Seemingly Small Tone Tweaks
The most overused saying on guitar forums is,
“The tone is in your hands.” This is what people
say when someone seems too gear oriented.
But the fact is that good tone, while in the ear
of the beholder, involves a lot of stuff. For example, say you have a Strat and a Les Paul. While
both guitars are solidbodies, they are made
from different types of wood. The wood has a
profound effect on tone. The wacky thing is that
even if you have ten Les Pauls, they will all have
differences in sound and feel. You already know
there’s an army of replacement hardware and
pickups out there. Then there’s the whole amp
choice bit. It’s pretty overwhelming!
So let’s start with a couple of basic things you
may not think much about. My goal here is to
get you to actually think about the choices you
make with your tone rather than just rolling on
autopilot. After all, it is your tone.
thickness and I’m very used to it, but I am
always trying out new picks to see what they
do. There are companies making picks out of
bone, horn, seashell, assorted woods, nylon,
plastic, and on and on. Picks made of hard
stuff tend to sound bright and soft stuff tends
to sound dark. For a long time, the gold standard of picks was tortoiseshell. These days, tortoises are protected and black market tortoise
picks can run upwards of $50—you shouldn’t
be using them anyway. Several makers have
created synthetic tortoise picks, some of which
are very close. Also, there’s a whole market
in super-thick “Django” gypsy jazz picks, but
that’s a whole story and technique of its own.
Many teachers start beginners with a thin or
medium pick because they are a bit more for-
giving of bad technique. As you advance, you
roundwound? So many choices. My point
again is not to tell you what to do, but to get
you think about what choices you make.
Do you want a bright sound? More sustain?
Less sustain? With electric players, it tends to
go like this: jazz players like flatwounds for their
dark, staccato sound (flats are also less prone
to feedback). The shred players seem to like
the clarity and sustain of stainless steel round
wounds. For my Tele, I like 100 percent nickel
strings because they are darker sounding and
have a nice, soft-yet-scratchy feel that I enjoy.
But Don’t Stop There
Every aspect of playing electric guitar is part of
a vast interconnected system, and each ingredient makes a difference. Even non-amplified
acoustic players have many choices to make.
Experiment with Fingers and Picks
I think the single most underrated tone ingredient is what you pluck the string with. Fingers
(with nails or skin), flat pick, fingerpicks—try
it all as you pursue your tone. Many players
never give this a thought. With just your
fingers you can get a wide variety of tones. Try
letting your nails grow out a bit and use them.
You can change your tone just by adjusting
the angle of attack (this is also true with flat
picks). Try brushing the string with your thumb
à la Wes Montgomery. If you take the meaty
part of your thumb, press the string, and let
it snap, you get a very distinctive sound à la
Mark Knopfler. Be sure to try picking in different spots along the string, closer to the bridge
then farther away to go from bright to dark.
Try pinch harmonics, like at the end of ZZ Top’s
“La Grange,” or listen to Roy Buchanan do
it. Pick the string, and as the pick crosses the
string, let the meat on your thumb lightly hit
the string too. To get this sound takes a bit of
practice, so be sure to grip the pick fairly hard
to make the flesh of your thumb protrude.
Pay attention to your tone and make
decisions about what sounds good to you.
may notice that thin picks flex. As you play a
scale, you have to take into account both the
flex of the pick and the flex of the string. Thin
or thick, like all of this, is a personal choice.
Take some time and try different things to see
what works best for you, both in terms of your
picking technique and your tone.
Fingerpicks, while not available in quite the
variety that flat picks are, are available in more
forms than ever before, but mainly in plastic or
metal. The metal ones have the biggest variety
of thicknesses, and can be open or closed on
the fingertip. The thumb pick is the exception;
there’s a huge variety of these out there and
materials and thicknesses vary widely. There
are also some hybrid picks, like the Fred Kelly
Bumble Bee, which is sort of a flat pick tacked
to a thumb pick.
Take courage, fellow pickerheads! Pay attention to your tone and make decisions about
what sounds good to you. Do some research
into the players you love and see what they
use, but keep in mind that chances are good
you’ll sound a lot more like you than like them.
You may even consider going to the insane
edge of buying a guitar just because of the
way it sounds rather than by what peghead
shape it has. Yeah, okay… that might be going
a bit far. See ya next time!
Try Different Plectra
Picks! There must be a zillion kinds of picks
available. The two big things to consider are
the thickness and the material it’s made from.
I’ve used Clayton acetal polymer small teardrop picks for decades now. I like the 1. 90
Check out Different Strings
Strings are another key aspect of sound. You
must consider what they’re made of: stainless
steel, nickel, bronze, copper, nylon, and more.
Also consider the way the string is made. Is it
flatwound, half-round, polished, groundround,
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played
Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob
Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy
Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays
in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.