Here on the Blog Of Tone, we’re always banging on about amps and gear. And that’s completely natural, because we’re guitar players, and we love our instruments and all the related accessories that come with them! But, as we wrote the other week, and as many of you have told us, it’s not all about the equipment; how you use it counts too, and counts big. With that in mind, here are some great little tips you can use to improve your Technique of Tone…
After our Voodoo gear blog from a few weeks ago (which you can read here if you haven’t done so already) we decided that it would be nice to talk about the other key thing that can make or break a guitarist: technique.
Because having the best rig in the world is not going to automatically make you sound like the world’s best player. In fact, put the world’s best players on a $100 guitar and amp package bought from a random online box shifter, and they’ll still sound amazing. But why is that?
Well, think about it. Although our guitars and amps usually have an array of tone knobs and selectors, we all have (well, the vast majority of us at least!) ten tone fingers and thumbs that are just as important when it comes to making our music sound great. If we haven’t got the feel and the touch, then no matter how much we spend on our setup, there’s going to be a limit to how good we can sound.
That’s what those great players all have: the technique and finesse to sound great, no matter what they’re plugged into. And it probably took them years, decades even, to sound that good. Practice makes perfect, after all.
So, without further ado, here are some tips on how you can get honing your guitar technique – follow them, and we bet you’ll find your tone improving faster than a Paul Gilbert riff on steroids!
Simple, but crucial. Your fretting hand should be open, as if you were holding on to a tennis ball. Try to avoid the palm of your hand touching the bottom of the fingerboard/neck, to allow the upper notes of chords to ring out properly.
It’s important to play behind the fret for the note which you are trying to sound. Try to leave space between your finger and the fret to get the most clarity out of the notes you are playing. Playing too close to the fret can dull the sound.
If you’re a complete beginner, right in the center between the frets is a great place to start; you will adjust your position based on what chord you are playing, the size of your hands, etc. Try to make powerful, positive contact with the fret without bending the string out of pitch.
Right and left hand muting
A combination of right and left hand muting is essential to achieving great tone. When playing chords, muting strings that are not actually in the chord shape is essential to achieving a big, rich, and in-tune sound. While playing lead, the tone will be clearer if you are able to mute unwanted strings.
Finding the right balance between right and left hand muting will help each note or double-stop sing on its own. So, experiment! Both the side of your picking hand and the unused fingers of your fretting hand can be helpful in taming the beast and cutting down extraneous string noise.
Here’s a short video of the aforementioned Mr. Gilbert explaining how he does it!
Play within yourself
This one seems obvious, but playing a really fast lick or passage before you’re ready for it can be tone-destroying. Slow down. Set your metronome to 90 bpm and practice the lick slowly, in time and repetitiously.
If it’s a 16-note passage, trying playing 8th notes for a time instead, still at 90 bpm. This may seem boring to many guitarists, but this is a surefire way to get even the most advanced player picking the lick of doom more precisely and thus achieving great tone.
As you get more comfortable, increase the tempo until you’re up to speed. You’ll be amazed at the improvement of your tone when you’re able to hit every note cleanly! And don’t forget your right and left hand muting!
Know your instruments
Get to know all of the sounds your instrument can produce. Does the song require a Tele, Strat or a Les Paul? If it calls for a Strat, what pickup(s) should you use? If it’s a Les Paul number should you use the bridge pickup, neck pickup, or both together?
Knowing your instrument intimately will go a long way toward copping an authentic tone, especially if you’re trying to recreate tones from your favorite records or players. Experiment with tone, volume controls and the pickup selector switch and get to know your guitar as well as you can.
Know your fretboard
Knowing how to play the same lick in several different places on the fingerboard can help you determine which sounds best. A two-note melody played on the G and D strings will sound different than the same two notes played only on the B string, for example.
Learning where these note overlaps occur will help you make the right decisions for you based on what you like to hear. Do you dig a fatter sound, or a more stinging sound for that blues lick you just wrote? Fatter strings produce fatter tones, but is that what the lick calls for?
Learning every note on the fingerboard can help you find the right position and tone for your lick. Of course, get to work on all of those intervals, chords, scales and arpeggios too!
Whose tone do you like? Whose tone do you dislike?
A lot can be learned from listening to your six-string heroes. Conversely, a lot can also be learned by listening for things you DON’T like! Are you a Cream-era Clapton fan, or do you prefer Sonic Youth? Could you play those Clapton licks with Thurston Moore’s fuzz tone? Open your ears and learn!
Dig in and have fun!
Like we said, all the great gear in the world won’t help you if you don’t put in the effort. Some of these concepts take patience, practice and a lot of hard work to master.
Learn as much as you can by listening. Record yourself. Be critical of yourself.
But most of all, have fun and explore the many different tonal options we as guitar players have. We’re lucky to be able to play one of the most expressive instruments on the planet!
First published: September 19 2014. Most recent update: October 02 2015.