If You’re Tone Doesn’t Sound Like You Want it to…

…then make it sound like you want it to.

That’s the advice I’ve been giving myself over the last year or so. Don’t buy anything new; rather, use touch, feel, knowledge and research and actually learning what each knob does, and musicianship, to get good tone. Now obviously, there are base essentials for good tone. But I think we all eventually get to a place where we look at the gear we have, the cost of the gear we have, the clips we have of other people playing the same or ‘worse’ gear and sounding good, and we realize that if we can’t get good tone out of this, the fault does not lie in the gear.

You want it to sound good? Make it sound good.


P.S. Also tubes. 😉 😉

P.P.S. And maybe a little more delay. Little more. Little more…okay great. Sorry, I’m done now.

53 thoughts on “If You’re Tone Doesn’t Sound Like You Want it to…

  1. I’m finding that when I feel “unhappy” with my tone, i just switch a couple of drive pedals I have with the ones on my board. Then I spend a few weeks trying to be happy…. then I get happy with my tone once I tweak and adapt to those drive pedals.
    A month or so later, I am unhappy again. So I put the original pedals back on. And so, the cycle repeats.

  2. How about an article where you document and discuss the various factors of tone quality, kind of a check list for us to review while adjusting tone?

  3. “If You’re Tone Doesn’t Sound Like You Want it to…” go practice good technique, some theory, play some music, listen to other instruments, “…then make it sound like you want it to” 😉

  4. Whoa…if I didn’t know any better, I’d say Karl has moved into the “tone is in the hands” camp. Isn’t that one of the signs of the apocalypse? 😉

    But in all seriousness, yes. Amps, guitars, and pedals have knobs on them for a reason, so use them. Also, learn how to tell when you’re out of tune by ear, and then fix it (with a tuner, please). Even if you’re only a few cents off, the difference between being in tune and “in tune enough that no one noticed” makes a world of difference. At least in my experience.

  5. I shudder when I think of all the sweet tone that is hiding in all the gear that I have bought and sold or still own.

  6. Sometimes it’s the smallest things. I ran out of the picks I always use about 4 months ago and have been using other things since. Sometime in the middle I realized I was very unhappy with my tone and started looking for something to change. I shopped pedals and amps and eventually bought a couple different cables, which while helping did not change the fundamental difference I could hear. On a whim last week I ordered a package of my favorite Herco Flex 50 picks, not even thinking about the tonal difference they would make. I got them yesterday and played through my rig and BAM. Problem solved. Tone is in the plectrum, I guess.

  7. And not just turning knobs but pedal placement in the signal path. Change guitars, change knobs. Go direct ( no amp) change knobs. Then there is the insanity definition: “trying the same thing over and over expecting different results.” I’ve got this arrangement in one of my two signal chains: RC Booster>Barber Small Fry Burn Unit>Tech21 Liverpool>delays>direct box>PA and everything is pretty good except when engaging the Small Fry. Something ( I’m assuming the liverpool) just seems to swallow up what the Small Fry puts out.
    Anyway that is one pedal that is really “tweakable” Four internal trim pots and a “dynamics/compression” knob on top.

  8. Hmmm… Nice thought and I agree that “tweaking what you’ve got” is part of the process, however as your ‘outtro’ comments reveal, the probability is high that you will eventually reach a point where you’ve exhausted every avenue of coaxing the sound you want from a particular technology enabler. There are a couple of ways you reach that point:

    [1] Your aural discrimination has improved over time and you now ‘hear’ things you didn’t hear before. The majority of my changes in equipment over the years have been driven by this. I remember being amazed at the first digital ‘all-in-one” Yamaha FX500 that I purchased back in 1991. Then over the course of the next two years, I started hearing digital artifacts (example: digital breakup/stutter on overdrive and distortion patches when the guitar signal has finally decayed to the point that the A/D converters don’t have a good signal to sample). No amount of ‘tweaking’ was going to solve that problem. So… enter the Boss VF100, followed by a DigiTech 2120, POD, PODxt, PODxt sitting in an Atomic 112 tube amp, … to where I’m now running a Mesa Boogie Lonestar Special 112 with a bunch of handwired analog pedals used in conjunction with a TC Electronic G-System. I not only constantly optimize my gear to make everything work together; I optimize my setup for each of the guitars I still use for live work. The newest thing to catch my attention is a Matchless Avalon, for which my research started about a year ago… Perhaps in another year, the UPS truck will be dropping one off… (LOL!)

    The above being said, I don’t define myself as a guitar play by what gear I own… The technology is simply a “means (i.e. tools) to an end”. Like a mechanic, I assemble to tools I need to do the job I’ve been called to so. For example, I did a stint last year (before starting into a Ph.D. program) with a local country band playing bass guitar (I’m also not beneath playing an instrument other than my primary instrument; the drummer was a friend and needed a bass player; I’ve got the skills in that area, including not approaching bass guitar as a frustrated guitar player — LOL!). Since the band predominately played live gigs with IEMs, I made an investment in a simple Eden floor pre-amp/direct box and sent my bass straight into the FOH console as opposed to, “But I really need the sound of my Ampeg bass amp!!!”.

