Improve Your Tone - Part 1


This is the first of a series of articles on how to improve your tone on the guitar.


Your tone is one of the most important aspects of your playing, and is for the major part related to your technique (what your fingers do). Your chosen equipment doesn't influence your tone as much as you might think.


Most players think that it's all about the gear, like guitar, effects and amps, but in this first article i will discuss how much of your tone is a direct result of the way your 'touch' the instrument.


The good thing about tone is, as i've found out over the years, that your tone doesn't just happen and evolve by itself, but there are also deliberate choices to be made. So part of it comes down to your personal taste!


It's all in the fingers

When they say 'it's all in the fingers', what is meant is that, when someone who has great tone on the guitar plays, they will have that great tone, regardless of which guitar, which amp, settings, and so on. The tone and its unique character actually result from the way the player physically plays the instrument.


Let's look at which choices we have when playing a single note, and how those choices affect your tone. Big time.


Picking force

When you pick one note using a plectrum, there are roughly three levels depending on how hard you hit the string with the pick:


- soft: hit the string too soft and there is not much tone coming through. Also, picking too soft means that you're probable not driving the amp loud enough, so it will produce a small sound. Hitting the string too soft is not what you want in terms of tone.


- medium: ideally, this is what you want from your touch on the guitar in terms of tone. Try this. If you hit the string not too soft and not too hard, it will have a strong attack, but the decay, the sustain, the ringing of the string after the attack, will still sound strong compared to the attack, and it will probable be a long decay. So you're looking for a balance between the attack of the note and the sustain of that note.


- hard: when the string is picked too hard, what you get is this: a strong attack that is very loud, and then a decay that is much softer in volume compared to the attack. This leads to your note sounding a bit thin. Picking too hard has also another clear disadvantage: you are probable straining the muscles in your arm and hand which can lead to a crampy technique. In that case you can forget about playing fluently and playing fast.


That said, in some cases you will want to pick very hard as a special effect, for instance when playing the blues on a Strat. Picking hard on a Les Paul already sounds much less nice, because the Les Paul was designed for sustain and not for twang.

guitarhow lesson improve your tone eric johnson


So you see, do not pick too soft or too loud. Make it just right to get a strong attack and a relatively loud and long sustain.


When you develop your technique to a point where you can pick a line of notes with the same intensity instead of playing uneven, some being much louder than others, you've improved your tone 100%.


Pick thickness/string gauge vs. picking force

Of course, how hard you have to hit to get that ideal, medium, picking force, will depend on two things: The thickness of the plectrum (pick), and the gauge of the strings.

Let's say if you'd have a 2 mm pick and .008 gauge strings, it's near to impossible to play with the right force, probably all the notes will be picked too hard and sound thin and twangy.

Likewise, is you were to use .013 strings (jazz players sometimes use strings this heavy) and a soft Fender pick, probably your notes will sound too soft and not much of tone is produced.


As we can see, the thickness of the pick has to be in balance with the thickness of the strings. I would go for using a 1 mm (medium/hard) pick with .009 string gauge, 1.5 mm pick with .010 strings, or use a 2 mm (very hard) pick with .011 string gauge. This really comes down to which sound and playability you prefer.


WHERE to hit the string

Another, tone-changing aspect of your playing technique comes from WHERE exactly you are hitting the string with the pick. A lot of people forget this and just play wherever is most comfortable. However, moving your pick even half an inch makes a huge difference in terms of guitar tone.

Let's see how where you pick, affects basic guitar tone:


- picking above or near to the bridge pickup. When you pick at the edge of the string, you'll get a sharp and pointy tone. Some players prefers this. Listen to 'Sweet child 'o mine' by Guns 'n' Roses, in the intro Slash picks close to the bridge while switched to the neck pickup, which is why he gets that nice metallic sound.


- picking above the middle pickup (strat-type guitars) or in between bridge and neck pickups (2 humbucker-type guitars). This will get you a very characteristic sound full of overtones and with loads of twang. Try and compare this sound to the sound when picking closer to the bridge pickup.


- picking above the neck pickup or close to the neck pickup. This will get you a big and round tone with a mellow attack. Don't go to far towards the middle of the string, because than you lose a lot of definition and edge. Playing close to the neck pickup can get you a nice and fat tone like Carlos Santana or Gary Moore.


The thing is this: you have to choose for yourself, which of these three basic tones you like best, and than adjust your technique accordingly. This means resting your elbow on a different part of the edge of the guitar's body.


Together, picking force and where you hit the string are the two most important factors of your personal tone. Try all options as described above, and choose your favorite.


Once you've found a way to make just one note sound beautiful, practice scales and single-note runs. Remember to do up- and downstrokes. Pick exactly at the same place on the string, use the same force of picking, and even the same angle of the pick, ON EVERY SINGLE NOTE.


Once you can consistently play a string of notes with the same sound, you'll have actively improved your tone, using your own taste and your vision of the best guitar tone thinkable. Read on: Improve Your Tone - part two!


guitarhow lesson improve your tone part 1 larry carlton slash