Improving Your Guitar ToneDecember 8, 2016

Hello again and welcome to another PYAR studios blog. This time we are going to talk about guitar tone. We should immediately preface this with the fact that a lot of the following will be based on opinion as well as fact. When it comes down to it, there are no rules in music. Whatever works is for the song is always the option to take.

Now then. The guitar is a very versatile instrument. It can serve many purposes in a mix and can either be the driving force, the screaming lead, or the shiny detail on top. Likewise, it can be all three of those things at the same time. So how do you make sure that your guitar tone isn’t going to make people’s ears bleed? As with anything, it starts at the source.

No matter what you are recording and what microphones you are using to capture it, a great tone starts from step one. In this case it’s the player and the guitar. There’s no replacement for a great performance and there is a very good reason that a professional guitar player still sounds plausible through a bad amplifier. It’s true that a lot of a guitarist’s tone is in his/her fingers. We can’t say much else about the player part as that’s totally personal but we can address the guitar part.

We said this in our last blog but it’s important so here we go again. Always take care of your instrument and make sure that the pickups and wiring are in check, as well as everything else. You can’t express your inner musical genius via a piece of junk, although we did see a guy hitting some bins once and that was pretty impressive. Intonation is also massively important. If your intonation is incorrect then you can easily find yourself spending hours trying to tune your guitar, only to find that it ‘changes tuning’ depending on where you’re playing on the neck. This can be frustrating on or off stage and nobody wants their performance to be horribly out of tune.

Next up is cables. That’s right, we said it. We’ve heard countless people tell us that cables don’t make a difference and that the quality of a guitar cable is completely unimportant. WRONG! It is important. Try it. Get a cheap cable and then a high quality cable and listen to the difference. That signal coming out of the guitar can degrade and whilst it is slightly ‘tone geek’ of us to bring it up, that’s what we’re talking about right? If you want a great tone, then you may as well follow suit and buy great cables; Look at it that way. Every part of your signal chain is important and if you want to have an edge on your guitar playing friends then you need to go into details with this. Cables are something people often overlook.

So you’ve got your instrument and cables in check. Your favourite pedals are all set and you’re about to turn your amp on. Stop right there! Is your amp connected to a speaker before you turn it on? We’ve found that most people don’t know that this can damage your amp so unless your amplifier is a pre-connected combo amp, make sure that it has a ‘load’ attached before you power it up. By load, in this case we mean speaker. You *can* get a load box to handle this for various other applications but they don’t make much noise… We know that this isn’t a tone thing but while we are talking about guitars we thought we may as well throw this in and save some amplifier lives.

It’s an ongoing debate what creates the best tone and there are many ways to achieve it. You can choose a solid state amp, you can choose a valve amp, you can model your tone with the likes of Kemper and Axe FX products or from a DI in your favourite DAW. There are a lot of ways to approach it, a lot of different types of tone and a lot of personal preferences. We can’t really preach too much there because people will always like what they like. We use a mix. Our favourite are valve amps and in the box guitar sims (from a great DI signal, it has to be!). Solid state amps are typically too hissy at the top for our liking but most amps can sound great if used for purpose. Sometimes a trashy practice amp can make a great grunge distortion. You never know until you try it and you should always keep an open mind.

Here’s a story for you. It’s like the Jungle Book except rubbish and nothing like the Jungle Book. Many years ago, I was running a valve amp with a line 6 POD. I was taking the signal from the guitar, into the POD, into the pre-amp section of the amplifier (the input) and doing my best to get it to sound good. The most I could achieve seemed to be an “ok” sound. Naturally being a silly guitar noob, I blamed it on Line 6 as it was cool to hate on them back then. Now it’s only the spider series that really takes heat (and so it should!). Anyway. Whilst it’s perfectly acceptable to run pedals into the pre-amp section of an amplifier, I was making a mistake without realising it. A lot of modern multi-FX units have cabinet simulation technology and various compensations for scenarios in which they are expected to be used directly (without an amplifier involved or straight into a PA). Back then I wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable and I’m definitely not afraid to admit that I have learnt a lot since and still have a lot more to learn, as any audio professional should.  A very experienced guitarist friend of mine laughed at me and informed me that I’d missed the cabinet simulation function and ignored what it was doing to my tone going into the pre-amp. He also told me that I’d be much better running the FX straight into the power section of the amplifier, by-passing the pre-amp and turning the pedal’s cabinet simulator off. Let me tell you, it was like God had taken control of my amplifier. The tonal change! The clarity! The punch! It was magnificent.

