People are always asking me for how they can improve their guitar’s tone – usually what they want to know is what stuff they should buy to make themselves sound better. Well, guess what – you don’t have to buy anything to be able to improve your guitar tone right now – you can do it for free with these 10 steps.
1. Raise Your Action
If you’re like me, you like your action low. Really low. I like to play fast, and low is the way to go for that. But low action doesn’t do anything for your guitar’s tone and sustain – in fact, it’s the opposite. If want you want is singing tone with endless sustain, and chords that really ring out. you’re gonna have to take that action up a bit. Here’s an article with some more information on how to do that if you’re unfamiliar.
2. Mute Excess Strings & Springs
This one is my personal favorite – muting. It’s easy, quick, and once you’ve got it in place, it passively controls the guitar’s natural excess noises. There are 3 typical sources of this noise on the guitar – the strings behind the nut, your tremolo/Floyd Rose springs, and the strings from a Tune-O-Matic style saddle to the tailpiece or string holes on the body. If you don’t think these are affecting your sound, plug into your amp and turn your volume up, then hit any of those 3 areas with your pick. If you can hear it through the amp, that’s noise that’s going on all the time when you’re playing. Sympathetic resonance keeps them ringing whether you actually touch them or not. Also, try hitting a chord and cutting it off short – hear that ringing noise? Same deal. If you play music that is tight and requires quick stops, you’ve got extra incentive to mute those areas.
There are a couple ways to do this – I’m sure you’ve got some foam lying around, from a package you ordered, some piece of gear that came packed in soft foam to protect it. Cut a little strip of it that is about the length of your guitar’s nut and is tall enough to go just a bit past the strings. If you’re changing your strings, it’s easy to slip it in there while they’re off, or you can use a tiny allen wrench or a pen or something like that to push the foam through, under the strings. You can trim the ends once it’s in there with scissors if it’s too long. Same with the trem springs – just cut a larger square that will fit behind all the springs, or you can cut one long piece for each spring and stuff it right down the middle of each spring. I’ve also used rubber wire casing in the same way.
You can also use things like hair ties, scrunchies (you might need a time machine to go back to the mid 90’s for one of those), tape around the strings (although this only lasts til your next string change) or the old tie-a-sock-around-it (although this looks ridiculous, maybe don’t do this for shows). I find that soft foam is best because it stays in place, is unobtrusive, and can be cut to fit. The most important thing is that whatever you use, it keeps those troublesome spots quiet so people can hear what you’re playing.
3. Set Your Pickup Height RIGHT
There is a bit of an obsession these days with replacing your stock pickups, but many people don’t realize that setting the height of whatever pickups you have can have almost as large of an impact. Of course, setting them higher or lower isn’t going to transform your low output single coils into screaming hot overwound humbuckers, but it’s very important nonetheless. Here’s a great Premier Guitar article on doing just that. In general, if they sound too harsh, you can lower them to mellow them out a little, and if they sound weak, you can raise them closer to the strings.
4. Set Your Intonation
The intonation of your guitar is simply making the spots where the notes sit on the string (determined by the scale length of the string) line up properly with the frets (which should be laid out accordingly). This is why electric guitars have adjustable saddles – sometimes the two are out of sync, and small adjustments need to be made. If your guitar is not intonated properly, then not only will some things you play sound out of tune, but because of the notes beating against each other, your tone will suffer as well. Here’s a simple explanation of how to do this yourself.
5. Put Your Pedals in Order
You can have the best pedals made on Earth, but if you have them in the wrong order it won’t matter a lick. I have general guidelines I use when it comes to that – I don’t like reverbs, chorus, or delays going into a distortion/overdrive/fuzz pedal or the front of a high-gain amp, so I put those into the effects loop (which puts them after the preamp and before the power amp). I generally put my tuner first, which likes a nice clean sound to hear the note and will then give me accurate information, then the overdrive, which tends to be a bit noisy, so the noise gate comes next, then a wah or similar mod pedal. Putting a wah in your effects loop is a terrible idea, as it is then modulating the volume to the output section, which will make for wild volume changes as you sweep through the pedal. That’s how I do it – there’s lots of other kinds of effects that I don’t use that go in different places, and some people like certain sounds that I don’t. You have to adjust all this information for your own effects preferences, but it’s a good starting point.
6. Wipe Down Your Strings After You Play
This is less of an instantaneous improvement, and more like something that keeps your guitar tone good for a longer time. I tend to use a paper towel rather than a rag, but that’s because I don’t tour often. Keep a soft cloth or a rag in your guitar case and/or on your stand and wipe your strings off when you’re done playing for the day. Your strings will last longer and sound better, and save you some cash in the long run, because strings are expensive!
7. Learn How To Dial In Your Amp
Your guitar amp probably has the largest effect on your tone overall, and although each amp has a signature sound, you can usually stretch the sound of it pretty far using the included tone controls. You might be holding yourself back with preconceived notions about what it should sound like and what the controls do. What other players use the same amp as you? How do they dial it in? You can use this as a jumping-off point. Have you tried turning each of the knobs all the way up and all the way down? I’ve found that to be the best way to really understand what a control does – push it to the extremes. Every amp has distinct tone controls and circuitry and the way they interact with each other will be different with each amp. Try to find your sound in there, not just someone else’s.
I’ve also found that it’s very common for players to use too much bass in their guitar tone. It’s easy to go overboard with the bass because of the physical aspect of feeling the bass hit your body, but it muddies your sound and the sound of the whole band when you push it too high. Leave lots of room for the bass player to fill out the bottom end, you don’t want to be fighting for that frequency space. The guitar lives in the midrange, even for really low tuned or extended range guitars (7, 8, 9 strings etc.), so pay more attention there. The more midrange you have, the more your tone will cut. This can also become too much, making your guitar honky and or overpowering. Scooping too much of the mids will make you disappear from the mix altogether.
It becomes a balancing act as much as anything else in a band context, but as long as you are considering the sound of the band as a whole instead of just your own sound, you’ll be able to carve out a niche for yourself and be heard far better and more clearly than ever before.
8. Clean Your Damn Fretboard
A dirty, gunky fretboard isn’t just gross – it can dull the sound of your guitar in a similar way as having old strings. Here’s a good guide for cleaning your guitar (although they recommend some cleaners, which are not free), but you can also get great results with just a paper towel and your fingernail to get rid of that built-up gunk. If you want to spend a little money and have a kit to clean your guitar many times over, I personally like the System 65 kit from Dunlop.
9. Learn Palm Muting Technique
Playing clean has less to do with what you play and more to do with what you don’t. The guitar is a noisy instruments, and the strings you aren’t intending to play are just sitting there, waiting for the lightest tough or sympathetic resonance to make some noise. Thus, we must combat it with some good palm muting. Not the kind you apply when playing Metallica songs – that’s important too, but for a very different reason. For this, we rest the pick hand palm on the strings closer to the middle of the pickups, a little farther from the bridge, to mute the strings you aren’t playing. Your fret hand first finger will naturally mute the higher strings that you aren’t using, and then you essentially just follow one string behind your pick with your palm. You can practice this by just picking the open strings one at a time while muting the string behind it, and trying to make them silent.
You need to know when it’s time to be done dicking around with your gear. This is extremely important – no piece of gear can make you sound good if you suck. Your tone will only get you so far – you need to play well to activate it. If you don’t pick hard enough, even through high gain the sound won’t distort. If you don’t have good vibrato or can’t play your part clean, your expensive custom guitar and balanced tension string sets are wasted money. It doesn’t cost a single penny to practice, and it will have more effect than all the above list items combined.
For more on this topic, check out the following: