The main problem with many guitarists is that they don’t listen to what they play in a musical context. What I mean by that is that we as a species have a tendency to develop sound and gear fetishes – i.e. we base our playing on what feels good instead of basing it on what sounds good. You may disagree, but many of us end up playing with our gear – as if we were testing it out in a store – instead of playing through it, as a conduit for music. If you feel the need to make your guitar sound better, I happen to have some tips for you, as a starting point at least. Most of what you have to do is rather easy, actually.
Gain and sustain
I love distortion and overdrive, and I used to love it even more. These days I favour a less saturated, more “organic” (for lack of a better word) tone. This preference didn’t just manifest itself out of the blue. I noticed that there was a huge difference between the tone i dialled in when I played by myself – let’s call this “music store mode” – and when I recorded – that would be “just-music mode”. I was always using too much distortion, which led to a washed-out tone that didn’t sit well with the rest of the tracks. In addition I sounded sloppy and noisy – in the wrong way – and I never got the guitar to sing as much as I made it (I wish I could say “scream”) screech. After repeating this mistake for quite some time, I finally grasped the concept and turned down the overdrive. It now sounded limp on its own, but better in context. After that it was all a matter of
conditioning myself practising until I got used to the new sound and response.
How to get a better guitar sound, tip 1: Turn down the overdrive to the point where it just sounds like it’s too little of it when you listen to the guitar on its own. Conversely, if you ask youself if you’re using just a bit too much overdrive, you almost certainly are!
Mids, mids, mids
When playing in music store mode – i.e. alone – sucking out most of the mids lends the illusion of depth to your sound. That’s a typical mistake most of us have done at some point. On your own there’s no bass or drums to provide low end, and the soft, malleable response the lack of mids result in is very comfortable to play, especially with just-too-much overdrive. The problem is that when you try to combine this sound with a band (live, in rehearsal or on a recording), your guitar will all but disappear. Now you’re left with two evils, none of them lesser; either have your guitar drowned out completely (bad), or turn it up until it completely overpowers the rest of the band (worse). The cure for this ailment is, thankfully enough, easy to administer: Turn up the knob labelled “Mid” until you think your guitar sounds like a small transistor radio (Japanese, or otherwise), and then try it (with feeling) with a band. Your band mates will thank you (“Have you put on weight?”), your audience will love you (Hi mum!), and you’ll have grown as a musician (hooray!)
How to get a better guitar sound, tip 2: Turn up mids until the guitar almost sounds unappealing on its own, and reap the benefits when playing with other instruments.
Feels good? Feels stiff?
At this point, it behooves us to talk about playing feel, and provide some comfort. If you’ve followed my recommendations so far, you’ll feel as if you’ve lost 10-15 % of your playing ability (actual figures may vary). This is an illusion. You never had those “missing” 10-15 %, because they were dependent on a set of circumstances that never will come into being again. Remember, you’ve taken on this task to become a better sounding guitar player. If you hesitate now, you’re basically choosing to go back to being a not-so-good-sounding guitar player, and that would be just, well, preposterous! Embrace the fact that you’ve lost (the illusion of) some of your skill – that will return soon enough – and keep on going!
How to get a better guitar sound, tip 3: Don’t give up!
Not everything worth doing is worth overdoing
Shut up, just shut the hell up! (Yes, dear…)
Overplaying is the one of the guitarist’s seven deadly sins that we collectively commit most frequently. Overplaying will make you sound amateurish, nervous, anxious and insecure. It will mess up your timing and your intonation, and it will – very efficiently, I’d might add – remove every remotely desirable trait from your playing. Good to know, then. In many cases, it stems from a discrepancy between the part you’re playing, and the sound you’re using. That most excellent of guitar players, Ty Tabor, said in an interview with Guitar Player Magazine (sorry, can’t remember when, but sometime between 1987 and now) that he always let the sound dictate what he played. The sound, he said (I’m paraphrasing) lent itself – or even had some things in itself – and if you managed to get to that, everything would flow effortlessly, sound (medium) and playing (message) in perfect synchronicity. Again, in contrast, listen to some heavy metal bands (they seem to be among the worst offenders) playing acoustic versions of their songs. Come the guitar solo, some elect to play the same solo but this time on an acoustic, with no sustain and a radically different timbre. It basically sounds like they’ve dressed up He-Man™ to look like Hello Kitty™ – utterly ridiculous – and all because of a catastrophic mismatch between sound and playing.
How to get a better guitar sound, tip 4: As you’re in this racket to make noise that you (and hopefully someone else) would like to listen to, make sure that your playing is sympathetic to the sound you’re using. If your sound has little or no sustain, play syncopated and staccato; if it’s smooth and flowing, play long legato notes; if it’s noisy, because you’ve stepped on – oh, I don’t know – a Fuzz Face, or your cat (misguided – don’t!), play a lot less, and let the sonic anarchy of the fuzz wash over you as it degrades ungracefully into a porridge of 50 hz hum, uncontrollable feedback and the incessant shouting from your soon-to-be-ex-bandmates.
The points I’ve made earlier all have in common that they involve that most elusive of phenomena, namely us exercising our ability to change our behaviour. This, by definition, is unpleasant, and therefore we naturally resist it. External conditions can help, however. Whan I got rid of my high-gain amplifier setup and bought my THD Flexi way back in the mid-noughties, the first couple of months were… trying. I basically had to shed every bad habit I so carefully had developed over the previous ten years, and learn how to marry my playing to the sound this new amp produced. As we’ve established earlier, this is neither desirable nor possible, and as a consequence, my playing changed – and to my ears to the better. My point is, you have to take the time to condition yourself to adapt to this new set of circumstances. Another word for it could be “practicing”.
How to get a better guitar sound, tip 5: Learn how to get the best from the sound(s) at your disposal, play to your equipment’s (and your own) strengths, and be prepared to spend some time figuring it all out. Critical listening is absolutely essential.
Well, there you have it – my tips for getting a better guitar sound. I think it’s important that we agree on the premise that it’s not about flipping switches or turning knobs, but about the processes that the switch-flipping and knob-turning is a result of. It’s really a question of making conscious decisions that are appropriate to the context they’re made in. In short – actively make decisions about your sound/playing, and know why you’re making these decisions.
How to get a better guitar sound, final tip: Take an active decision-making role in all matters concerning your sound, know why you’re making these decisions, and be ruthless when you’re assessing the results. If something’s not working, change it. Also, practicing won’t hurt.