14 Powerful Quick Tips That Can Help You Instantly Improve Your Guitar Tone

If you are like most guitarists out there, you will have at some point found it frustrating getting the "perfect tone." Try the following tips to help improve your guitar sound.

Ultimate Guitar
If you are like most guitarists out there, you will have at some point found it frustrating getting the "perfect tone." Try the following tips to help improve your guitar sound.

Crank Up The Mids!

A great live tone starts with the EQ. Crank those mids. It's as simple as that. Human hearing is focused in the mid range. The rest of the band covers the majority of the low and high frequencies.

From a very simplistic point of view, a drummer and bassist cover the lows, cymbals and vocals cover the highs, so that really only leaves one place for the guitar - the mid frequencies. When creating a live tone, I ask myself two simple questions:

"How good does my guitar sound?"

"Can I hear my guitar clearly in the mix without the volume of the amp being excessive?"

If you can answer a firm 100% "yes" to both questions, you're in the right ballpark, THEN tweaking for the minor details can commence, but if your sound is great, yet gets lost in the mix, you may have to go back to basics.

Likewise, if you can hear yourself clearly but your tone sucks, you may need to make some adjustments too.

This though, is very rare in my experience. 99% of the time a guitarist's tone sucks because they've spent countless hours tweaking a cool tone in the bedroom but not realizing it sounds nothing short of a flabby mess in the band mix.

Use a Heavier Gauge Set of Strings

Many guitarists love the feel of a light or ultra light set of strings with a gauge of about .09 or even .08 but a slightly heavier gauge of. 10 will often instantly add more meat and power to your tone. 

Try going a gauge heavier. I play in Drop C# in my band and I noticed the difference straight away when I switched to. 10s with a. 54 on the 6th string.

Are they harder to play? Marginally

Do they sound better? Absolutely

Try it out. The feel is important so if you don't like it you can always switch back to a lighter gauge or change brand.

Use Some Slap Back Delay

We have all played live in certain venues where the room sounds "dead." You know the feeling when you are playing a lead part and nothing is sparkling. There is just a dull, muted natural lack of reverb. You may be tempted to switch on a reverb pedal, but live this can be a tricky business. You can often get "set back in the mix" with on stage reverb, and get lost in the sound.

A short slap back delay with one or two repeats is often a better answer. It will thicken up your tone counteracting the dead venue without mashing up your sound like on-stage reverb can sometimes do.

Adjust Your Pick Grip

I used to get a bit frustrated on my quest for tone when players would say:

"Tone is all in the fingers and hands."

It seemed like a lazy thing to me, but since teaching guitar and helping others adjust the pick, this one bit of advice is gold.

If you hold the pick too tight which so many players do you will get a harsh loud sound lacking subtlety, and if you hold it too loose, you will get a weak sound and the pick will slide about.

The best thing for tone and playability is to hold you pick tight enough so it can't be pulled out of your fingers with your other hand, but no tighter than that. The difference the pressure you have here makes (even more so on none compressed acoustic guitars) is huge.

Try holding the pick as hard as possible and now strum softly. It's very difficult to do. Hold that pick softer. You will have a much better tone instantly.

Order Your Effects for Tone

Getting your on board effects in the "correct" order is difficult. It can be tempting to put the reverb in front of the delay and the wah behind the distortion for alternative sounds. It really is best to leave this for the studio though, especially if you find your tone sucks.

Here are 4 guidelines for effects order.
  • Wah, compressors and EQ should be placed BEFORE distortion and overdrive should be near the start of the signal chain. An exception to this is when using vintage-style fuzz. These usually need to be slotted in before the wah. Try putting your wah before and after your distortion and listen to how different it sounds. 
  • Modulation effects such as chorus, flanger and phaser usually work best AFTER distortion. It's worth mentioning though that some analogue pedals - particularly Univibes and their clones - often work better in front of distortion. 
  • Delay and echo effects are designed to repeat what's been played into them so place them towards the BACK of the signal chain. They're also good when placed in your amp's FX loop if it has one. 
  • Reverb should pretty much always be at the END of your chain. Anywhere else often masks it effect and sounds weak and messy.

