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Healthy Guitar Tone

Guitar Tab


Tone is King! Great guitar tone is magical. If a guitar player is immersed in great tone while jamming, that tone can take him to a higher sphere. To some guitar players it comes easily, naturally. Others have to work really hard for it. The good news is that once you learn how to get good tone you can pretty much always get it.

** It’s a proven fact that great guitar tone starts with the player’s hands.

Speed Kills: As a new and developing guitar player, if all you do is practice speed/sweep picking through scales all over the guitar neck, then speed will be your worst enemy when it comes to developing the ability to generate great tone primarily from your hands. You’ll be technically proficient, perhaps a shred monster, but your tone will be strictly at the mercy of your equipment. And your playing will probably lack soulfulness and emotion.

You need to back off of playing speed scale runs all the time and instead, play much slower runs and riffs with real meat, real melody lines. Really listen to those melody notes you play and the spaces between the notes. And practice singing those melody lines without your guitar. This does worlds of good for developing your musical ear.

Hand vibrato and string bending, two of the top devices of the language of the blues, will really go a long way in helping your hands produce great guitar tone. String bending, and especially great hand vibrato are acquired skills, and both take real dedication and listening in order get them right. With string bending you have to learn how to bend exactly to the note that you want and not to overshoot or undershoot the note with the bend. To acquire a killer hand vibrato you have learn the proper amount of twist needed in your wrist motion and the proper finger pressure to apply to the note, and you must learn how far to shake that string. Listen to great blues players for examples of what I’m talking about.

What happens during the process of trying to get the vibrato and string bends done right, is that you are forced to really listen to and really feel what your hands are doing to each note. You then get to experience more of the character or timbre of the note. This leads to you being able to shape the tone and character of the notes with your hands.

If you are still developing as a guitarist, and haven’t yet developed the ability to shape your tone with your hands, you are dependent upon your equipment for 100% of your tone. So there are other areas that you need to concentrate on that will help with good tone until your hands catch up.

Star Guitar: A quality guitar made with good woods is essential to good tone. Crappy woods and workmanship in a guitar are tone killers. Name brands aren’t excluded from sometimes failing the grade. My very first Fender Stratocaster, which I played for a few years, is a perfect example. That guitar sounded terrible. I mean, here’s the guitar that all my heroes played, and mine just sucked. The Stratocaster mystique seemed, to me, to have a big hole in it. Also, I thought, maybe I just didn’t know how to play a Strat properly (a really dumb thought). Either way, I stuck with that guitar just because it was a Strat.

After a few years of playing that first Strat, I bought a Strat from a friend. It truly was an eye-opening experience the very first time I plugged that guitar into my amp. It sounded instantly and amazingly so much better than my first Strat. I did back and forth comparisons between the two guitars, and with different amps and effects. Nothing changed. The new guitar always sounded great! The old one always sounded trashy! So I threw it into the trash dumpster that very same day, and never looked back. That Strat that I bought from a friend remains my #1 guitar to this day. The Stratocaster mystique is in full force with me now. It’s a good idea to find a guitar that does that magic for you. You should find your star guitar, or guitars.

Strings of death: Dead guitar strings can kill great tone. You should change your strings fairly often. You should also keep the strings free of dirt and oil by wiping them down regularly. And proper string action and string intonation is mandatory. Have a pro set up your guitar properly for you. If you later change the gauges of the strings that you use, you’ll need to have your string intonation reset. Setting intonation on a guitar is tricky, and not for the novice player.

Pick it up: Try different types and gauges of picks. You’d be surprised at the different tones that you can get out of different guitar picks. When you find the one or ones that give you the best tones, stick with them. By the way, you can get great tone by playing without a pick, although you won’t be able to play as fast.

Cable wars: There’s a great raging debate out there on this one: whether expensive high-end guitar cables, such as Monster cable, produce better tone than standard good-quality guitar cables. Well, my personal experience has been that high-end cables really do produce better tone and response. Many musicians will strongly argue that such is not the case and that it’s a waste of money to buy the high-end cables.

But there’s a good analogy that can help explain the differences of opinion. Think about perfect pitch for a minute. The person with perfect pitch can hear the “color” that a musical note produces in and of itself, similar to how we see colors everyday, and they can instantly identify the note. That person doesn’t need another known musical note to be played in order to establish the identity or interval of the unknown note by relationship, or relative pitch. Very few musicians have perfect pitch. But basically all musicians have relative pitch, some more refined than others.

