The lifelong hunt for your perfect guitar tone
Most guitar players know exactly what I’m talking about when I bring up the topic of searching for perfect guitar tone. It’s something that starts as soon as you start playing guitar. You may not realize it at first. But you are not happy with how your guitar sounds. And you have no idea why.
The Electric Guitar
Playing electric guitar opens up a whole new world filled with a plethora of gadgets and cool toys. There are so many different styles and types of amps, pedals, guitars, software and even electric magnetic picks that makes you sound like the ocean. Cool right? That’s gotta be where that tone is at.
At some point during your guitar career that will be where your tone is at. But before going all out we need to address a few things. We need to find exactly where this “tone” is coming from and where it’s going. Because it’s easy to succumb to shortcuts and gimmicks but in order to really capture that elusive tone we need to start at the beginning.
Tone Starts With You
First and foremost, your guitar tone comes from you. If a seasoned pro is playing a bad guitar, they will sound much better than a bad player playing a Gibson Les Paul. Tone starts with you. When you put pick to string, this is the sound that you are sending into all of your cool toys. It might sound obvious but, you must improve yourself before improving your tone.
Strings and the Importance of Tuning
Guitar strings are the next destination for this sound you are producing. If the strings are worn or out of tune then your tone will suffer tremendously no matter how many tubes you have in that head.
As far as tuning goes there are four important factors that you should be aware of. The quality of your machine heads, the gauge of your strings, intonation and a quality tuner. Improper tuning seems to be quite widespread among new guitar players. This is such an important factor when chasing tone.
The first upgrade I make on any guitar I purchase is a new set of machine heads (if the guitar doesn’t already have nice ones). Having nice machine heads means you’ll be able to tune your guitar with higher precision which allows you to really lock in a perfectly tuned guitar.
My go-to machine heads are Grover Roto-Grip although there are many nice machine heads on the market with many different qualities. You can have your local guitar shop install these relatively cheap. Especially if that’s the place you purchase them from.
If you choose to change the gauge of strings you are using, you may end up with a gauge that your guitar isn’t set up to use. This will make it very difficult to tune your guitar accurately without making some serious adjustments to the neck. You can also damage your neck if you’re not careful.
Intonation involves the guitar itself but its importance in tuning is something I’d like to bring up here. I’m not going to write a guide to intonation. There are plenty of those on YouTube. Just know that if you don’t do this, your guitar isn’t actually in tune with itself. When you tune using only the machine heads and a tuner, the strings are in tune but the guitar is not. Yep. That’s a thing.
Finally the tuner itself. I recommend using a floor tuner with an easy to read display that has true bypass. This is what I’m currently using and I love it — Strobostomp-HD-pedal-tuner
Know Your Instrument
Next we move on to the guitar itself. There are many variables that will effect your tone at this stage. Types of wood, humbuckers vs. single coil, semi-hollow vs. solid body, etc. Most of these come down to personal taste. This is your tone after all. You’re the one chasing it. So it’s really hard to recommend one thing over the other. I know what I like but it might not be what you’re looking for.
I highly suggest learning as much as you can about any guitar you own or are about to purchase. Learn what the knobs and switches do. Learn how to set intonation with the bridge. Find out how to adjust the truss rod if needed. (This is something you may need to do if you decide to use heavier gauge strings.)
Having a thorough understanding of your instrument is crucial in my opinion. Even low budget guitars can shine brightly if you set them up correctly and understand exactly how to use them. Money does not necessarily mean tone.
Before we finally get into our gear there is one more thing that merits discussion. Guitar cables. I would love to say that I fully understand exactly which guitar cable is best for my set up but I really don’t. This site is a good source of information regarding instrument cables — https://ehomerecordingstudio.com/best-guitar-cables/
I trust what I’ve read online and I pay good money for high end cables without a full understanding of why. They sound great and last long. No unwanted noise and no pieces falling off.
I’ve bought cheap guitar cables in the past and have been disappointed every time. So with guitar cables, money does mean tone. Mogami, Peavey, Ernie Ball, Fender, and PRS all make high quality cables. PRS are the most expensive although I’ve never used them. Mogami are the next expensive and have been my go-to for awhile.
The cool thing about Mogami is their lifetime “no questions asked” warranty. You can trade in any Mogami cable you have at any Mogami dealer for a brand new cable of the same type and length any time you want. They’re so good that I’ve never actually had to do that. Well worth the price for the warranty alone — Mogami-Gold
We’re finally reaching our gear. Before talking about stomp boxes and modeling I want to share my own philosophy in regards to tone. I like to pull as much tone from the amp itself before adding anything to it. This is why I prefer three-channel amps so I can have a clean, crunch and distorted tone right out the gate.
With guitar amps you have four options: solid-state, tube, modelling and hybrid. You also have the choice of playing through a head connected to a cabinet or an all-in-one combo amp. A comprehensive explanation is available here — https://guitargearfinder.com/guides/different-types-of-guitar-amps-explained/
Tube amps are preferred by many people and are much more expensive. Although you can get low watt tube combo amps that provide excellent tone and are actually rather affordable. Hybrid amps have a tube pre-amp but are mostly solid-state. This doesn’t provide near the tone that a true tube amp has but it does allow you to change the color of your tone a bit by swapping out the pre-amp tube.