Less Gain and Less Bass When Playing Louder

Turn down the bottom end and the gain when you go into the rehearsal studio or play live. At home, you will probably want to boost the bass and the gain so you get that warm thick sound, but live this won't work as well. Bass frequencies and overdrive get exacerbated at volumes so if sounds powerful at home they will get overbearing in the loud band situation.

One of the main culprits of poor tone can be sorted by just lowering the bass and the gain as low as you can go, then increasing fractionally just to the point where your thick, saturated tone comes back if that's what you are after.

Ignore Amp Setting "Advice"

I hate it when people talk about emulating a certain player or a song's guitar tone using certain amp settings. The thing is - every amp is different. The fact is there are so many amps out there that "tone setting" discussions do not cross over from amp to amp. Getting to know YOUR amp is very important.

Most people don't try the extreme settings on their amp. Try turning the bass, mid and treble all the way down to 0, then up to 10, then just one to 0, then another to 0, then 4, then another to 8, and so on. Just playing about like this helps you understand your amp so much more.

Instead of hearing that Adam Jones of Tool has settings of bass - 6, middle 7, treble 5 or something your amp might get a closer sound by going bass 3, middle 9, treble 8 or something similar. It all depends on your gear.

Know the Difference Between Treble and Presence

Many players don't know the difference between the treble dial and the presence dial (if your amp has one). It can be a difficult thing to describe, but they both work on different frequencies.

On certain amps, presence covers a larger area than the treble alone, on other amps vice versa. I like to set the treble to a reasonable level, and then adjust the presence so I can hear it adding to the sound without adding harshness to it. I will then back it off a touch and let the mids dominate.

Turn a Valve Amps Master Up to 3/4

Valve amps are awesome but they sound a bit rubbish when not turned up. If you get the master volume of your valve amp up to about 3/4 then you are business. It will be loud so be very careful of your hearing and wear earplugs. There is no point in having great tone if you can't hear it!

Change Picks

When I switched from some generic Dunlop 0.8 or 0.9 picks to the Dunlop Jazz III XL for my electric guitar playing, I noticed a much better tone straight away. These are industry standard picks for players playing an electric but if you try one on an acoustic you will notice they sound pretty poor. 

I love to use a thinner 0.7 nylon for strumming acoustics and a 0.9 for hybrid picking an acoustic. Get yourself at least ONE electric pick you love and ONE different acoustic pick you love then buy plenty of both.

Talk to the Other Members of the Band

Especially your bass player. He is the one who will compete with your lower mid range the most and has the most control over it. Some bass players love to be heard and know the importance of mids.

Get him set up so he is comfortable and is happy with his or her sound and then if he or she is burying you in the mix, ask him or her to reduce the amount of mids on their amp. Some bass amps are surprisingly powerful in this mid range area and can really cause havoc with your guitar in terms of getting it heard in the mix.

Replace Your Guitars Potentiometers

Many guitars, if not all in the sub $1000 category can be improved by replacing the standard wiring and potentiometers. The important thing here is the "pots" resistance value.

A Fender Stratocaster notoriously sounds different with 300k or 200k pots. Likewise, 300k and 500k pots sound quite different in a Gibson Les Paul. Guitar players who have been around the block in their quest for tone often do this one thing. It does make a difference and is well worth the money.

Get a Professional Set-Up

If you aren't very experienced at setting up guitars, then get a pro to do it. There are usually a couple of "go to" guys in each town who are well sought after for this.

Don't just go for the guy who promises you:

"The lowest action without fret buzz."

Go to the guy who knows the fine but crucial details such as the ideal strings for your style, how to set the intonation, and very importantly the pickup height. There is no point in having killer Bareknuckle pickups, if they are all set up wrong.

Purchase High Quality Leads

It's important to buy good quality leads. Not only will they last longer but they will sound a lot better. You will need high quality leads for recording and you should use high quality leads for live use too.

