In this 4-part feature I’m going to look at the grandest and most difficult topic of them all – tone. Just what is tone? What is a good tone and how do you achieve it? I’m sure there are as many answers to this as there are guitarists. In this second part of the feature, we’ll look at the importance of choosing the right guitar for the tones you want.
In the first part of this Tone feature, I talked about how we perceive tone and that tone is a very subjective experience. Tone isn’t just the pedal you stomp or the string you bend but countless factors from the smallest screw to the loudest amp – not to mention the difference between the places you play, whether it’s at home or in a stadium. Read Tone part 1 here.
A guitar, or any instrument for that matter, is an extension of you. It’s the tool that allows you to express your music, playing and feelings. Without it, you’d probably be pretty lost as a musician but the right guitar can make you play things you never though would emerge from your fingers. That’s pure inspiration – an experience that really can’t be described in words.
What’s the perfect guitar?
The perfect guitar is the one that feels right just then and there and I don’t really care whether it’s considered crap, made in China or if the electronics are barely working. If that guitar is what it takes to nail the tones I want, then the choice is simple. The perfect guitar is the one that makes you evolve your style or perhaps, slightly change your style every time you pick it up. If I’m not satisfied with a part that I’ve just recorded, I play it again with a different guitar and it always sound different because the particular guitar makes me play different.
The perfect guitar is also the one that’s been with you for years. The one that has matured along side you as you’ve grown as a musician and every time you pick it up you feel this special connection. It’s a very personal experience and for some, almost like a love story. Quality and reputation doesn’t matter, only your connection with the instrument. Mine is my very first Strat – a 1996 Japanese Fender (MIJ) Collectable 50s, the forerunner to the Mexican Classic series. Only the body (well, parts of it) is left of the original guitar after nearly two decades of countless neck, pickups and hardware changes. Not to mention all the adjustments and overhauls. Actually, it wasn’t until I owned several guitars that I realized how much this Strat meant to me and my playing.
What makes up a guitar tone?
That might be up for debate. Some would argue that a piece of wood with some electronics would do the job as long as you have pedals and a decent amp. That’s true but then you’ve also decided that that’s the guitar that works for you – perhaps without realizing that the piece of wood is a part of the tone. Every component of the guitar, down to the very last detail, is important for the tone. Tone is the subtle nuances between different types of wood, the contour and shape, thickness, radius, density, humidity and ultimately the assembly. It is the type of lacquer, the blend and number of coatings. It’s the shape, size and quality of the frets and tuning machines. Tone is the design of the bridge system and whether the strings are allowed to sustain without obstruction. The string type and gauge. Perhaps most important, and often overlooked, are the pickups. The pickups are what captures the subtle nuances in your playing, the resonance from all the components and feeding this to the pedals and amp.
Tone is also all your personal preferences. The way you’ve strung the guitar, subtle changes in the string and pickup height, whether the bridge is flush or floating, how many tremolo springs you’re using, that old volume pot that has a tendency to live its own life, the way you slightly tilt your pick for more attack, your way of altering between using the tremolo arm and bends and all those little things that only you know how to do to get the sustain you want. I could go on for ages… It is important to realize that all of this matters for your overall tone and for your pedals and amp to sound the way you want.
Buying a new guitar
There’s only one rule when it comes to buying a new or your very first guitar: patience! How wasted it is to spend a fortune on a hasty decision. The first step is to consider how you’ll be using the guitar. Is it your first? Are you about to enter the studio and need something different for that slightly heavier tone? Do you need something for your mantelpiece or one that can stand the abuse of the road?
Whatever you do, never take what neither I nor anyone else says, as the true gospel. No matter how persuasive and convincing we may sound, we’re all just biased by our own experience (some, even by financial motives). Check out user reviews and YouTube clips and ask around for recommendations and tips but ultimately, the decision is yours alone. A guitar is a musical instrument allowing you to play and write music. It’s all about inspiration and for this to happen you’ll need a guitar that you’re 100% comfortable with.
Allow yourself to be surprised and admit when you’re wrong. Try several models within different price ranges. Not because you need to buy something expensive but to broaden your mind and experience a little. Even if you’ve set on a Strat, you should try a Les Paul, Tele or even an Ibanez Steve Vai signature (or perhaps not…) just to get an idea what the differences are. And people, let us all put the US VS Japanese and Mexico issue to rest, once and for all. A stamp on the headstock doesn’t say anything about the guitar it self.
Tone is in the details
Look out for any visible signs of poor assembly and faults. Gaps, loose parts, cracks etc aren’t worth your money. A good first impression is important but it is too early to dismiss a guitar because of a bad setup. Neck curvage, string height, bridge flow etc can easily be adjusted later on and you can even ask the store to do this while you try the instrument. The more you are aware of your own preferences the more you’re able to see the potential of the guitar.
Next step is to try the guitar acoustically. This requires some experience but by comparing different guitars and models you’ll learn to recognise a rich tone from a dead. No pedal or amp will be able to enhance a guitar that doesn’t sound good acoustically.
Don’t worry too much about the pickups. It’s rare to find a guitar that scores high on all your preferences so concentrate on the overall feel and playability and replace the pickups later on with something that suits your style and tone of choice.
Sadly, some can go on for years thinking their guitar is just crap while a proper setup would have done the job. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a certified luthier but some basic knowledge and experience will at least enable you to detect any issues and describe them to your local tech. A good tip is to check YouTube for tutorials on truss-rod adjustment, string height/action, stringing and intonation, if only to be aware that these things matter for the playability and ultimately the tone.
No electric guitar will sound right without a proper companion. In Part 3 of this feature, we’ll look at how to choose the right amp for your guitar and the environment you’re playing in, whether it’s your bedroom, a studio or large concert venues. Please feel free to share your tone tips in the comments field below.