5 simple steps to tonal enlightenment

Wait…is my tone “bad”?? Well, it’s probably not bad. But if you’ve begun to ask yourself this question, there’s a chance it could possibly be “better”.

The reason for all the quotation marks is that tone is completely subjective, and what sounds great to one guitarist could be another guitarist’s nightmare. In this article I want to pass on a few simple tips that may at least help you achieve that tonal enlightenment we all strive for.

Change your damn strings!
Lets face it, we’re all guilty of leaving strings on our guitars that are perhaps…past their use-by date. However, something as simple as changing your strings can make a massive difference to your guitar’s overall tone!
Dull and dirty strings will leave your guitar sounding muddy, and kill the attack on the note. A nice shiny new pack of strings will result in a brighter, more articulate sound.

Daryl’s Top Tip™- Experiment with different brands of strings. They all have a different sound and feel. This little change might be all your guitar needs to get back on track. Personally my string of choice is D’Addario NYXL.

Set up your guitar.
Most guitars are set up in the factory or warehouse before they are shipped out to the stores. While perfectly adequate to get playing straight out of the box, this is a generic set-up that won’t take into account your personal playing nuances.

Take your guitar to a tech you trust and have them set it up to play exactly how you want it to, and to suit your style. A better playing guitar will result in a better player and ultimately a better sound! This will also fix any other tone sucking problems; scratchy pots, bad frets and a nut that’s not cut correctly will all contribute to your guitar’s tone suffering.

Bedroom warriors
So you’re playing guitar at home at night. You’re trying to keep the volume down because the neighbours have already complained that they can’t hear Love Island. It’s sounding great; so great that you have decided you are Angus Young and you’re playing an arena in front of a wall of Marshall stacks.

Cut to you setting up at your gig; you now sound too bassy, but somehow too fizzy as well. The reverb that sounded perfect in your spare room now sounds like you’re playing from the bottom of a well. What happened? It’s the same setting! Well that’s the point: bedroom settings don’t always translate to a live show.
In a live setting you need more clarity and less bass – that’s what the bass player is for (well, that and being the butt of the jokes: Drummer and bassist get into a taxi. Which one’s the musician? The driver. Thanks very much, I’m here all week).

When it’s time to get your gear up onstage, try setting up your amp from scratch each time. Also, you can probably afford to dial back the gain – seriously, you don’t need that much gain. Different venues will need different settings!

Clashing with other band mates
Being in a band is all about clashing with bandmates, although it should be over how many times to play the chorus, or who gets the next solo. You should not be clashing in terms of audio frequency.
Each instrument operates within its own frequency. Guitars and vocals occupy more mid-range frequencies, and the bass sits in…well, bass frequencies. The drums cover the full range from very low (kick and toms), to very high (cymbals).

If you think about your band as a jigsaw puzzle, every member is a seperate piece and should come together to form an overall picture. So if your bass player is taking up all the low end in your band, you don’t need so much low in your guitar tone, and you could even look at taking out some of the mids from the bass as that’s where your guitar frequencies are. Experiment!

True bypass
So your pedalboard resembles the mothership from Independence Day and it cost more than your car. How can it possibly sound bad? Well you’d be surprised how often this happens. One of the most common causes of this is too many “True Bypass” pedals in your chain, resulting in signal loss.
This can have a couple of detrimental effects on your tone. A big one is volume loss, caused by your signal having to travel through too many pedals, resulting in some of the volume being lost along the way. Next is “high-end roll off”; similar to the volume loss problem, the distance the signal needs to travel can lead to a small amount of the high-end evaporating.

If you suspect this might be the reason your tone isn’t sounding as good as it should, there’s a simple test you can try. Plug your guitar straight into your amp and see how it sounds. Now plug into your pedalboard (turn all pedals off), and see how it sounds. If it doesn’t sound the same, you might need a buffer! A buffer is used in pedals (or even as a stand alone unit to add on to your pedalboard) to stop this from happening. One way of getting a good buffer on your board and a pedal at the same time is to stick any Boss pedal in your chain!

Hopefully this small list helps to serve as a road map to your ideal guitar tone, and prevents the unnecessary destruction of musical equipment at the hands of angry guitar players. Remember, tone is completely subjective and differs from one person to the next. These are just suggestions and there are no hard rules when it comes to getting the sound you are looking for.