1. TUNE TUNE TUNE!
It may not technically be tone, but there’s no point having the best tone if your tuning is out! REALLY spend time tuning and checking your tuning if you want to sound your best. Good tuning is not good enough!
2. Have your guitar setup professionally.
In a similar vein to the tuning tip, make sure your guitar is well intonated, action not set so low that it causes buzzing (but comfortable to play). No shielding or bad connection issues etc.
3. Fresh, quality strings in the right gauge for you.
Put some fresh strings on your instrument as often as you can reasonably afford. If you’re a professionally gigging musician this should probably be about once a week or fortnight, some players prefer before every gig but I find that a little extreme. Semi-professionals can get by on changing once a month or so, and everyone else somewhere between these and about 2 months is probably ok depending how often you play and how the guitar is stored. I’m sure many people disagree with me on the exact timescales but the important part is “as often as you can reasonably afford”. With bass strings you need not change strings as often, especially if you want a warm rounded tone.
4. Know your tone goals.
Hear the tone you are looking for in your head, listen to some bands you like and think, would this tone work for me? Without knowing what you’re looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it?
5. Find out what they used.
If you like a certain player’s tone, you can often find out their setup online, if they used a certain guitar, amp or effect to achieve the sound you like, look into acquiring, borrowing or purchasing the same or a similar product. Even if you can’t afford it, you may be able to imitate it or find a cheaper alternative.
6. Spend time on it
Spend time tinkering with your kit, finding its limits, where it performs best etc. Even if its a cheapo practice amp, chances are it can produce at least one solid tone. Learning your equipment inside out will make you a tone king.
7. When to, and not to use pedals.
So you just got an expensive new rig and you got a multi-fx for christmas? That’s fine, but just don’t let your tone be ruled by toys! After amassing large amounts of gear and wanting to try it all out together it’s easy to forget how big a difference just one part of the chain can make, a bad pedal setting for instance can ruin your tone. I suggest you start with the guitar plugged straight into the amp clean, first learn your pickups and guitar controls, then dial in your tone using only the guitar and amp, then you can refine the tone using your pedals one by one, at each stage try bypassing each change to see if you’ve made it sound better or actually worse.
8. You probably don’t need that much gain, and you don’t need to scoop the mids to sound heavy.
Two of the biggest mistakes players make with rock or metal tone are too much gain and not enough mids. If you’re going for a heavy tone you need enough gain, but too much and you will lose all definition it will just sound like noise rather than sounding heavy. A similar thing can be said for scooping the mids, most metal guitarists will scoop the mids (turn the mid control all the way or quite far down) but what you are left with is a fizzy muddy mess with no substance to it, backing off a little, not a lot of the mids and experimenting with the presence and resonance controls is probably a good idea if you do this. Scooped, high gain tones probably sound alright in the bedroom when you’re practicing alone, but try the same thing in a band situation and you will lose the guitar in the mix, have to turn up to compensate and probably end up with horrible stage feedback.
9. Drive your amp.
Whilst on the topic of pedals, there’s one thing that most professionals agree on: the distorted tone of a good guitar amp (usually tube), is better than any distortion pedal’s built in distortion. IE set the gain on the amp instead of using a distortion pedal – otherwise you’re not driving the valves and getting that tube saturation so many rave about. Instead, use an overdrive pedal, these pedals boost the signal so that it overdrives the tubes and add subtle distortion to pleasantly colour your tone.
10. Quality equipment!
Last, and not least: buy good equipment! So it may be obvious, but I hope this article has made a point that it’s not just about what gear you’ve got and how much you’ve spent on it, but how much time you spend researching, tinkering and maintaining your equipment. You don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment to get a good tone, and “good tone” is a subjective concept anyhow, however well researched & tinkered GOOD QUALITY amps will sound incredible and most likely require less tinkering, so you do get what you pay for.
This does stretch to cables though not in the way some would have you believe. I don’t buy into the notion that using a £50 guitar cable will improve your tone, however, I do believe that using a £2.50 cable CAN ruin your tone. It may be fine, or it may be poorly shielded, have weak connections and break after two uses. Just be careful: at the very least, you should have at least one professional grade guitar cable in case the cheapo breaks on you! And for god’s sake no, having a gold plated jack will not improve your tone either, it does, however, prevent rust in case you’re planning on using the same guitar cable 50 years from now!
If I wanted an essay there would be a section here about pickups, tube selection, speaker selection & amp mods but that’ll have to be another day!