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Finding Your Unique Guitar Tone

Date:2020/2/14 14:33:47 Hits:

The quest for your own unique guitar tone is never-ending, and everything from your mind-set and technique to your guitar, pedals, and amplifier has a big impact on your sound. In this article, we share some insights on how to break away from the pack and pursue your signature sound.

Whether you’re a straight-into-the-amp kind of player or you construct layered sounds with your pedalboard, tone chasing never truly ends. There are many articles and videos about how to sound like famous players — but how do you set off on your own path toward sonic excellence and create your signature guitar tone? Everything in the chain, from your brain and fingers to your amplifier and post-processing, will have a big impact on your tone. We humbly submit this article to get you thinking about the many interrelated components of your guitar tone and how they can help you find your true guitar voice.

“Your tone originates in your head/ears/imagination. Think of yourself like a giant filter; everything you’ve heard, seen, felt, and experienced gets filtered through your brain and can be summoned through your hands, which are the delivery system for your ideas. When you learn someone else’s licks or songs, they enter the filter, get mixed in with everything else, and come through you differently. Unless, of course, you make it your goal to copy someone else verbatim and never branch out beyond that. Gear is there to facilitate your ideas. Whatever gear feels right and makes sense to you is the best choice. Finding your sound is an ongoing search: constant exploration, development, discovery, and refinement.”

Mindset and Technique

Crafting your own signature guitar tone begins with a somewhat obvious mind-set: not being satisfied with your current sound. Ask yourself questions to start on your path — why isn’t your current tone perfect? Is your tone too dark, or too bright? Does it sound thin? Do you want your guitar to sound angry? Soulful? Like dew settling on a spring flower? The point is that if you can’t explain in general terms how you want to sound, it’s going to be a challenge figuring out what direction to go in. Or worse, you’ll spend far too much time trying different presets on modeling amps or software hoping to stumble upon “your” sound.

Also consider that countless pro guitarists emphasize that most of your tone is in your hands. Consider how your individual playing style impacts your tone regardless of the gear you use, and identify areas of your technique that could improve. For example, your dynamic range. If you normally have a light touch and pick attack, how hard can you actually play and still maintain consistent control? If you’re a heavy picker and generally attack your strings, how softly can you actually play? The dynamic range of your playing greatly influences how your guitar’s pickups sound, and thus the gain stages of your pedals and amp. By spending some of your practice time on expanding and strengthening your dynamic range as a player, you’ll be in more command of your tone no matter what guitar and amp you use.

Picks and Strings

Guitar picks are one of the easiest things to experiment with — they’re generally inexpensive, and you can try out a variety in a matter of minutes. And while a new guitar pick probably isn’t going to be the single key that unlocks your signature sound, it will greatly influence how you play. And as we’ve already covered, how you play is a huge part of your tone. Find a pick that feels so natural to you that you forget you’re holding it, and you’ll be that much closer to your signature guitar sound.

Guitar strings are also relatively easy to swap out and experiment with. While different materials, like steel, nickel, and cobalt, have their own sounds, you may want to focus on finding your ideal string gauges before worrying about the type of metal used. Thicker strings sound fuller and louder than thinner strings, but that doesn’t mean thin strings sound wimpy — just ask ZZ Top, known for massive tone from low-gauge strings. That’s why you really need to try out a range of gauges to really understand how each sits in the sonic spectrum. And the feel of your guitar will change greatly with different strings — full-step bends on a guitar strung with a set of eights will feel much different than the same guitar with a set of tens on it.

The point is that you don’t really know what you’re missing until you’ve tried lots of different pick and string combinations. When you find picks and strings that simply feel “right” for your playing style, you’ll play more naturally and comfortably, and that will equate to better guitar tone.

Guitar, Pickups, and Electronics

It should go without saying that different types of guitars have their own unique sonic characteristics — and of course, experienced players can wrangle a wide range of sounds out of a single instrument. We’ve written past articles about different types of electric guitars, tonewoods, and construction methods. For this article, we’ll assume you have a guitar that feels good to you, in your hands, and allows you to play without feeling like you’re fighting it — that’s the best starting point you could ask for. What we really want you to consider are your guitar’s pickups and electronics.

Whether you play a Stratocaster with three single-coil pickups, a Les Paul with dual humbuckers, or any other combination of pickups, you’ll likely have the option to raise or lower those pickups. If you haven’t tried adjusting them before, you may be amazed at how big a difference it can make. And it’s so easy to do — usually all you need is a Phillips-head screwdriver. As you raise pickups closer to the strings, you’ll notice a louder attack and generally hotter output. As you lower your pickups, you’ll hear more sustain and more balanced tonality. Adjust your pickups just a bit at a time and really listen to what’s happening — you may find that your pickups are only a fraction of an inch away from the tone you’re chasing. Some pickups also feature adjustable pole pieces, which you can use to further fine-tune your string-to-string balance.

Adjust and listen to each pickup on your guitar in isolation. Once you’re satisfied that your pickups are at exactly the right height, you should spend some time getting to know the electronics on your guitar. There’s nothing wrong with playing with your volume and tone controls set to 10 all day long — but if you haven’t really spent any time exploring the range of each of those knobs, you don’t know if you’re missing out. And keep in mind that not all electronics are created equal — upgrading the volume and tone pots in your guitar to higher-quality components with accurately measured values can be a big sonic upgrade that is relatively inexpensive.

In other words, we could talk all day about how to choose a new guitar or about new pickups to try. But the best place to start is to really explore the range your instrument is capable of, by adjusting your pickup height and getting to know how your volume and tone knobs interact. You may find you were much closer to your ideal tone than you thought.


It’s kind of funny how many old-school players proudly proclaim that they don’t use any effects pedals — except for a good overdrive pedal and maybe a delay pedal, of course. The irony is that you can still ruin a good guitar tone with a single pedal — and you can indeed craft respectable tone from a huge pedalboard. The point we’re making here is that adding effects pedals is not a creative endeavor unless you have a goal-oriented mind-set. It helps to mentally divide pedals into two different groups — those useful for shaping your core tone, and those useful for special effects.

Compressors, overdrive and distortion, EQ, noise gates, wahs and filters, and even harmony pedals (i.e. octave effects) are examples of pedals to shape your core sound. None of these pedals will make a “bad” tone sound “good,” and that’s why we keep emphasizing the importance of how you play. By fine-tuning how you play, you’ll improve your core tone — and these types of pedals build off that core tone. And again, it’s important to use pedals to achieve specific goals — to add harmonic richness or to control dynamics, as examples. If you don’t understand what a pedal is actually doing or you can’t explain how you think a pedal will improve your tone, there’s a good chance that it isn’t going to be the key to your signature tone.

Delays, rotary speaker emulators, ring modulators, phasers and flangers, and reverb pedals are examples of special effects pedals. That’s not to say that some players haven’t made these effects a staple of their tone — just listen to U2’s The Edge, whose use of delay is integral to his sound. The point we’re making is that these types of effects all rely on having a great core tone — while your own signature sound may come to rely on special effects, these will rarely improve a lackluster core tone.

In short, pedals build on the tone you’re already creating with your guitar and amplifier. If you focus on your pedalboard before really diving into the sound your guitar and amp are producing, you may miss opportunities to optimize your tone.

Amplifiers (or Amp Sims) and Speakers

 Your choice of amplifier arguably has the biggest impact on your tone, and the same goes for speakers. Whether you play with a real amplifier or one of the many modeling options available, you need to spend some time exploring how it responds to your playing style. Many pro players recommend starting with any amplifier’s controls set at noon, or midway between their lowest and highest settings. Use the dynamic range of your playing style to hear how the amp responds throughout. Does it break up into overdrive when you want it to, or too early/late? Do notes jump out in a punchy fashion, or does it sound flat and one-dimensional? As you spend time with any amplifier, you should be paying attention to how it responds to the nuances of your playing style.

The speakers loaded in your combo amplifier or speaker cabinet play a huge role in your sound too. A combo amp that sounds dull and unresponsive can come to life simply by swapping out the speaker. See how close you can get to your ideal sound by adjusting the gain, tone, and volume controls on your amplifier. If you get close, but just not close enough, there’s a good chance that new speakers may get you closer compared with switching amplifiers.

Generally, the tips above apply just as much to amplifier-modeling devices and software. In fact, these are a great way to audition different amps and speaker types without having to become a nuisance at your local music store. The advanced state of modeling technology today means that you can use amp modelers to understand the characteristics of common amplifier types, and you can audition many more combinations of amps and speakers than you ever could without modeling technology. Nothing beats the sound of a real speaker cabinet pushing real air, and ironically, amp modelers can help you quickly narrow down which real amp may be right for you.

It’s worth noting that with amp modeling, most presets will include more than amp and speaker emulations. You’ll often find added compression, EQ, reverb, and other effects. This stuff will alter your tone and make it harder to understand the character of just the amp and speakers — turn off all additional processing until you’ve dialed in the amp and speaker models to sound the way you want.

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