and adjust each knob accordingly. Keep in mind that with some amps adjusting one eq knob may affect another eq setting as well.

8) Don’t use too much distortion – I really became more conscious of over-using distortion when I started recording years ago. Distortion reduces the clarity of articulate playing and introduces noise to your signal, which can degrade your tone and make your playing sound unclear. If you really listen to heavy rock or metal players they are typically using less distortion than you think. The best way to set the amount of break up or distortion is to start with the gain (also called drive, or even volume on an amp) turned down and then gradually turn it up until you get a nice thick crunch while still maintaining the clarity of the notes you are playing. Go even a little further up with the knob and then dial it back down to the sweet spot. Of course, if you are going for a fuzzed out, balls to the wall shredded tone, by all means crank it up!

These 8 tips for improving your tone should get you on your way to sounding godly like Gilmour without doling out big bucks for higher end gear. There are other tweaks and replacement parts for your guitar (depending on the make and model) that are worth looking into as well.

Of course, the biggest and most immediate gains in tone production will come from upgrading your guitar, pick ups, amp, and pedals, but I have to say from my experience, I am glad that I didn’t rely on great gear in the beginning because it forced me to develop my tone and my musical “voice” through my playing.

If you are looking to improve your playing, you can do so online at Hamrock Music Instruction.

Guitar Lessons from a qualified guitar instructor. Mark Hamrock has been teaching guitar lessons and bass lessons in Orange County since 1995.
Laguna Hills, CA