How Can I Improve My Guitar Tone?

Improving guitar tone can seem like a ‘trial and error’ process – here are 5 tips to remove some of the ‘error’…

The search for perfect guitar tone is akin to the search for the Holy Grail for many players. Though you might know exactly what you want from your tone, it can sometimes seem out of reach. Or, when you it down with your guitar and amp, and start to try and dial the perfect tone in, the results are close, but somehow not quite there… Often too muddy, or too thin, it’s far from a ‘perfect tone’.

How do you go about achieving perfection? Well, like everything, it can take a time and patience. There are, however, some tips that can help you to avoid making the most common mistakes…

1.Keep it clean(er), folks…

How Can I Improve My Guitar Tone? - SG Standard Heritage Cherry

One of the most common mistakes that guitars make in the pursuit of perfect guitar tone is to use too much overdrive. When listening to a professionally recorded track by a favourite artist for inspiration, it’s easy to perceive the guitar tracks to be more distorted than they actually are.

Perhaps this is because they tend to be made from multiple layers of guitar, and seem powerful and thick as a result, or maybe a just a guitarist’s natural tendency to turn the gain up- who knows.

If you listen to a track closely, however, you’ll often discover that the guitar tone is not as heavily distorted as you might think. Listen to Jimi Page or Hendrix, and you’ll see what I mean. Even Mastadon’s tone is less distorted than you might think. Try using the low gain input, if your amp has one, or at least turning the gain down…

2. Use the right tools

Fender Bassbreaker 007 Combo

Though I am a big advocate of playing whichever instrument, or whichever piece of gear that inspires you, there is always an element of ‘getting the right tool for the job’. For example, if you want to sound like Pantera, a standard single-coil Fender Telecaster is not going to make things easy (the pickup tone is too thin and bright). For those kind of ‘skull-crushing’ tones, a high-powered humbucker is the right tool…

This extends to amps, too, with certain amps proving far more suitable for certain musical styles. In live situations, getting the right size and power of amp for the venues that you play is crucial. Though you might have dreamed about playing with a full Marshall stack behind you, the size of venue may mean that can’t drive it hard enough to get the best tone.

A small amp is often better in these situations. They might lack visual impact, but a good engineer will mic this up, meaning that getting the perfect tone and perfect level is achievable. Your back will thank you, too…

3. Use your volume control!

How Can I Improve My Guitar Tone? - Volume and Tone Controls

For some reason, many guitarists have an aversion to using the volume control on their guitar. Whilst they’re more than happy to tweak the tone control, the volume is turned up and left alone.

If you’re looking for an overdriven or distorted tone, you can use the volume to dial in the correct amount of drive from the guitar. Turning down the volume also has the effect of backing off some of the high frequencies, too.

Some players adjust the volume control whilst performing to create an even broader range of tone, and dynamics, but with the effect of it seeming like the same guitar tone. If you’ve ever struggled to achieve a Jeff Beck-like tone, his on-the-fly adjustments may well be the reason for your struggle…

4. Strings, and set-up

Guitar Strings - Ernie Ball Slinky

Strings can be considered is a similar way to guitars and amps, to some extent. Moving back to the ‘Pantera’ example, if you’re looking for thick, powerful chords, super-light strings won’t help- particularly if you’re hoping to drop tune. In this scenario, heavier strings are the way forward.

As another example, if you want that percussive, defined jazz sound, you may want to consider flat-wound strings. It should be noted, however, that these don’t have the same sustain as the regularly wound counterparts. Brands such as D’Addario and Ernie Ball have a range that covers all tastes and requirements.

How Can I Improve My Guitar Tone? - Ernie Ball Not Even Slinkys

It goes without saying that guitar set-up is equally important. Your strings need to be able to vibrate freely when you play in your chosen style. If you’re hoping to play lots of hard power-chords, then a super-low playing action will cause the strings to buzz and rasp everywhere.

Try to keep things more controlled, and accept that if you want to hit the strings really hard, you may have to compromise a little with your set-up…

5. Don’t let a cable choke your guitar tone…

Fender Custom Shop Series Guitar Cables

You might be aware of the ‘Audiophile’ community, whose high-end hi-fi systems are often connected with cables that sell for eye-watering prices. How can this be justified? Well, whilst it can be argued that at the upper end of this mark it, the law of diminishing returns most certainly applies, cables can make a massive difference to your tone.

Using a bad cable is sometimes described as being like serving a fine wine in a polystyrene cup. In some ways, this is true- why would you spend time and effort getting everything else in your rig right, and then ruining it all at step one; the connection between your guitar and everything else.

A better analogy would be to say that it’s like drinking a fine wine from a sealed vessel, with only a tiny pinhole for the wine to flow through. This is because a poor cable will constrain your tone, limiting the dynamic range and frequency range, and may even add unwanted noise, too.

Planet Waves Guitar Lead

So, use a good cable- both Planet Waves and Fender have a great range in this regard.

Of course, using the right effects, and the type of guitar play a huge part in achieving your perfect guitar tone. Using the above as your ‘tonal foundations’ should set you on the right path, however.