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Arguably you can get more sounds out of your Fender Strat than you can from your Taylor 610. With your electric, you can add effect pedals or use different amps to enhance what the instrument can do. But with the acoustic, you can play hard or soft to get the sound you want, and with just a little variation in your technique, the same instrument can sound completely different. When playing music, you’re not limited to just playing loud or quiet to create a variety of tones on either electric or acoustic. A well-crafted instrument can generate a large range of natural sounds without any electric augmentation.
Where You Pick
I’m sure we’ve all experimented with picking very close to the bridge and noticed how much brighter it is there and how much better it cuts. Conversely, if you strum or pick closer to, or even over, the neck, you’ll find the opposite effect: The instrument sounds darker. There are many tonal varieties between these extremes, as well. When you see guys like Clapton, Vai, or Beck pick or strum over different areas of the guitar, it’s not just because it looks cool. It does look cool, but they are actually delving into some of the different tones that can be produce by striking the strings in these areas.
What You Pick
We know that one of the things that separates our chosen love goddess from a lot of other instruments is that you can play the exact same note in several places all over the neck. That’s unlike the piano, for instance, where middle C is middle C, so deal with it! If you fret middle C on the 15th fret of your wound A string, it will sound remarkably different than it will when you play it on the first fret of the unwound B string. The thickness of the strings and its point on the neck gives each note its own individuality. I have to admit that when I was learning to read music I found this to be a hindrance. I never knew which middle C to hit on what string. I now see it as a fantastic tonal playground where I have complete control of not only a vast range of notes, but how and where to play them.
If you don’t believe that a large part of a player’s tone is in his fingers, try playing a note on any string with your index finger and then the same note with your pinky. The thickness of your fingers, as well as the shape of your hand and its ability to help you fret that note, will greatly affect the tone. If you were to take a series of notes and play them all on the same string with the same finger it will sound radically different than it would if you played the same notes on different strings with different fingers.
How You Pick
It may be fairly obvious to anyone who has been playing for even a short time, but the way you attack a note also makes all the difference in the world as to how it will sound. It may be a simple observation, but that’s why Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong sounds radically different than Allan Holdsworth, even on the same instrument.
The size, shape, and thickness of your pick will also play a part in your attack and general sound. I use Dunlop heavy teardrop picks for most of my electric work. They allow me to bring in the fleshy part of my right hand’s index finger for harmonics and a modest amount of fatness now and then without having to fumble around with a big piece of tortex between my fingers. On jazzier stuff I’ll use a standard pick because, let’s face it, I‘m not going to be shooting for a Van Halenesque harmonic scream in the middle of “Moonlight In Vermont.” When I play acoustic I rely even more on my pick options to help realize my tone. If I’m strumming along on a ballad, I’ll want to hear the sound of the pick on the strings—in that case, a light gauge .50 mm is in order. If I’m rockin’ out or doing some heavy picking ala Richie Sambora on the Bon Jovi classic “Wanted Dead or Alive,” I’ll want to really dig in, so I’ll revert back to a standard heavy 1.0 mm pick.
Palm muting also plays a big part in your instrument’s tone. Shredders like my buddy Mark Tremonti will tell you that palm muting is an essential part of shredding. As you mute the strings near the bridge with the palm of you right hand (if you play a right-handed guitar), it allows you to hear the pick attack with greater definition and therefore accentuates each stroke. But palm muting done sub- tly can also broaden your range of tones substantially. I will often mute just a little with my palm. It’s very much like the damper pedal on a piano and it really creates a sharper focus in your notes when you need it.
I hope these tips will help you refine your playing, and find that precise tone you’re looking for. Until next time, keep jammin’.
Rich Eckhardt is a highly sought-after Nashville guitarist who has performed with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania Twain. He currently plays lead guitar for Toby Keith, and also works as a spokesperson for the Soles4Souls charity (soles4souls.org). His new album, Cottage City Firehouse, is available at richeckhardt.com and CDBaby.com.