    [2] Quality… There’s a major different between some pedals I’ve used over the years and what’s now replaced them on my board (although I recognize that the aural ‘quality’ aspect ultimately traces back to my first point — LOL!

    [3] Curiosity… I like to experiment. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered I have a little more financial flexibility to ‘try things’ (although before I buy anything, I’ve usually already done extensive internet research of sound samples, comments by other musicians, etc.). Sometimes those experiments result in a current pedal being demoted from my pedal board and ‘mothballed’. I used to sell much of my used gear on eBay, but I’ve got 3 young grandsons — 2 twin boys approach their 2nd birthday and a 3 year old grandson, all of whom have shown a disposition as future guitar players — no real surprise since in addition to Grandpa, their Dad (my son-in-law) is an excellent musician and worship pastor at our local church. LOL! 🙂

    The late “Les Paul,” whom I’ve met on a number of occasions in NY until he passed away commented a few years ago in a Guitar Player magazine that he still found that despite being in his 90’s (when he was 92, he signed a pick guard for me during one of trips to hear him that I have on a Les Paul guitar I own), he still found himself “chasing sound” (coincidentally the title of an autobiography on his life), looking for that next little breakthrough element in realizing the tones and sounds he continued to hear in his head.

    So… Karl, enjoy this time of introspection (LOL!)… something tells me that as time passes, you’ll be revisiting other gear… 🙂

    • I need to remember to proof read a little better. Hopefully any reviewing my comments can recognize that I meant to use the word “difference” instead of “different”, etc. — LOL! 🙂

    • BTW, here’s some of my current work:


      With the exception of the drums, I arranged and played all the instrument the tracks on this project (other than the solo break on ‘Ruler’, which I farmed out to one of my younger worship players). This was recorded in my home studio.

      My purpose in calling attention to this project is to reiterate the “chasing sound” phenomena. Despite my live rig setup, all the amp and fx sounds on this project are “in the box” using Amplitude 2 from IK Multimedia. From a production standpoint, I’ve found it much easier when recording to always capture the dry guitar signal to track. If the ‘mic’ed up’ guitar track refuses to sit correctly in the arrangement of the song, having that dry guitar track enables me to go back an experiment with different virtual amps, etc. 🙂

  9. I’m happy to say that I’m happy with my sound coming from my Tele and Blues Jr., and I have been for a while now. It just has a really nice clean, ringing sound. I’m sure I could get a more “killer OD” sound, like maybe the Matchless I just heard played on Jesus Culture’s “Your Love Never Fails” Youtube vid, but my OD is good enough for me. Actually I think I could really amp it up if I played with my Fulltone Fatboost more. It has some nice earthy, organic sounds that I’ve made before. Actually, the other guitarist at my church is a professional musician, and he has really nice gear (a Klon and a Tim and a Memory Man delay and a NOS Blues Jr.), but I actually prefer my base tone, at least for how we set things up for playing at Church. I do, however, prefer his chops, as they are quite good. But the good thing is we both like our own tone.

    So yeah. Ironically, I guess I’m a Fender man. A stark change from when I would never buy anything Fender, just because it was popular. I did that with Shakespeare too, never read him, so you can see that my game plan needed a little work.

    The thing I would like to do is learn how to use my delay better. Being a liberal arts guy is not helping me with the technical math stuff you kinda need to think about when setting things. I want to be able to just fiddle with knobs and have “magic” appear. But setting a delay actually is more of a science than an art, for me. Or maybe I’m just bad at the art of setting delay.

    Anyway, yeah. I approve this message.

  10. I think there’s definitely a balance between gear and hands, as both are needed. It’s just when you hear (and I know I’ve said this before 😉 ), ‘Man, Boss pedals and Fender amps suck. No tones, mids don’t cut, harsh sounding harmonics…I need something that really nails that Robben Ford tone.’ So…you’re looking for a Fender Twin and a Boss RV3?

    Gear is incredibly important…but if you find yourself unable to get good tone out of the last ten boutique amps you’ve bought and sold, prudence would suggest trying something different for a while. Like taking what you’ve got, and doing everything you can, no matter how unorthodox, to make it sound good. After a few months of that, sure, go buy some more new amps. It just eventually hits you that probably not every amp ever built ‘sucks.’ Maybe it’s……me. 😉 😉

  11. Right now at church I play thru a DI Box with no amp. Which means no tubes. I think its just our system, but it seems to be way more sensitive to the pedals settings. The one great thing about me not being able to use a nice tube amp is that its really pushed me as a guitarist to really understand how all my gear works by itself, and how it works together. I bought my Delay in april and am just now finally getting to sound like I want it to, so thats been three months of turning knobs, looking at my technique, and figuring out how to work it. Good advice Karl!

