Tuesday Wisdom: Simple Ways To Improve Guitar Tone

Many players on the unending quest for guitar tone often overlook key elements of the sound in favor of some new gadget.

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Many players on the unending quest for guitar tone often overlook key elements of the sound in favor of some new gadget. There are quite a few simple, and often inexpensive, ways to improve your sound.

  • Pick

    Picks come in all shapes and sizes. Experiment to find the best for you in terms of feel, thickness, and precision.

  • Strings

    There are as many styles and varieties of strings as there are players. Wound, unwound, different composite metals, gauges, and on. Experiment! Beware that changing string gauge affects other aspects of the guitar, like tension on the neck, intonation, and more. It can become even more complicated if you use a floating tremolo like a Floyd Rose.

  • Set It Up

    A proper setup is absolutely critical. Your instrument can be set up in a variety of ways. Neck relief, action, intonation, pickup tuning, and proper contact points are just some of the factors in a thorough setup. Some players favor a lot of relief, some guys like to shred with really low action. Some players prefer the sound of the pickups close to the strings with polepieces flat, other prefer to move the pickups farther from the strings and crank the polepieces up higher. In the end, it's all about what gets your sound where you want it to be.

  • Overwound Pickups

    If you play really loud or with a lot of gain, overwound pickups can do you more harm than good. Many of the greatest guitar sounds of all time came from weaker pickups through a cranked up amplifier.

  • Guts and Glory

    It takes a little more electronics knowledge, but get in to the electronics cavity of your guitar and look around. Your electronics could probably use an upgrade, especially if you have a lower-end model. Often times the electronics is skimped in favor of cutting manufacturing cost, so replacing the wire, capacitors, and potentiometers can often yield a better response from the instrument. You can also have fun with different pickup wiring configurations and the versatility they can provide.

  • Speakers

    Swapping speakers is a great way to improve the response of your amp or cabinet and get different tones.

  • Don't Plug In

    Try playing without plugging in from time to time. It can reveal sloppy playing when not hidden behind a bunch of gain. On the other hand, if you often play without plugging in, practice some more plugged in. The feel and response of the guitar definitely changes when an amp is involved, but the bottom line is: practice how you are going to perform!

  • Move It

    Sometimes all you need is a fresh perspective. Consider transposing licks played on the bass strings to a treble string variation, or the other way around. Moving licks to different registers is a great way to come up with alternate arrangements or new riffs entirely.

  • Guitar Strap Height

    Yes, the guitar-around-the-knees gunslinger look still drives rock n' roll (at least the photoshoots!), but play with the guitar where it feels right to you. Don't sacrifice sounding good for looking cool.

  • Cabling

    Quality of cable, as well as total run length can have a huge effect on your sound. Running a large amount of stompboxes can add to tone degradation. Use a high-quality, low-capacitance (which most are) cable like Mogami.

  • Direct Current is Your Friend

    Instead of powering your stompboxes with a daisy-chain or wall-wart, consider using 9v batteries. Batteries provide a direct (DC) form of power over the alternating (AC) provided by plugging into the wall. This leads to a more consistent, even flow of power and many will say a better tone. It also frees up your pedal board from having to be X distance away from an electrical outlet.

  • Buffer

    Do you use a lot of stompboxes? Consider getting a buffer pedal to restore tone suck that can happen due to long cable runs. A dark or muddy tone can be an indicator of this. Without going into too much detail about buffers, beware that many pedals (like BOSS) have buffers in them. Adding more buffers won't necessarily hurt you, but it won't really do much good.

  • Effects Loop

    Some pedals sound great through the loop, especially time-based and modulation effects. Some loops are buffered, which can be another benefit. The sound can become much more defined when these effects are added post preamp, and the delay repeats aren't washing out that awesome preamp distortion.

  • Overdrive It!

    Many beloved amps (namely tube amps) don't really hit their sweet spot until they're pretty cranked. Needless to say, this is not always plausible or possible to achieve. Consider finding an overdrive pedal that can get you where you want to be. Some of the higher-end ones sound phenomenal.

    Another option would be to put an overdrive in front of the amp to push the breakup of the tubes more. This can be a compromise, as some gain can be acquired through the pedal, and some from the amp.

  • Bass

    You can probably cut more bass frequencies from your sound than you think. Once the bassist starts thumping away, you will disappear.

