Killer Tone: What It Is and How to Get It

David Gilmour

Tone. That mystifying quality you know in your bones but can’t quite define. You know it when you hear it. You know it when you don’t. You also know that you need great tone in order to sound good. But how can you get it if you don’t even know what “it” is?

Tone is defined as a quality of sound. It’s what makes music come alive and hit you in the face and the gut and the heart. Without it, music would merely be a bunch of dots on a page. Tone is highly subjective and unique to each individual player. Compare David Gilmour’s achingly beautiful tone on “Comfortably Numb” with James Hetfield’s crunchy tone on “Sad but True” with Roger McGuinn’s jangly tone on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Link Wray’s thuggish, ragged tone on “Rumble“.

Although gear is certainly part of the equation in getting the tone you’re after, it’s not as simple as buying the same equipment as your favorite player and getting the same sound. Otherwise we’d all sound like Hendrix—and each other! Therein lies the greatest riddle about tone.

While there may not be an exact formula for getting exceptional tone, good tone can become great tone with a few tips and tweaks. Let’s take a look at a few commonly used tone words you’ve no doubt heard but may not be clear on as defined by Anthony Lucas of Premier Guitar. Most terms relate to feel. Again, tone is subjective. A sound that is twangy and bright to one player may mean piercing and brittle to another.

But first things first. Top end or high refers to the treble or the higher tones on your guitar. Bottom end or low refers to the bass or the lower tones. Mid-range, where human hearing is focused, falls somewhere between the two. The voicing of your tone can be adjusted using the EQ settings on your amp as well as with things like pedals, pickups, and even the guitar itself.

Some terms Lucas associates with the low end are:

Fat/Round – well-defined, sustained, loose, wide or well-dispersed, good depth.
Tight – percussive, holds together very well, fast and responsive.
Chunky – falls in-between fat/round and tight; defined, sustained and loose, but not to the degree of fat/round. It’s percussive, holds together well and is responsive, but not to the degree of tight.
Muddy – beginning to lose definition and articulation, not clear, poor note separation.

Terms for mid-range are:

Crisp – clear with edge, bright, raw, but not unpleasant.
Warm – not bright, pleasing, smooth texture, lacks edge in a positive way.
Dark – covered up, more extreme than warm in regards to brightness, no edge.
Throaty – thick with depth and growl.
Nasally – dominant mids, overpowering the bass and treble.
Scooped – lack of mids

And top end:

Bright – an abundance of treble or trebly (often used); sometimes a positive term (articulate), sometimes a negative term (harsh).
Articulate – clear with note separation, distinct.
Harsh/Piercing – unpleasant, bad note separation, very harsh, ear fatiguing.
Brittle – similar to or approaching harsh/piercing, losing articulation and definition, sounds like something’s about to break.
Smooth – rolled-off highs, flatter response peak, less harsh, more pleasant, less or no ear fatigue.
Open – fills the room, airy, wide.
Bite – well defined, but not harsh.
Crunchy – somewhat distorted but not maxed out. Smoother than heavy and with some crispness. The more distortion, the crunchier.

Now that you know a bit of the lexicon, let’s talk about a few simple ways to achieve some of these sounds so that you can start to develop your own unique tone:

The woods. Tonewood matters to tone, more so with an acoustic guitar (the effect of which is obvious enough to be heard by an untrained ear) than it is an electric, which is more dependent on pickups and amplifiers for their sound.

The harder the wood (mahogany, rosewood, walnut, maple), the brighter the tone. The treble frequencies are crisp and clear, giving a bell-like response and sharper attack. Softer woods (basswood, cedar, spruce, some ashes) yield a warmer, richer, deeper sound.

The best tonewood is the tonewood that gives you the sound and feeling you’re after.

Acoustic vs. Electric. Buy a good acoustic and play it a lot. Not only do acoustic guitars sound fantastic, but mastering the acoustic will result in sure, strong fingering when you switch to the electric. This will in turn improve the clarity and ultimately the tone of your playing.