There is nothing worse than a crackling lead or one that weakens that otherwise perfect tone. Imagine spending $2000 on the perfect setup but because you scrimped $10 on a lead your tone lets you down. I use Cleartone cables in the UK and can truly say for the money they are great.

Go for a lead only as long as you really need as longer leads tend to weed out some of the high end. For a brighter sound, get a lead with a capacitance of less than 100pF/meter. To tame the highs, try a longer cable with 140pF meter or higher.

About the Author:
Dan Thorpe is a UK based guitar teacher, writer, and musician. He writes for Guitar Domination and plays guitar in UK Alternative rock/metal band, Ribdonor. If you enjoyed this article, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.

50 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Completely agree with 'talk to the bass player' and 'turn down the low end'. As a bassist, it's my job (and bass drum!) to fill out the low end. A guitar has no business down there. Turn that bass knob down! It might sound wrong by itself - finely crafted bedroom tones rarely sound great in a band context - but it will sit beautifully in the mix. As far as mids goes, there's plenty of space for both bass and guitar, just find a different frequency range that doesn't clash and get muddy. Every instrument should be clearly heard and not overbearing. Remember, your job it not to swamp the mix or punch through (unless you're soloing), but to sit in your own sonic space in the mix. Respect your fellow band members space and try not to intrude - a band's mix is a democracy, not an dictatorship ego-fest.
    Sir, I salute your wisdom. I can't begin to mention all them times I've seen other guitarists with that bass knob on 10, while using the neck pickup. Oh lordy...and they think I'm mad for turning the bass to zero.
    Nice tips! the one about setting "advice" is particularly important to beginning guitarists imo, a lot of beginners don't realize that their guitar, amp and style all matter when it comes to tone, so just setting your amp to "8 mids, 2 bass and 6 treble" or whatever is just plain useless advice most of the time. However, I don't think that heavier strings "absolutely" sound better. It's more of a matter of what you want. But the article was great anyway.
    I get the impression with string gauges he's referring more at the type of people who tune down their guitars but stick to the typical standard tuning string gauges, ending up with loose noodles instead of strings with any firmness. The majority of the article is spot on, actually. For me, my only issue with the article is the bit about cables - apart from really long runs, where capacitance can become an issue with lower purity/oxygen level copper and dull the tone, there is very little to be gained from spending $50+ vs $20 on a cable, once you get past the very cheap stuff that is poorly made so might not last very long before the cheaply-soldered contacts come away etc. There's also been plenty of blind tests done on various types of audio cable of varying quality, and the general result every time is that even the most qualified of critical ears (e.g. top mastering engineers) are not able to successfully identify the cheaper and more expensive cables with any reliable accuracy.
    No,no you got that wrong.If you can't hear yourself,always turn up the volume and the gain.Oh,and **** the mids. /sarcasm
    same, no 3/4 vol for me. 1/2 at most. Changing picks change tone a lot, I use JazzIII but I don't think they have better tone, quite the opposite. I find them harsher than rounder tip picks, but I like the way they feel so I use them
    Vocals actually have a lot of material in the mid range, as so does the snare on the drums. You have to be careful when cranking the mids not to make the snare and mainly the vocals get lost. Presence usually controls the area at around 3Khz, I've never heard amps where the presence affects a larger area than the treble. I also think it's important to point out the importance of knowing what a contour knob does. You can say a contour is a one-knob EQ, the higher it is the more high end and less low end you have, the lower it is the more low end and less high end you have. Since it's something that affects so much with so little configuration options it varies a lot from one equipment to another, but unless a contour is the only thing you have for EQing you should always keep it close to the flat setting, it already makes a huge difference in tone with little adjustments.
    If I turned my Fender Twin up to 7 or 8 someone would have serious hearing issues. Your point is valid but on a large amp like a twin, you'll get a great tone at 4.