  • Cut the Gain

    Less distortion means more dynamics, a more pronounced and definitive sound, and less of a playing crutch. It can also help you cut through a band that has many players, or other instruments that are competing for your frequency range.

  • Play with Dynamics

    Let the dynamics of you, as a player shine through. If you play with massive amounts of overdrive, distortion, or compression, the more of your dynamics are lost.

  • Don't Wash Yourself Out

    Time-based effects can sometimes wash out your sound, especially in a band with instruments that compete for frequencies like two guitars, guitar and keyboard, and so on.

  • Read the Room

    Every place you will play is different, from the sound reinforcement system to the physical dimensions of the space. Your overall sound will be up to the skills of the front-of-house engineer, but reading the room can help you tailor your effect settings so your echo repeats aren't being eaten alive.

    Art is expression. If it weren't for the crazy dude who wanted to clip the hell out of a sine wave, we may never have gotten the first fuzz pedal. Break the rules and see what happens!

    By fastlanestoner

  • 49 comments sorted by best / new / date

      hmcguire
      Cut the Gain Less distortion means more dynamics, a more pronounced and definitive sound, and less of a playing crutch. It can also help you cut through a band that has many players, or other instruments that are competing for your frequency range.
      Listen to this everybody!!!
      Maiden95
      Of all the new article things UG puts up each week, this is the best. And I don't even play guitar.
      NakedInTheRain
      that's partially correct. the "pulsating current" is created after the rectifier diodes; however, a capacitor is used to smooth the current after this to ensure a constant DC current. there are tiny tiny pulses left, but they are so small it's considered negligible. in terms of consistency and even flowing, a fresh 9V battery usually delivers around 9.6V, and gradually puts out less and less until it's completely run down. a proper regulated power supply always delivers the same voltage at all times. the 'tone' debate is one that pretty much only applies to dirt pedals; particularly fuzzes. when you're talking about your modulation or your delay, it's going to sound muddy and shite. and delay pedals suck batteries like there's no tomorrow. so have fun using one while gigging. in terms of batteries and tone, fuzzes can behave rather interestingly when undervolted, usually a creamier and sometimes buzzier sound (depending on which circuit you're using). a popular practice is using crappy carbon-zinc batteries in fuzz faces, as they lose their capacity quickly and get to that slightly under-volted sweet spot sooner. however, you can simulate a dying battery without actually using one - there are several power supplies that have 'sag' dials (allowing you to choose which voltage you'd like to put out to your pedal, allowing you to 'tune' the fuzz, if you will) or you can build one yourself. here's more info about the dying battery tone and how to make a dying battery simulator. http://www.beavisaudio.com/Projects/DBS/ and batteries are bad for the environment. m'kay.
      westley23j
      hmcguire wrote: Cut the Gain Less distortion means more dynamics, a more pronounced and definitive sound, and less of a playing crutch. It can also help you cut through a band that has many players, or other instruments that are competing for your frequency range. Listen to this everybody!!!
      b-b-b-but.... then its not br00tal! haha
      hekainu
      UG take note. This = Good article. Axl Rose/ Dave Mustain / Courtney = Baaaaad. Now write that down 100 times until it sinks in.
      NakedInTheRain
      Instead of powering your stompboxes with a daisy-chain or wall-wart, consider using 9v batteries. Batteries provide a direct (DC) form of power over the alternating (AC) provided by plugging into the wall. This leads to a more consistent, even flow of power and many will say a better tone.
      the rest of your article is great, but this statement is all sorts of wrong.
      alx305
      SomeMetalLover wrote: STOP WITH THE DAMN HOLOGRAMS! its so stupid. Leave de dead artist in peace, they will be remembered for ever anyway!
      Wrong article, man. Aside from that, this article was actually pretty helpful.
      megaluisdeth
      I play in a Thrash Metal Band and we dial our sound pretty good. We keep the gain at a good level and our bass before noon and let the bass guitar fill in the bass frequencies. We keep our mids past noon, we keep our treble before it gets ear piercing. So many Bands that we plat with dial in there bass real high,scoop the mids to 0, and add a shit load of gain. Tone= cat poop!
      CJSchecter96
      simple ways to improve your tone? uh easy, dont buy an Ibanez guitar or a Line 6 amp.
      flaphead325
      9V batteries are the worst idea ever. Use a power plant for pedals like Harley benton's, like the you've got all plug in one, and it reduces the sound.
      L2112Lif
      One buffer pedal: Not a bad thing ALL THE PEDALS BUFFERED: tonal disaster
