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How to get a great electric guitar tone

Updated on January 10, 2015

Technique first

Ever hear Eric Clapton unplugged? Kurt Cobain or Stevie Ray Vaughn unplugged?

If so, who did they sound like?

My guess is you'll answer "themselves" - because their technique is what gives them their sound, not just their equipment. How they approach and play the instrument- the attack, the sustain, the phrasing, the clarity, the timing, the tone, etc - all comes from the hands.
The guitars and amps- while adding sonic characteristics and adding subtle tone elements- do NOT define the artists sound as much as their touch. Otherwise, you probably WOULDN'T be able to tell one artist apart from another.

So if you want great tone, start with your technique FIRST.

Do you sound good unplugged? If so, you are on the right track. But if not, how do you improve your technique?

The answer is simple:

Listen to yourself!

But listen closely and identify what you DON'T like about your playing.There are usually just a few problem areas that usually suggest the answer to your problem:

1) Are your notes clean, crisp and clear? Do your chords ring out with authority and definition? For many rock guitarists, the clean sound of the notes are often overlooked because rock guitar often uses distortion, and many guitarists don't see the need to play clean when they are in overdrive or distortion modes.
This can create a somewhat lazy approach when playing heavy rock styles. Sometimes rock players tend to not focus as intently on clarity since the distortion itself tends to obscure the notes to a certain degree.This loose approach is not always very noticeable but can contribute to a sterile sound as well as degraded tone & sloppy technique.

The answer is to play everything as if it was NOT distorted and see how much better your sound and tone starts to get. Practice playing your heavy rock songs in clean modes and watch the difference when you pay attention to your note clarity and separation. This should make the biggest impact on your tone if this is the cause.

2) Timing. Are you timing your notes and chords correctly? Are you damping the strings between chord changes so you don't get a lot of ringing open strings between chord changes?

If you are having trouble with timing, try a few simple fixes- the first is to learn to tap your foot with a metronome to sharpen your inner clock. Set the metronome for different speeds, fast & slow, to fine tune your sense of steady time. Then practice songs and melodies at various tempos to learn how to keep tempo changes steady and flowing. If you start chopping up the rhythm, odds are you are speeding up or slowing down, or are slightly early or late. Again, LISTEN closely to yourself and pick out the problem. The answers are there if you pay close attention.

3) Picking and/or finger attack contributes to your tone- how hard you flat pick or snap the strings with your fingers will affect brightness and tone quality....practice being dynamic with both picks and fingers.

Remember that music is like a conversation. You don't always want to sound like you're yelling, which happens when you constantly play as hard as you can-there is nowhere to go but down dynamically. And the reverse is also true- to prevent this, try to always play evenly and smoothly, leaving upper and lower volume mobility available to you.

Pick your equipment wisely

Of course, a great instrument sounds great in the hands of someone who knows how to use it. The best violinists use the Stradivarius violins because of their exceptional tone and playability.

A great guitarist will want a guitar that will accentuate the tonal colors that compliment his style as well as an instrument that responds to his playing equally well. The response from a great instrument must be in it's volume, sustain, attack, timbre and playability. The more accurately the instrument responds to the player's demands the better.

Some guitarists prefer a brighter sound, some a darker or more subdued tone. Depending on the material, that is a subjective choice- there is no absolute right or wrong choice.
An electric guitar has many facets that contribute to it's tone- electronics, woods, design and overall quality control. If anyone of those items is not optimal for the player, odds are his tone will suffer.
Also, the choice of amplifiers will contribute mightily to the tone. Again, the material that is being played somewhat dictates the type of amplifier a player should use. The combination of the right guitar and amplifier can be a beautiful thing, or a very ugly thing- again, the answer that always seems to elude players is simple:


Listen to the guitars unplugged before trying them through an amp. If the guitar sounds terrible without an you really think an amp can make that big of a difference? And if that were true...wouldn't a much BETTER sounding guitar get even more spectacular results?

When trying a guitar through an amp, see if you can find the optimum clean and dirty sounds. If they sound like a good combo, they probably are. I usually find bright guitars sound best through darker sounding amps, and dark guitars benefit from much brighter amps, simply because they tend to accentuate the weaker spectrum of sound and tones from the instrument. The stronger sounds are already there.

In closing, your ears are your best weapon to combat bad tone. Check your technique, then your instrument, then your amplifier, in that order. Listen to each and find the flaws that YOU feel need fixing. Then you will be on the road to RIGHTEOUS tone!


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