  12. The best laid plans of mice and men. Got everything set up at church this morning, waiting for the singers before rehearsal. New strings on strat? check. Pedals dialed in? check. ZAP The power went out in the entire neighborhood. So, found some songs most people would know, borrowed an acoustic and rehearsed. Kind of cool singing in a group gathered around one music stand. Obviously some in the congregation prefer this “unplugged” approach. In the middle of the last song during the actual worship service, the juice came back on. At least we had air conditioning during the sermon.
    However, I will not be selling my electric stuff 🙂

    • Ha! Just had something similar happen to me today! Got the setlist on time and had everything prepared and set up to go. I make it into the church to find out our leader was sick as a dog in bed. Her husband was our drummer this week so we were left with just the keyboardist who doubles as backup vocals and me on guitar with no singing skills whatsoever!

      This made me glad I got into the habit of bringing both acoustic and electric every Sunday, just in case. Switched to the acoustic, picked songs everyone knew and you know what… it worked! Kind of humbling really, as all the same people who “get into worship” still “got into worship” and all those people who stand there with blank stares… well yeah.

      Definite object lesson about how much it isn’t us, or the music, or the production.

  13. Your*


    I have to say there’s something about delay that just makes the rest of your tone so nice. No matter what I use, analog, digital, AxeFX, POD, plugins, it just seems to tighten up and polish the rest of your tone if you’ve got delay on. Call me crazy… maybe I’m just trying to legitimize the amount of “Delay patches” I have on the AxeFX…

  14. I love it, love it, when the power goes out, or something crazy bad happens. Always hugely powerful worship. Makes you almost want to manufacture the accidents every once in a while. 😉 That’s awesome, guys!!

    For those of you playing Axe-Fx’s, how did you get past my security? 😉 But in all seriousness, dial in some great tones with them, guys!

  15. I use the coach technique. Our church has 6 or so excellent guitarists that rotate. After every rehearsal and service I ask:
    Was my tone ok? Too bright, thin, .. muddy, fizzy, etc?
    What could be better?
    What did you like best?

    • I’m envious. The only other guitarists I know of at our church both play acoustic with no effects and wouldn’t know an overdrive from a delay. On the other hand Clay, do you get six different answers? 🙂

    • i usually just ask my wife if she can hear my guitar in the mix. if the answer is no, that means it could not have distracted anybody 😉

      guitarists can have many opinions based on their own taste/style. too much mids, not enough mids, too bassy, too trebley, too much dotted-eights, etc … most of which is probably caused by the sound guy, except for the dotted-eight part. lol

  16. Does our tone ever sound like we want it too? I say , only sometimes.

    For years I have been from the school of thought that is “Make what you have sound good”. And that is because when I started I couldn’t afford anything. So tweaking what I had came natural. As years passed and gear was collected I had the tendency to always fall back on the basics, meaning a guitar a cord and an amp. I remember when Digital came on the scene it was supposed to be the end all of tone. Well it wasn’t, but what it did do was offer guitarist more tonal opportunities.

    I use all types of gear everything from Line6 to custom made OD’s and even synths. Amps range from solid state to tubed. All of this gear doesn’t make me a better player for sure. But it does offer me the choice of using the right gear for the right gig.

    I just rearranged my pedal board and am happy….for now…

  17. Always mids for me. Allows the sound guy to hear you in the mix without having to turn you up as much. Of course, different eqs and gear for different band setups and the like, as Sal pointed out.

    And Justin, I agree that when you eq your amp, you should eq with your ear wherever the mic will go. Usually that’s right on the grill cloth. In theory, standing 8 feet from your amp should be close to the same thing. And if you’re going room mic, then eq with your ear wherever that mic is. 🙂

    • Standing 8 feet directly in front of a cranked amp is… enlightening. You know all those folks that told you you’re too loud? You just discovered where they sit.

  18. I got a new guitar a couple of weeks ago (’94 LP Special w/P90s) and I was having a really hard time dialing in a clean tone that I was satisfied with. Too bassy/boomy/whatever. It wasn’t until I tried some pretty unconventional-looking EQ settings that I found something that worked.

    I think that we get too “educated” about tone via forums and gear blogs that we forget to use our ears. We just look at the knobs and say that should work, and then get frustrated when it doesn’t.

    Use your ears, not your eyes.

  19. Yes, it horrible to collect a tons of stuff for guitar sounding. I think it`simpler and cheaper to use guitar modeling amp like guitar rig etc.

  20. This is so true. I finally spent some time going through my entire board before I played last Sunday and re adjusted levels and tweaked and made it sound as good as possible through a SS amp (a temporary amp situation necessitates my using the SS Crate house amp). So what do you know I showed up Sunday morning and all of a sudden my tones sounds much better than the last time I played. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Yes it does. I hope to be spending time with a new amp within the next couple of weeks. Which means I’ll get to do all of this again.

    After going months without any changes to the board, I’m considering ordering the new PGS shimmer/ ambient reverb pedal once it gets released.

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