You’d be hard-pressed to find a guitarist who feels like their guitar tone couldn’t be just a little bit better. No matter how satisfied you are with the way your guitar sounds through your amp, you can always imagine it sounding just a bit better with one little tweak.
So to aid in your playing journey, I’ve put together the most thorough list of guitar tone tips ever assembled, some you’ve probably heard of—or might even be a religious devotee of—others might be totally unfamiliar. Will every tip apply to you? Heck no. These guitar tone tips should be seen as a guidebook—a list of experiments to try out (though there are a couple of “musts” buried in here as well). Keep the ones that work great, toss the ones that don’t. If nothing else, they’ll be great for busting your way out of a playing rut, or a tonal rut.
Who am I that deigns to tell you how to make your guitar sound/play better? Well, I’m Scott, the string/gear/guitar nerd who founded Stringjoy guitar strings. I’ve gigged, I’ve recorded, I’ve produced, I’ve run live sound, I’ve worked at record labels, I’ve managed bands, you get the idea. In the time I’ve spent doing those things, these are the secret weapons I and people I’ve worked with have used to nail the perfect guitar tone, get out of a rut, or fit better into a mix. I hope they serve you well, as they have me.
Before we dig in, you will definitely want to bookmark this page on your browser. When you need a little inspiration, come back, pick a tip, and try it out.
Without further ado, let’s get into it. These tonal tips are in no particular order, and I did my best to load them full of helpful and useful links, so click away.
Listen to the room
Legendary producer George Martin said, “A room is an instrument, and it affects the other instruments. If you understand what your guitar sound is like ‘in the raw,’ you’ll have a much better idea of how it should be ‘cooked.'” The man produced the Beatles, so he knows a thing or two about these things…
Your amp and pedal settings won’t always be able to remain the same from room to room, if you want your guitar to sound the same in each. While heavy reverb might be appropriate in a CBGB’s-style small club, if you’re playing in a hall, you might not need to add any more reverb than what’s already occurring naturally.
Try to listen to how other instruments sound in each room before adjusting your settings to fit, and above all, remember: how your guitar sounds on stage is not nearly as important as how it sounds out in the audience.
Fill out your guitar tone with some slap-back delay
Adding just a touch of slapback delay to your guitar signal can fatten up your tone significantly, depending on the speed and complexity of the part (the effect tends to become more apparent the more notes you have crammed into a single passage, so be judicious).
Think of it like this—imagine you cloned yourself and paid that clone to play the same part you were playing at all times. The small time-variation between your and your clone’s signals would make it clear to the listener than there were two guitars playing, rather than one. Well, slapback delays approximate this effect, without having to build a secret lair and fill it with all the pricey cloning equipment.
If you’ve seen doubler pedals, those will work in a similar way as well, often with a few purpose-built options such as stereo panning, which can add some nice width to your signal as well. Speaking of which….
Widen your guitar tone: get your stereo on!
Lots of pedals have stereo functionality that goes unused—or at least underused. It’s easy to understand why—lugging two amps around is a bit of a pain. But if you’re playing mostly at home or are a pro with the benefit of a crew to help you load in, going stereo can add a ton to your sound. I cannot overstate this, the effect is huge.
The key is to utilize stereo pedals wherever possible after the drive portion of your board. If you get stereo modulation, delay, and reverb and use them in conjunction with one another, your guitar tone will be the envy of all your friends, and all their friends too. Don’t believe me? Well if you’ve got a stereo pedal or two handy, borrow a buddy’s amp and put the stereo feed to the test. You’ll thank me, I promise.
Need some recommendations for stereo pedals? I cannot speak highly enough of the whole Mr. Black stereo line. The Twin Lazers phaser and Tapex 2 delay are favorites, but the real star is the Stereo Vintage Ensemble, which creates a stereo chorus sound in the room in front of you. If you only listen to one amp you can’t hear it. When you have the two together, you can. It’s magical.
For some deeper reading on the subject, here’s a bit of an explanation about the reality behind why some stereo pedals aren’t quite as “stereo” as they say:
Optimize the order of your guitar pedals
There’s plenty of conventional wisdom floating around about the best way to order your guitar pedals in your signal chain, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing it that way. Dynamic-sensing effects first, followed by gain effects, then modulation effects, time and space effects, and volume effects at the end. This is conventional wisdom for a reason—it works.
But with all that said, the real magic comes from breaking these rules and finding interesting combinations of effects. A favorite trick of mine has always been to run reverb pedals into delay pedals to get massive ambient textures. I used to keep a big-box Holy Grail (with the single larger knob) in front of my delays for just this reason. At one time I remember hearing that Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) would run a Holy Grail into a Small Stone phaser at the front of his board to really bring the phasing out. So play around a little bit, try things where they don’t belong, and find what works best for you.
Intonate your guitar properly
If you want your guitar to play in tune no matter where on the neck you’re playing, proper intonation is a must. A tech can always do this for you if you don’t want to get your hands dirty, but if you don’t mind putting in a little elbow grease, learning how to properly intonate your instrument is absolutely worth the time it takes, and then some.
Set your guitar pickups at the right height
Pickup height can have a huge effect on the tone that comes out of your instrument, and like everything else, there isn’t necessarily a perfect height for everyone, it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Setting your pickup height at the right position will balance out the response between your pickups (on guitars with multiple) and ensure that you’re getting the necessary amount of output from each of your strings for a nice balanced tonality.
Keep your strings fresh
Fresh strings are brighter than their more worn-in counterparts, which may or may not be your “thing,” but the advantages of playing strings in their prime don’t end there. As strings age they gradually lose intonation, sustain, and tuning stability. While tone is a fairly subjective thing, those three things are not—no matter who you are, you probably like your guitar to intonate correctly and stay in tune through a whole set or practice session.
Now “fresh” means different things for different players. Depending on your playing frequency, sweat acidity, and string gauge, you might be able to make it three months before a set of strings sours, or you might need to change them every two weeks. Totally depends on you. But whatever your optimal frequency is, find it, stick to it, and your guitar (and your fans) will thank you.
Plug straight into your amp every now and again
We’ve probably all experienced the surge of creativity that comes from getting a new guitar pedal—it’s magical. But that same unfamiliar magic can sometimes be had simply from plugging straight into your amp. if you use a lot of pedals in your playing, this is a great habit to get into as often as you can.
Just plug straight into your amp and play. Feel how you can change your guitar tone simply by changing the way that you play the guitar—then take what you learn and apply it when you’re playing through your regular rig. It might sound simple, but it can produce really amazing results. The same can be said for just playing your guitar without plugging it into anything.
Try some different speaker sizes on for size
Most guitar amps come with 12″ speakers, a few come with 10″ speakers, and a very small handful of amps across history have come with 15″ or 8″ speakers. So odds are, the cutting mid presence of 12″ speakers, or maybe the more bell-like scooped tone of 10″ speakers are what you’re used to—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you haven’t experimented much, you’d be surprised by how big of an effect speaker size has on the tone that comes out.
Admittedly, you’re going to have a hard time cramming a 15″ speaker into a combo amp built for a 12″er, so the best route for experimenting with these things is typically to grab some extension cabinets with different speaker sizes installed. This is a particularly great option for recording—a take on a 15″ speaker doubled with takes through 8″ and 10″ speakers (panned hard left and right) is a recipe for some truly monstrous recorded guitar tones.
Use a (e)bow
As you may or may not have seen in a video I put up a while back, when I was a teen I was very into Sigur Rós, and owing to that inspiration I would often use a rosined violin bow to play droning tones on my Epiphone Dot (loaded up with delay and reverb of course). Now as I learned, this is a great way to get people to come up and talk to you after a gig, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.
EBows (ancient website alert) have been around for a loooong time at this point, as has the Sustaniac (seriously why have all these websites not been updated since 1996?) and the Electro-Harmonix Freeze exists as well to get a similar effect from a pedalboard-friendly unit.
Obviously you don’t want to do this all the time, but for creating ambient textures, simulating a light pad on a verse, or kicking on some fuzz to carry a building bridge to its peak, this is an awesome trick.
Pick with literally anything
Brian May uses an old British sixpence as a pick, and he certainly knows a thing or two about guitar tone. You can use literally anything as a pick—even if it’s not super-comfortable for playing full-time it might make for a cool sound on a certain part. I am in no way condoning this behavior, but I have seen more than one guitarist use power tools on their strings ?♂️
Now don’t let me slow down your fun, but please, if you use a Sawzall on your strings, don’t email me complaining that they broke. They don’t call it a Sawz-some after all…
Amps? Where we’re going, we don’t need amps.
Amps are great. If not for amps, I probably would have 20% less muscle mass on my body at this moment in time. But especially when it comes to recording, amps aren’t always necessary. There are two-schools of amp-less recorders, and I’ll cover them both here.
First off, you have legendary Bowie-producer and Chic-guitarist Nile Rodgers, who plugs straight into the board to get the most percussive and hi-fi clean tones he possibly can. Check out Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, or literally any Chic song to hear what I mean.
Second, you have the large camp of players such as the Beatles, Wilco, Steely Dan and Spoon who plug straight into the board and clip the preamp for a unique type of fuzz tone (you might know it best as the Beatles’ “Revolution” guitar tone). If you come to dig this sound in the studio and don’t want to gig with an SSL console on your pedalboard, try the JHS Colour Box or the Jext Telez White Pedal.
Tom Scholz from Boston also deserves mention here as he went amp-less on the first two Boston records, opting to use his own brilliant inventions (one of which later became the Rockman headphone amp) instead. If you don’t know much about him, he’s an absolute genius and you should change that:
Do whatever people don’t do
This is a bit more of a philosophical tip. Whatever genre you play, listen to genres that are as far away as possible and take inspiration from them. Be the jazz guitarist that plays roundwounds. Be the shoegazer that plays without reverb. Whatever people in your genre do, do something different.
This is an easy way to hone a truly distinctive style. Randy Rhoads leaned heavily on classical music for his work with Ozzy. Then Zakk Wylde came in and started chicken pickin’. Neither of those styles had been heard much in metal, and that’s a big part of why those are two of the most legendary metal guitarists of all time.
Cascade gain stages for maximum flexibility
Drive pedals can get lonely sometimes. They just want a friend to play with. Be nice to your drives and they’ll be nice to you.
