1. IT STARTS WITH THE GUITAR!
Not all guitars are made equal, and picking the right guitar for the part is going to make the biggest impact on nailing the tone. A Stratocaster will never sound like a Gibson Les Paul, and vice versa. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Rig Rundown on PremierGuitar.com
2. FRESH STRINGS!
The strings are much too often neglected during live performances and studio sessions when in fact they are what is being amplified. A dead set of strings is going not going to have any life, or sustain, and will leave you will a dull sound forcing you to push the treble on your amplifier – which can lead to fizz and noise. A good rule of thumb is a new set of strings for every song in the studio, and a new set for every few gigs on the road. I buy all of my strings from Sweetwater.com because they give a discount the more you buy.
3. THE PICK, AND HOW YOU HOLD IT.
Picks come in all different shapes, thicknesses, and materials, all of which contribute to your tone. Thin picks can be nice for a bright shimmery sound, for example, on an acoustic guitar when its being used as a background layer. But a thicker pick may be better suited when the acoustic needs to be fuller and more of the foundation of the song. For electric guitars, the heavier the pick that harder the output, which can drive your amp harder for more crunch.
Picking and strumming technique are also major contributors to tone. Many guitarists angle the pick for speed but end up moving across the strings and slicing them, producing a harsh tone especially on high gain distorted guitars. Striking the strings with a flatter pick will produce a more natural warm tone of setting the strings in motion and not slicing across them.
4. THE AMP.
The amplifier is another case of knowing what your going for. A Fender sounds different than a Marshall and they both sound different than a Mesa Boogie. Then we have cabinets (speakers) which make for thousands of combinations each producing different tones. Choosing an amp and cabinet set up can take a lot of experimenting, and is another case where a site like Rig Rundown can help you find some starting points.
5. DIALING IN THE AMP.
Now that you’ve decided on which amplifier is right for your sound, its time to dial it in. Here’s a few quick tips for getting the most accurate sound that your audience (for live events) or microphones (in studio, and on stage) will hear:
Listen with your ear at speaker level. Caution: Start at a low level! You can easily damage your hearing listening to a screaming guitar amp with your ear next to the speaker. We hear much less treble when we dial in the tone standing a few feet above the speakers, and so we often dial in too much high end leaving us with a fizzy, harsh tone. Your audience will also be hearing the sound at ear level if you are playing on a raised stage, so take a minute to listen from their point of view.
Start with all EQ settings at 5 (assuming your amp goes to 10), turn the master up to 1 or 2 but not to loud, and start with the drive all the way down. Start strumming some chords and gradually bring the gain up until you start to hear some crunch or distortion on the more powerful hits. Thats your break up point. Now you can push it further into distortion or ease it back off into clean territory to suit your taste and style. Experiment with the EQ to get your desired tone (ears at speaker level, still listening low!) On most amps the EQ settings are in the Preamp stage, and adjust the amount of bass, midrange, and treble being pushed into distortion. Too much treble can create a harsh fizzy distortion, so be careful not to over do it. Presence usually happens in the Power Amp section and is a good place to add some of the treble back into the signal after it has been distorted.
THAT’S IT FOR NOW!
Feel free to leave any questions in the comments, and stay tuned for more genre specific guitar and amp combo tips and tricks!