The Building Blocks of Guitar Tone

Finding a great guitar tone can be, perhaps, the biggest challenge we face as guitarists. There are a few lucky souls out there who stumble upon it, but most of us are on our own to find it, hone it, and hopefully, reproduce it. While Ask A Guitar Pro may not be able to identify what your individual tone should be, we can, at least, give you some important components (building blocks) to think about when you start your "tone" journey.

If you dissected the tone of the greatest guitar players (past & present) out there, you would find that there are number of "common" elements that define their trademark sound. These elements could be narrowed down into six simple categories: 1) Finger/Hand Dynamics, 2) Guitar Construction, 3) Strings & Tuning, 4) Equalization, 5) Distortion/Overdrive, and 6) Sustain.

Given the quantity and variety of gear available today, many guitarists often overlook the importance of finger and hand dynamics. Sure, gear does factor into tone, but many of the guitar greats agree that tone comes from your fingers....not your guitar, amplifier, or effects pedals. Fingers come into play when you hear a singing vibrato or a screaming bend. Ever wonder how your six string heroes can play with a large amount of distortion but not much noise? The secret is muting the strings that aren't being played. In some instances it's advantageous to mute the strings even when they are being played, i.e. palm muting......heavy metal anyone? Don't forget that the weight, type, and thickness, of your pick matters as well. This extends to the metal "six-pence" utilized by Brian May to the glass slide employed by countless blues/slide players. If you're looking to create a "signature" tone, finger and hand dynamics are a good place to start.

Without a doubt you know the type of guitar (guitar construction) that your favorite axe-man (or axe-woman) plays.....or you at least know what it looks like! Could you ever imagine Slash soloing on a Fender Stratocaster or Stevie Ray Vaughan playing a blues lick with a Gibson SG? Guitars do have an influence on guitar tone. There is no question that single coil pickups sound different than humbuckers. Even similar pickup types can be wound differently, or with higher (hotter) output. Pickups aside, the wood in a guitar has an impact on the sound as well. For example, maple is generally known to be "brighter" than other woods in the same thickness. Along the same lines, the shape and cavity of the guitar will affect the sound. It's certainly a challenge to make a hollow body guitar (acoustic) sound like a solid body (electric) guitar. Even the idiosyncrasies of the neck (bolted, set-in, etc.) can impact tone.

The next category, not unrelated to guitar construction, is the guitar strings. Whether you play extra light, or extra heavy, the thickness and material type can make a difference. Nickel plated strings do not sound the same as brass. Nylon strings are in a whole other category. From a gage standpoint, 14's tend to sound "meatier" than 9's, although numerous guitarists have produced uber-fat tones with lighter gage strings. As you can imagine, string tone goes hand in hand with finger/hand dynamics. Additionally, a whole new world of tones can be explored when you consider alternate tunings. Drop D, Open E (slide), and E-Flat are a few that are regularly used by some of your favorite pickers. The change in string tension can undoubtedly yield new sonic landscapes.....not to mention the birth of the 7 string guitar!

Equalization, like finger/hand dynamics, is another overlooked building block of tone. Specifically, we are talking about the various frequencies in the sound spectrum like bass, mids, and treble. These frequencies are controlled a number of ways, including guitar knobs, amp controls, speaker selection, and external pedals. With all of these avenues to manipulate your sound output it can be challenging to keep everything from sounding muddy together. More often than not, trial and error is the only way find out what combination works the best. Numerous guitarists are "famous" for their equalization preferences. A couple examples are Brian May of "Queen" (treble boosted) & James Hetfield of Metallica (scooped....high treble & bass - lowered mids). If you're starting from scratch, keep it simple. Much can be accomplished sonically by focusing on your guitar knobs and amp controls alone. Remember that distortion/overdrive pedals can also add their own particular flavor to the mix. If you find after experimentation that you need greater control of your frequencies you can always invest in an actual e.q. pedal to compliment your signal chain.

Distortion/Overdrive clearly has it's rightful place when it comes to guitar tone. Much of rock and roll music has some element of distortion or overdrive. Even more so for modern rock or metal. It's typically achieved through the amplifier or an external pedal. Distortion can, however, come with noise (or feedback) which can be a subjective thing (good or bad) depending upon the style of music. Most of the guitar gods that rely on some form of distortion have found a way to suppress it to avoid unwanted noise. This could be through the use of Noise Gates or even through string muting with the right hand. One of the best benefits of distortion is sustain. Hearing a note ring out on a guitar solo is the ultimate experience for some players. At this juncture, it's worth discussing the difference between tube distortion and solid state distortion. Many guitarists would argue that tube distortion is much warmer and harmonically preferable vs. solid state. As one would expect, this is less noticeable when the two are compared on "clean settings", i.e. no distortion. When distortion is added there are subtle differences that are difficult to describe in words, but easier to comprehend audibly. Although much has been done to mimic tube response, solid state distortion can often sound "digital" or "cold". This is more evident in cheap solid state amps. Before you close the door on solid state, though, give them a try and let your ear decide. Dimebag Darrell from Pantera played solid state Randall amplifiers, and his tone was pretty thick. It's also worth mentioning that numerous shredders have run solid state distortion pedals into tube amps to create unforgettable tones. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai are three heavy hitters that incorporated this approach, although the pedals are working in concert with the power tubes on the amp to yield those fat tones. Suffice it to say, a Tube Screamer wouldn't yield nearly the same results if placed in front of a solid state amp.

If there is one tone element that is especially elusive for guitarists, it's sustain. How is it that so many of our six string heroes can have endless sustain but retain outstanding note clarity at the same time? This ushers in the age old question; how do I get sustain without excessive distortion? In the case of high gain (i.e. distortion) or heavily overdriven amplifiers, it can be through the use of a compression pedal. A compression pedal can add sustain while "smoothing" out the dynamics of the notes played. Simply put, the notes played are "compressed" to yield similar volume levels. This effect has been used in studios for years to provide balance and mitigate signal clipping. Many tube amplifiers exhibit the phenomena of natural tube compression when they are cranked to high volumes. As you can imagine, compressor pedals can offer similar benefits at more reasonable volumes. The main drawback to compressor pedals is they have an adverse affect on pick dynamics. Since every note played is "leveled off", or "limited", it's more challenging to differentiate certain notes. The dynamics & characteristics of playing hard or soft are less noticeable when compression is applied. The best studio engineers know how to apply just the right amount of compression to ensure that these dynamics aren't too squashed.

Sometimes the best way to get sustain without excessive distortion is to crank a tube amp up. Power tubes have fantastic sound capabilities when they are being pushed hard. Luckily, booster pedals are available to help you get that tube breakup at bedroom level volumes, if desired Your proximity to the amp will also affect the amount of sustain produced. Last, but not least, you can mount devices on or within your guitar that perpetuate the vibration of your strings to create nearly endless sustain. This is the type of technology that you will find in most "Fernandes Sustainer" guitars.