Using 2-3 drive pedals for cascading gain sounds is a great way to get tons more options out of the drive side of your board. If you have three drive pedals that you’ve dialed-in to feed well into each other, you’ve got 7 possible drive sounds at your feet (1 only, 2 only, 3 only, 1&2, 2&3, 1&3, 1&2&3).
There are a ton of different ways to do this, but my personal favorite is to use a pedal with a mid-hump (any Tube Screamer variant will do) into a more “transparent” overdrive (Bluesbreaker clones work particularly well here) into a harder-clipping drive like a RAT (or my friend Matt Hoopes’ 1981 DRV pedal, when they’re not sold out). When dialed-in correctly, you’ll have everything from light gain to fuzz available at the flick of a switch.
Layer in a cocked wah sound to accent recordings
If memory serves, I first read this tip in an interview with Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs, who was producing an Incubus album at the time (this would’ve been the mid-2000s so possibly pre-Raconteurs).
I recall him describing doubling a guitar part with a “parked” or “cocked” wah (basically a wah pedal stuck in one spot so it works like a fixed resonant filter), and I think he would even record this double from the other end of the studio so it had more of a roomy vibe to it—I would imagine he did this to get the resonant peak of the cocked wah to sit back in the mix a bit.
I’ve used this trick countless times since then and it works like a charm, especially when you have a riff that you really want to stand out for effect (songs where you have a catchy riff that the chorus resolves into come to mind). When blended with the original take, you don’t really hear the filtering of the cocked wah, it just gives the part a strong, cutting mid-range character that helps it sit at the front of the mix.
Re-adjust your amp from neutral
If you’ve played through a lot of different amps over your playing career you’ve probably developed some habitual settings that you typically prefer (boosting mids, scooping out the mids, etc.). It can be easy to take these decisions for granted and just set your amp that way every time because it’s what you’re used to.
Our recommendation is to always start with all your amp EQ at noon or neutral, the volume to taste, and the reverb low or off. Play with this tone for a while before making any changes, and when you do, make them slowly and carefully to find what works best for you.
Even if you’ve been playing through the same amp for ages, great things can come from repeating this process, trying to really hear the difference each change in settings makes on your overall guitar tone.
Rough up your picks, or let someone else do it for you
Coarse picks have long been a secret tonal weapon of some pretty big time guitarists, and it’s easy to try out yourself.
If you’ve got a really worn down pick you’ve been using forever, you might already be there, but if not you can just grab some 220-grit sandpaper and rough up the edges of your pick a little bit. This extra friction can really help you get a strong pluck out of your strings, if that’s your kind of thing.
If you don’t want to mess around with all of that yourself, some companies make picks that are already finished this way, such as Gravity Picks. ROMBO picks (pictured) aren’t textured in exactly the way I’m referring to, but I found this picture when I was writing this and it was too cool not to include.
Try a mic on top of or behind the amp when recording
The long-running standard for mic’ing guitar amps is a dynamic mic (commonly a Shure SM57, but try an SM7 as well if you have the budget) right next to the grill cloth to catch the “steak” and a large-diaphragm condenser 3-4 feet back to catch the “sizzle.” If you have the luxury of using a third mic for your guitar tones, I recommend trying an additional condenser mic either above or behind the amp, as you get some interesting tonal layers at these positions.
Definitely keep an eye on your phasing when doing this. The small improvement the third mic adds isn’t worth messing up the others, but it can be a nice touch when used correctly.
Upgrade your wiring harness
You’re probably familiar with the fact that different circuits create different tonal varieties in amps or guitar pedals, but do you know you have a circuit inside your guitar too? Well, you do. And in a lot of production guitars, some relatively inexpensive mods can add some great depth or functionality to your guitar.
Emerson Custom has built their name on high-quality drop-in wiring harnesses and the praise is deserved, but I would also recommend giving Gunstreet Wiring Shop a look. Sean is a friend and a brilliant guy all around, but he makes some seriously great wiring harnesses, with all the quality and personality you would expect from a smaller shop.
Change up your scale length
If you pick up a guitar, odds are it has either a 24.75″ or 25.5″ scale length, but there are plenty more options than that—there are plenty of used and new guitar available with scale lengths from 22″-30″, with tons of increments in between.
While the differences may seem slight (how much of a difference can 3/4″ make after all?), they can have a big effect on your string tension, your chordal and compositional possibilities, and the range of tunings you can comfortably employ.
You probably have a particular scale you’re used to, because you probably have a particular guitar you’re used to. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it might be worth giving another scale option a spin, just to see how it treats you. Want to go more extreme? Try a fanned fret or multi-scale guitar on for size.
Use the best quality cables you’re able to—throughout your chain
Do cables matter? Yes, cables matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to spend a fortune on them though. Like many things one cable is not necessarily better than another just because it has a higher price tag.
Low capacitance cables are typically ideal, and above all, ensure that you’re not using more cable length than you need, as this will roll the top end off your guitar’s tone.
If you have a rig with several pedals, ensure that your patch cables are up to snuff as well, as it only takes one bad link in the chain to cause the dreaded tone-suck.
