What is Guitar Tone Mean?

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Written By Tanya

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You’ll find different definitions of tone depending on the person you are talking to. Many purists will tell you where it should be from.

It is a fact that different genres of music and playing guitar require more signal processing and effects. The more they use, the more they will be able to accept more signal processing and effects.

Many musicians, including jazz and classical, will tell you your tone is determined by how your fingers are held and the way you hold your pick. Some are more concerned about the shape and projection of the sound.

Acoustic-electric and straight electric players will be more concerned about their pickups. When you start to get into rock and heavy metal, effects pedals will be the most important thing.

Today’s goal is to help you understand what tone means and how you can control it to create the experience you want for your audience.

As you read on, you will discover that there are many types of players. There are many ways to get the sound you want.

What is Guitar Tone?

The sound of a guitar is called “guitar tone”. It is the result of how your fingers or picks strum the strings of a well-maintained guitar, as well as all the electronics that shape it, and finally broadcast out of an amplifier.

Every aspect of your guitar’s construction, maintenance, on-board electronics and amp type can have an impact on the tone.

The final result of all these elements is your tone. Your signal travels through them, and then out to the human ear.

Contributors to Your Guitar’s Tone

Let’s look at the signal path of your guitar and see how it affects your tone. We can also show you how to use them to your advantage.

FINGERS & PICK

Truthfully, tone starts in your hands. This applies to both fingerpicking an acoustic instrument and how you hold the pick when playing an electric guitar. All other things are built on the fact that something must make the guitar strings vibrate.

It is unlikely that you will suddenly be able gain more fine motor control in your hands and fingers. It takes time. You can practice the right techniques to achieve the tone that you want.

Consider how tight you hold the pick, how deep it can penetrate between the strings and how angle you hold it. Also, consider the thickness and flexibility. These points also apply to fingernails and fingerpicks. Fender offers a great grab-bag of picks that you can try.

You can buy a bag with a variety of different types of products to test. It’s easy to quickly get rid of the options that you don’t enjoy and spend more time with the’maybes’.

GUITAR STRINGS

Your tone will be affected by the strings you choose. There are your flamenco-sounding nylon strings, and there are your vintage-sounding nickel-wound string. You can also choose brighter stainless steel strings for a longer lasting sound and better sustain.

It is also important to consider the type of winding. Flat-wound strings can be warmer, richer, and more mellow than round-wound strings. However, they are articulate and crisper. You can also use coated strings.

We have a lot to say about strings for guitars here. This is a place where you can narrow your selection based upon your guitar and preferred genre. Then, you can test some of the most popular options and rest for a while to learn more.

PICKUPS & TONE KNOB

This stage is usually where most electric guitars that use piezoelectric pickups and microphone systems are stuck. They can only change the tone by switching to a different pickup.

This is also an option for electric guitars, but it’s not necessary as we have many other options, such as changing the tone at our pickups.

There are many differences between active and passive pickups. Active pickups require a battery to run them. The passive pickups are usually single coils with a lower power output. They will also have a 60Hz hum that needs to be addressed. Because of their brighter frequency response, they can produce a clear and articulate tone.

These active pickups are often equipped with double coils (called ‘humbuckers’) and are ideal for players who want a thicker signal to distort or those who don’t care about dealing in the 60-cycle. Frequency responses of some active pickups before any equalization

Passive pickups can be equipped with full-on three-band equalizers. Active pickups are usually equipped with a tone knob. This is a low pass filter that reduces higher frequencies in order to achieve a warmer tone.

This discussion is not specific to all actives or passives, single coils, or humbuckers. Although there is a lot more technology available that breaks conventions, this is the basic understanding most players have.

Your choices include the type of pickup, whether it is powered, and how you want to alter the tone using the equalization or tone knob. The volume knob plays a significant role in the pickup tone.

GAIN TYPES

These types of gain can be used to increase your output volume relative to your input volume, regardless of whether you’re using a volume knob on your guitar or a gain pedal.

They can affect your tone differently, depending on the stage of your signal path. Your tone can be affected by many things, including the volume knob.

It can compensate for the loss of volume or articulation caused by your tone knob being used as a warm-up device. If you have a compressor pedal, it can shape the envelope of the signal.

The same applies to gain pedals. These will provide ‘clean gain’ without introducing distortion if you don’t drive too hard. To avoid unwanted distortion, you will need to know gain staging. Believe it or not, there’s still more names for types of distortion…

There are many terms that can be used to describe distortion. All of these terms refer to distortion, which is the process of increasing your signal until clipping occurs.

Clipping can add a pleasant sound to your tone that creates interesting artifacts, which is especially useful in hard rock and heavy metal. They are different in that distortion is a hard clipped waveform, while overdrive is soft-clipped.

Soft-clipping, on the other hand, is like a square sinewave for a synthesizer. Hard-clipping is similar to extreme compression but with a slight curve to its waveform. Fuzz is a hard clipped wave, but it is more asymmetrical in that the top is cut off more than its bottom.

Your tone can be affected by the amount, type, and place you gain it.

EFFECTS PEDESTRIALS

We’ve already covered distortion pedals, but let’s now look at other effects that can alter your tone. Because it can increase or decrease your frequency response, equalization is the most powerful way to change your tone. Live guitar EQ should have very large Q’s. Typically, there are only three bands that correspond to bass, mid-range and treble.

Compression is the second most powerful tone control pedal. Compressors decrease the volume variation between the peak and trough of your signal, making it more consistent.

This is crucial to ensure that you can cut through the band clearly as you play. The attack and release functions can be used to shape your waveform. Learn more about all this in our article on compress.

