Five Affordable Tone Tips
Hello folks! Welcome back to Andy’s Corner! This week we will be looking at some inexpensive ways to improve your guitar tone. The quest for tone is a lifelong search and can be an expensive endeavor. In the last decade the cost of purchasing top end equipment has risen while pay for professional musicians quite possibly hasn’t. But don’t despair, there are a myriad of ways to improve your guitar tone without spending thousands or even hundreds of dollars. Small changes such as strings, speakers, pickups, tubes, and pedals can make a huge difference in the overall sound of your instrument. It’s up to you from there to use that great tone!
Change Your Strings
A very commonly overlooked factor in tone is guitar strings. Those of us that don’t play out all the time might think that we only need to change strings when one breaks or when they start to corrode. Some of us gigging musicians only change strings when breakage occurs or when entering the studio. Basically a lot of guitarists overlook the importance of the strings. Your guitar strings are the first link in the chain. They are the root of tone. When dirt and grit build up on your strings, it makes it tougher for the string to vibrate properly and this can cause all sorts of tone-damaging effects. The buildup will cause a loss of high frequencies resulting in a muddy tone. Also, the string vibration does not ring out as long causing loss of sustain and those sparkling overtones. Putting on a fresh set of strings will cause the guitar tone to jump out at you with clear, sustaining sound. It’s also a good idea to clean the fretboard and frets between string changes to keep the buildup away as long as possible. How often should you change your strings? That does depend on how much you play but keep in mind; even stored in a case the strings can degrade and potentially lose tone over time. My rule of thumb is always before a gig or studio event and once a week when rehearsing and practicing at home.
So we’ve covered the first link in the tone chain, next is the second link, your pickups. The pickups are a very large part of the overall tone of the instrument. If you’re not completely satisfied with the overall tone of the guitar through different amplifiers, a little pickup makeover can bring a whole new life to your sound. There are hundreds of pickups out there to choose from though so a little guidance might be necessary. Many factors of the pickup will affect the tone it produces. Things like magnet material, coil wire, and winding impedance will drastically affect the sound of the pickup and how it interacts with the wood of the guitar. Some pickups are active, some are passive. Then there is single coil vs. humbucker. There are a lot of choices out there so do some research before running out and buying them. Consult your local retailer or guitar tech if you have any questions you cannot find the answers to. Replacing a single pickup in your guitar cost-wise should start around $35 (depending on the pickup) and can be a huge improvement in tone. Here are a couple of informational articles on pickups that might help:
Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret MKIII
Add an Overdrive Pedal
Next in the chain is your effect pedal selection. Barring all other effects, an overdrive pedal can change the overall character of your tone before being amplified. Many artists get their sound directly from an amp but a lot of them have a “secret weapon” in an overdrive pedal. The overdrive can be used in many ways; as a lead boost, as a “thickener”, as the primary overdrive tone, or as a tone “equalizer.” If you’re using a higher wattage amplifier with no master volume, you might have to push the amplifier to ear-bleeding levels in order to get some overdrive from it. This is where a great sounding overdrive pedal comes in handy. It will allow you to obtain an overdriven sound while still staying in the good graces of the sound guy or the neighbors. If you’re already getting some overdrive from your amplifier but find that your leads are getting lost in the mix, a TS style overdrive pedal can work wonders. Midrange cuts through a mix there is no doubt about it, so having an overdrive pedal with a midrange “hump” is an extremely useful trick for soloing. Sometimes an amplifier will have adequate overdrive for some applications but needs something to help “thicken” the tone. A low to medium gain overdrive pedal can work wonders on this front. Take the case of a small 15 watt tube amp with volume and master volume controls. When you crank the volume it starts overdriving the preamp tubes for some great bluesy grit but it just doesn’t have the chunk you need for the sound you want. Adding a gain stage in the form of an overdrive pedal can fill that chunk out, add sustain, and change the flavor of the overdrive. Lastly an overdrive pedal with certain EQ characteristics such as a midrange hump/scoop or bass and treble controls can be used to fill in missing frequencies of an amplifier. If you find your current rig is getting you a really nice bluesy crunch but you need ear-bleeding metal, there are overdrive pedals you can use that will scoop the midrange and boost the low end to bring a heavier feel to the sound. It works in reverse with a midrange scooped amp as well. Again, a TS style overdrive can work wonders in this case. In general a reasonable overdrive pedal can be had for around $100. Check out the overdrive pedals we have avalible.
So next up we come to the amplifier. You’ve saved your pennies and purchased a great tube amp and it sounds good but the same amp you heard that guy in that band playing last week at the local club sounded better. Or perhaps you just feel that it isn’t quite giving all it can. A simple solution is to try some different tubes. In an earlier Andy’s Corner we discussed the tonal possibilities of the V1 preamp tube. This is the first tube in the signal path and can be swapped out to add gain, lessen gain, or give a different tonal flavor. The next thing to do would be replace your power tubes with a different brand or gain rating. Some tubes will provide rolled off high-end for those super bright amps while some will provide more midrange content or low end. Changing preamp tubes will have a different affect than changing power tubes so consult with a tube supplier or technician and tell them what you’re looking for. They will be able to steer you in the right direction. Preamp tubes start around $10 each while a matched pair of power tubes should start around $20-$25 depending on tube type and brand.
BE CAREFUL!!! Replacing a preamp tube is usually pretty straightforward and can be done in a matter of minutes. Power tubes are more involved and the circuit contains high enough voltage to kill. If you don’t know much about tubes or have never replaced them before, let a technician do it for you. This is extremely important when changing power tubes.
Replace the Factory Speaker
Swapping out the speaker can have a pretty drastic affect on the overall sound of the amplifier since it’s the final link in the tone chain. Speakers are basically the reverse of a pickup, so they are affected by some of the same characteristics such as magnet and coil material. On top of this, the choice of cone materials (paper, hemp, synthetic etc.) has an effect on the sound being produced. Alternate materials excite different frequencies, causing various subtleties in the tone. The wattage of the speaker can also affect your tone. A lower wattage speaker will tend to have some distortion of its own when pushed, while a higher wattage speaker will stay cleaner and tighter at higher levels. For example, a Celestion Vintage 30 will produce a bit more midrange “grind” than say a Greenback which has a brighter overall tone. A JBL E130 rated at 300 watts will not distort when pushed by a 30 watt amplifier while the 15 watt Jensen Alnico will. Normally, I’ve found that alnico magnets have warmer lows and a “jingly’ top end while a ceramic magnet will generally produce a classic midrange bite and more defined bass. A very popular thing to do is to have one of each in multiple speaker cabinets. A nice alnico 12” and ceramic 12” in a 212 enclosure will tend to bring a very balanced sound with rich tone across the spectrum. Replacement speakers usually start in the $90 range and go up from there.
So, we have 5 different ways to improve your tone. Any of these by themselves will not break the bank and are usually easy to do. Try a few and listen to what changes can come up for the better. Just remember, it’s best to swap one component out at a time. This way you can single out the tone changes and hear how they interact with your rig. With a little experimentation you can achieve your ultimate tone without spending thousands on guitars and amps. If you’ve already bought that boutique, hand-wired amplifier and the custom built guitar, these upgrades still apply. Small changes in the signal chain can have large effects on tone. Note: Be sure to consult with manufacturers before changing tubes, pickups, and speakers to make sure you don’t void your warranty and most of all, have fun!!!!!