Feedback can be your guitar tone’s friend
We all know how grating and terrible feedback can be, and nobody wants to get more of that than they have to. But not all feedback is created equally. In just the right amount, a bit of feedback can do wonders for your guitar’s perceived resonance and sustain.
The trick is to stand at just the right place relative to your amp (and this will change in different rooms and at different volume levels). If you get too close, you’ll get that runaway feedback that you’re probably all too familiar with, but just a few steps away there might be a sweet spot where everything sounds juuuuuust right.
This is actually one thing I think gets lost when re-amping guitar tones (this is where you record direct and put the signal through an amp later) or recording with the guitar in a different room than the amp. When you play an A on your guitar, that same frequency comes out of your amp. When the audio waves from the amp reach your guitar again, they’re at the same resonant frequency as the note you just fretted (obviously), so they cause that note on your guitar to vibrate more, increasing your perceived sustain.
Use lighter picks for strumming
This trick is particularly effective for acoustic guitar players, but shouldn’t be overlooked by electric players either. Thinner picks tend to sound a bit more natural on strummed patterns, where heavier picks can sound clunky and uneven. Generally, a .60mm pick will do the trick, but for those that light to go all the way to the extreme, a .50mm pick will work well as well.
Many studio guitarists will carry a bevy of different picks featuring different shapes, materials and thicknesses in order to accomplish different tones. If you haven’t experimented much in this department, it can be truly surprising how big of a difference it can make. I’m always amazed by even the tonal differences between a warmer Delrin pick and the bright snappiness of a Tortoise (Celluloid) pick—whenever I try the two next to each other it makes a way bigger difference than I expect.
Use multiple amps to create rich, layered guitar tones
You can’t always find everything you’re looking for all in one amp. (Though some Dumble amp owners might disagree…) But when you start to layer different amps together, the sounds they make together can sometimes take advantage of the strengths of each. A tube amp and a solid-state, for example. Or a Vox and a Bassman. There are endless combinations, so the best thing you can do is to try it.
If you’re in the studio you’re even better off, because you can double, triple, and quadruple your parts, each with different amps, compress & EQ them separately, and blend them together in the mix. That’s how you make your guitar part sound like it was played by an army of guitarists, Jimmy Page-style.
Trust your live sound engineer
I know, I know. Guitarists and sound guys have been going at it since time immemorial, they’re like dogs and cats. But don’t give in to your lizard brain instincts. The engineer is your (and the audience’s friend). Learn to work together.
When you turn your guitar up too loud on stage, it might sound great to you, standing right in front of your amp on stage. But guitar amps are extremely directional, so that sound shoots out into the audience like a laser beam. Ten people out of the hundred at the show can’t hear anything else, and the other ninety can’t hear you at all. This is not good.
When you keep your stage volume down (or keep your amp off-stage), the engineer can bring the volume up through the mains, so you can be heard throughout the room. It might not sound as good to you on stage. It doesn’t matter. It will sound better to the audience, and that’s what actually matters.
Bigger isn’t always better
It’s easy to think that the bigger the amp you play through, the bigger your guitar tone will be. To a certain extent this may be true (typically larger cabinets will give you fuller tone with more bottom end), but not always.
If your amp is mic’d, it doesn’t necessarily matter how loud your signal is out of the amp itself, and many guitarists find that cranking a smaller amp and amplifying it through the PA can give them a monstrously large guitar tone. Some players will even use super tiny practice amps in this way.
Every studio I ever worked in would have one of those little Marshall belt-clip amps lying around somewhere, because one of those things through an SM57 mic produces a pretty darn cool guitar tone. It’s not for everything of course, but can be a really interesting layer in a mix.
Get adventurous with preamp tubes
Power tubes are well-known for the importance they can make in the overall tone of an amp (and don’t sleep on exploring those as well!), but preamp tubes don’t always get the same kind of love, and I think that’s downright unfair.
Swapping out the cheap tubes that most newer amps come stock with, with a quality NOS tube (there are many varieties and each has its own distinct characteristics) can have an absolutely magical effect on the performance and tonality of your amp.
If you want to upgrade your amp tone but don’t want to pony up the dough for a whole new amp, this is definitely tip numero uno to look into.
Just do your research, read up a bit on tubes and bias and such, and if in doubt take your amp into a tech who can do the swap for a hardly anything.
Isolate your amp so it can resonate fully
When you put an amp or amp cab on the ground, much of the bass energy and resonance coming out of the cabinet gets dampened by the ground, and you don’t want that. Get an amp stand or a padded roadcase to put some distance between your amp and the stage/studio floor.
Bonus tip: if you get an amp stand that also angles your amp up, you can position your amp on stage such that you can hear it loud and clear, but it doesn’t blow the ears off the three people in the audience standing directly in front of it.
Record with a dry guitar tone
This can be a bit tricky if you’re always used to hearing your guitar amp with a healthy dose of reverb on it, but trust me, it’s worth it.
Recording your guitar without any reverb on it will give you (or your extremely grateful mixing engineer) the most flexibility when it comes to the mix. This means that you can dial in just enough reverb to make your guitar sound big in the mix, without pushing it all the way to the back.
Plus, you can use the same reverb you’re using on other instruments on your guitar in order to fit it into the sonic headspace of the mix, or you can add early reflections and delays that are synced with the tempo of the song, both of which can often be the secret sauce to fitting your guitar perfectly into the mix.
