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Where does guitar tone come from?


Tone. The holy grail of electric guitar. 

If you are a guitar player, you may well have already spent the majority of your playing life chasing THAT elusive tone. You know the one. The one you can hear in your head. The one that other guitar players seem to already have. Yet you just cannot seem to locate it. 

Frustration sets in and that’s when you start to spend money. Specifically you may start to spend money on equipment. Someone tells you that the new ‘Grubenheimer 15 watt Special’ amplifier is the absolute must have if you are looking for ‘that’ sound. You may read that there is a new range of Kronkle pedals that, if used in a certain sequence will have you ripping it up like Joe Bonamassa or Peter Green in no time at all.  

And to a greater or lesser extent all of this information is correct. These things will have an impact on your sound. BUT there is no getting away from the fact that your tone really comes from something a little closer to home. Your guitar, your amp, your fingers AND you.

A great guitarist and old friend of mine, Matt Haslett, was teaching a class of guitar students one day. After he had demonstrated a particular piece of music, one student said “wow, your guitar sounds great!”. Matt looked at the student, took his hands off the guitar, put them above his head and said ‘thanks. How does the guitar sound now?”

I think you get the point…..

So where does tone come from? Well many say that what your guitar is made of is going to have an impact on this. And you don’t need to go far on You Tube to discover men in sheds discussing the pros and cons of tone being dependent on the type of wood your guitar is made of. There may well be something in this, however I have heard some awesome guitar tones coming from hollow body guitars. If wood is so important, how does that happen?!

And pickups are also an important element in your tone generation. Personally while I love playing my rather expensive Les Paul with its sweet humbuckers, the sound I have in my head actually seems to come from my old Strat copy with EMG pickups (there, I said it!). 

I am a great believer in the power of fingers and ears on tone. Discovering different ways of picking the strings and fretting the notes is key, in my opinion. Ensuring your choice of notes or chords is as considered and tasty as possible. Always start with the ‘less is less’ not ‘more is more’ approach, taking the time to check for clarity and simple delivery before you attempt the shredder’s onslaught. As those instantly recognisable players prove time after time (I’m thinking Hendrix, Knopfler, BB King) character wins.

 A great place to start with this journey is by plugging your guitar straight into an amp without all the extras, and then setting yourself a goal: find your regular rhythm sound and then find your lead sound. You will already have something you use for both situations individually, but the angle here is to be able to access these two sounds just using the controls (volume and tone) and different pickups on your guitar. At first you may find that your rhythm sound works okay but you cannot get to your lead sound without your trusty Boss Blues Driver. Well, I’m sorry but you need to persevere! Ultimately what you may well find are sounds you never considered before, but are now loving.

One really important thing to remember: The great tone you get in your bedroom probably won’t work in a band situation. You may have worked alone for years honing and perfecting your guitar sound, but the minute you start to play with a band you disappear into the mix! Yep this happens a lot. Don’t despair. Just think like a graphic equaliser. Try adding some more mids, lose some of the bass, roll off the treble. It’s worth experimenting to find your ultimate place in the sonic landscape.

This is just a beginning to a whole world of tone generation and control. And this is something that we spend huge amounts of time discussing and exploring on our Guitar Breaks Holidays.  In fact it is probably the most discussed topic! Visit for more info.

Remember: once you can achieve two great sounds from just your guitar and amp, and feel comfortable and confident enough to consider gigging like this, you are ready to start adding other colours to your set up again. And I guarantee that working in this way will start you on the road to generating a great tone!

Please let me know how you get on in the comments section. Good luck and do take a moment to check out the great Joe Bonamassa briefly demonstrating this concept below in his own inimitable style. 

Ian Edwards – Guitar Breaks HQ