Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 1

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This post is part of a series called How to Record Guitar.
How to Record a Professional Electric Guitar Solo
This post is part of a series called Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound (Premium).
Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 2

Getting a guitar sound is a never ending search for most guitar players, engineers and producers that winds up taking so much time, and usually too much money, to achieve a result that sometimes only temporary. This series is based around my new book, The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook, where I’ll outline why acoustic and electric guitars, amplifiers, speaker cabinets and effects sound the way they do, and the best way to record and mix them after you’ve gotten the sound.

Also available in this series:

  1. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 1
  2. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 2
  3. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 3
  4. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 4
  5. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 5
  6. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 6
  7. Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 7

In Part 1, we’ll look at all the elements that gives an electric guitar its sound.

If you’ve been reading my postings here at Audiotuts+, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m a guitar player. The fact is I spent a great part of my life making my way in the music business as a guitar player on the road and in the studio, so I understand better than most the journey to find the ultimate tone that most guitar players, engineers and producers are on. That’s one of the reasons that I wrote The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook with fellow guitarist Rich Tozzoli. You can go down the rabbit hole of spending lots of money trying to find the tone that’s in your head, only to find yourself happy with your tone for only a very short time before the search begins again.

The problem is that there are so many factors that goes into acoustic or electric guitar tone, and unfortunately, most of them are overlooked by the player. Keep in mind that the largest part of the guitar player’s tone is the player himself, but let’s take him out of the equation for a moment and look at some of the other factors that bring an electric guitar (the first part of the series) to life.

The Wood

Just because the body of a guitar is the same, that doesn’t mean that it’s the same guitar from year to year, model to model, or even manufacturing run to run. Let’s take a look at everyone’s favorite guitar, the Strat, as an example.

The wood that the body is made of makes an enormous difference in the sound. For instance, different versions of Strats sound different because some were (and still are) made of Ash, some are made of Alder (sounds similar to ash but easier to finish), the Japanese models were made of Basswood, the Mexican ones are made of Poplar, and some are even made out of Walnut. All of these sound different.

  • Swamp Ash is very musical offering clear, bell-like highs, slightly scooped but very complex mids, and strong tight lows.
  • Northern Hard Ash is relatively hard, heavy and dense, which makes it brighter sounding and gives it a longer sustain.
  • Alder has a balanced tone with a slightly pronounced upper midrange which helps with clarity.
  • The softness of the Basswood attenuates both the high and extreme low frequencies.
  • Poplar is a bit denser than Alder but very similar in weight and tone.
  • Walnut is a dense wood wood that has a warm low end and a very bright high end with a mid-range similar to Alder.

Gibson guitars are equally as varied with Les Pauls using a Mahogany body with a Maple top, both very heavy dense woods that provide good sustain. Many classic Gibson guitars such as the original Explorer and Flying V have also used Korina, which has a grain pattern and tone similar to Mahogany, although it is not quite as dense. It has all the good tonal properties of mahogany, but is more responsive with a sweeter sounding midrange.

The Finish

When it comes to guitar tone, most players completely overlook the effect that the finish has. Generally speaking, the more coats of paint, the heavier the guitar is, and the greater the seal so less moisture is evaporated from the wood over time. Through the years every manufacturer has varied the type of paint, the number of coats, the thickness, and the undercoat, sometimes even in the same production run. No wonder guitars sound so wonderfully different!

The Neck

The way the neck is attached makes a big difference in the transference of vibration to the body and the pickups. Fender uses a Bolt-On neck (although they use screws instead of bolts), while Gibson uses what’s called a Set-Neck, which means it’s glued on to the body. Bolt-on necks provide better definition of the notes, while Set-necks have better sustain. Some guitars are built around a single column of wood that extends from the tip of the headstock through to the strap button at the tail, called Neck-through, which produce the most sustain. The Gibson Firebird, the Parker Fly, and the Rickenbacker 425 (see Figure 1) are examples of neck-through guitars.

Figure 1 - A Rickenbacker 425 with Neck-Through Body

Guitar necks can be made in one piece, or made of two or more sections laminated together to make the neck stronger. That being said, the type of wood used for a neck greatly determines a guitar’s sonic signature. There are four woods that are normally used.

  • Ebony is the brightest of the fretboard woods and is the most desirable from the standpoint that it needs no moisture other than what it receives from your fingers (see Figure 2).
  • Maple is the next brightest and is medium hard and medium weight, which works well without causing the guitar to be neck-heavy.
  • Rosewood offers a very warm sound and a smooth hard surface. It’s a hardwood and needs to stay moist or it will crack, although the oil from your fingers can be enough to keep it lubricated if you play it a lot.
  • Pau ferro is now used as a replacement for rosewood, which is getting more difficult to find.

Figure 2 - An Ebony Fretboard

The Bridge

The Bridge is also a part of the guitar that greatly contributes to the sound. The more tightly it connects with the body, the better the transference of vibration. There are six types of bridges available.