But even if you don’t get all fancy like that, just remember: if you record with reverb, you can’t take it away, and it’s hard to say how much reverb will be appropriate in the mix until everything is tracked, EQ’d and compressed. So in the meantime, play it safe.
(Don’t) fight the power
Preamp gain gets all the attention—it’s smoother, easier to achieve at lower volume, offers more sustain, and is easier to simulate in a pedal platform. But power amp gain has a punchy, percussive tone that is hard to replicate any other way, and for the right style it is downright perfect.
If you’ve ever had a space (and the proper hearing protection handy) where you can dime a Fender Twin, this is the sound it gives you, and it’s a good one. Angus Young is pretty famous for this, his Marshall’s don’t have a lot of front-end gain dialed in, they’re just LOUD. The power amp distortion is what gives him his signature tone that is ballsy, but still clear.
To try this for yourself, your best bet is a low-wattage tube amp with independent pre and post gain controls (or a pre-gain and a master volume), so that you can really crank it without causing the roof to cave in.
One note: while this technique is a must for a lot of vintage style amps, many modern high-gain amps are tuned to get a lot of their drive and tone-shaping from the preamp, and run a fairly clean power amp section, so this doesn’t really apply.
Get a nut cut perfectly for your string gauge
If you feel like you’ve explored every possible gauge option out there and have settled on a setup that works perfectly for a given guitar, I would recommend investing in a quality nut that is cut perfectly for your string gauge. A good tech or luthier can do this for not much money, and it’s a great way to nail your action, eliminate string binding and prevent any string buzz.
If you’re handy, this is definitely a skill you can learn and do for yourself. The legend himself Dan Erlewine has an excellent write-up on how to do it over at the StewMac blog, here’s the link:
Use a sweetened tuning when recording
You know the intro to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Scar Tissue? If you were alive in 1999, you almost definitely do. Know how it has that unique, almost “sweetened” sound to it? Try to play it on your guitar. Doesn’t sound right, does it? That’s because you’re in equal temperament tuning, and John Frusciante is not.
For a deeper explanation of this concept, I would HIGHLY recommend the two videos I’ve linked to below, from two of my favorite YouTubers. They do a better (and more entertaining) job of explaining it than I would, so I will let them do so.
Last word before I do though: this isn’t always appropriate, and since it would be a PITA to replicate live, it may not be advisable to do so at all. But definitely something to play around with. OK, now check these out:
If at all possible, get your own outlet
Don’t plug your amp or pedals into the same power strip as everyone else in the band—if you have the luxury of avoiding it at least. Just like with your pedals individually, having dedicated power for your rig will help reduce noise and hum through your amp.
There are some aftermarket power isolators designed to help isolate your amp even when plugged into the same outlet as other amps. I’ve not tried them all, but by all means, give one a go and let me know how it did in the comments.
Tighten up your guitar tone by using the low gain input
Many old-school or just traditional tube amps will have both a “High Gain” and a “Low Gain” input—for whatever reason, it seems that many guitarists solely make use of the high gain input.
Well don’t let your eyes deceive you, dear reader. If you’ve got hotter pickups (like humbuckers), give the low gain input a try, it can do a lot to put more punch and clarity into your guitar tone.
Get more out of your volume knob
Sure, most guitarists just keep their volume control turned all the way up, all the time. Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily. But you might be missing out on some great subtle tonal variations.
Small tweaks in your guitar’s output volume can bring different responses out of your pedals and amp(s), a surprising number of which are extremely useful. So don’t be afraid to reach down and turn that volume knob, it won’t bite.
For bonus points, get a volume pedal so you can do all this volume-based alchemy without having to stop playing. Plus, you can use it to make your guitar sound like a whale, and who doesn’t want that?
Use a clean boost pedal, it does the opposite of what it says
A clean boost or simple preamp pedal at the front of your signal chain can add extra punch to your amp—especially to high gain amps—fatten up your bottom end, and give you a bit chimier of a top-end as well. It can also work as a bit of a buffer at the front of your rig, which means it covers two of these tips with just one pedal.
Those all sound like pretty good things, right? And given the fact that most clean boost or preamp pedals and low-profile and pretty darn cheap, it’s tough to pass up.
Try a ribbon mic on your guitar cab
Like I mentioned above, dynamic mics and condenser mics are super common tools for recording guitar amps, whether you’re recording in a studio or a bedroom. But you don’t see ribbon mics used quite as often (at least not on the bedroom side of things) partly due to how expensive and fragile they are, as well as typically needing a dedicated preamp to get them to work safely and properly.
But even though they are inconvenient as heck, ribbon mics sound FANTASTIC on electric guitar amps. There’s an old saying that goes, “There are two types of engineers: those who love ribbon mics, and those who haven’t discovered them yet.” If you find yourself in the latter camp, it might be time to do some discovering…
If you’re a bedroom recorder with change to spare, a Royer R-121 is a time-tested option that will work equally well on your acoustic guitar. I have not personally tried the Golden Age Project R1, but everything else I have used from them has been fantastic, and at $190 new, it might be worth the risk.
