Tips on improving guitar tone, equipment

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix

Alright, a break from politics for a while. Since I’m one of the rare Asians that can play guitar better than piano, some ask me for improving their tone on guitar.
Well, there’s several key guidelines to follow.

Firstly, tone is subjective. What kind of tone do you want? Hendrix? Metallica? Slash? Those all have very different tones. Personally though, my tone tends to go somewhere in between Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer with a bit of Eric Clapton on the side. Though I do play blues, it’s not the overwound, in your face, Stevie Ray Vaughan type. For this reason, I tend to play clean alot. Here is an overview of what equipment I use and what tips I can give people:

1) Amplifier: Your amplifier is probably what constitutes most of your tone. I recommend a good tube amp, because tubes sound more natural and organic than solid state, plus they can be driven louder. However, tube amps are pretty expensive. That’s why I suggest starting out with a solid state amp and then progressing to a tube amp. Good tube amps for clean tone include Fender Twin Reverb, as well as Fender Vibroverb, Fender Bassman, or any other Fender amplifier. Vox are also a good choice for that British sound. If you are looking for a more boutique amp, try Victoria Amp. I personally use a Traynor YCV20.

2) Speakers and Tubes: This kind of goes along with the amp thing. Speakers and tubes affect the amp, which affects your tone. Popular tubes include JJ Tubes, Electro Harmonix and Groove Tubes. 6L6 power tubes tend be a better fit for clean tones than EL84 or EL34s. For speakers, try Celestion, Jensen, Tone Tubby and Eminence. I personally use a 12″ Celestion Alnico Blue for my small amp.

3) Strings and Cables: Yes, the type of strings and cables you use for your guitar affects your tone. Use a good quality set of both. For strings, there’s Ernie Ball, D’addario, and Dean Markley. I personally use Elixir Strings because of their longevity and smoothness. For cables, there’s a bunch: Pro Co, Monster cable, Planet Waves, but personally I just use Fender cables.

4) Guitar: yes, obviously the guitar affects the tone. I prefer and have always used Fender Stratocasters for their versatility and gorgeous clean tone compared to any other type of guitar, but for clean tone, good calls can also be made for Fender telecasters, Epiphone Casinos, Gibson ES-335, Gretsch Country Gentlemens, etc. I usually prefer nitrocellulose finished guitars as opposed to polyurethane finished because the nitro lacquer is a thinner layer of paint, which gives the guitar more room to resonate, and therefore more tone. However, most new guitars these days will be poly finished, and the only way to get nitro finished would be to get a vintage guitar or a vintage reissue. I personally have a 1960s reissue American Stratocaster in sunburst with nitro paint and it plays wonderfully.

5) Pickups: Yes, guitar pickups affect tone. There is evidence that handwound pickups sound better than machine wound pickups because of their uneven wind and dispersed frequencies. Therefore, try to get handwound pickups, even if they are expensive. The big three pickup makers include Dimarzio, Seymour Duncan and of course, Fender. More modern pickups are Lace and EMG. However if you want handwound pickups, try Lindy Fralin, Lollar, Bareknuckle, Rio grande, and a whole bunch more of small pickups businesses.
Generally, Alnico magnets sound better than ceramic (Alnico II, III and V are most used for single coils). Either formvar or enamel wire is used for vintage pickups, and make sure they are staggered for your neck (ie. vintage radius 7.25″ should have vintage stagger and modern necks should have flat stagger pickups).
I personally use a set of custom wound Rumpel pickups, and they have been amazing.

6) Pedals: What I’m going to say is… try not to use too many pedals. Too many interferes with tone purity. If you are going to use alot of pedals, make sure they are true bypass so that they don’t color your tone when they are bypassed, and use an equalizer or compressor to smooth out your dynamics. A side note that analog effects tend to be warmer sounding than digital effects, but that’s just personal preference for me. It’s almost like a vinyl record vs a CD player. They sound similar, but the analog sound is created more naturally. You have many different effects makers today. Digitech, Boss, Dunlop, and most large gear manufacturers such as Ibanez, Vox, Marshall, Fender, and even Seymour Duncan. I personally use BBE and Tonerider (who also makes a great set of pickups), because they are cheaper, and are good quality. But if you really want the best tone, there are boutique effects makers such as Keeley, Fulltone, Teese if you really want to spend more money to get the best.

7) You: Most importantly, tone is in your fingers, so you can’t really improve this one with money. You’ll have to practice and get better, make sure notes have vibrato, smoother licks have legato, and quicker licks have alternate picking and staccato, and so forth. You can visit Ultimate guitar if you want tabs or tutorials.

And that’s it! I’ve been working on my tone for a while now, and I think it’s getting better and better. I will continue to post more videos as soon as I get some more songs recorded. I’m also thinking about getting a good microphone, studio monitors and mixer so I can do a professional video recording, but that will have to wait until my financial situation clears up.