We all want a great guitar tone. In fact, you’d have a hard time finding a guitarist who didn’t want to improve their tone, even if just slightly. That is why I’ve compiled this ultimate guide to help you get a better guitar tone today!
What is a Good Guitar Tone?
While “good” does imply a level of subjectivity, a bag guitar tone can stand out to even non-guitarists.
Additionally, “good” tone varies from application to application. A good metal tone isn’t going to be the same as a good blues tone.
However, there are universal ways to improve your guitar tone, regardless of the genre you play.
Throughout this guide, I want you to experiment with each of these tips, find which work best for you. You may find some of these tips don’t work for you at all, while one tip may completely revolutionize your tone.
Pay close attention and remember to have fun with these.
Let’s dive in!
Top 20 Ways to Get Better Guitar Tone
1. Pick Me A Winna'!
Your guitar pick actually matters a fair amount to your guitar tone. A thicker pick will produce a rounder, fatter tone, while a thinner pick will provide a thinner tone.
You can read all about how the different aspects of a guitar pick impact your playing in my lesson: How to Choose A Guitar Pick.
In addition to the pick itself, how you hold this pick will also dramatically alter your tone. If you’ve ever done a pinch harmonic, you know just how true that statement is.
Try this: Hold your pick as if you were going to play and look down at your hand. How much of the tip of the pick is sticking out? Is it mostly finger with just a sliver of pick or is it mostly pick hanging on the edge of the finger? You want there to be a good balance here.
2. Palm Muting
Palm muting is a technique where you rest the edge of your picking palm against the strings to deaden the string’s tone. This deadening alters the sound/tone of the notes you're playing.
Altering palm muting pressure will also change how much the palm mute changes your tone and deadens the notes. Adding in palm mutes is a great way to work on developing your tone.
Palm muting is also a great technique to avoid stray notes.
3. Muting Unused Strings
Few things can kill a performance like a stray note that is completely out of key. Stray notes are the result of poor accuracy, which will improve and fix itself over time. However, there are techniques to give yourself a little wiggle room:
First, as I just mentioned, palm muting. Palm muting is an excellent way to deaden strings you don’t want to ring out at all.
Additionally, you can use the pad of neighboring fingers to mute strings either above or below the strings you are playing.
Try to be mindful about incorporating these techniques into your playing and they will become second nature.
4. String Choice
Guitar strings come in all types of thicknesses and styles. There are flat-wound, nickel, aluminum, nylon, coated and uncoated.. The list goes on. And your choices from that list do matter.
Depending on the genre of music you play, the string thickness can be more important to your overall tone. For example, you’d have a tough time playing death metal with thin 8’s.
The string wind also plays an important role in the string’s overall tone. Flatwound strings are very popular with blues and jazz guitarists because of the warmer and more harmonically rich tones.
As you can probably imagine, the string material also plays a large role in the tone. Nickel strings will produce a much rounder tone while steel strings are brighter with greater sustain.
Coated vs Uncoated
Coated strings can be amazing for prolonging the life of your guitar strings. They really come in clutch if you often play in dirty environments, like clubs or bars and they keep your strings fresher longer.
However, coated strings also suck for guitar tone. Many guitarists agree that the coating on the strings muffles the high end of your tone and reduces the overall sustain. It is typically recommended going with uncoated strings and wipe them off after use and take general good care of them.
At the end of the day, though, you will find many accomplished guitarists using different combinations of all of these things. It is all about your preference and what sounds best to you,
5. Using fresh strings
As guitar strings age they begin to break down and oftentimes will rust over. As strings break down they lose their tonal qualities. They don’t stay in tune for as long, are easier to knock out of tune and are more prone to break.
Fresh strings, however, produce a much brighter, more vibrant tone.
Check your strings? Do they look sad and aged? Maybe it’s time to swap 'em out.
Not sure how? Check out my lesson on how to replace guitar strings.
6. Go Acoustic/Play Unplugged
A tip one of my first guitar teachers taught me was to practice unplugged as often as possible. The reason for this is by amplifying you are adding gain to the guitar and may not hear poorly played notes as well. Playing unplugged or on an acoustic removes this possibility.
Additionally, practicing on an acoustic will develop stronger fingers and promote callus formation. Couple this with the above improvement and you’ll find you have a better tone due to much clearer and more consistent note clarity.
7. Finger Strength
Weak fingers are a guitarist's worst enemy- and they are what we all start out with! Being able to reliably fret a note requires a certain level of finger strength. As does bending, hammer ons, pulls offs, really everything that your fretting hand does.
On the other side, weak fingers can result in picks slipping or being dropped. Strong fingers allow you to position the pick with precision to produce exactly the tone you are looking to make.
There are many ways to build finger strength. The most obvious way being to play guitar often. However, if you’re looking to supplement that with some other techniques, here are some ideas:
Ultimately, you want strong hands, not just strong fingers. Buying a kit like IronMind’s hand health kit will help you develop finger strength and keep your hands and wrists healthy to prevent possible injury.
8. Muscle Memory
Muscle memory is the Yin to Finger Strength’s Yang. These 2 things combined are what will bring you a consistent good guitar tone.
Muscle memory is only built through constant repetition. Naturally, if you practice playing guitar, you will develop muscle memory over time.
However, if you’d like to speed up the process, there are some exercises you can do:
- Practice while watching TV
- Try the Press & Release method for learning guitar chords
- Practice guitar. Often.
9. Instrument Intonation
Wait! Don’t skip this one!
Instrument intonation, i.e. adjusting the truss rod, bridge and, ion turn, action of the guitar is something many guitarists run from. It’s a scary concept as serious damage can be done if you mess up.
I’m one of those guitarists. I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years and only just learned how to adjust my own truss rod last week!
I’m here to say it is a lot harder to mess up than you may think. If you just take your time and pay close attention you’ll be fine.
If you are uncomfortable making these changes, definitely have a professional guitar tech do them for you. However, if you have an old beater guitar you don’t care about, it’s worth learning how to do this on your own.
Your guitar’s intonation can be impacted by several variables:
- Storage environment
- Being banged around
- Inconsistent tunings
Truss rod adjustments are what straighten your neck out. If there’s too much tension or not enough tension on your neck, truss rod adjustments dial in this tension. These adjustments also alter your guitar’s action slightly.
These adjustments are necessary as when you change to new strings you are removing and adding tension to the neck again, which can result in adjustments being needed. More commonly, though, if you decide to change string gauges and experiment with different strings, it will put your neck under different tension and you’ll be more likely to need adjustments.
Bridge intonation adjustments primarily adjust the action of the guitar but are also important for the overall alignment and intonation of the guitar.
Higher action on a guitar generally means more sustain, “stronger” notes that ring out clearer. However, too high of an action will make the strings a nightmare to try and fret.
Lower action means techniques like bends and fretting in general will be much easier, but you’ll be more prone to fret buzz and won’t have as full of a guitar tone.
Find a happy balance, where it is comfortable for you to play and sounds good to your ear.
If you’re interested in learning more about truss rod adjustments, check out this video:
10. Instrument Care
Similar to intonation, the overall care you show your instrument will impact its overall tone. Most of the stuff we’ve talked about already is related to parts of the guitar and how they can and will impact your tone.
The care you show those parts also changes how much of an impact they make.
Keep your fretboard fresh by hitting it with a fretboard conditioner once every month.
Keep your strings lasting longer by applying string lube before and after each session.
Keep your finish lasting longer by cleaning and polishing the guitar regularly, especially with every string change.
Change your strings as they get old and rusty.
Replace old hardware as it begins to show its age. For example, tuners/tuning pegs will often rust over time and need to be replaced for optimal performance.
11. Play in Tune
This is obvious but I’m still going to say it because some people still don’t do it: tune your guitar EVERY time you go to play. Playing out of tune makes it impossible for you to develop your ear and sounds terrible.
Additionally, going back to intonation, tuning your guitar puts the proper amount of tension on the neck and keeps that pressure consistent.
If you don’t keep that tension consistent with regular tunings you will eventually need truss rod adjustments.
12. Slow Down, Cowboy!
Sometimes you’ll be surprised how much you can improve guitar tone and your overall playing ability just by slowing down and paying attention.
