The most overused saying on guitar forums is, “The tone is in your hands.” This is what people say when someone seems too gear oriented. But the fact is that good tone, while in the ear of the beholder, involves a lot of stuff. For example, say you have a Strat and a Les Paul. While both guitars are solidbodies, they are made from different types of wood. The wood has a profound effect on tone. The wacky thing is that even if you have ten Les Pauls, they will all have differences in sound and feel. You already know there’s an army of replacement hardware and pickups out there. Then there’s the whole amp choice bit. It’s pretty overwhelming!
So let’s start with a couple of basic things you may not think much about. My goal here is to get you to actually think about the choices you make with your tone rather than just rolling on autopilot. After all, it is your tone.
Experiment with Fingers and Picks
I think the single most underrated tone ingredient is what you pluck the string with. Fingers (with nails or skin), flat pick, fingerpicks—try it all as you pursue your tone. Many players never give this a thought. With just your fingers you can get a wide variety of tones. Try letting your nails grow out a bit and use them. You can change your tone just by adjusting the angle of attack (this is also true with flat picks). Try brushing the string with your thumb à la Wes Montgomery. If you take the meaty part of your thumb, press the string, and let it snap, you get a very distinctive sound à la Mark Knopfler. Be sure to try picking in different spots along the string, closer to the bridge then farther away to go from bright to dark. Try pinch harmonics, like at the end of ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” or listen to Roy Buchanan do it. Pick the string, and as the pick crosses the string, let the meat on your thumb lightly hit the string too. To get this sound takes a bit of practice, so be sure to grip the pick fairly hard to make the flesh of your thumb protrude.
Try Different Plectra Picks!
There must be a zillion kinds of picks available. The two big things to consider are the thickness and the material it’s made from. I’ve used Clayton acetal polymer small teardrop picks for decades now. I like the 1.90 thickness and I’m very used to it, but I am always trying out new picks to see what they do. There are companies making picks out of bone, horn, seashell, assorted woods, nylon, plastic, and on and on. Picks made of hard stuff tend to sound bright and soft stuff tends to sound dark. For a long time, the gold standard of picks was tortoiseshell. These days, tortoises are protected and black market tortoise picks can run upwards of $50—you shouldn’t be using them anyway. Several makers have created synthetic tortoise picks, some of which are very close. Also, there’s a whole market in super-thick “Django” gypsy jazz picks, but that’s a whole story and technique of its own.
Many teachers start beginners with a thin or medium pick because they are a bit more forgiving of bad technique. As you advance, you may notice that thin picks flex. As you play a scale, you have to take into account both the flex of the pick and the flex of the string. Thin or thick, like all of this, is a personal choice. Take some time and try different things to see what works best for you, both in terms of your picking technique and your tone.
Fingerpicks, while not available in quite the variety that flat picks are, are available in more forms than ever before, but mainly in plastic or metal. The metal ones have the biggest variety of thicknesses, and can be open or closed on the fingertip. The thumb pick is the exception; there’s a huge variety of these out there and materials and thicknesses vary widely. There are also some hybrid picks, like the Fred Kelly Bumble Bee, which is sort of a flat pick tacked to a thumb pick.
Check out Different Strings
Strings are another key aspect of sound. You must consider what they’re made of: stainless steel, nickel, bronze, copper, nylon, and more. Also consider the way the string is made. Is it flatwound, half-round, polished, groundround, roundwound? So many choices. My point again is not to tell you what to do, but to get you think about what choices you make.
Do you want a bright sound? More sustain? Less sustain? With electric players, it tends to go like this: jazz players like flatwounds for their dark, staccato sound (flats are also less prone to feedback). The shred players seem to like the clarity and sustain of stainless steel round wounds. For my Tele, I like 100 percent nickel strings because they are darker sounding and have a nice, soft-yet-scratchy feel that I enjoy.
But Don’t Stop There
Every aspect of playing electric guitar is part of a vast interconnected system, and each ingredient makes a difference. Even non-amplified acoustic players have many choices to make. Take courage, fellow pickerheads! Pay attention to your tone and make decisions about what sounds good to you. Do some research into the players you love and see what they use, but keep in mind that chances are good you’ll sound a lot more like you than like them. You may even consider going to the insane edge of buying a guitar just because of the way it sounds rather than by what peghead shape it has. Yeah, okay… that might be going a bit far. See ya next time!
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.
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