Solid-state amps are usually higher wattage and much cheaper. There are some really great solid-state amps though that provide a wide range of sound so don’t assume that tube amps are always the way to go. You may enjoy the sound of a solid-state much better. Like I said: Your tone.
Modelling is technology that allows you to dial in different versions of classic amps. Some amps have programmable foot switches that allow you to set up multiple amps on different switches for easy selection. I personally have mixed feelings about modelling. I prefer to avoid it but recent technology has really pushed this to the next level and I’ve heard some amazing modelling out of some very reasonably priced amps. Here are a few that I’ve checked out: Fender Super Champ X2 —Fender Mustang-GTX-100 — Vox-VT100x-Modeling Hybrid Combo Amp
Another amp type that I’d like to mention is something known as the Boutique Amp. Boutique amps are hand crafted and usually have a very unique look to them. They are often tube amps. They are very expensive and are generally difficult to find unless you order them online. Unless you go to a guitar store that specializes in boutique amps, you won’t be able to find one that you can actually try out. This is also the same for boutique guitars.
I normally use combo amps for the convenience but its worth noting that if you do end up buying a head then you’ll have the option of pushing your sound through different cabinets which can drastically change your sound as well. You can also swap out the speakers in combo amps and cabinets alike to better suit your taste.
Stomp Boxes and Pedal Boards
For a lot of guitarists, myself included, this is the first place we looked when we started shaping our tone. I’ve put it last because that’s exactly where it should be. You should already have incredible tone before utilizing these tools. This is my opinion of course.
I would highly suggest utilizing individual stomp boxes instead of purchasing a low to mid range effects processor that claims it can do it all. They do in fact “do it all” but not very well. You will find that you’ll have much more freedom and a cleaner overall sound if you slowly build up your arsenal of effects with individual pedals.
The amount of pedals available right now is staggering. I’ll just mention the main ones that a lot of guitarists use: reverb, delay, distortion, compression and wah.
A little bit of reverb goes a long way. This is a good place to start with your perfected tone. There are many different versions of reverb and most amps will already have this built in. I try to utilize the in-amp reverb when I can although I do own a reverb pedal as well.
Delay is probably my favorite effect. You can do so many cool things with delay. Not to mention the fact that some delay pedals even have a built in loop sampler so you can play riffs over riffs on the fly. The Line 6 DL4 is one such pedal and it is also my favorite as it has a multitude of delay types available.
I typically prefer to pull distortion from the overdrive channel on an amp but there are also some really amazing distortion pedals available. I’ve played a lot of them and I really don’t have a favorite. There are many different types of distortion that will take your tone to whole other level.
Compression tends to be something that guitarists don’t think to use right away. First off, it’s sort of confusing to understand exactly what it’s doing. Without getting into the nitty gritty, compression keeps your volume level. It keeps you from going over a certain threshold and raises the volume for quieter sounds. I use Fender’s The Bends because it has a blend knob so you’re not over compressing your tone. Compression used properly is an amazing addition to your signal chain. When it’s used improperly it can crush your tone completely. Definitely do some research on exactly how to use your compression pedals.
Finally we come to the wah pedal. While everything else I’ve mentioned are passive add-ons that add shape, color, and dimension to your tone, the wah pedal is a dynamic beast that can push any lead guitar you’re playing to the next level. There are a lot of these on the market as well so do your research and try to find one that suits your needs. My two favorite wah pedals are Ibanez Weeping Demon and the Dunlop 535q Cry Baby. Both of these are very versatile and let you easily dial in exactly what you want.
My Current Tone
I’ll finish by revealing my current state of guitar tone. I play bass, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar. I recently came upon an amp that has modeling for all three which I had never seen before so of course I had to check it out.
I have been nothing but impressed with the versatility of this little 1x12 modelling amp. And the foot switch is absolutely insane with 2 built in expression pedals, extended loop sampler and its stomp box design. I absolutely love everything about this. The only other stomp boxes I’m currently using are my Fender The Bends compression and my Strobostomp HD tuner.
I have a Schecter Cat’s Eye Semi-Hollow electric with built in Piezo pickups, tune-o-matic bridge (which I prefer over a tremolo system), neck-thru body and high end machine heads. It has humbucker pickups with push-pull coil split which allows me to switch to a single coil Fender sound if I want. This is very similar to the PRS semi-hollow but at a lower price. And I actually prefer Schecter over PRS to be honest. Like I said: My tone!
My acoustic is a Gretsch White Falcon Jumbo Rancher This is another amazing looking guitar. It has a huge acoustic sound that rivals anything else I’ve ever played. Even though this guitar was only $599.99 I’m amazed that I get to play it every time I pick it up.
My bass is a Schecter Elite-4 with active EMG pickups. It does everything I want and it looks great. Plus it’s also a neck-thru design which is something I always look for when buying instruments.
My hunt for tone has migrated to bass guitars and I really want to check out a six-string and an eight-string bass which is basically the equivalent of a twelve-string guitar. So that’s probably the direction I’m heading next. I can’t wait.
I’ve owned so many variations of gear over the past twenty years that I can’t remember everything I’ve played. And I definitely can’t predict everything that I’ll end up playing. Like I said at the beginning: This is a life long hunt. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Thanks so much for reading. If anyone has any comments or questions feel free to leave a response or contact me directly at email@example.com
And if anyone wants to check out my personal music you can find most of my material at https://reverbnation.com/etdeubner