by Corey Palmer
There are many ways to improve your guitar’s tone without running out to buy new gear. Start with these simple suggestions and you’ll surprised how much your tone can be tweaked for the better. And if you want to take your tone to a whole different level, be sure to check out our Kings of Tone or Guitar Effects Survival Guide courses.
1. Use your guitar’s volume and tone knobs.
A number of years ago I had a footswitch that died on me, so I could no longer switch between the amp’s clean and dirty channels. While the footswitch was out getting fixed, I had to rely on my guitar’s volume and tone pots to alternate between clean to dirty sounds. Dialing the volume knob back a bit, for example, was great for cleaning up the sound, and then I got a nice, natural gain when I pushed it back up. More than that, though, I was struck by all the different tones I could dial in just by playing around with my volume and tone knobs. Definitely something for everyone to experiment with. I’m a Strat guy and the knobs are nice and close to the strings, which makes it fairly easy to make changes while playing.
2. Tweak your pickups.
In case you don’t know already, you can adjust the height of your pickups to set them either closer or farther away from the strings. With some pickups you can even adjust each pole’s height under the string. Play around with your pickup’s height or the height of each pole and you may be surprised at how drastically it can change the tone of your guitar. Another thing you can try: If your guitar has humbuckers with the ability to do a coil split, flip the pickups so that the active split coil is in a different position. Just like treble pickups are near the bridge and bass pickups near the neck, small position changes to where the string is “picked up” can make a load of difference.
3. Listen to the rest of your band.
It never ceases to amaze me how a guitarist can sound absolutely great playing by himself, and then the same tone is terrible when he’s playing in a band setting. One reason for this is that the guitarist has not learned how to listen to the band he’s playing with. It is really important to dial your guitar tone in relation to the rest of your band. Find the tone that fits appropriately into the arrangement. Just like when an engineer tweaks the guitar’s EQ in a studio mix, you have to find an appropriate EQ pocket when playing live. A tone that sounds really harsh on its own might balance out perfectly within a band.
4. Experiment with your pedal configuration.
Changing the order of the pedals in your signal chain can influence your guitar tone. You may want to first eliminate any pedals that really add no value to your tone or aren’t used. Personally, I like to have as few pedals as possible, which for me means a tuner, a boost pedal for leads, and a wah — that’s it. Keep it simple. Keep in mind that each pedal will color the sound it receives from all the pedals that precede it in the chain. As a rule of thumb, distortion pedals usually come early in the line-up, and reverbs and delays at the end. You also may want to move your modulation effects (chorus, delay, etc) to your effects loop instead of routing them through the front of the amp.
5. Try different string gauges.
String gauges will impact the tone of your guitar, with higher-gauge strings (i.e., thicker strings) generally making for a warmer, richer sound. Note that changing string gauges may require a tweak to the truss rod since heavier strings increase tension on the neck. If there’s an impact on your intonation, your guitar might need adjustments made to the bridge or saddle. Some guitars may need a new nut cut to accommodate heavy strings.
6. Try different pick gauges.
This isn’t quite as apparent if you are playing with a lot of distortion, but for clean tones, using different pick thicknesses can give provide wide variations in tone (overdrive can mask the sound of the pick on the string, though you’ll feel it in your fingers). For example, when strumming with a clean tone, a light pick can add a trebly, percussive timbre to the attacks while a heavy pick makes for a tighter, more aggressive hit on the strings. Depending on your playing style the change in tone can be subtle, but those little differences are what separates a good guitar tone from a great one.
7. Learn your gear setup.
If you haven’t sat with your gear and really “learned” it, you aren’t getting the most out of it. Tweak all the knobs on your amp and see what kinds of different tones that you can pull out of it. On some amps you’ll notice a drastic change with small adjustments, while on others it’s very reasonable to dial a tone pot all the way up or down. Try different combinations of your amp settings and guitar settings (tone, volume knobs and pickup selector switch) and note how the two interact. It can be a tedious process but it helps you to learn how the gear works and how to derive the tones you want.
Corey Palmer has been a guitarist for the past twenty years and has taught rock guitar lessons at his local music store in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada.