Guitar Tone Part 2: The Parts That Make Up Sweet, Sweet Tone

And part 2 of Guitar Tone. And once again, this is guitar tone as it refers to the instrument ‘guitar’, as opposed to your entire rig, which could also be called ‘guitar tone’. But not today. Part 1 kind of stressed the importance of getting a good guitar, and even selling off a few pedals and amps if need be in order to obtain said ‘good guitar’. Which seems like it shouldn’t have to be said…I mean, they call it ‘playing guitar’ after all, not ‘playing Fuzz Face’ (even though fuzz smokes…sorry, I’m still on this fuzz kick…a lot…mmm…fuzz), or playing ‘Analogman Bi-Chorus’ (and I only mention that because Point Break was on…and there’s a lot of sucky things in that movie…including one that rhymes with Beanu…but the music is a pretty sweet chorus-laden ’90′s rock trance, which I do enjoy…see? Chorus can be cool; Beanu can’t). But if you’re anything like me, for some odd reason, some of us seem to always want to buy pedals and amps before guitars. And if our guitar doesn’t sound good, some of us never think about changing guitars; only changing clean boosts. But the guitar, in my hopefully humble opinion, is the most important part of the electric guitar rig.

There are a lot of parts that make up a good sounding guitar; and a lot of the same parts that make up a bad sounding guitar. What matters is the quality of the parts. (Well, a lot of the parts are the same, unless you have one of those see-through plastic guitars, or that rubber-stringed bass deal from the ’80′s. If you do…we’ll talk later.) It also matters how much emphasis you put on certain parts. For instance, pearl inlays are pretty stellar…but they matter very little to tone. A good looking neck is also stellar; and, it happens to also matter a good deal to tone. So, it’s nice to have an idea of what to look for in a guitar. (Hey…remember that part in Point Break where the surfer gang…yes, there most definitely is a surfer gang…hears a knock on their door, and just automatically starts loading up automatic weapons like it’s Rambo? hehe I thought that was amusing. Okay, sorry…once I get my mind on something, I start to have trouble…not very good at balancing things. hehe Keanu is dumb. Alright, coming back.) So anyway, here’s the parts that make up guitar tone in an electric guitar, ranked in order as I see it (which means it could possibly be wrong…wow, why is it so hard for me to say that? hehe), and also how to look for these things when you’re thinking about purchasing a new guitar.

pointbreak1
(This is the epic end of Point Break. Where Keanu lets Swayze…okay, I won’t ruin the ‘plot.’ But Keanu does get to say, in his most Keanu-ish voice, such deep and intense phrases as ‘I didn’t let him go’ and ‘He’s not coming back.’ Remember, the music was really rad. Thank goodness.)

1. Holding its Tune

I know I’ve said this before; the best tone in the world, your favorite tone, a 1960 pre-CBS Fender Strat, and a vintage Gretsch Country Gentleman will all be of absolutely no consequence if your guitar can’t stay in tune. Timbre (unfortunately, sometimes) is overruled by harmonics. And if you don’t believe me, turn on your rig, go to your favorite sound…whether it’s clean, with tons of delay, overdriven, straight into the amp, whatever…and now tweak one of your tuning pegs. Then play a chord, and see if your ear can even tune in to the ‘tone of your guitar.’ It’s like our ears are programmed to only be able to recognize a pleasing sound if…uh…the sound is pleasing in the first place. hehe Know what I mean? So, a guitar that holds its tune is extremely important. 

A good guitar should have high quality tuners (staunch…not only the pegs, but the part that you actually connect the string to), a bridge that is set to, or has the ability to be set to, different lengths for the different strings, and a neck that is able to sit at a comfortable warp. A straight neck is very bad for staying in tune, as is a really bent neck. The neck should be happy sitting at just a slight bend, and not be always wanting to go somewhere else after you set it. But most importantly, your guitar should be set up and intonated properly. You can do this yourself, or any good tech can do it. This will not only make every note anywhere on the neck in tune, but it will also help your guitar stay in tune…when you’re really cranking on it, when the song requires a fair amount of bending (please, not too much now), or what-not. If I go into how to do this right now, my already infinitely long-winded posts will get really long, so I’ll save that. But suffice it to say that you’re instrument should have it’s neck and bridge set properly for the gauge of strings you use, and it should have the hardware to be able to maintain this set up and intonation.

2. Wood

This may not be the most popular opinion, but hey…that’s how you get ‘indie cool’, right? Pick an obscure but plausible opinion, find a couple authors to back it up, and you’re in. But that’s not what this is about for me…I think. I really believe that the way a guitar’s strings resonate both the body and neck wood of a guitar is one of the most important factors in tone. And secondly, the way the pickups mic the wood’s resonation is one of the main factors in that ‘weighty’ or ‘real’ or ‘true’ tone that you can hear instantly in a good instrument. It’s like the difference between a keyboard and a grand. Both sound good, but there’s a weightiness to the grand; having a guitar with well-resonating wood is kind of the same. You want your tone (which, in a second, is going to go to the pickups and become no longer an ‘acoustic sound’) to be as good as possible before it gets mic’d. As Rhoy commented in part 1 of this Guitar Tone series, one of the best tests for an electric guitar is how good it sounds unplugged. Same principle as when you record or mic your amp, and then tweak the daylights out of the board or recording eq to try to get it to sound right. You might get it close after a ton of hassle; but it will only be perfect if you change the sound of what the mic is picking up first–your rig. Same with the guitar. The best pickups and amps and pedals in the world can only do so much if they’re mic’ing and effecting and amplifying a sub-par acoustic sound to begin with. 

Also, make sure that both the body wood and the neck wood are one piece. Resonates so much better this way. And it gets tricky, too, because once a guitar is painted, I mean, they could’ve hidden whatever wood they wanted in there. So, at least for me, I only buy guitars where I can see the wood. Whether it’s sunburst, or natural finish, or whatever. You want to see that the body is one solid piece of wood. And that the neck and headstock (together) are one solid piece of wood. And I remember one time being at a shop, and seeing three ’70′s Gibson Les Pauls all next to each other, and picking them up, and noticing that only one of them had a one-piece body. And then a friend of mine has a Made in Mexico strat that is totally a one-piece body. So, definitely be on the lookout for that.

The age of the wood matters, too. Usually, the older the better. And I have no idea how to tell, beyond a guitar looking all charred up and decaying and obviously old. You just have to take some of these builders on their word.

rubber-bass
(And I’m saying, like, a ton about guitar wood here. So here’s a picture of the best guitar invention ever. The rubber-stringed bass. Usually if things are stupid and don’t sound good, it’s at least because they sacrificed tone to look rockstar. But this does not look rockstar. Not even a little. Not even if Keanu held it. That’s right…not only does he act…kinda…he also plays bass and sings in a band.)

Edit: Nope. They took it down. If you search for Dogstar (his band) now, they no longer put a microphone in front of him. hehe

Also, to get that real humbucker sound, you should really have a two-piece flame maple top on a mahogany body. And I prefer a mahogany neck. Maple is cool, too. For Tele’s, I tend to dig alder bodies with maple necks. And Strat’s, ash with maple necks. Again, not hard and fast, but just in general. Fretboards don’t make as much of a difference in tone, so I’d go with what feels right to you. Brazilian Rosewood feels really good, and bird’s eye maple just looks plain awesome. hehe Which is, of course, the main point in all of this. ;)

And I tend not to like the neck-through sound. Some people do, and that’s cool. For me, I like it better when the body and neck can resonate on their own. Something about the body wings being separate from the pickups, or the pickups resonating in the neck wood, or just something about the neck-through guitars sounds thin to me. Just my opinion. And there’s a lot of talk about whether glued on necks or bolted on necks are better. All I know is that humbuckers sound better with glued on, and single coils sound best with bolted on. That makes no sense to me. Glue doesn’t seem to want to sound good, at least in my head. But that’s been my experience. And I’m trusting my ears on that, and the fact that Les Pauls almost always use glue, even the boutique ones. It could be that it was cheaper way back in the day, and it doesn’t sound as good technically, but over the years, that ‘inferior’ sound has come to be what we like in humbucker guitars. A happy accident or something. I don’t know why…maybe I’m not smart enough. Which is entirely probable. 

There is also something called chambered bodies, where the bodies have ‘tone chambers’ cut out within them to make the wood resonate more. I like them. :) But again, you gotta take the builder’s word on this. Sometimes, if it’s lighter, it can be an indication that it is in fact chambered, but it could also just be cheap wood. ;)

So wood is hugely important. (Strings and picks also contribute a good deal to the acoustic sound of the guitar…but as they are technically not part of the guitar itself, I’ll save them for a later post. Plus, it allows me to post more when I can’t think of anything else to post someday…no, that probably won’t happen. That’ll be the day when this blog turns into ‘The Making Fun of Paul Walker, Orlando Bloom, and Marky-Mark Blog’–because I can’t think of anymore gear stuff to post. But…anyway…strings and picks in a future post.)

3. Pickups

After your guitar’s acoustic sound, you want two things: 1) and accurate reproduction of that sound electronically, and 2) something else that we have come to know as the ‘electric guitar’ sound. See pickups in their original incarnation were meant to simply mic a guitar; but somewhere along the line, we as listeners started to like certain things they added…warmth, bite, clarity, percussiveness, sweetness, etc. So not only are you trying to get a pickup that does a great job of ‘picking up’ your now totally awesome acoustic sound, you want one that’s going to be close to the specs of some of the original pickups; simply because that has become how we define ‘good electric guitar tone.’ And a big part of good tone, is pleasing your listeners. If it only pleases you, it’s just therapy, not art. So there is definitely something to be said for keeping a ‘classic’ element in your pickups. 

There are plenty of good pickups out there that are being wound and using the same components as some of the classic Gibson and Fender pickups from the ’50′s and ’60′s. You can buy the original pickups, but some of them cost thousands of dollars, and that’s just for the pickups!! So, when looking for a guitar, look for writing on the pickups. Most of the good ‘mass-produced’ pickup companies like to make sure their pickups are differentiated from the stock pickups. So look for ones that say ‘Seymour Duncan.’ Or on Fenders, ‘Alnico’ or ‘Alnico Special’ or something. Now, when you get into the more high end guitars, they stop marking the pickups as it’s supposedly ‘understood’ that the pickups are wound and constructed properly. And most of them aren’t. ;) I mean, there are some great sounding guitars with great sounding pickups out there. But again, there’s some great companies out there hand-making pickups for sometimes even cheaper than Fender or Gibson are. Check out WCR’s, Lollar’s, Fralin’s, Bill Lawrence, Wolfetone’s, etc. And Seymour Duncan’s are the old faithful. (I’ll try to lay them all out in another post. Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.) Wolfetone’s and Lollar’s also use lower powered magnets in some models to act as ‘wearing out magnets’, like in old pickups. And the results are really good. 

So, make sure you get good pickups. And they’re fairly easy to change out. So if you find a guitar you love, but aren’t sure about the pickups, you can always go after-market with one of these boutique pickup companies and drop them in. They’ll make a huge difference. Mostly in warmth and clarity. 

4. Electronics

The pots (volume and tone knobs), switches, and wiring also make a considerable difference. Make sure you’ve got 500k pots in your humbucker guitars, and 250k pots in your single coil type guitars. (Just a general rule, not a hard and fast one.) Good wiring and solder connections, too. A lot of this gets really ticky-tacky, and hard to spot…and also, there aren’t a ton of guys making a living building ’boutique pots.’ :) So this is where getting a guitar built by a good builder (whether it be mass-produced or independent…you know my choice, hehe, but I cannot deny some great sounds from mass-produced guitars) really makes things easier. 

5. Feel

Alright. For a long time, I totally overlooked ‘feel’ in a guitar. Stuff like making sure the frets are all topped off properly, and the guitar plays fast, and feels smooth. That just all seemed so stupid to me. You know, kind of like, ‘A real man would play a guitar that makes his fingers bleed if it meant good tone’ or something like that. Yep, my usual delusions of being on stage somewhere in front of thousands of people, everyone marveling at how that fabulous tone could be coming out of such a junky-looking guitar. And so I definitely bought some junky looking guitars. Mostly because they looked so bad, I thought how cool it would be if they sounded good, so I made them sound good in my mind. It’s amazing what we can cause ourselves to hear if we want to. Definitely something for us musicians to look out for. :)

But here’s the thing. It’s correct that the feel of a guitar has no bearing ‘directly’ on tone. But indirectly, it shows itself in two ways. One, tone comes first from your hands. So if you’re not bonding with the guitar, and if you can’t feel good playing it, your tone is simply not going to be as good. It sounds so frilly, but you really gotta be able to feel your instrument, and feel good playing it, in order to play well on it; and, subsequently, have good tone, and more importantly, good overall sound (that’s musicianship, tone, passion, and feel). And secondly, I found that when I have an instrument that doesn’t feel good, I just tend not to practice as much. Playing has got to be fun; and if your hands hurt like crazy and it’s a ton of work just to try to jam, you’re not going to want to do it. You might say you will, but subconsciously, you’ll find excuses to practice less often. Or, at least I did. And you gotta practice to sound good. You just gotta. And you gotta be able to have fun and enjoy expressing yourself on your instrument. 

So find one that feels good. And have a tech do fret-redressings every couple years on your guitar. And, like I mentioned in the ‘tuning’ part, intonation and a good set up has a lot to do with your guitar feeling and playing well.

6. Laquer

You do want to have a good laquer on the wood, and one that lets it breathe. I have no idea how to tell. I just buy my guitars from builders who tell me they use ‘the highest quality’ laquers. Ya, I should know more about this. I don’t. How’s that for honesty? ;)

7. And lastly, Use Your Ears and Your Mind!

All the research in the world can’t compensate for your ears. But at the same time, your ears can deceive you if you really want them to. For instance, there’s a guitar at a great price,and it’s the perfect color, and you have a gig tonight. Your ears can tell you it sounds good. But if you’re thinking you might be biased, then research can be very helpful. If it sounds amazing to you, but the body is like 18 pieces of particle board, and the pickups say ‘Custom made in China’ and the headstock says ‘Designed in the USA’ but then in really little letters ‘Crafted in Mozambique’, your ears are probably deceiving you. The most common time our ears can deceive us is when it’s our own gear. Because, let’s face it, we all like to think our gear sounds the greatest, and that we have the ‘diamond in the rough’ piece, or whatever. But at the same time, if you pick up a guitar, and all the components are ‘correct’, but you don’t like the sound of it, put it down. Don’t ever play it again. Your ears, your research, and your mind should all be working together. 

Also, what works for one guitar might not work for another. Wolfetone pickups might sound jammin’ with mahogany, but not so great with ash. So use your ears to get the right sound for you. And what I said in this blog. Because, of course, it’s all completely perfect, correct, and totally un-biased. ;)

And, yikes. How do we end without this?

Sweet mercy, his acting is horrible in that. And in case you’re wondering why he shot his gun into the air and screamed with such…uh…intensity? (That’s putting it nicely.) It’s because he was going to shoot Swayze, but he couldn’t because he ‘loved him so much’, as stated brilliantly in Hot Fuzz. Here ya go:

And if you love Point Break, or rubber-stringed basses, or anything else I blatantly made fun of behind the safety net of an anonymous internet blog like a little schoolboy using Daddy’s credit card to buy ‘You suck’ T-Shirts for all his friends (wait…what?), then my sincere apologies. If there is nothing you like better then thumpin’ some ’80′s Cosby Show (great show, by the way) basslines on your rubber strings while watching Keanu act that facial expression he knows, then be that person. Life’s too short to care about what I say…except for the tone stuff. Please care about that. Care a lot. Disagree with me, fine; but for the love of every movie blessed enough not to be called ‘Point Break’, care.

:)

Splendid.
Karl.

25 thoughts on “Guitar Tone Part 2: The Parts That Make Up Sweet, Sweet Tone

  1. Great info.

    Since you mentioned feel, what’s your opinion on sanding the neck?

    I have a friend who does that to every guitar he owns. Even his Anderson! GASP!

    I played the Anderson and it was fantastic. But since that’s the only Anderson I ever touched, I don’t know if the sanding had anything to do with the feel/playability. Or if that was just Anderson greatness.

    My LP is a prime candidate for this (if I get brave enough to get it done). That neck gets “sluggish” after a few songs and has to wiped down. I don’t have that problem with the Tele, it’ll go the distance.

    Tim

  2. And Hot Fuzz is one of the best movies ever…. next to Shaun of the Dead of course.

    I actually was telling the band about that film, and for some reason offended one of the guys. Weeks later I found out that he thought “Hot Fuzz” was an adult film.
    Good laughs all around….

  3. Good post! I consider the wood the most important thing in a guitar. Wiring and PUs can be changed but the wood isn’t going anywhere. I have an old Epiphone Strat clone and I was going to redo all the wiring and PUs to get it into better shape. I took off the pick guard and saw the wood was a ply. Like 15 layers of something. I decided there was no point in fixing it up.

    In stores I’ll often pluck the B string while the guitar is still hanging and grab the body near the 1/4″ jack. If it doesn’t feel good I won’t even take it off the wall. You can get a good feel for the sound, too, by putting your ear on the body while you play. It should sound good and even through the lows, mids, and highs.

    Feel is huge for me too! The last two guitars I got just felt right when I played them. When I got my 137 I had gone in with the intention of getting a firebird. It just didn’t feel right to me. I wasn’t looking for a semi-hallow body, but the 137 just felt so good!

  4. man, i love your writing! simple truths that a lot of people have forgotten about …

    “But the guitar, in my hopefully humble opinion, is the most important part of the electric guitar rig.”

    btw, thanks for the mention! and before i jumped the gun again, are you going into more details about some of these components?

  5. Larry–thanks, brother. I do intend to go into more detail in future posts…but this one, as you can see, was long enough as it is. I tend to be a little long-winded. ;)

    Tim–thanks. As far as sanding the neck, I guess if it makes you play and feel better, then sure. Unless you refinish it, though, too, it’ll lower the resale value if you go through guitars pretty regularly. Personally, once I’ve chosen a guitar with a neck I like, I’ve never felt the need to sand it. But, hey, if it works for him, then cool!

    Larry–haha That’s really funny. Did he end up watching the movie once he found it that it wasn’t?

    Mike–nice. I totally agree that you should be able to get a good idea of a guitar’s quality without even plugging it in. And I’ve had that happen, too! Where I’ve opened a favorite guitar and then seen the particle board, and been like, ‘Oh great.’ hehe And +1 on the feel. You gotta be able to ‘want’ to play it.

    Rhoy–thanks, brother. And dude, I totally forgot to link to your blog when I mentioned you…sorry! But I just edited and fixed that…it goes to your site now.

    And ya, I am planning on doing some more detailed posts for some of the parts. Especially the pickups, because I did really gloss over that one. And maybe I’ll actually read up on laquer. ;)

  6. I really enjoyed this post. To everyone, keep in mind that the guitar’s being pressed into a giant pillow the moment you stand up with it, dampening 90% of the acoustic quality. The acoustics of all guitars are most strongly shaped by density and stiffness, which is why different guitars of the same mass and specie can vary widely.

    This is going to be the top of my LP :D

    http://languagepool.net/images/LesPaulTop%20002.jpg

  7. Karl—
    yeah, They watched Hot Fuzz, and everything is a-okay– was a weird week or two considering he thought it was a particular type of film hehe.
    When we quote Shaun, HotFuzz and Monty Python, he now chips in. Good times!

  8. Shaun of the Dead is great! Hot Fuzz not so much.
    Keanu in Speed = ultimate satire!

    Regarding wood, Fender has some funny practices like using veneers for the tops of some guitars so that you are fooled by the pretty grain (allegedly on my 94 Am Std which is long gone).

  9. James–interesting point. :) And no worries on the lecturing. Can’t wait to see your finished guitar. That looks like a pretty sweet flame!!

    Larry–haha Good times indeed.

    Rhoy–no problem. And I’ll try to look in laquers. hehe

    Dan–no love for the Hot Fuzz? Or was it just that Shaun was so much better? I’ve never seen Shaun, but I should check it out. And Speed?! Aw, good call! I still can’t figure out how they manage to jump the bus over the unfinished part of the freeway……that was curved. Or why Dennis Hopper holds the phone across his face. Or why they hired Keanu.

    And bro, great point on some of the companies using veneers. It sucks that they do it, but I’ve seen it on a couple of Ibanez’s, too. Definitely gotta watch out for it…hopefully we don’t get to the point where a chainsaw is like, standard guitar-buying equipment just to make sure the wood is solid. hehe

  10. Yeah… Shaun of the Dead’s tagline:

    “the only romantic comedy… with zombies.”

    LOVED IT!!
    It was also a great “re-thought” of the original (1970s) Dawn of the Dead. Tribute if you will…. Simon Pegg is actually a Zombie fanatic. Anway, back to the topic

    Guitar is cool.

  11. Karl,

    How do you like the way your Prairiewood plays? How is the action, fit and feel? What radius and shape is the neck?

    thanks,
    Ryan

  12. Larry–tangents are the best. :) And ya, so’s guitar. hehe

    Ryan–the Prairiewood really seems to fit me well as far as the way it plays. But it has a huge neck, and I can see where some people wouldn’t dig it. But for some reason, it just feels right in my hands. It’s definitely Les Paul-ish, in that it’s not as fast as a strat, but it feels better than any Les Paul I’ve played. The fret job is impeccable, and the action is the perfect balance between sustain and speed. It’s the best setup job I have ever seen…usually I set up my own guitars, but I haven’t touched this one. It’s weird…I didn’t order this guitar from Robert firsthand, but it’s like it was made for me. Every once in a while in that gear search, you just hit on a couple that are totally you, ya know?

    And honestly, I’ve never measured the neck. But it’s huge, probably somewhere between a U and a D. And the radius, just from eye-balling it, looks to be about 12″.

  13. CC, great to have you here! And a complete ‘exactly’ on the Keanu stuff. hehe Hope you don’t mind, but I added both your blogs to my blogroll.

    Cheers!!

  14. The finish, if I do say so myself, is gorgeous. Looks like a see through, candy apple green, with the whole guitar within a guitar thing going. The neck and the back of the guitar (the mahogany stuff) is finished well also. At least to my eyes…I’m pretty inexperienced in telling what type of lacquer is on there. :)

  15. This is a great article. Excellent information. I have to agree with mike that the choice of wood is one of the most important decisions in building a guitar, but I’m kinda biased (lol)

    Christina

  16. Christina, thank you for the kind words, and it’s great to have you here. Also, I checked out your site, and the guitar woods you have shown on there are stunning! Great stuff.

    Cheers,
    Karl

  17. I’d like to ask about frets, for my 74 Fender Strat. Mine has the original maple neck with kind of a clear glossy coat. Now that I play medium-jumbo stainless frets on my Carvin AE185 most of the time, the Strat frets seem way too low. I’m sure they are lower frets than what the Carvin has, and who knows how much is the result of wear. I’ve had the strat since the mid-80s and I would say it’s probably only averaged 20 hours of play time per year since then.

    There is the thing about modding a guitar that, stock, might sell for $2500 ( bought it for $200 ), but since it came with upgraded tuners and I’ve swapped out the pickups, not sure that’s a concern now. I do like the medium-jumbos on the Carvin so am I better off buying a neck with the frets desired, or have the frets replaced on the maple neck?

  18. Ya, replacing the neck is probably what’s going to make the two guitars seem the same to your fingers. Personally, I like the smaller frets on strats. Maybe get a re-fret or a fret-dressing on the strat first, and see what that does? Because that might do it. And then if it doesn’t, you can always still have a whole new neck with medium-jumbo’s put on. :)

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