All about tone: Electronics and beyond...

Although my little guitar site focuses almost exclusively on electronic modifications, there is a lot more to the sound that comes out of your guitar than the simple route from the pickups to the output.  I'll try to tackle a little bit of everything that has some influence on your tone, although this is just a primer.  Volumes have been written individually on each of these subtopics.


Electronics
  • Magnetic pickups.  This is probably the most explored topic on the web, but here are the basics:
    • Single coils are usually brighter sounding than humbuckers
    • Single coils are usually not as "hot" as humbuckers (i.e., they yield less output, so they do not "overdrive" the signal as far toward distortion).
    • Magnets: Alnico magnets are warmer vs. ceramic magnets which are brighter (e.g., Lace Sensors).
    • Higher impedance is usually warmer with a higher output (basically, this is what characterizes humbuckers), whereas single coils are usually lower impedance and thus are brighter if a bit quieter.
  • Covered vs. Uncovered.  Humbuckers in particular come either with or without metal covers.  Legend has is that Jeff Beck was the first guy to pull the top off of this humbuckers in the search for a new tone.  It turned out he was right.  According to some, the metal cover tends to act as a capacitor, the result being that it filters out some of the highs.  This tends to produce the smooth, creamy sound of classic Gibson hollowbody guitars whereas a naked humbucker will give more of the raw Jimmy Page sound.  Read about a simple mod that takes advantage of this phenomenon here.
  • Piezo pickups.  These are typically found in acoustic-electric guitars, although some are finding their way into high-end electrics like Parkers and a few Ibanez models.  This type of pickup listens to the vibration of the strings through the body of the guitar (as opposed to the strings vibrating in a magnetic field) until the sound reaches the pickup.  The result is a fairly decent reproduction of an acoustic guitar.
  • Pre-amps.  These devices can be added among your guitar's electronics, although some pickups (those made by EMG, most notably) have them built right into the pickups themselves.  These devices boost your signal.  The result is that you have a higher, tighter output.  While this affects the tone (sound) itself, I tend to feel it more in the "play" of the guitar as the signal is fairly uniform in its output, so I find that I don't have to take as much care to pick all the notes to achieve the same level of output.  This definitely affects how you play.
  • Wiring: Series vs. Parallel.  I discuss the mechanics of this elsewhere on this site, but basically Series = Les Paul while Parallel = Strat.  The coils of humbuckers are wired in series to produce that thick, strong sound.  Strats tend to have a "glassy" sound because their pickups are wired in parallel.
  • Tone Pots.  Actually, potentiometers, whether used for volume or tone, tend to cut the higher frequencies as they are turned down.  Adding a capacitor will modify which range of the tone is affected.  My hi-pass cap modification allows the passage of higher frequencies through the volume knob.  Similarly, tone knobs are wired with capacitors of various gauges to produce a cut in different ranges of the signal.
  • Volume Pots.  Typically these come in two values: 250k Ohms for single coil pickups and 500k for humbuckers (although active pickups usually work with 10k).  However, some out there propose that a higher value pot will keep the signal from bleeding to ground, thus producing a more solid sound.  This seems reasonable, although I have never tried it myself.