So the lesson here? If you’re making the same mistake I did then, try that. You can thank us by booking in for a session. Deal? Ahem… Know what you’re using. Read the manual, study it. Then throw that manual in your manual drawer at home and get on with crafting the best tone in the universe. The more stuff your signal has to go through, the more potential there is for things to go wrong. Bear that in mind too and check every step. Keeping it simple is a surprisingly powerful approach with guitars. Most of the great guitar tones we work with are just a well set-up guitar, with a great player, into a great amp, with a high and low pass filter applied. See? Simple. Just to cover both sides here, cabinet simulation can be a very powerful tool with the right impulse responses but you should chain it after a pre-amp signal where there isn’t a real cabinet involved. Generally speaking you’ll find a chain along the lines of DI guitar, into pre-amp (real or emulated), into cabinet simulator. This uses an impulse response to recreate the acoustic properties of certain cabinets and speakers and if you choose the right one it can do wonders for your tone. If you have a pedal such as the line 6 Pod HD which takes your signal into its pre-modelling and into an impulse response then when used in the ‘direct mode’, it actually takes care of those things for you. The only thing you have to do is take the signal into your DAW correctly. A fun thing to try is to turn off the in built cabinet simulator and run your pedal’s tone into a cabinet simulator inside your DAW. You can get really crazy with this and come up with some great sounds.

Ok what’s next? You’re happy with your amp sound and you want to delve into EQ. Guitars tend to need a touch of equalisation and whilst some don’t, there’s nothing wrong with having a play around and learning some ground rules. Any chance to become more familiar with what you’re working with is a chance you should take. Let’s talk a bit about the frequency spectrum and what generally happens in each frequency range when we’re talking about guitars. This is definitely just a ballpark guide to the character of most guitars but it shouldn’t be too far off if you directly apply it to your tone. If we’re talking about live guitar here and not a studio situation, then let’s just assume you’re using your favourite EQ pedal.

Acoustic Guitar –

120 to 200 Hz – Boom/Body

200 to 400 Hz – Thickness/Wood

2,000 Hz – Definition/Harshness

7,000 Hz – Air/Sparkle

12,000 Hz – Shimmer

Electric Guitar –

80 to 90 Hz and below – Mud

120 Hz – Warmth

150 to 200 Hz – Thickness

300 to 1,000 Hz – Life

1,000 to 2,000 Hz – Honk

3,000 to 8,000 Hz – Brilliance and Presence

The above is a rather cheat sheet style approach to thinking about guitars but it’s worth making a mental note of these things. By making changes to your guitar in these areas, you can alter the character as you choose by boosting or subtracting frequencies. It is just a rough guide; You will have to do some hunting to identify where these areas are in your tone and to clarify, make it sound as great as you can before you think about applying EQ and then see if you can make it even better. Oh and for you producers tuning into this… Do not EQ your guitars in solo. That’s probably the best way to kill your tone without meaning to. It’s far easier to go too far with your EQ moves when you’re listening in solo. It can end in disaster. Your guitar needs to sound good in context and nobody is going to hear it on its own very much anyway if it’s not acoustic.  If you really nail the tone shaping then your guitar sound might be absolutely fine as it is but typically there are some rules that we play by here.

You’ll notice that we’ve very bluntly labelled the 80/90hz area of the electric guitar and below as ‘Mud’. The reason we use this term is because mud messes things up. This frequency range should be occupied by the likes of the bass guitar and the kick drum and other bass instruments. Electric guitar *usually* does not need to be there. If you take this part of a guitar signal and solo it on a computer (everything below 90hz) then you will probably find that it just sounds like rumbly nonsense. So let’s not mess around. Nuke it! Lower tunings can change where you need to consider filtering (check out a piano and the frequencies of each note for an insight to what we mean here) but generally you should clear that space out. This can be done with a high-pass filter. You also want to hunt for any harsh frequencies and dip them out. These are the ear bleeding frequencies and typically sit in the 2.5khz-5.5khz range. There can be more but that’s a good place to start if you can hear something nasty poking out. You can also try and find a nice presence in your guitar and boost it a little to make sure it cuts through the mix correctly. Always remember though, if you have to be too drastic with the EQ, go back to your source tone and try and fix it there first. The last thing we are going to recommend is the application of low pass filter which will filter off high frequency information past a point of your choice. The best way to find out where to cut is to listen (sorry but it’s the truth!) but again, using electric guitar as an example you can try around 10khz as a cut-off. You’re looking for the point where you lose all the nasty fizz off the top but don’t make your guitar too dull. Get rid of the hiss but don’t lose any useable/pleasant sonic information. That’s the aim of the game with filtering.

So there you have it. Some tips for better tone. Don’t forget that as a guitarist, you should be aiming to occupy a certain space in the full mix. Once you learn what that is and how to achieve that with your tone, magic will happen when you play together with your band. Experimentation is the winner as long as you bear these things in mind.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back with more soon. There is plenty more where this came from.

Posted by dan@pyar