Tone Tips for Electric Guitar Players

by Mark Turko

In addition to well executed bends and vibrato, guitar tone is essential in being a professional sounding guitar player. Unlike string bending and vibrato, guitar tone has nothing to do with your actual playing but is definitely a factor in other peoples perception of you as a player. Like many guitar players, no one ever told me when I was starting out what constitutes a "Good" sound from a "Bad" sound. I'm not talking about what brand or manufacturer that makes one amp better than the other. In fact, most manufacturers of higher quality products with mid to upper price ranges all create good products. Specific manufacturer tonal characteristics of "their sound" is subjective to the guitar player and you should buy what you like in that regard. What I'm going to talk about is how you use those amps in regards to the EQ controls (bass, mids, treble, presence etc.). I had been playing guitar professionally since the age of 16, it wasn’t until I was 25 years old that I got my education in tone. I don't thinkthat my tone was terrible but it definitely got a major improvement at that time. Just because you’ve been playing a while it doesn’t mean you can't make your tone better.

The number one culprit, in my opinion, of a bad guitar tone is too much treble and bass or lack of mids. The reason for this is that even a great sounding amp is susceptible to frequency cancellation from other instruments. In the typical electric guitar scenario there are drums, bass, and vocals also. Each has its own place in the audio spectrum and need to "sit alone" as much as possible in their own place in their designated frequencies. Sure you amp sounds great at home with bass and treble cranked to fill out what is perceived to be a good sound but in a live or recording environment there are other instruments that need to fill the same audio space. Two instruments occupying the same space will result in both not being heard very well or possibly not at all. This is bad for everyone, not just you as a guitar player. You as a guitar player need to allow other instruments their place in the sonic spectrum. Too much treble -your guitar will get washed out by the cymbals, too much bass - you will get swallowed up by the bass guitar. Why work real hard to becoming a great player if no one can hear you. These cancellations at best will create a shower of noise that will make the whole ensemble sound bad. A wall of noise with little distinction between instruments isn't good. People will walk out of your performance and say that your band isn't good not realizing that you band is great but you just "sounded" bad, they don't know the difference. 

As is said earlier, my tone education came at age 25 when I was working with a band with a great engineer in the studio. He let me get my sound, he tweaked the amp EQ a little (nothing to drastic), then he did some more EQ work on the mixing console, then we recorded. It wasn't until I was listening back to my guitar tracks I had recorded isolated that I realized there was much less treble than I usually use but it still sounded great "in the mix" with the other instruments. I asked him to turn up the trebleon my guitar track and it instantly became washed out and gave less definition to the cymbals. I immediately applied this lesson learnedto live situationsand haven’t stopped getting praises from audio engineers since.

Most guitar players will say that the tone is too dull when they turn down the treble and don't like it. Well.......most guitar players don't have their ampdirected at their ears, but rather at the back of their legs. Elevate your amp, get a tilt back amp stand or of you have an angled cab , stand farther away so your "true sound" is actually making it to your ears. Last time I checked I don't have my ears behind my knees. With this adjustment it may reveal you’ve been putting out a sound that you may not even like. Try new things, ask trusted engineers their opinions of your tone, ask other guitar players that have a tone you like, try to learn. I played for 10 years learned something new and then the light bulb went off. I keep an open mind and my tone gets better all the time .


About the author: Mark Turko is a professional guitarist with over 25 years of playing and teaching experience in Connecticut. If you are interested in electric or acoustic guitar lessons in the Hamden, New Haven,North Haven, Woodbridge CT area please be sure to contact Mark