8 Ways To Improve Your Tone

8 tips any guitar player can try out to improve their overall tone.

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Ultimate Guitar
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Many guitar players, including myself, have struggled with finding a good tone. After digging around and doing some research I've tried changing several things on my guitars and amps that make a much bigger difference in tone than you think. 1. Do NOT Scoop Your Mids (Yes, I know lots of people will already know this) Even if you're playing metal, try turning up your mids to at least 12 O'Clock, it sounds a lot punchier than it would with them all the way down. It makes your tone much tighter playing an genre of music. 2. Raise the Action on Your Guitar Strings make sound by vibrating, so the lower they are to the fretboard, the less space they have to vibrate. Even though it's easier to play, it's worth trying higher action. It gives a fuller, louder tone than lower action, and it will make you a better player by having to get used to the difference. 3. On Guitars With Tremolos, Take off the Plastic Cover on the back of the Body It's really hard to explain how this makes the tone better, but it makes a huge difference. My guess is that it allows the body to resonate more. Whatever it does, it makes your guitar sound better, and if it makes your guitar sound better, why question it? 4. Experiment with Different Pickup Heights This will differ with most people depending on what pickups you play with the most. For me, on my Strat I pretty much only use the neck and bridge pickups, so I raised them and lowered the middle, which is where I pick. This gave me a volume boost and less picking noise because my pick didn't hit the middle pickup. 5. Invest in a Tube or Hybrid Amp Pretty much any guitar player will tell you a tube amp sounds better than a solid state. Even if you don't have the extra cash to spend on a tube amp, you can get a great hybrid amp (an solid state amp with tube preamp) such as the Vox Valvetronix for a lot cheaper, and they sound amazing for the price. 6. Invest in Higher Quality cables Spending more than $50 on a cable may seem outrageous, but it's well worth it. Not only do they last longer, but they're not as noisy as cheaper cables. Many are a lot harder to break, and come with warranties that allows you to replace them rather than spending more money to get new ones whenever you break one. 7. If you play with lots of gain, use a noise gate. Even if you're playing clean, a noise gate helps if you have lots of pedals. Plus, if you're playing live, the louder you are, the more chance there is you'll get feedback/distortion when you don't want it, so it doesn't hurt to have a noise gate one to keep the chances down. 8. Change Playing Techniques Where you would usually play legato, try alternate picking, where you would usually slide, try bending, etc. A major one that I've tried that makes you sound like a completely different player is not using a pick and only playing with your fingers. It gives you more ways you to hit each note, and it makes your playing more diverse. Change things up, and you'll be surprised with what you find.

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41 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Disturbed_EMG
    Cold Reader wrote: However, scooping mids is a characteristic of metal, it's part of the sound. Also in mixing, it helps instruments sit together better without being overly prominent. Some useful stuff here on getting a good tone before EQ settings, like it
    Guitars with scooped mids in a mix makes everything muddy and awful...
    RadioMuse
    Meh, not the best, but I'll go on a case-by-case basis here: 1) YES! Play around with your EQ a lot in general and do it WITH a band. You'll discover that the "perfect" tone on your own is probably not going to even come close collectively. At higher volumes you'll usually need to roll off the bass as it gets muddy and the treble can end up very harsh. But mids you can usually get away with. 2) IN MODERATION. It's always a balancing act... 3) I do that, but that's because I like having the springs available and it makes re-stringing easier. I really never noticed a difference in sound, but I've never had them on for very long either. 4) I've noticed that different pickup heights effect volume quite a bit, but the tone, not so much. I usually balance my pickups relative to one-another so they're all about equal in volume... 5) Screw Hybrids. Unless you want the heaviest metal tones, or the cleanest cleans (in which case Solid State goes to the outer limits) you want a pure tube amp. Maybe you want Fender cleans or Marshall crunch, or Diezel gain, but you want tubes. 6) Really makes no audible difference. As an electrical engineer, I assure you that it can... theoretically. At frequencies in the kilohertz and above maybe. WAY beyond human hearing range. Shielding makes a difference, but even most bad cables are good enough if they're not damaged. 7) If you're playing with so much gain that you NEED a noise gate you're probably playing with too much gain. I run an overdrive on a fuzz and I still wouldn't want a noisegate in there. They're good if you're after that chunky sound, but I'm not the type. 8) Sure... Improve? Maybe not. But it'll give you the tools to find the sounds you're after and that's awfully important.