Get your alloy game on point
While the steel plain strings in a guitar string set are made of the same material regardless of what set you choose, the wound strings vary based on two primary factors: core shape, and alloy type.
Core shape has the smallest effect of the two (though it is not insignificant), and wrap alloy has the greatest effect. Lifespan and equalization vary from alloy to alloy, so the best thing you can do is experiment with your guitar and see what it—and your ears—likes best.
Upgrade your speaker; upgrade your guitar tone
A big part of the tonal characteristics of a given amp are due to the speaker housed inside it (or in an external cabinet if that’s more your thing). Swapping speakers can make your amp break up easier (or break up less), give it a fuller bottom end, a present top end—you get the picture.
From Celestion to Eminence to Weber and on and on, there are more speakers with more specific characteristics available now than ever, and if you aren’t 100% in love with the speaker you’re currently running, you owe it to yourself to at least consider making the swap. Worst case, you can always go back.
Try a lighter gauge set of strings
For certain types of music, heavy gauge strings sound great. For jazz, it’s tough to get a full, warm guitar tone with anything else—and if you’re trying to play SRV licks, they tend to lose something when you play with 9s.
But tons of great players have used 8s & 9s over the years to great effect, and if you haven’t tried a set that light since you were first learning the instrument, I would highly recommend giving them another go. Being able to bend a step or two almost anywhere above the 3rd fret is a pretty wild playing experience, and one you should definitely have again as a more experienced player.
Try a heavier gauge set of strings
I know, I know, I just told you to try a lighter gauge set of strings and now I’m telling you to do the opposite. I’m not trying to confuse you with an infinite loop of contradictions—promise. While lighter strings have awesome advantages in terms of flexibility, heavier strings have some pretty cool advantages too, such as note and tuning stability, higher output, and faster attack.
The point of these two tips is, this: if you’ve been playing 9s for ten years, try some 11s. If you’ve been playing 11s, try 9s. If you’ve been playing 10s, try both. If you never stop playing around, your playing will never get stale.
Embrace the buffer
True Bypass has become something of a buzzword in the gear industry, and to the uninitiated, it’s easy to think that True Bypass is always going to be the best option, no matter the circumstance. The truth is a bit murkier…
If you are running just a pedal or two with shorter cable runs on either side, you don’t really need a buffer—True Bypass is fine. But if you have more than a few pedals and decently long cable runs on each side of your board, you really, really need a buffer to maintain your signal integrity—and True Bypass pedals, by definition, do not buffer the signal when they’re not engaged.
Despite what you may have heard, non-True Bypass pedals don’t necessarily degrade your guitar tone, and in fact, they might just help it out. And if you do have exclusively True Bypass pedals on your board, running a buffer first in your signal chain can do a ton to improve your guitar tone. But don’t take my word for it, there’s a couple of great resources out there that go into more detail about the whole True Bypass vs Buffered Bypass debate:
Give your tubes the TLC they deserve
Many guitarists will accept no substitute for the warmth of vacuum tubes, and for good reason. But tubes are sensitive instruments that perform best in certain conditions and when cared for the right way.
With that in mind, here are a few tips you should be observing no matter what:
- Let your tubes warm-up for at least 60 seconds before switching your amp off standby
- Let ttubes cool down on standby for a few seconds before turning the amp off entirely
- Ensure that your amp can get enough airflow to keep the tubes cool while operating
- Be gentle with your amp: tubes are glass, and like all glass, they can break when jolted
Those are the basic musts, but there’s a lot more you can do to be smart about caring for your tubes, as this article covers well:
Use an isolated power supply
In a perfect world, every pedal on your board would run on its own battery. It would be completely isolated, and get exactly the voltage it’s expecting without any surges to speak of. Unfortunately, dealing with that many batteries is a pain in the butt. So, most guitarists use some sort of plugin power, a daisy chain or other power supply.
Now there’s some debate to be had about all of this—the best counterargument I could find is linked to below (language warning)—but the generally accepted wisdom is that you’re best off getting an isolated power supply, that will give each pedal on your board power separately from one another, and reduce your noise floor.
If you like things nice and easy, just do that. It’s what most of us have done, and few have many complaints. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of the debate, well, here you go:
Upgrade those PUPs to hone your ideal guitar tone
There are so many pickup options available today—single coil, humbucker, lipstick, P90, wide-range, active, passive, coil-tapped, etc, etc—you can be pretty sure that no matter what guitar you have, and what guitar tone you’re after, there’s a pickup you can buy and drop right into your guitar that will give you just that.
Want your strat to sound like a black metal machine? No problem. Wanna pop P90s into a shred guitar? Sure thing. It’s all doable, and it’s doable for not that much dough, so if you want it—do it.
Try top-wrapping on a tune-o-matic bridge
Sadly this tip only applies to those of you who have a guitar with a tune-o-matic-style tailpiece—I’m sorry Fender fans. But if that’s you, read on…
Top-wrapping is a trick favored by Joe Bonamassa among others, and describes the technique of inserting your strings backwards through a stop-bar tailpiece, and pulling them over top to go over the bridge.
What this really does is change the angle at which the string goes over the bridge, making it easier to pull more string from behind the bridge onto the scale when bending a note. This tends to increase the perceived slinkiness of the strings.