    One small point...on string gauges, I don't completely buy into the "heavier gauge = better tone" concept. We know many guitarists who use light sets and have sweet tone (BB King, Billy Gibbons, Holdsworth), its more to do with how the string's floppiness, or lack of, changes the manner in how you attack it. For me, I use 8's mainly because of an old injury on my fretting hand's middle finger.
    don't forget Brian May, but I think Billy Gibbons sounded way better when he was using heavy strings
    "Turn a Valve Amps Master Up to 3/4 Valve amps are awesome but they sound a bit rubbish when not turned up. If you get the master volume of your valve amp up to about 3/4 then you are business. It will be loud so be very careful of your hearing and wear earplugs. There is no point in having great tone if you can't hear it!" Depends on the amp and the tone you are after. Valve amps usually sound just fine, even at bedroom levels, at least in my experience. But if you are after the cranked up tone, of course you need to crank it up. They definitely don't sound "rubbish" at lower volumes. They may sound better at higher volumes (like pretty much anything does). Of course if you are after that slight overdriven sound, you need to turn the amp up. I hate it when people always jump on the "tube amps sound bad unless you turn them up". About the cables: Get something better than the cheapest cable you can find. But it also doesn't make that much sense to spend too much money on your cable because you always lose them or they break down. Just get a decent quality cable that doesn't break immediately and doesn't sound noisy.
    I disagree with the strings part - on a stratocaster I like really thin strings for metal; thicker strings for clean tones; with humbuckers I prefer 9's or 10's regardless. I've only used one lead in my life that genuinely affected the tone negatively, excluding those that needed re-soldering inside - spending excessively on cables is a complete waste of money. Aside from that, a very good article. I'd say maybe more should be included in the tone is in your fingers part - it takes a long time to understand fully but I find the best players can make a guitar sound amazing playing the same thing as you (not you specifically!) through the same setup just because their vibrato is better, they are better at muting, their right hand has more control over the pick etc etc. I suppose that's down to understanding how to control the dynamics and timbre of your instrument regardless of whether its plugged in or not.
    Be wary of putting your EQ in front of the input of your amp though, as well as putting your OD/distortions in the FX loop of your amp. The EQ can go in front of the input but it will alter your input signal (thus acting as a 'select frequency overdrive' - which has many uses in its own right!) instead of the head's output (which is what most people would want an EQ to do).
    I disagree with the strings part - all things considered, string gauges are one of the last things you should be looking at, particularly if the difference is minimal - going from .09 to .10 is going to make bugger-all difference to tone. Maybe if you go from .08 to .12 or vice versa, but at that point your string gauges will feel so different it may make you play badly. The audience will pick up on bad playing way more often than bad tone.
    one big tip that gets overlooked: minimize (or eliminate if possible) your pedal effects. If you have a nice sounding guitar and a beautiful tube amp, you don't need a distortion pedal: you need a channel foot-switch and a good ear for your eq. your signal is only as strong as it's weakest link, so it's to your benefit to reduce the amount of extra links (i.e. the 6 effects you might not even use in the set!)
    10/10 you know what's up. I used to have a bit of a tone problem with my guitar; I was frustrated: I knew I had the correct picking technique for what I wanted, my EQ was set fine, I used 10s, my setup was an adjustment that used a professional setup as a base (I prefer higher action than the tech who did it), yet my rhythm tone lacked balls. That all changed when I used heavy bottom strings.
    I`m happy with my bedroomsound.. hybrid all settings to 6-7.. I always wonder why people spend so much time on "the perfect tone" in their ****ing bedroom.. live sound is the important sound that should fit! the sound at home should be nice, but nothing i would spend hours with. its just for ****ing practice when its okay, its enough.
    3/4 of the volume? Sorry, my tube amp is so loud that the drummer won't be able to hear himself in our rehearsals. Same goes for probably rest of the band, mwaahahahah. Otherwise, nice advice. Knew everything though, but many don't.
    I 100% percent agree with the string tip. I use Jazz lights which are 12's with a wound third. The sound is tighter due to more string tension and increased vibration. Plus you can be a little more heavy handed with the pick and not get so far out of tune.
    What if I turned my Randall RG100 to 3/4 volume? It's solid state, so would that hurt at all?
