Use your pickups!I see a lot of guys who have all the pots up full and the bridge pickup on constantly for everything. Experiment with your pickups, if you have a three way toggle or even a 5 way toggle try the various positions and listen out for the tonal variations. You'll find that the closer neck pickup is normally warmer, rounder and will have a fuller sounding low end to it, where as the bridge pickup will have more of the high-mids and top end sparkle (great for glassy tones and bringing out harmonics). A middle positioned selector on a three way is normally both pickups and will give you a combination of the two, I find this also gives you more mids. Some 5 way selectors give you out of phase positions between two pickups so give that a listen too. Other possibilities include coil splitting (turns a humbucker into a single coil) and coil tapping (choose between a half wound or fully wound pickup). Also, try adjusting the pickup height as this can change the sound outputted by your pickups too.
Use your volume control!Try it, back off the volume just a little bit, it will clean up the signal a tiny bit and you'll drop a little bit of the bass end and thin the tone slightly. You can also back off the volume quite a bit with a distorted tone to clean the sound right up and switch between various levels of gain. You may also have volume pots for each pickup so you can blend the tones of each. Hidden tip: Set your volume at roughly 75-80% first, before anything... THEN set your normal guitar tone and amp volumes as usual. Then when it's solo time, crank to full volume on the guitar for a higher volume, bit more gain, and a slightly fuller tone; it's like a free boost pedal!
Use your tone pots!As if the world of pickups wasn't vast enough you may have a master tone pot or a tone pot for each pickup. It may sound counter intuitive to select the brighter bridge pickup and then roll the tone down but give it a shot, I would bet that it sounds different to the middle or neck pickup with the tone up on 10.
Use your guitar pick!There are two ways that this can affect your tone. Firstly you can alter the angle that your pick moves through the string, this can be done either with an adjustment of your thumb/finger position or by angling your wrist. This will mostly affect the attack of your notes giving you a sharper or softer pick attack. Secondly you can use a completely different part of your pick. Nobody every told you that you can only use the pointy end! Depending on your pick shape try using the rounded edge of your pick, or maybe turn the whole pick sideways and stroke down the strings with the flattest edge. It may not be the most common of tones but it's one extra option for you and you never know when the track will call for that something "different."
Use your fingers! Playing with your finger feels different, there's a much more direct contact between you and the string and it feels and sounds more "human" (apologies for getting all hippie on you). Playing with the soft fleshy parts of your fingers lets you have a softer warmer tone with a much more rounded attack to the notes. You also have the option to pull the string away from the guitar body and give more "snap" to the notes. Alternatively you can use your finger nails which will give you a brighter, slightly harsher and certainly clearer sounding attack and tone to the notes. All of this of course can be combined with playing with your pick in a hybrid picking style to get the best of both worlds.
Use your hand positioning!Picking or strumming closer to, or directly over the guitar neck is going to give you a softer, warmer, more rounded tone too. These terms are being used a lot but they all have a distinctive tonal variety to them each unique in their own right. Playing/plucking/strumming right up against the bridge is going to give you a less sustained note with a very high-mid ranging honk to it and a bright attack. Of course there is every position you could pick or strum in between.
Free Mods!Martin Taylor weaves a thin piece of cardboard between the strings right up against the bridge to give him a steel drum type of sound in "Down at Cocomos" and Guthrie Govan uses a Rizla packet to raise the action between the first fret wire and the string to allow him to play slide guitar and dig in more on the notes which undoubtedly gives him a fuller and clearer tone. My point is, do not be afraid to add things you have laying around to your guitar to alter the sound.
Clean your strings!Simply giving new guitar strings a wipe-down before and after playing, as well as ensuring your hands are clean before playing is going to prolong your string life and stop them from turning dull and lifeless as quickly as they used to.
Rearrange your signal chain!Putting your boost pedal in front of your amp is going to boost the pre-gain signal so as well as a volume boost you'll get more saturation. A boost in the effects loop will only boost the volume without adding more gain. A delay before and after a reverb is going to sound different because either you are adding delay to a reverb filled signal, or you are then reverb to a signal that has delays in it. They WILL sound different, even if only slightly. Experiment with effects in your amps effects loop vs directly into the front end of the amp and also experiment with the order of your effects.
I probably have a few more tonal tips rattling around in my brain up there but it's getting early now and I'm out of coffee. So there you have it. That's a plethora of tonal differences to be had all for spending a bit of time on technique or adjusting some settings, and you didn't have to spend a penny! If you know of any other ways to alter your tone without buying anything new then give me a shout and I'll add it to the list.
About the Author:
By Steven Martin, www.stevenmartinguitar.com. If you enjoyed this, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.