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Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 3

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This post is part of a series called Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound (Premium).
Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 2
Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 4

Every guitar player, engineer and producer wants that frequently elusive perfect guitar sound for the track, but finding it is sometimes easier said than done. This series is based around my new book, The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (written with Rich Tozzoli), 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

While it’s great if you already have a variety of gear to choose from, sometimes it’s just cheaper and easier to tweak some gear that you already have instead of springing for something completely new. Of course, you can always place a new pedal in between your guitar and amp, but that’s a temporary fix that won’t work in every situation. In Part 3 of the series, we’ll look at a few ways that you can change your sound right at the source.


Tweak Your Guitar

There are a number of ways that you can tweak the sound of the guitar itself, some quite easy, and some that require some major surgery on the instrument. Let’s look at them.

The Strings - By far the easiest variation to your sound is the one that’s the most overlooked, and that’s to change your strings. The theory is pretty simple; bigger strings sound bigger. Why? Because they generate more voltage as they cut through the magnetic field of the pickups. Want some real-life examples? Stevie Ray Vaughan used a really heavy gauge set that went from .013 to .060, with his high E string sometimes as thick as .018! On the other hand, Billy Gibbon’s custom set has a high E string that’s only .007 (see Figure 1), but he’s a special case in that he has the means to do whatever he needs to make it sound big. It’s still easier to get a bigger sound with bigger strings (and stay in tune better as well).


Figure 1: Billy Gibbon’s Custom String Set

The Pick - The pick makes a huge difference in your sound, yet no one ever seems to take notice. A heavier pick (about .85mm or more) gives you a brighter sound and provides a lot more note definition as well, especially when using heavy distortion. A lighter pick may be better for strumming and rhythm work and provides a mellower tone. A pick made from plastic sounds much mellower than a stainless steel pick or one crafted from a coin like Brian May (see Figure 2) and Billy Gibbons uses.


Figure 2: Brian May’s Sixpence Pick

The Pickups - This is where we begin to get into the surgery part of changing your sound. While every guitar player knows the difference between single coil and Humbucking (which uses dual coils) pickups, not everyone knows about some of the other parameters that determine the sound of your guitar.

There are a large number of pickup parameters if you want to get into the science of it, but there’s one parameter more than any other that gives you the best indication of what it sounds like - the DC resistance. DC resistance indirectly tells you how many coil windings are used in the pickup (see Figure 3). The more windings, the louder the pickup but the less high-end it will have. The fewer windings, the better the high-end, but it won’t be as loud. A value of around 6k ohms or so indicates a bright pickup, while a DC resistance value of 10k ohms or more indicates a very loud pickup.


Figure 3: A Typical Strat Pickup With The Windings Exposed

A loud pickup will allow you to overdrive your amp a little easier, but at the expense of note definition. If you’re using an amp that distorts easily or you use overdrive or distortion pedals, you might like the sound of a brighter, less loud pickup instead.

The Neck - Although it’s a lot more subtle than changing a pickup, the fretboard of a neck adds a surprising amount to the overall sound of a guitar. A fretboard made of Ebony or Maple lends itself to a very bright sound while a rosewood fretboard is much mellower (see Figure 4). Of course, many players prefer the feel of one type of fretboard over another, so that may be a lot more of factor to the player than the sound itself.


Figure 4: A Rosewood Fretboard

The Bridge/Tailpiece - The bridge and the tailpiece mean so much to the sustain of the guitar, yet they’re frequently overlooked as contributing factors. Sometimes just a simple adjustment such as blocking the vibrato arm on a Strat or screwing down the stop tailpiece of a Les Paul can suddenly provide more sustain without changing anything else (see Figure 5). Be sure to contact a tech before attempting either though, because your intonation will change a little as well, and let’s face it, playing in tune is a lot more important than anything else sometimes.


Figure 5: A Les Paul Stop Tailpiece Screwed All The Way Down

The Finish - The type of paint, the number of coats, the undercoat and sealant all make a difference in how the guitar sounds, but do you really want to undertake such major and extensive guitar surgery?


Tweak Your Amplifier

If you own a tube amp, you’re in luck. It’s possible to do some tweaks to your amp that can make a bigger difference to the sound than you ever thought possible. Let’s look at a few fairly inexpensive ways that can make changes in the sound.

Change Your Tubes - Tubes vary a great deal in two major parameters - tone and gain. Every tube manufacturer and distributor sells several variations of the same 12AX7 preamp tube that most tube amps use, and yet each version sounds different (see Figure 6).


Figure 6: A Typical 12AX7 Preamp Tube

It’s commonly thought that the very first preamp tube that the signal from your guitar sees is responsible for large part of the tone of the amp. By selecting the preamp tube to get the amount of input distortion that feels good to you, then finding one that provides the right tone (some tubes are harsh and some are mellow sounding), you can change the sound of your amp with this simple and inexpensive tweak more than you think.

