Tutorial: The Basics of Guitar Tone

Electric Guitar

A good guitar tone is vital, it helps set the mood and overall feel of a song, and a number of variables go into the sound you hear coming from your speakers. I hope to give you enough information here that so that you can understand what goes into it and how each element effects the final sound.

On almost every guitar there are at least two things you can adjust that alter the sound before it even goes down the cable. Take a look down there by the bridge, there's probably a couple knobs and switch. One of the knobs is usually the volume control, the other(s) will be your tone knob, it simply boosts the bass or treble output, just like a basic home stereo. The switch there will switch between the pickups.


The pickups you use will be main factor in your tone, these little magnetic devices pick up (hence the name) the vibrations of the stings and their sound is the beginning of your tone. There are too many types of pickups to examine here but I'll cover the basics.

  • Single coil pickups are one row of studs, they have a nice smooth sound to them, great for clean tones.

  • Humbuckers are made up of two rows and have a bite to them, really makes that distortion crunch!

  • Active pickups have a battery that powers a small amplifier to give you more volume and a thicker sound, and benefit both clean and distorted sounds.

The position of pickups in use also greatly effects the tone. The closer to the neck you get gives you a smoother and mellower tone, the closer to the bridge, the brighter and sharper the tone. You can usually adjust the height of pickup or individual studs to tweak your sound a bit, I like to keep mine at angle that keeps the pickup closer to the higher strings than the lower strings to get a bit of a high end boost. Just be careful to make sure that the strings don't touch the pickup when you hold in high frets.

Volume and effects

After the pickups have done their job the sound travels through the guitar's guts for a bit and then encounters the tone and volume knobs. Tweak the tone how you like, it's up to you to decide how much bass and treble you like. The volume knob is usually best left all the way up when recording, though you can get some nice bowed string sounds by plucking a note with the volume at 0 and fading it in with the knob. If you get a bit of distortion on clean tones, back off on the volume just until it goes away.


Now the signal has left the guitar and it's probably on it's way to some sort of effects unit. There are tons of effects you can add, and they come in a variety of forms, from stomp boxes to rack mount units, to a racks worth in a multi-effect pedal. Stomp boxes are the most common type of effects unit, even among big name bands. A stomp box usually provides just a single effect, it's parameters controlled by a few knobs and a foot pedal to switch it on and off. Rack units are more common among pro setups, and I can't say much about them as I've never so much as touched one. They can be single effect or multieffect and can be programmed and controlled manually or via MIDI.


Multi-effect pedals are similar to stomp boxes, though they usually have two or more pedals to select various presets. They are usually more limited in flexibility than other effects units, but they make up for that in both price and the number of effects they have in a smaller package. One thing I should mention is that most effects sound far better coming live from a piece of hardware that's been designed to work with a guitar than they do from adding effects to already recorded guitar, the exception to this is delay effects such as reverb.


Effects alter your tone considerably and as they are hard to describe without actually hearing them it's up to you to decide what's going into your tone. Experiment a lot with every possible parameter and combination until you find something you like, and bear in mind, sometimes a little bit goes a long way. If you are looking to purchase an effects unit I recommend you don't buy anything without hearing it. If possible take at least your guitar, if not most of your equipment, to a shop and demo what they have. Every music store I've been in will let you do this, and a couple even had soundproofed rooms where you could make all the noise you want! It is a good idea to call ahead though, you don't want to look like a fool by carting two tons of equipment into a store only to have the employees give you strange looks. 😊


Now we have a tone that has been processed by your effects, or has bypassed that entirely. Now it's most likely ready to hit an amplifier or amp simulator. The amp is the last step before it makes it's way to a speaker and has a profound effect on the tone.


There are two major types of amps: tube based and solid-state/transistor based. It's generally acknowledged that tubes sound better, especially if you want a warm smooth tone. I have a small tubed amp and a small solid-state and there is no competition when it comes to a warm, sweet, clean sound, the tubes win. Though for a tight, crunchy distortion I have to admit I prefer the solid-state amp. This is something else you should audition in person to hear the difference in.


The amp is also usually the stage where you set your EQ. Yet another thing you can play around with till you're happy. I can however tell you that a traditional Metal tone is to turn the Bass as high as it will go until it the speaker farts, turn the Treble up till people's ears bleed in the next room, and then add in a little bit of Mid if you like, or leave it at 0.


Punk is usually heavy on the Mids and Treble, and clean tones sound good with a healthy dose of each.


Hopefully I've given you enough information to help you tweak your guitar tone here, but if you'd like more information I suggest you have a look at Harmony Central's guitar section. There are also usually some great tips in Guitar World magazine.


If you have any questions feel free to ask either in the Remix64 forums, or shoot an e-mail to ruiner1@charter.net and I'll do my best to help!