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
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.