In this 4-part feature we’ll be discussing 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.
This updated feature was originally posted June 11 2012.
In the first part of this tone feature, we discussed how we perceive tone and that tone is a very subjective experience. I think we can agree that the larger part of what makes up a good tone is in the fingers, meaning how you play, your technique and how you express yourself through and with the guitar. As Eddie Van Halen once said “tone comes from the mind”.
Still, we need some equipment, or tools, to be able to express ourselves.
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.
The perfect guitar is the one that feels right just then and there. Simple as that. I don’t really care whether it’s a cheap China copy 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 that particular guitar makes me play in a slightly different way.
The perfect guitar might also be 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.
There is a huge debate among guitarists on whether it matters or not what kind of guitar or model you use. I’ve seen countless attempts at trying to prove that it doesn’t matter. Personally I think that’s both misunderstood and way beside the point.
First, it doesn’t take a scientist to hear that a thicker neck will sound fuller and have more sustain (in most cases), than a thinner neck. Likewise, how the body is treated, can have a significant impact on the tone.
If you claim that you can just plug any guitar into an amp and it sounds great, then you’re either very aware of what you want and are comfortable with what you have or, the straight opposite.
If you claim that it doesn’t matter what guitar you use because you use pedals, then your guitar is probably not the best guitar for you. If it needs pedals to sound good, and not only to get the specific tones you want, then you should probably start looking for a new guitar.
Some guitarists prefer a guitar that’s perfectly set up, with an almost scientific approach. Others, prefer a more demanding instrument. One that they really need to fight but if you win that fight, magic will appear. What both of these types of players have in common, is that they’re very aware of what they want and like.
A good setup is often overlooked. A curved neck, low pickups and a bridge out of shape can make both the tone and experience pretty hopeless. I have never walked into a guitar store and found a guitar that’s been perfect. Regardless of the price, I always notice something that I want to adjust. It does require some experience but once you learn what you like and not, you’ll realise how much a good setup can do for your playing and tone.
Learn how to perform the basic adjustments, including string and pickup height, neck curvage and truss rod and also how you string the guitar. If you’re not comfortable with this, be sure to bring your guitar to a good tech at least once a year and let him know in detail what you want him to do.
Guitarists often talk about the sweetspot and for me, the sweetspot lies in every part of the guitar rig. I may like the strings a tad higher than you and the neck pickup slightly lower than normal but that’s how I can reach those subtle nuances that makes everything sound so much better.
A new guitar should be inspiring. You should feel some sort of connection when you try it and if the setup is off, then ask the store to perform an adjustment before you either buy or dismiss it.
Another good tip is to always try the guitar acoustically. The pickups can always be replaced later on, but the tone and feel of the guitar is harder to change.
I also recommend that you 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).
We live in a time where YouTube clips, user reviews and forums are just a click away. And it’s all free! But ultimately, the decision is yours alone.
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.
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.
What’s your favourite guitar? Does it matter what guitar you’re using? Let us know in the comments field below!