    Attercop
    I gotta disagree that the trem cover makes a huge difference. It's a small change, but whether or not it's even a change for the better is pretty subjective. (That said, it's off on both of my guitars). Also this is probably opening up a can of worms, but more expensive cables don't sound better. More reliable, sure (up to a point), which you mention. As far as tone, which is what this article is about ... no difference, I'm sorry.
    TommyBruner
    I play a Clapton Strat, so I can't take the back plate off because it holds the battery in. And I know this is contrary to what a lot of people think, but I can hear the difference with Evidence Audio cables. I don't know about other high end cables, but with EA cables the difference is unbelievable.
    |Long|
    Fine all except the part about the cables. 50$ is a waste.
    TommyBruner
    I can certainly understand the issue of expense. Bit I use Evidence Audio instrument cables and the difference is astronomical. You can hear the difference. Not to plug an individual product, but I've used them for three years now and I wouldn't use anything else.
    AlanD
    And another thing a lot of people dont realize is gain. You dont need it wide open. Especially when recording.
    Chocomalk
    I think this article is mostly anecdotal and subject to taste. 1. Scooping depends on a lot of things, your taste, your instrument, signal path and amp. All EQs are different, not all are of equal quality. If it gives you a better tone, do it, if not it's a waste. You might have to scoop if you are playing with other mid range instruments. 2. Again this is subject to taste. Better off putting heavier strings. You will avoid buzz and get better tone. You also have the advantage of attaining a lower action. It will also improve your playing and tuning stability. 3. Maybe? 4. Sure. 5. Taste. I love tubes some love SS. 6. Unless you're recording or running long cables, it's not worth spending a lot of money. Reliability is a key factor. 7. Better to shield your guitar. Gates suck tone away. This only reduces the noise floor. Gate only if you need to. 8. Sure.
    |Long|
    Cold Reader wrote: Not too bad an article. However, scooping mids is a characteristic of metal, it's part of the sound. Also in mixing, it helps instruments sit together better without being overly prominent. Some useful stuff here on getting a good tone before EQ settings, like it
    Slayer makes a point to NOT scoop the mids. I'd say it's bad practice to scoop the mids and that seems to be the common thought these days.
    Scourge441
    EmgNFLD wrote: I would like to say that Dimebag used solid state amps and scooped his mids are you saying Dimebag Darrel is dumb by saying everyone knows this?
    I'm a long-time metalhead and Dimebag has probably my least favorite guitar tone of all time. He was a good guitarist for sure, but his tone choices left much to be desired IMO.
    dumbface12
    I bought a guitar cable $20 dollars from the gift shop of martin guitar factory and that not only sounds good but has lasted me 4 years, so it doesn't matter how expensive it is. However, guitar cable length does matter. The longer a guitar cable is, the more tone it will suck out.
    hamasaurus68
    It will suck out more high end, not tone...if anything, some people will prefer having the treble rolled off a bit.
    tomc2
    |Long| wrote: Fine all except the part about the cables. 50$ is a waste.
    Well I pretty much just saying go for something a little bit more expensive then the bargain cables that make tons of noise and last a month. $40-$50 is probably the rang for the most affordable quality cables.
    BigHeadClan
    Surprised rolling back on your tone/volume wasen't on the list, by pulling mine back from 100% to 90% I get rid of some of the noise and shrill and loose almost nothing in terms of tone and volume.
    MR.Shamanistica
    I jsut want to reiterate that first point. I play bass and I go to a lot of local pubs and we've got quite a large metal scene spanning various sub-genres and what I've noticed is that almost every bassist either scoops the mids with an on-board control or turns them down. I tend to slap anyone I meet who does this, I can understand that we all like a certain tone but mid-scooping just crosses the line for me, it's the first thing I check for when playing with someone who complains their tone isn't very full or just isn't "good".
