Seeking the Ultimate Guitar Tone
I come across a lot of guitarists who regularly spend a small fortune on gear (both vintage and modern) They invest in rare effects pedals, boutique amps (that cost nearly as much as a house in some cases) and buy guitar cables that perhaps only bats can hear the difference with – and it’s all in search of the ultimate guitar tone.
Being absolutely honest, I’ve done the exact same thing myself (for decades it seems) and it’s only in recent years that I’ve started examining why we all seem to go weak at the knees over the latest (or most fashionable) guitar equipment and more specifically seem addicted to buying it. Anyone for example remember those huge rack systems in the 1980’s?…not cheap!
I thought that it might therefore be useful in this article to examine some ways I have found over the years to improve tone without spending a fortune. These aren’t all my own ideas, but rather tips I’ve picked up from various guitar players/technicians who all had achieved a great tone but weren’t lugging around Dumble amplifiers and 1959 Les Pauls!
Look differently at your current guitar
The above concept was initially suggested to me by an old friend (who builds and repairs guitars) and he gently pointed out that a good many players (myself included I might add) change guitars simply because they are either bored with their current instrument or feel it’s not trendy any more. As strange as it sounds, he’s probably right in a lot of cases. Here’s a few things you could consider trying if you want better tone but aren’t in a position to spend a great deal of money.
- Raise the action a little. I was amazed how much better my tone became when I grabbed an Allen key and raised the action on my Strat for example. A lot of players get quite upset at the thought of raising the action on their guitars, but if you even try it just a little, the tone difference can be startling.
- Adjust your pickup heights and maybe even lower them? I found a great article a few years ago on the web about this very subject (referring specifically to Strat pickups) and was staggered at just how much better my Strat sounded with far lower pickup heights. If like me at the time, you have your pickups set very high currently, it will sound almost like a new guitar when you lower them. Make sure you do this so that all pickups have roughly the same volume though.
- Try one gauge heavier strings. Now I’m not advocating switching from 009’s to 013’s overnight or anything, but going up one string gauge can really beef up your tone and it shouldn’t radically alter your playing style too much. You might need to check the truss rod on your guitar after doing this in some cases and if in doubt, take your guitar to someone who knows what they are doing with truss rods.
- Try playing with different sizes and gauges of pick. This sounds like a very simple solution to tone issues, but once again, the difference can be considerable. Often going up even one gauge in pick thickness can really bring back some projection to your playing. Equally going down a gauge can brighten things up quite a bit if you found that your tone was rather dark beforehand. Above all experiment – as picks are normally quite cheap to try out.
- If you really dislike the tone you are getting, you could also investigate getting some new pickups. There are always some to be found second hand on auction sites like eBay. In addition, websites like YouTube have countless videos covering all matters relating to guitar pickups, so you can also hear what different ones might potentially sound like on your instrument before you buy.
- Get your guitar professionally setup by an expert. OK, this will cost you a little bit, but the result can be quite miraculous on a guitar that you had just about given up on. Ask around in your local area for the best guitar technician/repairman and discuss with them what is not sounding good with your instrument. A good professional setup might be the best thing you’ve ever done for your tone.
Odd Effects Pedals and Unfashionable Amplifiers
Whilst there are some truly incredible effects pedals on the market nowadays, one trend I have noticed is that they are all starting to sound very, very similar. It seems that when one manufacturer brings out a new pedal then all the others make one that sounds almost identical. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh here, but that seems to be what I see in a lot of new gear coming out at the moment. Prices also seem to be getting higher and higher, so if things are getting a little out of reach, you could maybe look for some cheaper effects that aren’t especially trendy (or expensive) but still sound great.
Oddly enough, a lot of cheap effects pedals that were once considered completely out of fashion, rapidly come back into vogue when a famous player or two started using them and everyone thereafter wanted to get their tone. SRV (and others) who used the original Ibanez Tubescreamer pedals spring to mind here.
Another tone factor that all guitarists could do with examining, is how many effects they actually use. I have certainly been guilty of having a wildly overpopulated pedalboard that would have easily doubled for the Heathrow airport landing lights on a dark night and I doubt I used even a quarter of the pedals on an average gig. It looked nice for sure, but was poorly patched together, very noisy and ultimately didn’t give me any better a tone.
OK, so using no pedals might not be your thing, but maybe ask yourself if the tone you get is as good as just plugging straight into the amplifier?
As a final thought in searching for your ultimate guitar tone, don’t overlook old or unfashionable amplifiers. I’ve been amazed at some gigs on hearing what I thought was some sort of highly expensive boutique amplifier, it turning out to be a battered old Peavey or Marshall combo. Have a search on some secondhand auction sites to see what people are selling..you’ll be surprised at what you can pick up and it might just be the tone you are after.
Good luck in your search for the ultimate guitar tone – on a budget!