Just as some people have perfect pitch, and hear the “color” of notes, there are musicians lucky enough to have ears sensitive enough to be able to hear vivid aural differences between audio piped thru high-end cables and audio piped thru just good-quality cables. Just like perfect pitch, not everybody will be able to hear these differences. You can’t force the ear to hear them. You either hear the differences or you don’t. But here’s the kicker---remember that Hendrix, Clapton, Page, and guys like that produced the greatest guitar tones ever, long before the first high-end guitar cable was conceived and created. So don’t worry if you can’t hear the differences between the types of cable.

** In all cases though, no matter which side of the argument they come down on, everybody agrees that poor-quality cheap guitar cables will degrade the guitar signal and rob your tone of its clarity and sparkle. Therefore you should make sure you at least buy good-quality guitar cables, not necessarily high-end ones. And do the same with speaker cables. I personally use Monster cable exclusively.

The amp is champ: No way around it, a great amp is crucial to getting great electric guitar tone. You can have the greatest touch and feel, greatest hand vibrato, and the sweetest guitar in the world, but if your amp is lousy, your tone will be justifiably lousy. Buy the best sounding amp that you can afford.

Make no mistake, “best sounding” is the key phrase here. Ours ears are highly subjective; what is one man’s pot of gold is another man’s empty old tin can. In other words, what constitutes “best sounding” varies wildly from person to person. There is tube amp versus solid state amp, modeling amp versus non-modeling amp, and hand-wired amp versus production amp. The choices are endless. My advice here is to let your ears decide what sounds best to you and go with that. For example, if while at a music store you test drive a digital modeling amp and a regular Marshall tube amp, and your ears like the sound of the modeling amp over the Marshall, then purchase the modeling amp. It doesn’t matter that you are passing on the mighty Marshall, what matters most is that your ears are more satisfied with the sound from the modeling amp. You have to live with, believe in, and be happy with your sound.

With all that said, though, I am personally a tube amp freak, specifically Marshall, and feel that nothing does more wondrous things for my guitar tone than a heated up, hard-driven EL-34 power tube. I don’t do solid state or modeling amps. But, here again, tubes are my personal “best sounding” tone machines. Digital modeling may your “best sounding” tone machine, or just good old solid state, or even hybrid tube-modeling amps.

Affect of the effect: Love them or hate them, effects can do magic with guitar sound. There are traditional analog effects, and there are digital effects, both modeling and non-modeling. Tone fanatics generally swear by analog effects, claiming warmth and clarity over digital effects. Non-fanatics swear by the versatility and functionality of digital effects. And with digital modeling effects, they say they can reproduce most analog sounds faithfully. Another raging debate! Again let your ears decide what’s best for you.

But whether you choose digital effects or analog effects, there is one common tone no-no that may be a part of either type. Consider this---you are playing your guitar and you are awash in the glorious and shimmering mojo that your chorus pedal is imparting on your guitar sound, and as soon as you switch the chorus pedal off, your guitar sounds muddy and lacking in clarity. Whoa! What happened? Well, it may be that your chorus pedal does not use true-bypass. In other words, even though the pedal is switched off, the input to its electronic circuitry is still in contact electrically with your guitar signal. This has a loading effect and tends to dull your guitar sound. This is done by effect manufacturers to get away with using bypass switches that have fewer contacts, meaning cheaper costs, than what it would take to truly bypass (disconnect) the effect from your guitar signal.

If you can, stick with pedals that have true-bypass. Your guitar tone will love you for it. If you have a favorite effect pedal that is not true-bypass, but that you can’t do without, you can have it modified to have true-bypass. Or you can buy special bypass pedals that you can hookup to your favorite effect pedals that will allow you to completely electrically bypass them with the stomp of a switch.

I personally use only true-bypass analog effects. And if you haven’t guessed by now, I am a tone fanatic. I also have the luxury of being able to truly tailor my sound, because I design and build my primary effect pedals myself. But that’s a whole different story.

The endgame: For the developing guitarist, if you do the right things to keep your guitar tone healthy, you’ll be 80% of the way there. And when your hands finally develop to the point where they become your truest tone machine, man the sound will be inspiringly awesome!

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Updated: 3/5/07