Guitar Tone

Getting a great guitar tone, from an electric, is a complex old business - some people have an instinct for it – others like us have to work at it – but one thing is clear talking to loads of guitarists –we are all looking for more – even those with seemingly great tone at their fingertips. There’s a reason that it is complex – there are so many different factors at play.

Firstly, you – as a guitarist. Have you ever wondered why another guitar player gets a totally different spectrum of sounds out of your guitar through your rig? Its all down to mechanics. The coordination between the left and right hands, the way players ‘attack’ the neck with their fingers – or how they attack the strings with the pick.

String Choice

String gauge is also really important – heavier strings vibrate more strongly and sustain longer than light gauge strings. Use the heaviest strings you can get away with and you’ll see an instant improvement. If you currently use 9s try 10s especially if you use Gibson (or clones such as Epiphone) guitars – most Gibson Electrics have a scale length of 24.5 inches – that’s 1 inch shorter than Fenders which come in at 25.5 inches. If you can’t manage heavy strings on the bendy top 3 then try a hybrid set with a heavier bottom 3 – really livens up Strats and gives Teles that real hammer-blow E string.

Another trick, I played for a long time with a keyboard-based band, and I learned that keyboard players love playing in flat keys – Eb, Bb, Ab and F – don’t ask me why (actually someone did explain it to me once – all to do with tempered scales) but these keys all sound strong. If you tune the guitar down to Eb, you’ll have open chords at your fingertips; therefore, you can easily get a heavier gauge of strings on, because you’ve got lower tension on the neck so the guitar will be easier to play than the same heavier strings tuned to E. Doesn’t work for D minor – the saddest key of all (sorry - couldn't resist the Spinal Tap reference). Also don’t be afraid of using a Capo – another great trick. One of the most underrated guitarists I know, Steve Rothery from Marillion, uses capos to great effect on his electrics. It allows you to use open chord voicings in difficult keys.

Definitely go for the heaviest strings you can manage on an acoustic – 13s will make a huge difference – you can still pull the same tuning down to Eb trick - you can always use a capo for the other keys. Also have you tried Elixir Strings – they last forever – the tone is not quite so rich as say Martin MSPs – but they keep their brightness for ever because they are coated and don’t corrode. Expensive but try them, you might be surprised.

Distortion – Theory and Practise

Overdrive, distortion – call it what you will – is one of the great inventions that has kept generations of guitarists happy. There is nothing quite like cranking up an amp, plugging in the old shredder and making a racket!

OK so we’ve established that overdrive is a great thing, but lets just have a quick look at some acoustic theory and hopefully this will explain why adding stomp boxes to the signal chain is not going to get you the lift in volume you need to get those solos cutting through in the live environment.

When you hit a note on an electric guitar the signal takes on a very distinct shape. There are 2 parts to this - the attack phase and the decay. If you are playing a clean sound, the attack will be very pronounced - the note will rise very quickly and then it will sustain briefly through to decay relatively quickly. With a clean sound, you will sense a high perceived volume level through this transient peak or attack.

If we now start to overdrive the sound, and this is achieved by pumping more signal from the guitar into the preamp, what happens to these 2 phases is very interesting. What you will definitely get, with a more overdriven sound, is much greater sustain and the decay phase is longer. What you loose is the high peak of the note’s attack as you overdrive more and more – you also loose top end sparkle – what happens is that the note is compressed. So therefore with overdriven sounds you lose high perceived sound levels because the attack and the top – the key things you notice about the clean guitar – have gone.

Adding more stomp boxes and boosters between the guitar and the amp are simply compounding the problem as you are simply driving more and more signal into the preamp. The same goes for high output pickups. You will get increased volume, but not enough to increase the perceived volume out there in the audience where it matters.

Now this is not a problem in the studio, you just set the fader higher on the solo tracks. But at gigs, if you have a really intuitive soundman who knows the music backwards and knows where all your chops and solos are coming, he can ride the faders to keep your solos hanging out there. But I never met many in my time! And that’s if you have the luxury of being miked up through he PA – if you aren’t you need another solution.

You can add another amp to the rig. This second amp set at the level and distortion settings for solos and you simply switch it in when you get to the relevant point in the song for the solo. Lots of guitarists do this for many reasons, but there is a simpler and cheaper way.

What you have to do is to increase the level coming out of the preamp into the power amp. I added a switched volume control, which ended up located on my pedal board, which was fed from the send and returned to the return socket on the amp. The amp was set so that when the floor-switch was bypassed the sound level was at the level my solos needed to be to cut through. The volume control on the switch was then wound back a little so that by kicking the floor switch in took the volume level down to normal non-solo levels. As a general rule of thumb this never needed adjustment between gigs and was set at 75% of the full bypassed level.

Thoughts on Effects and where to put them

Very simple – all stuff that is based on delay – ie reverb, delay and chorus goes between the preamp and the power-amp – in other words after the signal has been overdriven. Chorus and Flange are moot points – and you can convince me that you should put them in the signal chain before the amp – you do get a stronger effect there. My live rig did both actually depending on the song.

But I would set up a rig as follows. Guitar, overdrive and/or distortion, Wah, chorus and/or flange, compressor then noise gate in that order into the amp. Send to reverb and delay and return to power-amp.

Last tip – get a power supply for the lot – batteries are expensive and will always pack up when you least expect (or want) them to.