Changing the output tubes also can make a big difference. Some output tubes break up more easily than others (Groove Tubes provides a 1 to 10 rating for this, with the lower number being easier to overload) while some will sound smooth and others more aggressive (see Figure 7).


Figure 7: A Groove Tubes EL-34 Power Tube (note the number “9” on the lower left near the pins, indicating that’s it’s slow to distort)

Tubes seem to change with each batch manufactured so ask your tech or tube dealer for suggestions before you buy something that you might not be happy with.

Set Your Bias - The bias is the operating point of your amp’s power tubes and how it’s set makes a huge difference in how the amp sounds. A very “cold” setting can make your amp limp and lifeless with too much headroom and little distortion or sustain (this is how most tube amps come from the factory), while a setting that’s too “hot” will provide more sustain and distortion, but may be too aggressive for the type of music you’re playing. It will also shorten the life of the tubes. Work with your tech to find the setting that’s best for your style of playing. Setting your bias is NOT something that you should attempt to do yourself unless you have lots of experience in high-voltage electronics. The voltages in a tube amp can be lethal and it’s not worth dying over just to save a few bucks and a trip to the tech.

Pull The Output Tubes For Less Output - A really good trick for those times when you need to turn up the amp to get the sound of overdriven output tubes yet keep the overall volume from blowing everyone away is to pull a couple of the power tubes. For example, if you have a 100 watt Marshall JMC that’s just too loud for the studio (they almost always are), pull a couple of the EL-34 power tubes (one from each end) and the power will drop to around 50 watts (see Figure 8). This won’t hurt anything so don’t be afraid to do it. It’s also possible to pull one of the tubes in a two power tube amp like a black or silver-face Fender Bassman or one of Fender’s Hot Rod series amps, and this will also cut the output power in half, although it might not sound as good as in the four tube models where the tubes can be symmetrically pulled.


Figure 8: Pull The Outside Power Tubes To Lower The Amp’s Power

But I Don’t Have A Tube Amp

If you own one of the popular modeling amps now on the market by Line 6, Marshall, Vox, Fender and others, you’re in luck, because you have more control over your sound than you ever knew. Let’s look at some of the possible tweaks.

The Amp Model - This parameter gives you the biggest variance in sound so dig in and start experimenting. From a Fender (which may be referred to as something like “Clean American”) to a Vox (“British Smooth”) to a Marshal (“British Crunch”) to a Mesa Boogie (“Metal” or “American Overdrive”), you have almost every popular amp type covered. It’s surprising how different the same general amp settings will sound with different amp models.

The Speaker Cabinet Model - This allows you to select between the sound of a 10 inch speaker, dual 12” in an open or closed back cabinet, a typical 4x12 cabinet, a 4x10 cabinet, and a single 15” in an open or closed back cabinet, and more. Once again, it’s surprising how different these can all sound with the same amp model and using the same settings.

The Mic Modeling - This is one of the coolest features of most modeling amplifiers in that you can select a simulation of microphone placement on the speaker cabinet. Dial in a close-mic or distant mic setup, multiple mics, and in some cases, even the type of microphone.

Drive - I’m sure you already know this, but just in case…. Sometimes called “Preamp,” this is the control that dials in the amount of sustain or distortion on your rig. Set it on 2 or 3 and it’ll be clean and jazzy sounding, set it on 5 or 6 and you’ll start to hear some mild breakup, and full up on 10 and you’re in the land of insane distortion and nearly infinite sustain (with the right amp model, of course).

With just these four parameters, it’s easy to dial in an almost infinite variety of sounds, of which one is going to be perfect for your track for sure.


Change The Speakers

This tweak requires more cost, but can worth it. While changing your speakers can make a big difference in your sound, if you’re not careful it might not be for the better. Many guitarists change their speakers at random without any knowledge of what or why they’re doing so and that can give you mixed results at best, so to prevent some unhappy results, here are a few things to think about first:

Is your speaker cabinet open or closed back? The speaker requirements are quite different for each, so a speaker meant for one just won’t cut it if used in the opposite application. Mismatch these speakers and not only will you not get the sound you expect, but you might find your nice new speakers blown the first time you use them.


Figure 9: An Open Back Fender Cabinet

What wattage are the speakers? Believe it or not, lower wattage speakers are the most desirable because they have a quicker response time and dynamic range. This is because the paper of the cone, the wire of the voice coil and the magnet structure are all smaller, giving the speaker a better dynamic “feel” when you play.

Check out different models. Every speaker manufacturer has a ton of different speakers to choose from, but some will be more appropriate for your application than others, so it’s important to not choose something just because of the brand name or because someone else uses it. Speakers are not all created equal and they won’t all work in your situation, so be sure to ask for advice before you make that change.

In Part 4 we’ll look into the world of effects pedals and pedalboards.

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