Play some basic scales and focus on your tone for those scales. Don’t try to dial in your tone by playing some famous song. Find your tone working on simple fundamentals and take your time.
Rushing results in dead or stray notes and just overall bad tone. Slow yourself down, and clean up what needs to be cleaned up.
Want to take this one step further? Record yourself on video and watch/listen to the playback.
ELECTRIC SPECIFIC GUITAR TONE
13. Lower the Gain
If you’re playing electric and are unhappy with your amplified tone - turn the gain all the way down. Play with a completely clean channel.
Gain masks note clarity and can make it hard to hear your mistakes. The less frequent your mistakes, the more consistent your tone will be.
Once you’ve developed consistency, clarity and maybe even a little of your own flavor, add gain back as needed. You may be surprised how much distortion you can add without any gain coming from your amp.
14. Understanding Amplifier Settings
High end in the tone. High treble will result in very sharp sounding tones while low settings will result in a rounder sounding tone. You often hear this referred to as the “top end” of the tone. Avoid pushing your treble above 6 or so, as too much can make the sound far too harsh
Mids control the body of the tone, and as such, is one of the most impactful of your tone controls. “Scooping” your mids refers to turning the mids down low, to around 2-3 with an otherwise heavily distorted tone that will produce similar tones to 80s rock and metal. Play around with this setting and find what feels right. Most folks keep the mids in the 4-6 range.
The bass is the low end of your tone. The amount of bass you add will often change based on your other settings, though it’s generally recommended having a good amount of bass to avoid a hollow tone. Generally, most folks keep their bass in the 5-7 range.
Gain adds distortion over your signal. Very high gain will result in a very aggressive tone, great for metal, and low gain is great for more expressive play, like blues. Too much distortion will compress your tone greatly, however.
Controls the volume of the amp. You may have an amp with 2 volume controls. This is often seen with dual or multi-channel amps. Usually you will have a “master” volume and then a secondary volume for your lead channel.
As mentioned above, many amps will have multiple channels, allowing you to have multiple tone profiles (generally a clean and an overdriven tone). This switch allows you to hop back and forth between your amps channels
If you’ve ever yelled in a big room like an auditorium and heard the echo, or if you’ve seen the videos of folks who sing beautiful songs in stairwells - this is because of Reverb. Reverb, short for reverberation, is another word for the natural echo that you hear in the above examples. There are many types of reverb, though most amps just have a single dial for you to adjust. Most guitarists play with at least a little reverb added to their tone.
Tube amps have long been considered superior over solid state amps for their richer tone and their overall versatility. Solid state amps also often compress tones, where tube amps usually do not. For this reason, tube amps are generally much more expensive than solid state amps. They also require a bit more care as tubes need to be replaced over time and can break if you are too aggressive with your equipment
15. Try New Amp Speakers
Your amp speakers play a large role in the tone it outputs.
Many amps ship with generic speakers to save costs. Buying a reputable speaker like a Celestion will have a great improvement on your tone
There are a few variables to consider when looking into new guitar amp speakers:
Magnet Weight and type: Heavier magnets have a higher output and therefore can produce greater volumes and add greater gain levels. There are 2 primary magnet types: Alnico and ceramic. Ceramic is the most common type, though Alnico magnets are great for more vintage tones so they are definitely still plentily available.
Power Rating (W): Many people think the wattage of a speaker is the overall volume rating, but that’s actually not true. The higher the wattage rating of your amp speaker, the higher volume it can hit without distorting your tone. Be careful not to get too powerful, though, as it can result in an overly clean feeling tone. On the flip side, under powered speakers will give you flat, muffled tones.
Efficiency/Sensitivity: This is typically measured in decibels (dB) and is actually much more important to the overall volume of your amp than the power rating. The dB rating is the volume the speaker produces from 1 meter away.
16. Preamp Tubes
Similar to speakers, if you have a tube amp, your preamp tubes, also known as “power tubes”, play a large role in getting the best guitar tone. Similar to speaker upgrades, most amps ship with cheap generic preamp tubes to cut costs.