      Super-Peanut
      Dave_Mc wrote: NakedInTheRain wrote: Instead of powering your stompboxes with a daisy-chain or wall-wart, consider using 9v batteries. Batteries provide a direct (DC) form of power over the alternating (AC) provided by plugging into the wall. This leads to a more consistent, even flow of power and many will say a better tone. the rest of your article is great, but this statement is all sorts of wrong. +1 also if you set the gain low and volume high on an od you'll still be getting most of the distortion from the amp. i wouldn't call it a compromise, i'd saty it just often sounds better (if you need higher gain tones, anyway).
      This point from the article is absolute rubish, it may be true if you have a cheap sucky BOSS power adapter/wall wart, but ANY power supply that is of GOOD quality will have a DC voltage level that is as solid as a rock, A good one will be semiconductor regulated, and I dare you to sit and stare at the output on a oscilloscope for as long as you want and tell me if you EVER see it ripple, if it ripples you're on drugs Consider this as well, a batteries nominal voltage degrades over time as it looses it's charge...so your 9V battery might actually only be putting out 8.5V after a while before it dies, so your potential level will go down over time...creating not so much a ripple but a very slow gradual downward slope If you are that worried go buy a industrial power supply from a automation manufacturer/distributor, I have a degree in electronics engineering technology....it IS possible to make essentially perfect DC from AC, now going the other way around gets a lot more complicated. If you are hooking up your piece of sh!t multi-meter from wal-mart you WILL see a ripple, that is because your meter is crap, or your power supply is crap, probably both The info in the article probably came from someone putting their $29.99 test meter on a $20 power supply and assuming they knew the difference between their a$$ from their elbow I could type for days why this is just blatantly wrong...a battery is better...lol..
      Ryan_Good1
      NakedInTheRain wrote: Instead of powering your stompboxes with a daisy-chain or wall-wart, consider using 9v batteries. Batteries provide a direct (DC) form of power over the alternating (AC) provided by plugging into the wall. This leads to a more consistent, even flow of power and many will say a better tone. the rest of your article is great, but this statement is all sorts of wrong.
      Is it? I haven't looked in to it but pedals will run off DC. Now to turn AC into DC you generally use a capacitor and a diode. The combination of these two components make something similar to DC but it is slightly "bumpy". This image is quite good: http://download.winmate.com.tw/$Glossary... ent_by_Zureks.svg.png The "pulsating" current is what you get when you try and convert AC to DC. I don't know if this does actually effect the sound of the pedal but it might.
      latinromans
      the part about not using to much distortion is great, this was the first thing I noticed when I listened to mastodon, if you need lots of distortion to make your sound heavy your either not EQing it right or playing it right. remember though, theres always times when a shitload of distortion can give you a really cool sound.
      bastards
      A good way to get an ear for tone is to play on good gear. Even if you dial in a relatively shoddy sound, it sounds better than if you were to dial in a bad sound on say a Vox AC30, rather than a Line 6
      iommi600
      A Boss Heavy Metal pedal and a Gibson Flying V... Swedish death metal tone all the way, my bitches!
      sim_1113
      I agree the 9v batteries don't last long, if you forget to unplug it one time then that's one dead battery, and they are expensive if you constantly play and use several pedals. However, 9v's are easier to use without wires everywhere. It's all about trade-offs..
      CodeMonk
      Also, not all buffers are created equally. A good buffer can help your tone. A poor buffer can hurt your tone. Its better to have no buffer than a bad buffer. And I'm sorry, but BOSS is notorious for having less than ideal buffers.
      Rorok_89
      I have tried my Crybaby both with battery and with AC adapter, I frankly didn't notice any difference at all. Anyway, maybe I'll do the experiment one day, but I find it really more convenient using the adapter (no risk of running out of power in the middle of a gig, less money spent over time, less contamination, etc). Anyway, nice article, altough the first tips are a bit too generic (there are many types of strings! if you change your strings it will sound different!). But nice article overall. Cheers!
      ConeShred
      Ryan_Good1 wrote: Is it? I haven't looked in to it but pedals will run off DC. Now to turn AC into DC you generally use a capacitor and a diode. The combination of these two components make something similar to DC but it is slightly "bumpy". This image is quite good: http://download.winmate.com.tw/$Glossary... ent_by_Zureks.svg.png The "pulsating" current is what you get when you try and convert AC to DC. I don't know if this does actually effect the sound of the pedal but it might.
