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Quest For Tone – The Holy Grail

All serious guitar players are on a quest. We call the object of our search “TONE”. But tone is an elusive and extremely objective/subjective commodity. I cannot tell you how many of my fellow guitar players, and/or my customers have come to me over the years and said “If I only had X,Y,Z pickups, or this amp, or this tremolo system, I would have Joe Guitarists tone. He/she has one, so I need one.”

Truth be told, while all these pieces of equipment do affect your tone, there is no one simple anything that will turn your tone into a recognizable monster. In other words, there is no silver bullet when it comes to tone. True, SIGNATURE TONE is a complex equation where the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. And in reality, it is this SIGNATURE TONE that we are all looking for.

Signature tone is what sets the great guitarists apart. Let me give you a few examples. Anyone with an ear of any kind can readily pick up on who such well known guitarists like Carlos Santana, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, etc., are in the first couple bars of a song simply by their tone. How is that? Each of these legendary players have many things in common, but at the same time have just as many differences. It is the combinations of differences and commonalities that define their signature tone, and in the process separate them from other guitarists.

So in order for us to find our own signature tone, we have to look at everything that affects our tone. What affect tone, everything. That’s right, everything from what kind of instrument, to what kind of amp, to our effects chain, string gauges, pick thickness, playing styles, speaker chioces, cables, you name it, it affects it. Once again, let me point out that when we speak about tone, THE WHOLE IS FAR GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS!!!

Case in point, if you try to play and sound like Stevie Ray using a high gain Marshall stack and an EMG loaded Les Paul, it ain’t gonna happen. Likewise, if you are trying to sound like Jimmy Page and use a Mexican Fender Strat through a Crate amp, that isn’t going to work either. Additionally, a true musician will use other musician’s and their tone(s) as INSPIRATION to develop their OWN tone, not just copy it.

With all that said, this column will not be pointed in the direction of how to copy someone else’s tone, but rather how to develop your own tone. Over the weeks & months, we are going to discuss, in depth, most all of the things that affect one’s tone, how to improve tone, how to develop tone, and like a giant jigsaw puzzle, let you put the pieces together your own way. We will discuss everything from A to Z and back again. How and what you use to develop your own signature tone is entirely up to you, the reader/player. If you try it, and it sounds good to you, use it. If not, try something else. It may come as a surprise to you, but even something a simple as changing the battery in your stomp box can have a huge impact on your sound. Some effect pedals sound really harsh with fresh batteries, but smooth & creamy with a half dead battery. SRV used half dead batteries in his Ibanez Tube Screamer to smooth out the sound.

Bigger isn’t always better. A couple cases in point: Eric Clapton recorded “Layla” using a little Pignose battery powered practice amp, while Jimmy Page recorder Led Zeppelin I with a little Fender Champ amp. Both got HUGE tone from smaller amps.

So let’s give you a run down of some of the topics we will discuss in this column. All tone starts with the player, period. This is the most important factor. We will discuss this in some depth, but this is not a teach you how to play column.

Next comes the instrument. We will cover instrument selection, set ups, modifications, parts, electronics, the works. Amps, accessories, effects, speakers, the works. Where possible, I will include photos, videos, and/or audio so you can see and hear the differences. Finally, while yes there is a certain amount of science & technology involved, tone, like music is an art form. You are the artist. It is your canvass to paint as you see fit. Whether Picasso, or Rembrandt, Monet or Van Gogh, it will be your masterpiece, not someone else’s.

Never give up the search. Stay on the quest. Seek and ye shall find. While elusive, it can be caught. It is up to you and you alone.


Tone, good or bad always starts with the player. The human factors involved with playing any instrument, are, without question or argument the biggest contributors to tone. A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but it is the truth. If your playing is clean, clear, and smooth, regardless of speed, then your tone will be enhanced. If your playing is sloppy, choppy, and erratic, your tone will suffer. It is what comes out of the instrument that determines your tone right from the outset, and your output is only as good as your input. You can have the same guitar, same effects, same amp, same everything as your favorite guitar god, but you will inevitably sound different to one degree or another simply by the way you play. They may put more or less pressure on the strings than you, or may hold their pick slightly differently than you, or fret from a slightly different angle to the neck than you. All these things change tone. The thickness of their picks even has an impact on tone.

All of your top level pros regardless of genre, strive for perfect, clean, clear notes. Whether playing chords, scales, or arpeggios. That being said, if you have an acoustic or acoustic electric, use it daily to develop your left and right hand techniques. If you don’t have an acoustic or acoustic electric, simply plug into your amp at a low volume with a clean…NO EFFECTS AT ALL…channel. Then practice, practice, practice. Practice make improvement, not perfection. Remember, you have to make both hands work in harmony and time together. I hav found over the years that the single greatest “Gadget” to improve your tone is of all things, a metronome. Used properly and regularly, it will help you to drastically improve your playing. The truth is, playing to a metronome is about as exciting as watching the grass grow. At least at first. Start slow, around 60 BPM (Beats per Minute). That is 1 note per second. Play each note or chord in time with the metronome and when you can play your chord, scale or arpeggio cleanly every time without a sour note or getting ahead or behind the beat, then increase the tempo by around 5 or 6 BPM. One other thing to pay close attention to is to make sure all of your notes are the same volume and resonance. Mix up your notes when playing scales, don’t just play them up and down chromatically. Yes, do play them chromatically but also jump around through the scale or arpeggio to get your hands synced to each other. For example: you can play C major as C,D,E, F, G, A, B, C. That is chromatic. But also play the same notes “Jumbled Up”, something like A,C,F, D, G, A, C, B, E, C. Still C major, but not simply chromatically. Same with your chords. Get used to jumping around the neck…IN TIME AND IN KEY!!!!!! Make sure you can hear each note of your triads clean & clear.

Mix up your picking techniques. All down picks, all up picks, alternate picking, sweeps, rakes, strums, and a little Hybrid picking as well. For those of you who are playing only electrics, incorporate some non playing techniques as well. In other words, practice adjusting your Volume, Tone and pickup selection knobs & switches while not losing time with the metronome. Clean up your playing, and you will clean up your tone. It is really that simple. Too many players use their effects as a crutch to hide their sloppiness when playing, then wonder why they sound so bad. Turn off all the effects, train yourself to play clean, and you will be surprised how much better you will sound when you finally do turn the effects on. Remember G.I.G.O…..Garbage in, Garbage out. That’s what you get when you don’t learn to play cleanly and accurately.

Remember….. An Amatuer practices until he/she gets it right. A professional practices until he/she can’t get it wrong!!! OK Kids, time for you to get a metronome & hit the woodshed.

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One Response to “Quest For Tone – The Holy Grail”

  1. Scottie October 6, 2011 at 6:23 AM #

    Great article!!

    Worth pointing out that you get a very different tone depending on where you hit the strings.

    You can get a great deal of dynamic variation… It’s almost like switching pickups.

    If you watch SRV you’ll notice he sometimes strikes the strings in a different place on the upstroke than on the downstroke. Hard to explain but it’s basically a circular motion.

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