Affordable Tone Tips Part Two
Greetings, everyone! Last month we highlighted five affordable tone tips to help you tweak your tone and get yourself just a little bit closer to your own holy guitar-tone grail. This month we’re giving you part DEUX of this series—because we want you exploring every inch of your rig for ways to fine tune your tone and because you don’t need to spend a ton of money to make big changes in the sound coming out of your hands, guitar, amp, etc. Let’s look at a few more ways to explore the possibilities…
It’s easy to overlook cables as a component in your rig. A good quality cable can make the difference between good tone and terrible tone; it can also make the difference between you getting through the show looking and sounding like a total rockstar OR having your signal short out in the middle of your two-handed tapping solo. The cable is the device which carries your signal out of your guitar pickups and into your amp so you’ll want to make sure you get a cable you can trust to do all that heavy lifting. When purchasing cables, look for cables that have a good rubber sleeve at the jacks; a poorly protected jack is more apt to short-out or get ripped out of the end socket if tugged on or tripped over. Cables come in a variety of configurations with regard to straight or right angle plugs. The placement of the output jack on your instrument should help you determine whether to run a straight or right-angle plug out of the instrument—the name of the game here is to reduce stress on the cable at the jack. There has been an uptick lately in some extremely high-end boutique cables; you don’t necessarily need to spend $150 on an instrument cable, but make no mistake—a hand-built cable using the finest quality components WILL sound different to a mass-produced budget cable. Even spending $30-$50 to upgrade your instrument cable from that store-brand cable you’re currently using can radically improve your tone. In an ideal world, the cable that runs between your instrument and amp (or pedalboard) would be 10’ or less. Remember, the longer the cable, the further the signal has to travel and the more likely that noise will be introduced to your signal chain. Cables that are 25’-30’ (or longer!) naturally cause some signal degradation—so it pays to try to be as economical as possible with your cable lengths, but make sure to leave yourself enough slack to do your favorite choreographed rock moves.
Picks are often a dime a dozen-- sometimes literally. They’re also often found in the darndest places—I think most guitarists are never more than 3 feet from a guitar pick (there’s one in my pocket, the ashtray, I can feel one in my shoe, there’s one stuck in my hair!). They’re ubiquitous in our world—and believe it or not, every pick sounds different and has a unique effect on how you play. The material used for the plectrum will have a major impact on the tone of the pick—celluloid vs nylon vs acrylic vs metal vs wood—as will the shape of the pick.
Price points on picks range from $0.25 each all the way up to $30+ for a handmade pick (some of which are truly amazing). At this price point, it’s a no-brainer to drop $20 to pick up a few of every variety of pick you can get your hands on and give them each a thorough run-through. The results may surprise you. You might have been using that .88mm for 20 years because it’s what your favorite guitarist used and therefore you’ve always used it—but after trying on some other types of plectrum, you might be surprised to find that a thinner pick gives you a little more speed/dexterity. Even a change as small as one little plectrum can have a huge impact on your playing and on your tone. Change it up!
Yes, this is a no-brainer. Maybe I’m writing this mostly for myself, since I seem to have stopped doing it (and yes, my playing has suffered for it)—but it bears repeating over and over: the best way to get closer to the tone you’re dreaming of is to keep playing, practicing, exploring, testing your abilities. If you don’t test yourself and your tone, you’ll never move forward.
Practicing is just like exercise—make sure to give yourself a warm-up before you dig in so your muscles have time to adjust and loosen up before you put them through their paces. Vary your practice routine. Work on playing stuff you’d never otherwise play. Force yourself into new territory, if even just for a 3 minute practice exercise. Take inspiration from Randy Rhoads, who made a living playing rock but who loved playing classical, or John 5, who can effortlessly bounce between chicken-pickin and full-bore metal shredding. Find ways to force yourself out of your box and do it consistently.
There’s a whole host of great practice tools out there, analog and digital. I’ve been a great fan of the book Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo and also have a daily practice app on my tablet (which is sadly underused). For more advice on practicing, check out these tips.
If you’ve got any revelations or advice on cables, picks, practice—let us know in the comments!