      This is actually a very discussed topic among gear sluts. The argument indeed makes sense, because batteries are quite literally are direct power, while a wall wart requires the current to alternate, causing the sine wave oscillations in the signal. While it may or may not affect tone, most people who look for the DC approach usually invest in a Voodoo Labs PedalPower box, which is great because the point of it is to have isolated DC outputs. What bothers me about this article is that it says to "Overdrive It! " and literally two points later it stresses to "Cut the Gain ." This is not only easily misinterpreted but it's just toss because not every band/artist out there is looking for a clear and definitive sound. It's all about EQing your set up to the style that you're playing, and I think this article misses that point a lot.
      lbj273
      You do realize that most pedals till use DC power when plugged in to a power supply right?
      Vypor
      Surprised this article doesn't mention correct string winding. Can make or break your tone.
      shred_wizzard
      thats why I practice unplugged a lot! Especially for shredding, it reveals a lot of sloppiness/speed deficiency thats usually concealed by the gain. I practice unplugged until satisfied, then plug it in.
      sim_1113
      As far as tone... I've never noticed a difference between the two. Definitely not much if any.
      pawnluv
      Its all about full mids and as little gain as required to do what you want to do
      mitchmitchhh
      you need to rectify the AC then feed it into a voltage regulator, which needs a slightly higher input voltage than output voltage, but it will reduce the ripple to practically nothing, depending on the quality of the regulator, making it the same or even better than using a battery
      forsaknazrael
      Which to do well, you need a bridge rectifier or some other kind of circuit. Using a clean power supply like a good brick style power supply instead of a standard wall wart will be a much better, more consistent and less noisy alternative. Batteries should be phased out, not reliable or environmentally friendly.
      forsaknazrael
      Ryan_Good1 wrote: NakedInTheRain wrote: Instead of powering your stompboxes with a daisy-chain or wall-wart, consider using 9v batteries. Batteries provide a direct (DC) form of power over the alternating (AC) provided by plugging into the wall. This leads to a more consistent, even flow of power and many will say a better tone. the rest of your article is great, but this statement is all sorts of wrong. Is it? I haven't looked in to it but pedals will run off DC. Now to turn AC into DC you generally use a capacitor and a diode. The combination of these two components make something similar to DC but it is slightly "bumpy". This image is quite good: http://download.winmate.com.tw/$Glossary... ent_by_Zureks.svg.png The "pulsating" current is what you get when you try and convert AC to DC. I don't know if this does actually effect the sound of the pedal but it might.
      LOL that's not how you change AC to DC. It needs to be rectified.
      powachord
      CJSchecter96 wrote: simple ways to improve your tone? uh easy, dont buy an Ibanez guitar or a Line 6 amp.
      really? i had an ibanez until it got stolen, and id say it was one of the best guitars ive ever owned
      Dave_Mc
      NakedInTheRain wrote: Instead of powering your stompboxes with a daisy-chain or wall-wart, consider using 9v batteries. Batteries provide a direct (DC) form of power over the alternating (AC) provided by plugging into the wall. This leads to a more consistent, even flow of power and many will say a better tone. the rest of your article is great, but this statement is all sorts of wrong.
      +1 also if you set the gain low and volume high on an od you'll still be getting most of the distortion from the amp. i wouldn't call it a compromise, i'd saty it just often sounds better (if you need higher gain tones, anyway).
      yearzero
      This article is gold. Here's hoping for similar articles in the future.
      Minivirus2
      CodeMonk wrote: Also, not all buffers are created equally. A good buffer can help your tone. A poor buffer can hurt your tone. Its better to have no buffer than a bad buffer. And I'm sorry, but BOSS is notorious for having less than ideal buffers.
      If you want to clean up your sound, the only BOSS tool you need is their NS-2 No more power sucking, pedal noise gates!
      Ponchibego
      You do realize that most pedals till use DC power when plugged in to a power supply right?
      Outlets are AC so the DC you are speaking of is converted AC. In a sense it is not "true" DC.
      HavokStrife
      Everything that's written here--except for that noise about distortion pedals sounding phenomenal--is words to live by. Shit that took me years of experience to figure out. This is one of the best things every posted on the front of the site, besides Nolan's work. Distortion pedal=/=distortion tone though. In more cases than not, it's an electric razor. Tube Amp Gain+Volume+Equalizer=Distortion tone.