These effects are not limited to the above, but also include the space-based effects such as delay and reverb. These effects are not strictly tone controls in my opinion, but sound effects.

It may be different for you. They can definitely affect how people hear your sound so it’s worth exploring their use.

AMPLIFIER

Finally, we get to the powerful amplifier. This is both a joy and a pain in the neck when it comes to creating guitar tone.

There are transparent and clean amps. However, each amp will add a little bit of their own personality to your signal. Each amp has its own characteristics and colors, but it is possible to predict their characteristics based on the way they were built.

You’ll often see tube amps called “valves”, which have vacuum tubes inside. This is because of the extreme coloration that you get with your tone, which is something many players prefer to have over solid state amps.

Tubes add a natural smoothing sensation and some compression to your high frequencies. Most important are the overtones, which can be added to your signal when a tube has been driven properly. These harmonics are very pleasing and add a pleasant feeling of fullness to your tone.

Tube amps have one drawback: You need to be sensitive to the fragility of the tubes. Solid state amps feature transformers (left) while tube amps use vacuum tubes (right)

Solid state amplifiers are neutral unless they are less transparent. Solid state amplifiers can also produce harmonics but of a lower order. However, they don’t have the same sustain as a tube.

This can be preferred and can be corrected by effects pedals if desired. It is possible to wonder which amplifier is better. The correct answer is “neither.” It all depends on your preferences. This will be something you will need to learn.

What can we do to ensure the best tone for our guitars?

You can’t expect to get a great tone from a poor setup if you don’t take care of the basics. It doesn’t matter if the tone you choose is perfect.

What can we do to ensure we don’t sabotage ourselves from the beginning?

MAINTENANCE AND CARE

We must first make sure that we are doing proper guitar care . This means that we clean and condition our guitars, change our strings regularly, and visit a technician to check on the setup and intonation.

They will check our pickup heights, neck alignments, adjust our Truss Rod, file or lift our nut and ensure that our instrument is stored in a way that prevents humidity from damaging it.

CHECK YOUR CONNECTIONS & CABLES

Each piece of gear has cables connecting it. These connectors and jumpers can become dirty and fray, which can lead to noise and artifacts in our precious tone.

A 100-foot cable is not necessary if you don’t live more than 10 feet away from your pedal board. Make sure you clean all your pedals.

All of us use tired, worn-out pedals that we have walked all over. Make sure that the electronics inside are working properly.

KNOW YOUR PEDAL BOARD

You can have as many as 25 pedals in front of your feet, provided you know how to use them all and have connected them in a logical sequence.

You should equalize before compressing and add reverb after. These things are obvious if you take the time to think about them, or if you have experienced it yourself.

You need to make sure that the pedals have a bypass function when they are disengaged. If the pedal is not using a true bypass, the signal will continue to flow through it instead of directly from the input to output. Your tone will also be affected by the pedal’s color.

Guitar Tone Jargon

Talking about tone with other musicians is difficult because everyone is describing different things. It’s so subjective. In our desperate attempts to communicate the sounds we are describing, we tend to create new terminology.

We can only list these terms to make sure you are familiar with their meanings and general meanings.

  • Articulate Refers to intelligibility, where each note can easily be heard as an individual event and without any smearing. This is a sense of separation that includes a clear note attack.
  • Bite On the brink of distortion, but still a clear and articulate sound. Nearly at ‘throaty.
  • Bright: There are many high-end frequencies. This can be either good or bad. A good amount of treble can make a speech clear and articulate. Too much can cause a sharp and harsh sound, which is often called “brittle.”
  • Brittle: Too many trebles, especially in the higher high-end. This can cause ear discomfort and fatigue, as well as real discomfort for the listener.
  • Crisp: Clear triple on the high-end frequencies. Bright and sharp, but not unpleasant.
  • Crunchy Warm, full-spectrum sound with slight distortion.
  • Dark: Less high-end and a greater emphasis on warmth. A more pronounced bass response, with less treble.
  • Muddy Too low in the mid-range and too warm. It sounds unintelligible, and it is very boxy.
  • Naal: Too many mid-range frequencies, to the point that it causes loss of articulation. It can also be described as ‘honky’.
  • Open Full spectrum signal with more weight at the high frequencies. This gives you a feeling of spaciousness and air.
  • Punchy Strict in the high-end, but accented in the lower-end to create an expressive sense for percussion. It has a responsive and tight sense of power, with meat behind.
  • Scooped This is the opposite of ‘nasal’, which lacks power at mid-range frequencies. Exhibiting too many low-end and high-end.
  • Smooth: A subtle roll-off of high frequencies with some warmth. A compressed signal that has a soft attack.
  • Throaty Full spectrum signal with some growling distortion.
  • Warmth An appealing balance between low-end frequencies and mid-range frequencies, while still maintaining a higher level of high-end clarity.
  • Woody It is similar to ‘crunchy’ in that there is a little bit of distortion leading to lower mid-range frequencies. It is described as being hollow, rather than thick.

This is a good sample of some of what you will hear.

You can also add geographic, genre, or company labels like American, British Bluesy Vintage and words that are related to Fender Gibson and Marshall. These labels describe the trends and conventions of the gear used in these regions or genres.

Your guitar tone is everything

This is all a guitarist needs to know about guitar tone. There are many tricks that can be learned about your volume knob and changing the tubes of your amp.

You can start searching for your custom tone by identifying a player with the same sound and then try to replicate it.

This could mean that you might try to imitate your favorite metal musician while playing the best guitar for heavy metal and using effects pedals to create a similar signal path until you get it down. This is a quick way to get used to the various ways of controlling tone.

You’ll soon be able to summon different tones and not feel restricted by one tone. Let your playing define you, not your guitar tone.

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