Non-electronics
  • Wood.  This is another topic that an expert can go on and on about.  I am not an expert, so I'll just repeat an anecdote from another portion of this site...
    • I never used to believe it, but the wood in a guitar can really make a difference in the sound.  This is because the strings don't just vibrate above the pickups; they also resonate into the body.  This then feeds back into the strings and alters the way the strings vibrate.  And the cycle repeats itself iteratively to produce a characteristic sound of the guitar... regardless of which pickups are in it! ...This phenomenon was brought home to me with my black Strat.  This was my first *real* electric guitar and was my exclusive instrument for many years before I started tinkering, so I really knew that guitar's sound.  It was a really clear, throaty tone almost like an oooh sound.  I loved that sound, but couldn't stand the 60 Hz hum from the stock pickups.  I figured I would just lose that sound along with the pickups. ...I originally had a set of Lace Sensors in my red Strat, so I figured I knew their sound as well.  However, when I moved the pickups to the black Strat, I found that I had a combination of the two.  The guitar's body contributed to this sound to again deliver the characteristic sound I had always enjoyed, only without the hum from the crap pickups.
  • Solid body vs. hollow body.  You know that deep sound Duane Eddy gets from his Gretsch?  That's the power of a hollowbody guitar.  You just can't get that sound from a solid body guitar, no matter what electronics you add to it.  The vibration from your strings reverberates into the body and feed back into the notes.  That resonance gives you a natural reverb.  Even some traditionally solid body guitars have a few tricks such as semi-hollow bodies like the Thin-line Telecaster or, infinitely more subtly, Strats and other guitars that have hollow chambers beneath a veneer.  They look solid, but they sound like something bigger... or at least that's what the manufacturers claim.
  • Hardware.  Guys like Adrian Legg swear by brass hardware.  Their rationale is that this is the hardest metal (and, consequently, the heaviest!) you can find parts made out of.  This means you lose less of the strings' vibration into the surrounding material, and thus you have greater sustain.  On the other hand, I have read complaints that this material prevents reverberation into the guitar's body, so you end up with a sterile sounding instrument.  The debate continues.  But not here.
  • Strings.  This is an area that is almost completely taken for granted, and yet there are several factors to consider here:
    • Gauge.  The general rule of thumb is: the thicker your strings, the thicker your tone.  The reason is fairly obvious: The larger the piece of metal you have vibrating through the magnetic field of your pickups, the larger the signal that will be generated.  Consider this: SRV used to play on size 14 strings!  This is like fretting telephone cables!  Of course, the payoff was an incredible sound.  Just don't come crying to me with your blisters.
    • Material.  Different metals have different characteristics, and there are several of varieties on the market from which to chose.  If you are up for some experimentation, have at it!  Thus far I have not tried enough varieties to formulate an informed opinion.  Truth to be told, I just use whatever is cheapest!
    • Dirt.  This changes your tone as well, as you can certainly tell.  You know your strings need changing when they're covered with grime.  New strings are brighter and twangy for the first few weeks.  "Dead" strings are muddy and lifeless.  However, like so much else, this is a matter of taste.  EVH attributes his "Brown Sound" (at least in part) to crumby, old strings.  No kidding.  He won't change his if that's the sound he's after on a particular recording.
  • String action.  "Action" is the term for the height at which your strings are set.  How you have your strings cradled between the bridge and the nut will affect your sound as well.  Although no one likes to hear their strings "buzzing" against the guitar's neck, some of that sound is always present no matter how your action is.  In fact, you can notice this in particular when you add a capo.  You automatically end up with a different sound using a capo compared to just barring the strings with your finger.
  • Rigidity.  One of the most sought-after qualities of any instrument (except a banjo, apparently) is sustain.  Reader Chris D. pointed out something that ought to be obvious: The more rigidly your guitar is constructed, the better it will sustain.  In other words, much of the vibration of the strings won't be lost into the body.  This is the preference to neck-thru construction over set necks over bolt-on designs.  This also factors into the resonance that delivers the tone itself.
  • The Pick.  This is another neglected area in the realm of tone.  Different picks are going to add a different attack to your sound.  A pick made of a harder material or a thicker gauge will be less pliant, and will therefore hang on your strings.  That will result in a rougher sound even when you play softly.  Personally, for almost ten years now I have used a set of picks that I found made from hard rubber instead of the flexible plastic found everywhere else.  Then again, there are those who use picks made of tortoise shells, such as jazz players.  Brain May has used an English sixpence all his life.  To each his own!
  • Where you pick!  Most people only concentrate on where on the string they actually pluck it when they're going for an effect (e.g., strumming upwards right near the bridge on an open Em chord!), but there is a magical "sweet spot" if you know just where to look.  Try this: Fret a note like you're playing a lead part.  Now pick the note exactly inbetween the bridge and the fret.  You might have to fish around, but you will know it when you hear it.  This spot produces the sound closest to a pure sine wave your string can produce because the motion of the string is equal on both sides of where you picked.  Anywhere else causes the motion to be reflected unevenly from the bridge and the fret (or nut).  Picking in the middle will give you the warmest tone possible (best for throaty lead lines) and picking at the extremes will give you the brightest sound (better for rhythm parts).
  • Your fingers.  Some people have a magic touch that is difficult to imitate.  For example, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has a certain way of executing pull-offs that, coupled with everything else in his rig, helps produce his signature sound.  The way your fingers move over the strings is inevitably going to unleash certain harmonic overtones.  It isn't magic, but it's all in your hands.

Beyond the guitar...
This is just a start.  There are many, many other modifications and approaches to the instrument that affect tone.  Playing with a "prepared instrument" such as placing material between the strings (e.g., a strip of paper will reduce the sustain as well as change the tone; mutes will work much like palm muting does).  Other approaches to attacking notes can include using a violin bow or a E-Bow.  As for the left hand, different types of slides (e.g., glass vs. metal) yield different tones, especially compared to fretting with fingers.  And so on...

This primer is by no means all-inclusive, but if you think of anything I have missed, please let me know.

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