When it comes to the electric guitar, tone is king. Guitar players are forever experimenting with different guitars, amps, effects, picks and playing techniques in their relentless search for that perfect tone that will make their guitar solos sing with clarity and soar above the mix. Some have even traded their souls for the perfect tone, or so say the legends. Fortunately, you don't have to sell your soul to get a good lead guitar tone, you just have to be willing to follow a few simple tips.
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Play through a tube amp. Although it may be expensive to replace your amp, many will argue that getting a tube amp will make the biggest difference in your sound. Guitar amplifiers that use vacuum tubes to power the signal add a natural and unparalleled warmth to the sound, and when tube amps are pushed to their limits, the sound clarity of tubes begins to "break up," resulting in that much sought after, characteristic distortion that great tube amps are known for.
Use heavier gauge strings. This one is simple. Light strings make a thin sound, and heavier strings make a big sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan, who is known to have an awesome tone, used excessively fat gauge strings that most people wouldn't even be able to bend. Try going up at least one gauge, and don't use anything smaller than 10s. Note that you may need to make adjustments to the intonation and bridge to accommodate different gauge strings, especially if your guitar has a spring tremolo system.
Increase the midrange on your amp. You get a more "beefy" sound not by using more bass, but by boosting the mids. Those middle frequencies reflect the natural frequency range of the guitar, so don't cut them out. Experiment with your tone controls and try rolling the treble back while increasing the mids.
Use less distortion. Using too much distortion actually makes your sound thinner, because you start losing the natural tone of the guitar and amp. If you listen carefully, you'll actually hear that Angus Young of AC/DC uses only a slight amount of distortion on his amp and his tone is among the "biggest" of any guitar player out there. Use just enough distortion or fuzz to dirty up the sound, and don't be afraid to roll it back; you'll be surprised how much tone you retain by using less.
Try playing with your fingers. The soft pads of your fingertips pull a thicker, warmer tone out of the strings than does a plastic or nylon pick. That's part of the reason that guitarists like Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler have such recognisable sounds: They don't use picks. You'll also find that playing with your fingers opens up a new palette of sounds and styles to your guitar playing.
Practice, practice, practice! The secret that many guitar players know is that true tone comes from the hands of the player and not the guitar or the amp set-up. That's why a great guitarist will have a great tone no matter what guitar she's playing. Work on playing with smooth technique and a consistent sound. As your technique improves, so will your tone.
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