Now, you could simulate this effect by raising the height of your tailpiece, but doing so would move the tailpiece further away from the body, decreasing sustain. Top-wrapping lets you keep the tailpiece close to the body, and get all that flexibility at the same time.
Add some movement to your guitar tone with chorus
Throughout the 80s, chorus was everywhere, I mean everywhere. It was used by so many guitarists and mixing engineers to add volume and depth to parts that it really became an emblematic tone of that decade, and it hasn’t always aged great, to say the least. Because of that, a lot of guitarists shy away from chorus pedals—but they’re not all bad.
When used judiciously, a chorus pedal can add just a bit of movement and depth to a clean (or dirty) guitar tone. The trick is just to keep it subtle—we don’t need you going all Paradise City on us, unless that’s your thing of course…
I personally use a Walrus Audio Julia on the sine wave setting with the Rate at 11 o’clock, Depth at noon, lag around 7 o’clock, and blend at 9 o’clock. It works great on electric and bass alike.
Use a speaker cable when you need a speaker cable
If you’re running a separate head and cabinet you need a cable to connect your head to your cabinet—a speaker cable. This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world to some of you, but make sure that the cable you’re using is actually a speaker cable, not an instrument cable. An instrument cable will “work” as in it will pass signal, but you should not use it.
Despite looking similar on the outside, under the hood instrument and speaker cables are very different. A speaker cable is a two-core cable where both cores are the same gauge, while an instrument cable has one insulated stranded “positive” wire surrounded by a braided shield that is the ground. Those are very different things. If you don’t want to remember that, you don’t have to. Just remember to use a speaker cable when you need a speaker cable and you’ll be all good.
Use a graphic EQ
For some players, a 2 or 3 band EQ plus the tone knob on their guitar is more than enough frequency control for one rig—and there’s no problem with that at all. But if you’re so inclined to like a bit more fine-tuned control over your rig’s EQ, a 6-10 band EQ can be just the trick.
This enables you to do a better job of taming certain frequencies in certain rooms, or simply better dialing in the guitar tone that’s in your head. Honestly, EQ pedals are maybe the most underrated tone-shaping effects of all time, so if you’re doing anything on that front you’re well ahead of the pack.
Rock a Wound 3rd for a warmer guitar tone
We’ve long been a proponent of wound 3rd/wound G strings here at Stringjoy to smooth out string-to-string tone and improve intonation on certain guitars.
The gist of the story is this: back in the day, all string sets had a wound third. When players started experimenting with lighter sets of strings in the 60s, they would buy a set of strings (typically 12s or 13s), throw out the heaviest string, move each string down one and add in the lightest top string they could find, typically from a banjo string set. Because of this, the string that was meant to be the 2nd in a heavier set became the third in the lighter custom set, and the plain 3rd string was born.
Now plain strings aren’t “bad,” they’re typically quite flexible and add some spark to the top end of the guitar. But going with a lighter wound third string can provide a fair bit of flexibility while warming up your guitar tone and letting the 3rd string blend into chords a bit better than a plain one does. it’s not for everybody, but it’s absolutely worth trying.
Use your amp’s effects loop—AKA the “4 cable” method
I know, I know. It’s a pain. You need two more long cables than you would otherwise, and you have to run three total cables between your pedalboard and your amp. It’s not for everyone. But for some guitarists that feel like their time and space-based effect pedals always end up coming out sounding murky, the effects loop can be a lifesaver.
See, when you run a delay pedal straight into the front of your amp, each trailing delayed sound also hits the preamp, clipping according got how the preamp is set, and muddies up your guitar tone a bit. Conversely, the delayed signal itself is clean, so as it trails off quieter, those notes get less dirty.
When you have the same effect in the effects loop of your amp, this doesn’t happen, it simply delays the signal that comes out of the preamp. This is especially important if you’re running a high-gain rig and using the drive channel on your amp.
This isn’t mandatory—personally, I actually like the sound of my time and space-based effects running into the front end of my amp, but that’s me. At the very least, if you haven’t tried using your effects loop, you ought to.
Squash your guitar tone like a bug
For some genres (like country), compression is absolutely essential, but for many others, you don’t seem to hear it talked about all that much, which I’ll never understand…
Compression is a subtle effect, especially when compared to distortion, delay, or a phase shifter—which is often why it gets overlooked, especially by beginner or intermediate guitarists. Nevertheless, a compressor pedal, when used properly, can do wonders to fatten up and smooth out your guitar tone. Listen to Chris Walla’s tone on some earlier Death Cab for Cutie records and see what I mean.
Personally I would recommend finding a compressor with a blend knob so you can do parallel/”New York” compression. This is where you blend a more compressed signal in with your dry tone, giving you the dynamics of your dry tone, with the fatness and volume floor of the compressed signal.
I use a Greer Lamplighter myself, but I would also recommend the Keeley Compressor Plus and Wampler Ego. Or, if your taste in effects is richer than mine, spring for a Cali76 from Origin Effects. They are, quite simply, amazing.
Ditch the coating
Coated guitar strings last longer. It’s true. They really do. But at what cost? Coated strings are slathered in polytetrafluoroethylene, the same chemical used on non-stick skillets. While this keeps grime off the string itself, it also dampens a string’s resonance and reduces top-end significantly (plus, it is abysmal for the environment).