Upgrading to some quality tubes can make a world of difference to improve guitar tone. Do your homework and compare the tones different preamp tubes produce before making a decision.
Hear the Difference:
17. Use Quality Cables
A quality cable will absolutely improve your guitar tone and a crappy one can certainly ruin a guitar tone.
Does that mean you need to go out and spend $100+ on a guitar cable? HELL no!
A more expensive cable does not mean that cable is higher quality.
Cable quality is more accurately graded by the cable's capacitance. Think of capacitance as a cable's ability to carry the signal from your guitar to the amp without losing any of that signal. For that reason, you want a low capacitance cable.
A low capacitance cable will help prevent signal loss and keep the high ends of your guitar tone intact.
Generally speaking, the longer the cable, the higher the capacitance. Makes sense - the longer the signal has to travel, the more likely some of that signal will get lost along the way.
Don't get longer cables than you need. Do you really need a 10-20’ Monster cable if you only play in your bedroom? I think not.
Additionally, make sure all the cables in your signal chain are low capacitance, as well. This means all the connector cables you have on your pedal board.
Lastly, keep your cables free of kinks, knots or strains. Avoid running over your cables with chairs or walking on them. While a quality cable with a thick protective sleeve will help combat against damage, they aren’t the toughest pieces of equipment, so treat them with care.
18. Adjust Pickup Height
Your pickup height can actually play a great role in your overall tone. The distance the pickup is from the strings determines how loud the signal will be. As the pickups get raised closer to the strings, the output volume increases. However, louder isn’t always better...
Pickup Height Best Practices By Type:
Humbuckers: Can be placed as close to the strings as you’d like for the volume (obviously not so high that your pick hits it when you play). If you fret the fret where the neck meets the body and then measure - the typical distance from string to pickup for humbuckers is around 2.5mm.
Single Coils: For single coil pickups, you typically want your treble, or neck pickup to be a little higher than your bass (or bridge) pickup to create a better balance between the two.
19. Understand Distortion vs Overdrive
One thing many guitarists don’t realize is that there is a very distinct difference between distortion pedals and overdrive pedals.
An overdrive pedal lays gain over top your guitar’s tone by essentially over-powering your tone (trying to not use the word overdrive to describe overdrive is tricky).
A distortion pedal alters your guitar’s tone and adds distortion.
In terms of tone, overdrive pedals are generally preferred over distortion pedals as they allow for greater flexibility while still getting plenty of bite.
20. Organize your Pedalboard
Pedals can be a great way to dial in your tone. Having many pedals can help dial it in even further. However, the more links you add to your signal chain, the more variables you need to pay attention to in order to avoid issues or signal loss.
While there is no “right” way to order your pedals, there are best practices to try for the best possible guitar tone:
- Wah, EQ and Compressor pedals before distortion and overdrive
- Overdrive order (if you use multiple): Distortion pedal -> Overdrive pedal -> Booster pedal
- Most modulation Effects like Flanger and Chorus are best added after distortion, though some analog modulation pedals may be better before distortion. Experiment and see what sounds best to you
- Delay and echo type effects are intended to replicate what you’ve already played, so it’s best to have them near the end of the signal chain to ensure everything is included in the delay tone
- Reverb goes last
Another tip is to see if any of your pedals are true bypass pedals. What True Bypass means is that when the pedal is off, the signal will skip over the pedal as if it wasn’t there. True Bypass pedals will typically require an extra connection cable to accomplish this, which adds more variables to your signal chain as well.
True Bypass pedals are great for preserving tone however if you have too many in your signal chain it can result in a loss of your high end tones. One way to combat this is to add a buffer pedal in the middle of the chain, which acts as an amplifier for your tone’s high end within the signal chain.
Wrapping It Up
I know, that was a lot to take in. Remember what I said in the beginning, not all the tips will work for you. Mix and match, experiment and see what works best for your tone. I hope you found this Ultimate Guitar Tone Guide helpful and that you get better guitar tones as a result!
What changes did you find improved your guitar tone the most?
Of course, if you have any questions, or just want to say hi- leave it in the comments section below and I’ll get back to you ASAP (usually within 24 hours).