Whether you’re just starting out or you’re a veteran of hundreds of shows, there are tricks that every professional guitar player uses to get the perfect tone. The good news is, they’re available to everyone.
A lot of beginners make a few common mistakes that can negatively impact the tone of their guitar. I’m here today to straighten things out and provide you with some actionable tips to get your tone sounding as best as possible.
A few minor tweaks to your guitar setup, your sound chain, or your understanding can lead to major changes to your overall tone. Let’s get started!
Our first stop just happens to be one of the most important determinants of your tone: your guitar setup.
Check Your Guitar Setup
The first link in the sound chain happens to be your strings. Thus, the importance of maintaining – and regularly replacing – your strings can’t be overstated. For guitarists who play regularly – especially for those who play heavier styles like metal – strings should be replaced at least every couple of months. We have a complete guide to stringing a guitar if you need guidance on how to do this properly.
How your guitar performs has a lot to do with how it’s maintained. A lot of beginners don’t realize guitars can benefit from regular maintenance. Specifically, we need to be regularly checking the:
- Action: the distance of the strings in relation to the fretboard.
- Intonation: a measure of how in-tune your guitar is as you play up the neck.
- Pickup height: the distance between the pickups and your strings.
While important for tone, making sure your guitar is setup correctly is a good practice to begin with. Most reputable guitar shops will be able to take care of this for you if you’re hesitant to work on your own guitars. For those who want to learn a few new skills, check out the resources below.
For achieving the best tone, you usually want the lowest action possible without getting any fret buzz. Lowering the action will also result in a guitar that is slightly easier to play.
You can adjust the pickup height to your preference. It’s common to drop the bass side of the pickup slightly lower than the rest. This prevents the bass string from overpowering the others.
Additionally, If you’re still playing with the stock pickups you may want to consider upgrading. Many entry-level to mid-range guitars come with poor-quality pickups that are notoriously bad for producing a muddy, bass-heavy tone.
Know Your EQing Inside and Out
EQ isn’t just for sound engineers and audio technicians – anyone who plays an electric instrument will need to master EQing in order to achieve their perfect tone.
Spend some time becoming familiar with the EQ functions on your pedal, amp, and guitar. Tweaking each one, in turn, will help you understand how each impacts the overall tone. Follow the steps below to help determine where your EQ sweet spot is:
- Plug your guitar into a clean amp with all the EQ knobs at the 12 o’clock position
- Then, in turn, max each knob and listen to how your sound changes
- Then, back off the knob to where you think it sounds best
Remember, it will be slightly different for everyone. There is no best EQ setting. The video below goes through a great visual demonstration of this process.
Once your amp is set, you can move onto your guitar. At the very least, you need to have a basic understanding of each knob on your guitar.
Personally, I like to think of the tone knob as something similar to a low-pass filter (for anyone who is familiar with mixing). When you have it maxed, all the frequencies are present. Turning down the knob cuts down on the higher frequencies and “rolls off” your tone.
The best way to become familiar is to start experimenting. Read the article below and try it out for yourself!
You’re going to want to EQ your amp and guitar for each specific room you’re playing in. Each room will have natural reverberations that will cause constructive or destructive interference with your sound. See the post below for more detail.
EQing is especially important if you’re using pedals. Using a pedal will usually result in a minimal amount of distortion – so before you connect the pedal, get your instrument to where you want it in terms of EQ, and connect the pedal afterward to continue further adjustments.
For those who are really picky about their tone, I recommend you add an EQ pedal to your chain. Most guitar players will be able to handle any EQ issues through either their amp, or their guitar, but for those who still need more, an EQ pedal is your last resort.
How Pedals Affect Your Tone
There’s an ongoing debate over true-bypass vs. buffered tone. It’s a bit much to get into here, but the summary is: a buffered pedal will almost always be beneficial for your tone. Even if you’re using true-bypass pedals, the combined circuitry and cable length can do serious damage to your tone (particularly in the high-end).
That is where a buffered pedal comes in handy. If your cable run is greater than 18.5 feet, your tone will suffer unless you have a buffer pedal.
Buffered pedals reduce the impedance of your guitar signal, helping push it through long cable runs and complicated circuitry.
The good news is, you don’t always have to purchase a specific buffer pedal. All BOSS pedals come with a buffered circuit and can stand in place for a dedicated buffer pedal.
Use Quality Cables
High-quality cables will cost more, but they are well worth the investment. Utilizing high-quality cabling for your guitar will reduce interference and help produce a much truer tone to the output devices.
The shielding on cables is especially important if you are playing onstage or in a studio. Small amounts of electrical interference can have drastic effects on your tone.
Buying decent cables helps with tonal clarity, as well as protection from unwanted pops or feedback. Dragging your cheap cable across the floor will result in unwanted artifacts that can easily be avoided with a decent cable.
In the end, the tone of your guitar is going to come down to personal preference. I hope this guide has given you the tools you need to craft your perfect tone. Remember, the best way to wrap your head around anything technical is to get your hands dirty and actually try things out for yourself!
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About the Author: Glen Parry has been a musician for over 15 years. He’s done everything the hard way so you don’t have to. You can find more musical advice and audio gear buying guides over at Audio Mastered.