    Braderikizz
    Planet Waves cables are decently priced, and if they die, which is highly unlikely, since they are built to last, they come with a lifetime warranty. They make it worth your money. Plus, you don't have to spend $50+. Not in Australia anyway.
    gypsyblues7373
    Good article, but some of these things will only benefit certain styles, like #2 (which also tends to go hand-in-hand with the "bigger strings=better tone" argument). If you play blues, jazz, country, etc., you might see some benefit tone-wise, but if you're a metal player, a lot of those things aren't going to make one bit of difference. Most modern metal players use so much gain that it ceases to be about the guitar, wood, strings, and more about the amp and pedals.
    atkinson20
    Ok everybody missed the subject of trying different tunings or capo at certain frets you usually wouldnt put it at, using a pick, a thumb pick, or your fingers, using slides, changing the pick up you play into, or if you get in the rut of always starting or usually starting on a certain chord or note change the beginning and the rest will follow
    Butt Rayge
    The cables one is bullshit. Not sure about the plastic cover for the back cavity either. I'v done it and not noticed any difference at all. Most of the rest of them are matters of taste.
    MarkoakaNiggaK
    EmgNFLD wrote: I would like to say that Dimebag used solid state amps and scooped his mids are you saying Dimebag Darrel is dumb by saying everyone knows this?
    Look i'm a Dimebag fan but that's ridicolous. He played solid state because they are much more reliable when it comes to playing in different weather conitions and you don't have to clean them non-stop. The reason he scooped the mids is that solid state has terrible mids (that's the main reason why tubes have better sound).
    MR.Shamanistica
    Cold Reader wrote: However, scooping mids is a characteristic of metal, it's part of the sound. Also in mixing, it helps instruments sit together better without being overly prominent.
    The sound, imo, just has more... eh, feel to it with some mids in there. Characteristics are null if the sound isn't very good, and a lot of people don't like or even despise the sound. Also, there are ways to mix a heavy guitar-based track w/o cutting the mids. Make them unique, add more reverb to some, less to others and the same with chorus or any other effects. Don't forget to use panning creatively, slight changes can easily separate them without it sounding like you've got 50 completely different guitars in there which isn't always desirable.
    Danjo's Guitar
    Yeah, MORE than $50 would be too much, but $50 is about right. I think it can really make a quality difference, plus they're more reliable. And the warranties are nice. Pretty good article overall.
    MaggaraMarine
    The argument about scooping the mids: Metallica did that with their Marshall amps in the '80s, I'm not sure about their Mesa amps, though. But Marshall amps have lots of mids so scooping your mids on a mid oriented amp is different than scooping your mids on an amp that already has a bit scooped sound (for example: Line 6 Spider "Insane" and "Metal" sounds, you can make them suck less if you don't scoop the mids). And about that hybrid/tube thing. Hybrids usually have only one pre amp tube so at least half of their pre amp is solid state. My Laney VC30 has two pre amp tubes and it's pretty low gain and usually hybrid amps are much higher gain than my amp. With only one pre amp tube you can't get that much distortion. And I think Vox Valvetronix sounds fake and too muddy. I tried different EQ settings and amp models but only got a medicore tone. Even Marshall MG had a better tone IMO. All modeling amps that I have tried just lack the presence of a real amp. The best of them has been Roland Micro Cube which is pretty decent for practice. But I would say about the amp thing that analog is better than digital, no matter if it's solid state or tube. This is just my opinion. And about the cable thing: I have had one cable in use for three years and one for two and a half years. They cost 16 new. No background noise or anything. They are called Hotline cables, I don't know where you can get them but they are sold in a music store here in Finland. I have also had a crappy Planet Waves cable that didn't last more than two months and it also cost 16. So $50 sounds a bit too much for one cable.
    EmgNFLD
    I would like to say that Dimebag used solid state amps and scooped his mids are you saying Dimebag Darrel is dumb by saying everyone knows this?
    Cold Reader
    Not too bad an article. However, scooping mids is a characteristic of metal, it's part of the sound. Also in mixing, it helps instruments sit together better without being overly prominent. Some useful stuff here on getting a good tone before EQ settings, like it
    Tubetinkerer
    One thing thats hugely underestimated, especially playing at high gain, are groundloops. Mixing together pedals, powersupplies, preamps and other will induce 50/60Hz hum if groundloops are present. Well lifted grounds, can kill the necessity for a noise gate and all its drawbacks. On tubes ? Tubes rule ! No shortcuts there. And on cables : the only cables that really matter are speakercables, cos they have a large power-resistance ratio and can influence the sound, especially the lows. (It's possible to tighten up the lows by using a thinner cable). The other cable that really matters is the cable from the guitar to the first buffer stage (usually a pedal). Cable-capacitance is only an issue with cheap, crappy cables. More important is that it can withstand the mechanical stresses that it is subjected to, while moving about a stage. If a regular guitar cable affects your sound, the cable is either shot or something else is wrong.
