Top 10 Guitar Tone Tips

To help you in your quest for guitar tone perfection, we thought we’d share our Top 10 Guitar Tone Tips. Keep these in mind before your next rehearsal, jam, studio session and you’ll be off to a great start.

1. Tuning

There we go, we said it! It may seem blindingly obvious, but having a guitar that is accurately in tune goes a long way to making you sound less like a strangled cat and closer to a guitar god! I see so many guitarists (some who have been playing long enough to know better) that either don’t own a quality tuner, or, don’t know the correct method for tuning their guitar.

With a plethora of phone based apps these days, its easy to download a tuner that’s always close to hand. Some of these are better than others and if you can’t afford a proper tuner (because your saving you’re cash for that new overdrive pedal) then this is at least a step in the right direction. We recommend the TC Electronic PolyTune app which is £4.99, but worth it.

However if you’re a gigging musician, this really won’t be practical; a pedal style tuner is a must. These have the advantage of being easy to integrate into your live setup or pedalboard, most have an auto mute function, and some can even power other effects pedals in your chain. There are many pedals out there such as the long standing workhorse Boss TU-3, TC Electronic’s Polytune, as well as others from the likes of Korg, Digitech and more. Key points to consider here, are whether or not you need a ‘true-bypass’ pedal, or prefer a buffer at the start of your pedal chain, the display style, and the aforementioned capability of powering other pedals.

If you don’t need a pedal based tuner, a stand alone unit with a needle display will give the most accurate results by far, such as the Boss TU-12 or the excellent Korg GT-120 which also has a range of built in settings for alternate tunings. Clip on tuner’s such as the ‘Snark’ are also a great alternative to adding more boxes to your pedalboard and exquisitely configured signal chain!

Once you’ve got your tuner, there’s one more fundamental thing to know: What is the best method for tuning?

The answer, always tune up to the note. This ensures your tuners wont slip out of tune straight away. If the string is flat – tune up, if the string is sharp – tune down and then back up to the correct pitch. If you’re still having problems and your guitar doesn’t sound in tune, you need to check your intonation. Which brings us to Tone Tip number 2…

2. Intonation

Every guitarist out there owe’s it to themselves to learn to set the intonation on their guitar. This is fundamental to sounding in tune, and will pay dividends when playing with other musicians or tracking parts for a recording session. Often overlooked because people are afraid of adjusting the parts on their guitar, setting the intonation on most electric guitars is surprisingly simple to do with a couple of tools. This is where your newly acquired tuner comes into its own. You’ll need a tuner (one with a needle display is best for this task) and an appropriately sized screwdriver or hex key (depending on the type of guitar).

Most Fender style guitars have individual adjustable saddles, and the intonation on these is set via the Philips screw that also secures them to the bridge plate. On a Gibson style Nashville or ABR-1 Bridge, the saddles are adjusted via a small flat-head screw that moves them back a forward within the bridge piece.

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Fender style saddle
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Gibson style saddle

The rule of thumb with intonation is slowly – slowly! small adjustments can go a long way, and care must be taken when using screwdrivers and other tools close to the paint finish on your prized axe. Protect the guitar top with a cloth or piece of cardboard whilst you’re working.

Here’s the basic rules of setting intonation:

  1. Plug in your tuner and tune your guitar up as accurately as possible, take your time to get this right
  2. Starting from the low E string, check the tuning of the open string. Then fret the string at the 12th fret. Chances are this note isn’t quite in tune compared to the open string. If the note at the 12th fret is flat, the saddle needs to move closer to the nut to shorten the string length between the bridge and the 12th fret. If the note is sharp compared to the open string the the saddles needs to move back towards the bridge (effectively making the string length longer). Make small adjustments and repeatedly check your progress by checking the open string tuning with your tuner…
  3. Once you’ve got the low E intonated, work your way through the strings repeating the process, and checking the overall tuning of the guitar as you go (especially important on guitars with a vibrato bridge)
  4. If you are in the process of changing to a new set of strings, its a good idea to set the guitar’s intonation before you change them, then tweak it once the new strings are bedded in

3. Pickup Height

Another easy way to improve the sound of your guitar at zero cost is to check / set the height of your pickups properly. If your pickups are too low they can sound dull and muddy, if they are too high they can sound harsh and bright. This can have adverse effects on your tuning as the magnets have a pull effect on the vibrating string when in close proximity.

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Once you’re in the right ball park height wise, you can tweak to your own taste using your ear as a guide to tell you when it sounds just right, depending on whether you want a fast attack, or a more laid back mellow sound.

Tools Required: We will be working in imperial measurements (divisions of one inch) using either a set of feeler gauges (preferable) or a suitable straight edge with imperial measurement markings.

The reason for using imperial not metric is two-fold: Firstly, most electric guitars are built around the standards set by Gibson and Fender, who both worked in imperial, but secondly, imperial offers a greater amount of fine accuracy.

Method: Pickup height is set by measuring the distance between the top of the pickup pole pieces and the underside of both the high and low E strings. This is taken whilst depressing the string on the last fret and either using feeler gauges to determine the gap or taking a measurement with the straight edge.

Raise or lower the pickup using the mounting screws on each side. The key is to measure each pickup individually as the string height above the pickup will increase as it moves towards the bridge.

Recommended settings:

For Standard and Vintage Stratocaster type guitars: 1/8″ on the bass side (low E) and 3/32″ on the treble side (high E)

For Telecaster style guitars: 3/32″ on the bass side and 5/64″ on the treble side

For F Style Bass guitars: 1/8″ on the bass side and 3/32″ on the treble side

For Les Paul Style guitars: Settings are different for each pickup

  • Neck pickup: 3/32″ on both the bass and treble side
  • Bridge pickup: 1/16″ on both the bass and the treble side

4. Guitar Tone Control

Admit it, they’re like wallpaper, you know they exist but you’ve never payed any attention to their existence. It’s a shame, as your guitar’s controls were put there for a reason! They are versatile tools capable of coaxing so many different tones from a guitar (just ask Eric Clapton how he got his fabled ‘Woman Tone’).