Body style. Hollow body guitars are known for their big, full, warm sound and are favored by jazz guitarists for this very reason. Hollow bodies, which are empty inside, have more natural resonance and increased responsiveness to lower frequencies. However, feedback can be an issue with these guitars when played loudly, due to that same resonance.

Solid bodies—the guitar of choice for hard rock, metal, punk and other classic rock genres—have solid wood bodies. Magnetic pickups reproduce sound waves and give the guitar greater sustain with less worry about feedback when played at higher volumes. The heavier the wood the guitar is made from, the brighter and cleaner the sound it will produce.

Semi-hollow bodies, which contain a solid block in the middle of the body so it’s not completely empty inside, provide a nice balance between hollow and solid body guitars. They provide an exceptionally warm tone with good sustain, as well as pleasing overtones and a woody, resonant sound. With proper amp adjustments, they can also produce a good approximation of the bright, punchy sound of a solid body. Since they can achieve such a wide array of tones, semi-hollow bodies are great studio guitars and the personal preference of many guitarists.

Strings. All strings are not created equal. Your tone begins with your strings, and their tone begins with the metal they are made from.

The best strings are roundwound, nickel-plated steel, which have more sustain, responsiveness and bite. Tonally, these strings sit in the middle between the generally more expensive pure nickels that have a marginally more rounded, vintage tone, and stainless steel strings, which sound brighter.

Flatwound chrome strings have a smoother and more consistent, vintage tone, which makes them a favorite of jazz and blues players.

String gauge (the thickness of your strings) also plays a role in your tone. Blues and classic rock guitarists who use a lot of string bends often settle on medium gauges that combine reasonably easy bending with more sustain and fatter, richer, darker tone. Mainstream jazz guitarists typically use heavy-gauge flatwound strings since they don’t typically do a lot of note bending and want a broad tone spectrum.

Try various gauges, brands, and string compositions, focusing on the nuances of touch and tone, to find what feels best to your fingers and sounds most pleasing to your ears. Just remember: bad strings = bad tone, not to mention sore fingers.

Picks. Although they are the cheapest part of the tone equation after your hands, your pick has a profound effect on tone. Picks are typically made of materials like plastic (nylon, polyethylene, celluloid and other varieties), tortoiseshell, wood, metal, glass, and stone. In general, the harder the pick material the brighter and more biting the tone produced. Be sure to explore the sizes, materials, and sound-producing qualities of the pick to get a feel for how it affects tone.

Raise the action. If you play in a metal band and your style involves fast licks, you will probably want the lowest action possible for ease in playability. However, strings need room to vibrate in order to make sound. If you raise your guitar’s action higher, you give the string that room.

Raising your action even slightly will allow notes to ring out with more body and fullness, and you might also find that sustain has increased. Sure, it’s harder work for your hands, but they will adapt. A slightly higher action simply sounds better.

Tune down. Depending on the style of music you play, tone can be significantly affected by tuning every string down a semitone. Tuning down will give you a heavier sound and create atmosphere in your music. Metal guitarists often down-tune to create the darkest most aggressive-sounding riffs possible.

You, you and you. Guitarists with amazing tone typically get their sound no matter what gear they use. So much of tone is in the hands. Gear is just the collective conduit. All the best guitarists will tell you this. They will also tell you that you must put in the effort to get the results you’re after.

Some of the concepts and equipment available for manipulating your tone and developing individuality as a player take patience, practice and a lot of hard work to master. Learn as much as you can by listening to the tone of other guitarists. Record yourself. Be critical of your playing. Practice. Experiment with the many different tonal options available to you.

Remember, as guitarists, we play one of the most expressive instruments on the planet. Once you’ve incorporated some of these beginner tips into your sound, move on to other tone enhancers, like the best amplifier choice, cables, speakers, pedals, and tweaks that can be made to the guitar. Dig in deep and uncover your own unique tone.