Can't stop your supply of guitar pedals from inexplicably growing? Know the specs and sound quality of a bunch of amps you don't even own?
Chances are, you're a guitar tone chaser - a hunter on a never-ending quest to find the ultimate electric guitar sound.
Unfortunately, I very commonly see tone chasers losing sight of forest for the trees, and find guitarists who spend more time playing with equipment than they do their guitars!
If this sounds like you, you have two options:
- Become an audio engineer. You've obviously got the passion, and you may find you enjoy it more than guitar itself!
- Read the rest of this article, and I'll show you some easy tricks (and things to avoid) to get to the right tone, faster, leaving you more time to actually play your guitar and reap the rewards!
First, think of a specific tone you want to achieve
You've got to have an end goal in mind or you will NEVER finish adjusting your tone.
Are you working on Enter Sandman? Cool, pick out the distorted guitar tone and aim for something like that.
Don't just aimlessly play with presets unless you are merely exploring. Think of the best guitar sound in your head, and work towards it.
Next, find out what gear/settings/equipment was used to get similar tones
Not sure how to get a nice bright clean sound? Get on Google, and you'll find a ton of options.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll find a bunch of actual details about how the guitar sound was recorded on your favourite recordings. Remember that these details aren't always a hundred percent accurate, but they'll give you a great starting point.
If you have similar equipment to what you see through your research, set it up and experiment until you get that sound you're after! If not, try to find the next closest approximation.
For example, I don't own any strats, so if I was going to go for a super clean, chime strat sound, I would use my ESP Horizon which has a coil tap to get a single coil sound. Is that the same as a strat? Nope. Is it closer? Yep.
Similarly, you may not own a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. But you may have an amp simulator based on that amp. Again, it's not the same thing, but it'll get you closer to the sound you're after.
Remember, we're not looking for exact imitation, we're looking for inspiration.
Now, focus on improving ONE part of the tone at a time
Plugin your gear, set it all to default settings (if you're unsure what those are, they all come with a manual, which you can find online. Listen to the manufacturers - those guys are usually musicians who know what they're talking about!) and have a listen.
Chances are, it won't sound like what you want.
And that's good! It means you've got some work to do!
Focus on the thing that is most obviously off. Is there a lot of hiss? Maybe try dialling back the gain or treble a little.
Does it sound a bit muffled? Make sure your tone knob is turned up fully and look for a presence or treble adjuster.
All the best engineers focus on improving sounds incrementally, fixing big issues first and slowly working down the list. Given endless time, you would likely be tweaking it forever, but that's not the game.
The aim is to get to "the sound" and leave it. Take as many steps as you can fit in, sit back and listen, then try it out for a day, a week, a month.
Now, here's 3 things you should NEVER do
1. Don't assume there is one correct way for ANYTHING
The internet is the worst for this. How many GearSlut or Ultimate Guitar forums have a bunch of guitarists angrily declaring that X person is doing the complete wrong thing, Y person is correct and anyone who disagrees is an idiot?
The best example I have seen is reviews for gear, from people who have never used, seen or owned the gear itself.
I would go one step further and say don't even assume your guitar idols know what they're talking about. Some of the best are amazing players, useless at getting a good guitar sound on their own (the best ones have techs for that!).
By all means, try out what you read or hear from other guitarists, but don't make any decisions until you've tried it and heard the results for yourself.
2. Don't buy everything at once
Even with an unlimited budget, it's still smarter to purchase one piece of gear at a time (the only exception being bundles of gear like guitar/amp deals).
Why not get a full rig at once?
Because your tastes and experiences will change over time. You're much better off getting good with one piece of gear, then moving on to new bits of gear to augment or change your tone over time.
If you have 5 new pedals to play with, you'll be overwhelmed with choice and probably won't realise the full benefit.
Good tone chasers understand it's a long road, and you need to pace yourself and give your ears and skills time to adjust.
#3 Don't get bogged down in the details - let your ears be the judge.
I love my Ax-8 pedal. It gives great tones, it's portable, it's reliable, and it's got lots of options to customise.
Ridiculous amounts of options to customise. Way too many options to customise.
When I first started dialling in some tones to use live, I started tweaking everything to see what it did.
Then I realised you could adjust the biasing of the simulated tubes, and I also realised "I have no idea what difference I am making here." So, I stopped touching it, and focussed on the things I COULD hear a difference with.
True, I'm not realising the full customisable potential of the unit because I'm not adjusting every little thing, but then, that's not what I want. What I want is a good tone, that sounds good on stage every time.
Maybe one day I'll have a need for those details when I want to make some more minute tweaks, but for now, they are unnecessary. Remember, start with the big changes, THEN get into details later if absolutely necessary.
Hopefully this guide exposes the big secret to getting the best tone.
Work through setting methodically.
Undertake research, but do so critically.
Keep an open mind, use your ears and don't lose sight of the end goal - good tone AND good playing, not good tone alone.
If you'd like some more specific tips and advice, and a chance to try dialling in some tones of your own, come along to our Guitar Amp Tone Masterclass on September 24th.
I'll take you through a bunch of common tones and some simple, effective troubleshooting techniques to help develop your knowledge and ears.