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Quest for Tone – The Holy Grail [Part II]

We left off starting to cover some of the ways to clean up your tone by cleaning up your playing. Let’s face it, theory & technique have more to do with how good or bad you sound when you play. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes improvement. Or at least it should. Unfortunately, all too many players & students get into a rut early on. I won’t lie to you, doing scales, chords, and exercises can be really boring. But when you shake things up a bit, not only do you remove some of the boredom, you will usually progress more quickly in your improvement. Simply playing the same box pattern pentatonic scale up & down the neck isn’t going to get the job done. Strumming the same 3 chords from now until eternity isn’t gonna do it either!


All true guitar enthusiasts that I know have a library of theory, technique, and music (read Song) books. The problem is, most of them really don’t know how to use them properly. They figure if they just go cover to cover, they will absorb the information contained among the pages and suddenly “Voila”, they are the next Jimmy Page or someone. This is almost NEVER the case. I recommend that my students take a more well thought out & rounded approach. I also include a couple tips & tricks to help them to make more progress in less time.

In this installment, I am going to start showing you things to do that when properly applied as a DAILY REGIMEN, will help you to improve faster, clean up your playing, and as a result, improve your tone. These will also help to open up new avenues of playing for you to explore & experiment with. Specially if you are interested in writing your own original songs with your own signature tone. For some of you, these things will be new, for others, old hat. In either case, the inclusion of these will help, regardless of your skill level. (Remember, a really good guitar player can take a mediocre guitar & make it sound great simply by the way he or she plays, but a lousy guitarist will sound bad no matter how high the quality of his or her instrument, amp, effects chain, etc!!)

Playing Techniques

So let’s begin. We really need to look at all of our playing techniques. Fretboard and body sides of the equation as both individual entities as well as two halves of a whole. With this in mind let’s take the left hand (right hand if you are a lefty) and look into the things we can do to improve our fretboard techniques. Face it, if the notes aren’t fretted right, they will not sound very good. Clean notes, specially notes in a sequence, all need to sound equal in their ring, mute, slide, bend, hammer on, or pull off.

Hand Positioning

The first thing we need to look at in order to achieve this is hand positioning. If your hand positioning is improper, then the amount of pressure required to sound each note will not be equal. In many cases, simply paying attention to your hand position will clean up your sound dramatically. Equal pressure on each string, each note is VERY important. Less is more in this case. You only need enough pressure to securely contact the string with the fretwire. You don’t need to mash the string as hard as possible. Doing that will often result in your notes pulling sharp, making you out of tune and as a consequence, tone suffers. So as much as possible, lighten up on your touch. DON’T STRANGLE THE NECK!!!! Granted, some guitars & basses have better actions than others. We will discuss that in great length in future installments. But in 98% of all cases, players can lighten up on their grip, and should do so. A couple of great side effects of lightening up is increased speed, as well as increased stamina. You are faster because you are not having to overcome the Vulcan Death Grip, and your hand doesn’t tire out as quickly.

Finger Placement

The next thing we need to look at in our fretting is finger placement with respect to the fretwire. The closer to the fretwire you play, the better the note, the more accurate the note (intonation of the note), and the less likely the string will “buzz”. Not on the fretwire, just slightly behind it. This can be difficult with some chords. But if you take your time, start slowly, and pay really close attention to your fingering. Analyze it closely and make whatever adjustments you need to correct any miss-frets.

Play both in and out of sequence. In other words, while it is good to play sequentially while practicing or learning a scale or chord progression, it is very seldom that you will ever play C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C,B,A,G,F,E,D,C in a solo. You will be jumping all around, so get your hand used to playing in that manner. For example you might play the C major scale like this: C, A,B,F,D,C,E,A,G,B,C. (P.S. I like to use the C scale for examples because it takes less typing!!) The same is true for chord progressions. While you may play C, F, &G for a song, shake it up a bit and play them in different sequences. It will help you to develop the skill to jump from chord to chord, cleanly, and quickly.

Practicing Chords & Chord Changes

When practicing chords & chord changes, here are a couple tips for you. First, mix up your neck positions by using different variations of the same chord. For example, open C, Root 6 Barre C, Root 5 Barre C, and so on. Get your hand acclimated to using different chord patterns in different positions.


When practicing scales, go from major to minor to pentatonic, box patterns to linear patterns and back again. Don’t practice just one pattern. And don’t simply pick them either. Play “Legato”. In other words, practice and play your scales using JUST YOUR LEFT HAND!!! This is done by using a series of hammer ons & pull offs to sound each note of the scale or solo. (Tip: Practice your legato techniques around the 5th or 7th fret positions and drape a washcloth or small hand towel over the first few frets. This will deaden the open and unplayed strings and allow you to better hear the notes you are actually playing without the “sympathetic” ring of the adjacent strings.)

Rules to Live By

Just a couple of quickies before closing. SLOW DOWN…most bad habits come from going too fast before you master any technique, scale, or chord. Take the time to learn (or re-learn) it right. Analyze your practice sessions, don’t just practice.(Tip: Record each session so you can sit & listen to it afterward. You will be better able to hear your mistakes, as well as your improvements when you aren’t actually playing.) Focus, Focus, Focus. Turn off the TV, Radio, MP3, Telephone, whatever might distract you.

Make your practice count. ALWAYS WARM UP FIRST!!! I cannot stress this enough. Spend a few minutes (10-15 minutes) doing some simple finger exercises before you get into the meat & potatoes of your practice. Limit yourself to a couple of techniques, one or two scales and a few chords each day, and rotate days. Don’t work any one thing to burn out. This is not body building.

Final Word

Finally, be patient with yourself. You aren’t going to be Eddie Van Halen overnight. Use my 2% rule. Strive for a 2% improvement in some form with each practice session. Whether that’s 2% cleaner, 2% smoother, 2% faster, 2% more accurate. The 2% adds up quickly.

OK kids..off to the woodshed with your favorite ax & practice, practice, practice.

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2 Responses to “Quest for Tone – The Holy Grail [Part II]”

  1. David August 12, 2011 at 4:35 PM #

    Thank you for the information and advice.

  2. Jonathan August 15, 2011 at 12:53 PM #

    Thanks a lot man! these tips really helped me out

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