5 Easy Tone Tips
By Daniel Brooks
The quest for the elusive perfect tone leads many guitarists down a path that always promises to be satisfying and creative but all-too-often is just expensive and frustrating. From guitars to effects to amps to cables, strings, picks and, well, just about everything you might use to vibrate the air around you, there is an overwhelming abundance of options and it is difficult to know which will actually deliver the sound of your dreams. Fortunately, there are quite a few easy and relatively inexpensive things you can do to make your equipment sound as good as your imagination.
The first and, hopefully, most obvious way to improve your tone is to simply change your strings. A new set of your old favorites will always restore the clean, bright snap to your guitar’s tonal palette, but maybe it’s time to reconsider the effect the gauge and composition of your strings has on your sound. When it comes to gauge, the simple rule is: Heavier strings sound better. Yes, it takes a little more muscle to fret and bend a heavier string and your fingertips will probably feel the difference. But while your hands build up to the task, the added mass of a heavier string will move more air, and alter the magnetic field of your pickups with much more force and definition, creating more and better sound. Whenever you change the gauge of your strings, it is a good idea to check the set up of your guitar since a heavier string, or lighter string, may affect your intonation
The composition of your strings has quite a bit of influence over your sound. Nickel was the original standard for electric guitar strings in the 1950s and 60s. Many guitarists still prefer nickel strings as they deliver the distinctive sound and feel of vintage rock and roll. If it was good enough for Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix then it might be worth looking into. For many years, stainless steel replaced pure nickel as the standard material for guitar strings. It delivers more punch and sustain than nickel, and resists the corrosive effect of the naturally occurring oils produced by the human hand, so it lasts longer. In recent years, more guitarists have sought the tone and feel of nickel strings and the durability and brightness of stainless steel. Ernie Ball Slinky’s are a great example of hybrid nickel wound strings with steel cores that offer some of the best features of both. Ever innovative, Ernie Ball has recently put in a bid for the next generation’s standard with the introduction of their Cobalt Slinky’s made of an entirely new iron/cobalt alloy that delivers a rich spectrum of tones.
Use a buffer
The next improvement on your tone is a buffer, a simple, unpretentious addition to your pedal board. Many effects will degrade the tone of your signal, some more than just a little, even when they are not “on.” Effects with true bypass will allow your signal safe passage and will thus minimize the breakdown of your tone, but a cumulative depletion in tone quality will be heard if your pedal board is packed with effects. A buffer will correct this by restoring the strength and sonic integrity of your signal before it returns to your amp.
Replace your cables
As any stereo enthusiast will tell you, good quality cables are vital to the quality of your sound. The conductive material, shielding and length of your cables will make a difference, so look for a well shielded copper cable with a core diameter of .265 inches in the shortest length you need to do the job. The insulator doesn’t affect the quality of the signal but it will determine the flexibility of your cable. Some place considerable faith, and money, in gold connectors. Gold does have visual appeal and, of course, does not tarnish, but at the relatively low frequencies of a signal plugged into a regular nickel-plated amp, guitar or speaker jack, gold does not add any measurable quality at any price.
Replace your tubes
Though they may make a sound like an eternal force of nature, the tubes in your amp do gradually wear out, so gradually that you may not recognize the slow deterioration in your tone. For the casual player, three to five years of use will degrade your amp’s performance enough that a re-tubing will dramatically improve your tone. Fortunately, the tubes most commonly used in most maps are easily found. For less than $100 you can make your amp sound as good as it did in the showroom.
Upgrade your speaker
Finally, you’ve changed your strings, put a buffer at the end of your effects train, invested in new, quality cables and re-tubed your amp, and still your tone seems just a little less than it could be. You might want to replace your speakers, the component that actually moves air to create the sound you attribute to your guitar, pedals and amp. Like any component in your amp, speakers do eventually wear out, but they can serve you well for years. A vast offering of quality speakers are available, differences in design and manufacture can make a remarkable difference in your sound. Whether you’re looking for bottom-heavy thunder, crisp bright pop, vintage warmth or rich, balanced, full-spectrum sound, there is a replacement speaker that will highlight that facet of your amp’s sound.