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What’s the cheapest way to improve your tone? Change your strings! The type of metal used in your strings, the size of the string and the way your string vibrates all define your tone.
Alloy Type: Nickel-steel is the most common string type, providing a balanced tone with tight highs, punchy mids and clear lows. If you’re looking for more highs and increased definition in your sound, go for stainless steel – Scott Henderson does. Pure nickel offers a slightly softer, yet alive alloy that Eric Johnson uses and many players swear by. Most alloys come in coated versions that, to some ears, mellow the output and attack ever so slightly.
Winding Type: The type of winding used on a string will also determine its sound. Roundwound strings are the most common and are found on 90 percent of all electric guitars for their clean, clear overtones and definition. Flatwound strings grind the rough edges off the string for a smoother feel, and produce a fatter, much less biting tone with less sustain and a smoother attack. Smack dab in the middle, tonally, are semi-flatwound, or “bright flat” strings. While roundwound strings are used in all kinds of music, flatwounds are primarily found in jazz.
String Gauge: The thickness (gauge) of a string will determine its dynamic headroom, tension and overtones. Simply put: the heavier the string, the higher the string tension. This gives you more headroom, allowing you to hit the string much harder without it “flattening out.” Thinner gauges (.008 and .009) work well for players who rely on smooth distortion and a light touch. Medium gauges (.010 and .011) provide more dynamics while still retaining good sustain and feel, while heavy gauges (.012 and .013) provide the most headroom, attack and focused overtones, but can make you fight your guitar with each solo. Detuned metal gods use heavy gauges to compensate for the decreased string tension detuning results in.
Which string type is right for you? Once again, determine your needs. Think about your playing style – do you use a heavy pick and aim to destroy your strings with every down stroke? Do you detune? What about the action of your guitar? Do you need sustain from your strings or lots of attack? Is string feel important to you? Feel and tension even vary from brand to brand. Working with various string types and brands will give you the quickest and cheapest way to help you find your tone.
Checklist Point #8: Plectrums
Picks are where things get crazy, in terms of the sheer number of options. Comfort is the criteria most players use when deciding on a pick, but picks are all about tone, too. Today’s plectrums are being manufactured out of a range of materials, all producing different sounds: celluloid, molded plastic, nylon, acetyl polymer, delrin, tortex, aluminum, nickel, silver, gold, copper, brass, cork, ceramics, graphite, rubber, stone, ivory, wood, felt, glass, and the list goes on. And that doesn’t even take into consideration different shapes, all of which will change your attack. Pick thickness also plays a role in both comfort and tone; picks are available in thicknesses anywhere from 0.18mm (the approximate thickness of a G string), all the way to 5.5mm (the approximate thickness of two quarters). In general, strummers seem to like thin picks and accurate speed pickers seem to like stuff around 1.0mm. There are even special effects picks! The Jellyfish uses rows of tiny metal dowels at a 45-degree angle – the company claims that it makes your guitar sound like a 12-string. Now that’s value! Experimenting with picks (or lack thereof) can be one of the most personal things about your tone. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top used a quarter for his famous solos in “La Grange.” Top’s tonemeister even says that if you want a real “international” sound, use a Peso. After 30 years, Jeff Beck dropped the pick and decided to play with his fingers; likewise, many hybrid country pickers grow their nails out in lieu of a pick. The perfect pick may be closer than you think.
A Word or Two About Effects: You might have noticed that a checklist point regarding effects is conspicuously absent in this article. The reason? Effects do just what they are advertised to do: they affect your signal. Whether effects are a big or small part of what you are trying to do, it’s important to define your core tone(s) first. If the ideas for your core tone(s) aren’t solidified, effects orchestration becomes a hell-bound spiral of death. Why? Simply put, if you are tweaking effects and it sounds like crap, you have to ask yourself, “Is it the effect or the tone?” Get your tone together first and you’ll avoid this conundrum.
So What’s Left?
Simply go down the checklist and ask yourself the questions at the end of each point. They should serve as springboards for your own questions. Once you’re able to answer all of your own questions and can truly define your tone (you may want to try doing it on paper), you’ll be able to start intelligently looking for the gear you need, without wasting precious time or money. And that’s when the fun part begins! Start tying different combinations of gear at every music store you can think of. Hang out with your friends and swap gear for a day or two. Try every combination of equipment that makes sense for your circumstances, and test-drive that gear in your playing situation, even gigs if you can. Ask questions, use descriptions and let good salespeople help you. Use reviews, but make your own decisions. Read everything you can find on the subject of tone. And make sure to buy from the store you tested the gear at! If you follow these steps, you’ll likely be at band practice and hear, “Dude, what’s up? Your tone is killin’ these days!” Or maybe you’ll be at a gig, and some guitar geek will come up and say, “I love your tone! What are you using?” Or just maybe you’ll find yourself in the studio, and while the engineer is mic’ing up your rig, he’ll turn to you and say, “Man, your tone just nails the take. It records so well!” That’s the payoff of spending the time focusing on tone. But before your head explodes with that great feeling you get from other gear hounds checking out your rig, remember that you’re just getting started. Tone is a lifelong journey – just ask Eddie, Allan, Robben or Carlos. Happy hunting!