Let’s start with a Strat as an example. In the 50’s when Leo designed the Stratocaster guitar, he decided to stagger the bridge pickup to give a brighter sound. During this time most guitar amps available tended to sound quite dark compared to modern designs so the brightness was compensated for. Through a modern amp a Strat’s bridge pickup can sound at times brittle and overly bright. As standard the Strat’s two tone controls are wired to the neck and middle pickups respectively. One of the best ways to improve the usability of the bridge pickup is to re-wire the second tone control from the middle pickup to the bridge pickup (see wiring diagram courtesy of Seymour Duncan). This involves de-soldering the two wires from the tone pot on the selector switch a re-positioning them to the switch position for the bridge pickup.

On a Les Paul that has tone controls for each pickup, so many different tones can be achieved by mixing different settings and pickup combinations. Anything from jazz to all out rock can be achieved, and without even stepping on an overdrive pedal. Experiment with different balances of controls and you will soon find many different tones at your fingertips (check Joe Bonamassa’s YouTube video as example of this in action).

5. Getting a Balanced Sound From Your Amp

Setting a good sound from your amp can seem tricky, but there is a simple trick to dial in a balanced tone from any amp to get the best presentation of its sound in only a minute or two. This technique applies to all bass and guitar amps, as well as many pedals and other pro audio gear. We use the Matt Schofield technique (Awesome UK Blues guitarist, and Two Rock signature artist). His method for amp settings is great because it means you can get the best sound available on any amp, even if you turn up to the gig and you’re using someone else’s amp that you’ve never seen or used before.

It works as follows. Each control on your amp has a sweet spot where its effect is at its most prominent. Go through each control listening turning it slowly from 0 towards 10 (unless you’re Nigel Tuffnel and are working with ’11’!) until you hear its effect kick in. Set it there and move on to the next control. Tone controls, Gain, Reverb, and even Volume will respond in the same way. Once set it will mean each section of the amp’s circuit is running at it’s most dynamic and effective potential. You can then add or subtract tweaks to you own taste. This also works especially well on overdrive pedals…

6. Pedal Detox

Let’s face it, we all love guitar pedals. We spend hours tweaking dials here and there experimenting with different sounds from Delay, Modulation and Overdrives. There’s so much variety out there these days that we’ve all got an impossibly long wish list of additions to our pedalboards. As fun as all this is, it can sometime distract us from the game in hand – playing music! We challenge you to spend a day plugged straight into your amp with no pedals, really getting to grips with the sounds you can coax from just the guitar and amp alone. You may even find these limitations are liberating as far as you’re creativity is concerned and you will discover new musical ideas and phrases based on feel, rather than technical gizmos!

Don’t believe us? Listen to Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, Derek Trucks and Peter Green to name a few…

7. Connections

If you will insist on using pedals, and that covers most guitarists these days, it’s worth considering what you’re using to connect them all up with. I’ve seen many players spend hundreds of Pounds (Dollars, Euros – pick your currency) on ’boutique’ pedals only to connect them together with the cheapest possible patch cable and guitar leads.

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Buy some decent ones and your gear will perform to its full potential. This also applies to power supplies, spend some money and buy a proper pedal supply. The T-Rex fuel tank, or the Voodoo Lab’s pedal power are trusty options. Cheap adapters will suck the tone from your gear, be noisy and may even damage your pedals! Nobody wants that now.

8. Heavier is Better!

Still using the 9 gauge strings that your guitar came with? Wondering why your tone is thin and your phrasing is less than sharp? Maybe you need to switch to heavier strings. You’ll get a fatter, richer tone and more control in your phrasing. Work up the gauges from 9 to 10s and then 11s, which would be our recommended balance between playability and tone. Wonder how SRV’s tone was so huge? Well, in part it was the massive strings (13s ; not recommended for the faint hearted!) This also applies to acoustic guitars, thin strings such as gauge 10’s can rob an acoustic of its rich harmonic content that is present on 12 or 13s… (Note: Martin do not recommend using strings heavier than gauge 13 on their acoustic guitars).

String wise, we recommend Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s (10s) and Power Slinky’s (11s), D’Addario EXL 110s and EXL 115s. Blues and Classic Rock players should also check out DR Pure Blues (pure nickel wound) strings, and GHS Nickel Rockers are awesome sounding, for a more vintage guitar tone and added warmth.

Oh, and change your strings regularly!!!

9. Take Your Pick

Believe it or not, the pick you use has a big impact on your sound. In general we recommend a medium-heavy nylon pick such as the Jim Dunlop nylon picks (we like the grey and black ones) between .88mm and .100mm For players who need a faster attack and play faster lead passages, the Jim Dunlop Jazz III is worth a try (Eric Johnson and Joe Bonamassa are both fans of this little red pick, need we say more?!)

10. Last But Not Least

Once you’ve got all this down there really is no excuse, the only thing left to do is PRACTISE!

It’s obvious, but take time regularly to run through what you know and also push yourself to learn new or more difficult pieces to maintain a steady pace of progress. If you’re in a gigging band, spend time before your rehearsal and gig to learn your parts so you can concentrate on the performance when you are in the moment. If you’re a beginner, there are so many resources for learning new chords and scales available on the internet these days, not to mention YouTube. Guitarists have never had it so good!

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