    MarkoakaNiggaK
    MR.Shamanistica wrote: I jsut want to reiterate that first point. I play bass and I go to a lot of local pubs and we've got quite a large metal scene spanning various sub-genres and what I've noticed is that almost every bassist either scoops the mids with an on-board control or turns them down. I tend to slap anyone I meet who does this, I can understand that we all like a certain tone but mid-scooping just crosses the line for me, it's the first thing I check for when playing with someone who complains their tone isn't very full or just isn't "good".
    Well they do it for the mix cause the e-guitar is usually the main mid instrument. the bass needs to be what it is and takes much to bass and some mids but much lower than on an ordinary guitar.
    AgentGriswald
    Cabling makes a huge difference. Spend 80 bucks or more on a Mogami and you can hear a difference. If you think a $15 cable sounds as good as a $50 cable your sound will always be sub-par.
    TommyBruner
    I agree completely. I use Evidence Audio cables and the difference is incredible. Trust me, if some can't hear a difference, its not the cables.
    corpsecarnage66
    Cold Reader wrote: Not too bad an article. However, scooping mids is a characteristic of metal, it's part of the sound. Also in mixing, it helps instruments sit together better without being overly prominent. Some useful stuff here on getting a good tone before EQ settings, like it
    Maybe modern metal, but if you want a good tone that doesnt sound like a pen getting stabbed in your ears, dont put the mids any lower than 45% at the least.
    Fabione72
    I would say don't forget about guitar itself. The wood below the string is very important and, together with pick-ups, really makes the tonal differences from an instrument to another. Many of the poople I know who try and try different setting, HW, etc. seeking for the "right" sound, finally solved buying another guitar (I still remember when, many years ago, I was obsessed trying to fix all the deficiencies in term of materials, assembly, HW etc of a Strat...)
    ASeparatePeace
    I believe the cable one. I bought a planet waves cable & it died out after a month or two. It had good sound and not much "buzzing" in the background but I guess since I sat on a chair most of the time I bent the end & trashed it. So, I bought a new cable (I don't remember the brand) and it sounds HORRIBLE. I get a non-stop "buzzing" sound, and sometimes while i'm playing, A random and very LOUD buzz just pops up. It's annoying & I payed about $8 for it. So yeah I agree geting more expensive cables will make your tone sound better. Though $50 is probably the most I would spend on a cable, I'd say get a $20 one & you'll be alright.
    MarkoakaNiggaK
    Cold Reader wrote: Not too bad an article. However, scooping mids is a characteristic of metal, it's part of the sound. Also in mixing, it helps instruments sit together better without being overly prominent. Some useful stuff here on getting a good tone before EQ settings, like it
    Try playing a Iron Maiden song with scooped mids i dare you. It will sound awfull when you try to play it with a band.
    Grif22
    The only problem with removing the rear tremolo cavity cover is that it can lead to feedback issues (because the springs are allowed to vibrate more freely). Not so much a problem in studio, but live, it's something worth thinking about.
    AlanD
    Usually the more expensive cables are made of a thicker gauge and are shielded better. John 5 has a good cable out, monster and lava are pretty good. Ive kicked around a crappy cable and it had microphonics. Good cables are worth it.
    hamasaurus68
    I remember planet waves used to be cheap...and have the 'spring' mechanism in the input plug for a snug fit. Not microphonic and have lasted me 10 years.There was a couple of times I saw Larry Coryell using them live (yes, I was that close!)
    benoityip
    Regarding sceoop mids, I am still experiementing. I press this button, then put a EQ box in the loop, boost up 400hz and 800hz, cut down 100hz and 200hz. Then it sound punchier with the lower mids brings up a bit more I do this when mixing with background tracks, and it sounds alright. I have tried leaving the scoop button ON, and turn dowm the mids, with even EQ, still cannot get the sound I want If you listen to Metallica live or studio, I think they do scoop some mids, but NOT all mids.