You’d be hard-pressed to find a big-name guitarist who uses coated strings in the studio for this reason—no matter how you spin it, they just don’t sound quite as good as uncoated strings.
So instead of dampening your strings with coatings, just use quality, uncoated strings, wipe them off when you’re done playing, and if you really want extra longevity, use a guitar string conditioner to keep your strings clean and corrosion-free.
Optimize your guitar’s action
String height can sometimes get overlooked, but it is one of if not the most important aspects of a guitar’s setup, and has a huge effect on how you actually play the guitar.
Higher action enables your strings to ring out and sustain more, giving you a fuller, clearer, more bell-like tone. But when you go too high with your action, it takes superhuman strength just to play simple licks. Lower action makes bending, fretting, and tapping easier, but can cause buzzing and reduce sustain.
As with all things, there is no “right” action, just the right action for you. Find it, and your guitar will fit your playing style like a glove.
Lose the pick altogether
If it’s been a while since you’ve brushed up on your finger-picking chops, you might want to take another look. Finger-picking is super common in the acoustic world, but has been put to great use on the electric side of things by everyone from Lindsey Buckingham to Mark Knopfler to Robby Krieger to Chet Atkins to Wes Montgomery to Derek Trucks to Warren Haynes—get the picture?
With or without purpose-grown nails, fingers have a different tone than a pick, and open up all sorts of compositional possibilities on the guitar that would be close to impossible to play with a single plectrum. It takes time to hone the technique for sure, but it’s a worthwhile exercise.
Try a custom set of guitar strings
Now this one isn’t for everyone. If your needs as a player are relatively standard, a balanced tension set should work perfectly. However, if you’re playing in alternate tunings or have a particular sound or feel you’re looking to achieve on your instrument, a custom set of strings might be just the thing to get you there.
Again, this is not for everybody, so I won’t bore you too much with the details here—we went in-depth on the different advantages and disadvantages of this option in this article:
Hold your pick the other way
While the pointy part of a guitar pick is definitely the most popular edge to use when picking, many guitarists favor the fatter, opposite end, especially for solos. This can give you a fatter, fuller guitar tone that some players prefer.
While it can certainly be used as a full-time thing, it’s especially useful as a contrast to get a different tone for one part of a song (like a solo). And if you want to get real wild with it, try this technique with a textured pick like the Herdim Blue Heavy picks The Edge favors.
Get experimental with alternate tunings
More of the guitar’s tone than you would expect can be attributed to its unique interval structure (four 4ths and a third), and when you play around with this, things start to change in interesting ways.
From having different notes to pull off onto, to having different open strings to employ as resonant drones, to simply being able to reach complex chord shapes you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, alternate tunings can be an extremely powerful tool for any guitarist looking to hone a unique sound or get out of a rut.
>> What’s the Deal With DADGAD Tuning? | Stringjoy
>> New Standard Tuning: Robert Fripp’s Alternate Tuning Explained | Stringjoy
>> What is Nashville Tuning? Its History, Best Guitar Strings & Uses | Stringjoy
>> The Best Strings for Open E Guitar Tuning | Stringjoy
>> Alternate Tunings for Guitar: A Guide | Stringjoy
Be more extreme with your amp EQ
This one somewhat contradicts the other tip about being a bit more subtle and intentional with your amp EQ—but hey, like I said, everyone’s different.
Some genres of players like to push their guitar amps to extremes EQ-wise, and for the right player this can work to great effect. The best example I can think of is the so-called “Magic Six” settings (link below) for Fender amps that typically have Treble at 6, Mid at 3, and Bass at 2. That’s a pretty exteme EQ curve to throw at your amp full-time, but it’s hard to argue that for some players, the results have been excellent.
If you want guitar tone, use the tone knob, obviously…
The “Tone” knob on your guitar controls how much tone you get—if it’s at “0” you get no tone, and if it’s at “10” you’ll get maximum tone. That’s why the named it the “Tone” knob, duh.
I’M JUST KIDDING. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, folks. Let that be a lesson to ye.
Jokes aside, I am personally guilty of underusing my guitars’ tone knob(s)—typically I just keep them at “10” and adjust my brightness on the amp side. I thought it appropriate to end on a tip that I myself need to heed ’cause you know, no one’s perfect…
But the tone control can be used for so much more… From blending the perfect middle position tone on a Les Paul, to getting the classic Clapton “woman tone” with the neck pickup tone rolled all the way off. Or, be like Tom Morello and judiciously tweak the knob up or down a dash to fit your guitar into the mix perfectly.
So, that’s a lot, I know. Like I said, not all of these are for everybody, but almost all of them are worth trying—especially all of the tips that are either completely free or cost $20 or less. The point is, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ve got everything figured out. There are always opportunities to improve—or at least update—what you’re doing, whether that’s through gear, playing technique, or just breaking rules.
Now I’m sure there are some great ideas I missed here, so I want to open up the floor: if you have a tone tip I didn’t mention here that works great for you, leave it down in the comments below ?
I hope this info serves you well on your playing journey—thanks for taking the time to read it. With any luck it will be worth the time and then some.