  • The Tune-o-matic bridge was originally developed by Gibson in 1954 and was a revelation because it allowed individual intonation and adjustment for each string.
  • The fulcrum vibrato as used on an SG has the bridge mounted to a plate that extends through the body (see Figure 3). This plate is attached to the body by springs.
  • The Bigsby vibrato is the great-granddaddy of all vibrato systems, and is found mostly on vintage or vintage style guitars.
  • The locking vibrato such as a Floyd Rose rocks on two bolts on the top of the guitar and is spring loaded.
  • The six-point rocking vibrato is the one found on the Strat and develop in 1954 by Leo Fender.
  • Brass barrel saddles are primarily found on Telecasters of all vintages.

Figure 3 - A Gibson SG with a fulcrum vibrato

The Tailpiece

Another piece of the guitar that gets overlooked for its contribution to tone is the tailpiece. There are three main types.

  • The stop-bar tailpiece like on a Les Paul is bolted to the top of the guitar, which allows the maximum transference of string vibration to the body (see Figure 4). This is one of the reasons why a Les Paul has so much sustain.
  • Trapeze tailpieces are usually found on hollow body electrics (see Figure 5), although you’ll find them on some versions of the Gibson SG as well. The string termination swings freely from the tail of the guitar, and the vibrational transfer is less than in models with a more solidly connected tailpiece.
  • The string-through body allows the strings to actually mount in the body itself before they run across the bridge. It provides very good vibrational transference and is what you’ll find on most Fender solid bodies.

Figure 4 - A Stop-Bar Tailpiece

Figure 5 - A Trapeze Tailpiece

The Pickups

Every guitar player, engineer and producer knows the difference between single coil Fender-style pickups and dual-coil Humbucking pickups, but there are many more factors that go into a pickup’s sound, such as:

  • The number of turns or windings. This is the number of turns of wire around the bobbin of the pickup. The more turns, the louder the pickup, but the worse the high-frequency response becomes. In real world terms this means that the higher the ohms value (the electrical resistance of the wire), the hotter the pickup but the less high-frequency response you’ll have. Humbucking pickups have more resistance than a single coil because there are more turns of wire, which is why they have more output and less high end.
  • Type of wire used. The diameter and insulation determines the number of windings that can fit on a bobbin, which will determine the resistance, which determines the output, etc.
  • Type of winding method used. Many of the pickups in the early days of the electric guitar were wound by hand, which meant that there were more or less than the required number of windings on the bobbin due to operator error. What’s more, an uneven wind would also affect the capacitance of the pickup, which can cause a peak in the frequency response. This problem was virtually eliminated when manufacturers switched to machine winding (see Figure 6), but while every pickup was now wound exactly the same, some of the magic that occasionally came from a hand-wound pickup also disappeared.
  • The type of magnets used. Although Alnico (a blend of aluminum, nickel and cobalt) is the alloy of choice for most pickups, occasionally you’ll find pickups made of other materials such as ceramic or neodymium. This will affect the strength of the magnetic field.
  • The strength of the magnets used. A stronger magnet will produce a louder and brighter sound while a weaker one will produce one that’s warmer.
  • The magnet height. How close the individual magnets are to the strings will determine how loud that string is.
  • Pickup Cover. Metal covers on Humbuckers can cause a resonance that results in feedback problems at high volumes, which is why many guitars and pickups are sold with covers (see Figure 7).
  • Pickup potting. Many pickups are sealed in wax to eliminate vibration induced signals that make a pickup microphonic.
  • Potentiometers. Although not exactly a part of the pickup itself, the volume and tone control pots are part of the electronic circuit along with the pickup and can affect the sound. The higher the resistance of the pot, the more high end will pass. Fenders use 250k ohm pots, Gibson uses 500k, and many other manufacturers use 1 Meg pots.

Figure 6 - A Pickup Winding Machine

Figure 7 - A Humbucking Pickup Without A Cover

The Pick

Believe it or not, the thickness of a pick can make a difference. For instance, many guitarists like to use thin picks because they produce a “click” that emphasizes the attack of picking, but in high gain and distortion situations they tend to produce a muddier, less controllable sound. A thicker pick makes a more precise and brighter tone.

The different materials used to make a pick also make a difference. Nylon, Tortex, Acetel, Ultem and Lexan picks all have a slightly different sound as do metal picks made from stainless steel or even a coin (like Billy Gibbons and Brian May use). Picks have also been made out of Agate stone, Lignum vitae wood or even tortoise shell.

The Strings

String gauge plays a major factor in the sound of a guitar. The heavier gauge strings will be louder and fuller sounding than thinner gauge strings. Even though many of today’s high output pickups are made with thin strings in mind, thicker strings will always sound bigger.

So as you can see, there are many more factors that go into the sound of the electric guitar even before you add the effects and the amplifier.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the factors that contribute to the tone of guitar amplifiers and speaker cabinets.