    I use an ac voltage attenuater ( transformer type)on the power cord turned down to about 90 volts so I can turn up the amp with out the volume...works great, and tube life is vastly extended. Also if you go easy on the mids the singer might still have a throat at the end of the night...it's called layering in the mix, as a sound tech I can tell you that helps the band majorly. compression after verb or delay, will cause the quieter repeats to become much louder, after the EQ, will flatten it, but after a software amp sim, and before time effects will control the tone nicely. -danthesoudman
    Velcro Man
    Guitar cables and pots making a difference are a complete myth. Higher valued pots will have more treble, but brands and such are all the same, it just depends on how you like them to behave. There's just absolutely no difference between a $5 cable and a $100 cable as far as tone and such are concerned, though the absolute cheapest cords will break pretty easily. Also, only boost the mids for lead stuff, boosting mids for chords or rhythm stuff just makes it sound awful. As for strings, thinner strings will offer a fatter tone because they're looser, thicker strings will make notes sound tighter. Depends on what you like.
    I don't know about pots, but guitar cables definitely make a difference. Compared to the one that game with my guitar and the one I bought for around $15, the latter had a definite improvement. The sound was much more clearer and sharper. The difference between a $5 and $100 cable, though, is something I wouldn't know about.
    You just proved his point. You replaced your free cable (which was probably just broken) with a $15 cable, and had good results.
    could'nt agree more !..don't waste time perfecting tone in the bedroom,you'll be practising the wrong thing as its no use on the stage.
    I've always been amazed at how small, simple changes from the gauge of your strings, thickness of the pick, order of your pedals etc, can make such a huge different to your tone. As with amp settings, I think playing around with the settings is the best bit! I love finding really sweet tones and jotting them down so I can come back to them later. Also with bass and gain, I've always found that 99% of the time, less is more!
    I can't even turn my amp past 2. Gets waaaaay too loud, even at half power. Anyways, great tips! Something I'd like to add from my personal experience: If you use heavy strings and a lot of distortion, flatwounds will almost always sound better in that particular setting. No scratching noise, more balanced tone, etc.
    I have heard that flatwounds make your guitar sound muddy, especially with lots of distortion and they are also harder to bend. I have never heard of anybody recommending them for metal. They are usually used in jazz (my friend uses them in his hollow body).
    Not totally true bro. Yeah, they do have a mellower tone, and yes, they are a jazz guitar staple, but definitely not muddy. I personally find that for very high gain tones they sound a lot clearer than roundwounds. The G string can be harder to bend, of course, but it's generally not a major pain in the ass.
    OK, whatever works for you. But I was just surprised because I have never heard of anybody using flatwounds in metal. And I have also heard about them sounding muddy with distortion.
    used flatwounds for a while, mainly for slide, but just didn't like the tone, and you lose playing dynamics
    If you can't hear your guitar in the mix, one very easy fix is: get slightly out of sync with the tick. Your attack transients (the sound when you hit the note) is what you really hear in the band mix, so, timing your picking a fraction of a second after the tick will make the guitar sound stand out.
    For some reason the YouTube link does not show up in my comment. Last try:
    That's a terrible idea, and your drummer and bass player (and whatever other pure instrumtentalists you have) will hate you. Your singer might even hate you. Don't do this, ever.
    That's not "out of sync", it's more about finding an appropriate off-beat - as he states in the vid: finding a place, where I fit and can be heard. These are two different concepts, although they admittedly do overlap sometimes in the result. Out of sync is, as others already stated, really bad in most cases. There are only very few occasions, where this concept works out, like in Sensational Alex Harvey Band's "Faith Healer".
    This is nice and all, but heavier strings don't "absolutely" sound better, tube amps sound perfectly fine at low volumes, Jazz IIIs aren't the end all, be all of electric picks (I actually can't stand them in terms of tone or playability). Also I would like to point out that while changing your EQ settings or reordering pedals are ways to "instantly" change your tone, changing strings, getting a professional setup, and getting new pots certainly aren't "instant".