Finding your own, personal guitar tone is a life-long experience for most. Very few guitarists are ever completely satisfied with their sound, and even the ones who are satisfied still tweak their tones for different situations. There seems to be an insatiable desire among guitarists to find that perfect tone which defines who they are.
Technique before anything else
The first thing to realize when searching for your perfect tone is that technique must come first. I would say, conservatively, that at least three quarters of a guitarists tone is technique, and the rest comes from equipment. You are not going to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan if you’re struggling with alternate picking, regardless of the gear. A great guitarist will be recognizable no matter what equipment they use. Embracing your own idiosyncrasies will help to define your personal style.
Work within your skill and budget
If you lack adequate or even basic skills as a guitarist, thousands of dollars worth of gear is not going to make you sound any less like a beginner. Worse yet, jumping in and buying up top-of-the-line guitars, amps, and pedals can actually handicap you. Learning to play a perfectly set up expensive guitar will only teach you how to play a perfectly set up expensive guitar.
I’m not telling you to pass up the quality gear, but you need to know how to play a less than perfect instrument. Struggling to play a guitar with one string that won’t stay in tune, dealing with loose fret wires, and handling broken tone knobs or pickups selectors will be beneficial to you. Later, when you can afford better gear, you will appreciate the time spent with your busted guitar. Not only does it make you more thankful of the quality gear, you’ll have experience and adaptability with dealing with problems in a live setting.
Emulate other artists
I encourage everyone to try and emulate their favorite guitarists! Doing so will teach you a great deal about using the equipment you have to sculpt your sound. Once you feel you’ve mastered their tone, you can make slight tweaks or adjustments, or swap out pedals and amps. Before long you’ll have a tone that may sound nothing like the original, but it will be one you have a connection with, and one that will be distinctly yours.
However, it’s important to never allow yourself to get too comfortable emulating another’s tone, or to dig yourself into a rut. Unless you’re planning a career in a cover band or tribute band, it’s essential to create your own tone. Your audience will know who you’re trying to be, and won’t respect you as much, and may end up labeling you a copycat.
Simple and cheap ways to improve tone
Working your tone doesn’t have to be expensive, and in the beginning, it shouldn’t be. If these basic steps have not been taken before you invest in gear and toys, you won’t find your tone increasing as well as it could be.
- Try different pick thickness
Different thicknesses will have a large effect on your tone. Thin picks will have a brittle, more treble sound, and are well suited for strumming chords and rhythm playing, but tend to make playing leads or tremolo more difficult. Thicker picks will give you a warm, mid-strong sound, and make playing single notes and leads much easier, but strumming becomes difficult, because of the tendency for the pick to snag or drag along the strings.
- Try different string gauges
As a general rule, the thicker the string, the greater the tone. Some musicians will tell you that the difference is subtle, but there is a difference. I recommend using the thickest strings you can comfortably play. If you do a lot of bends, or your fingers are smaller, you may have to use smaller gauged strings. Great care must be taken in changing gauge, especially if going to a much larger size. It can put a large amount of stress on the neck, and some strings will damage the neck unless you use a lower tuning.
- Make adjustments to your guitar
Making adjustments to your guitar can have a profound effect, and can be done by yourself or by a professional at a guitar shop. Adjusting the intonation, truss rod, bridge, or lowering/raising the action can make the guitar easier to play, and give it a clearer tone. Everyone needs a different setup that suits their play style, and rarely does a guitar come shipped with your preferred setup.
Change your cables
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of tone, yet it is essential. Your cables are responsible for carrying the entire signal through the chain from guitar to amp. Even cables which appear identical can drastically color your tone, either good or bad. Look through your nest of cables, and see how many different kinds of brands, lengths, and types you actually have. Each one will effect your tone differently, and makes your sound inconsistent.
- Go clean and be simple
If you find that your tone seems muddy and dull, try lowering the gain. Many guitarists, either inadvertently or on purpose, add more and more gain to their sound when they’re unsatisfied with their tone. It’s easy in the beginning to fall into the trap of thinking that more gain is always better. Try using the clean channel!
Another mistake commonly made, not just by beginners, is playing too many notes. Some musicians will try to compensate for a dull or thin tone by playing as fast as they can, forgetting about dynamics. Remember that the space between notes is at least as important as the notes themselves. Give yourself and the the listener time to absorb what you’re playing.