Achieving Your Tone – Chapter 1: Instruments

The one question I have been asked more than anything by musicians over the years is “How do I sound like that”. While I have understood the question and more than that the desire a musician has to capture a specific tone or sound I had a hard time explaining to them that it truly comes down to a combination of many, many things that make up the ever-quested “Sound” either live or in the studio. It begins of course with musicianship. Hey man let’s admit it, we all can’t be a Jimi Hendrix when it comes to skills, but that does not mean you can’t come close to emulating the sound — with or without the chops. Let’s take a closer look at how tones are achieved. There are truly only three components, aside from talent, involved in crafting one’s sound.

1) Instrument

2) Amplification

3) Outboard Gear (i.e. pedals, rack mounted effects, etc.)

In this edition we will focus on that which every musician cannot do without: your instrument. I firmly believe that before anyone buys any gear ever they should first know what it is they are buying and why they are buying it. Let’s begin with a quick definition:

in·stru·ment Webster’s Dictionary

noun \ˈin(t)-strə-mənt\

: a tool or device used for a particular purpose; especially : a tool or device designed to do careful and exact work

: a device that is used to make music

Now you may say “Hey man, I know an instrument is a device used to make music…DUH!” Well if that’s the case you missed the first definition. Let’s take another quick look at it, because it tells the first part of the story of what our quest entails.

  1. 1. “a tool or device used for a particular purpose; especially : a tool or device designed to do careful and exact work”

This is of the utmost importance. If your instrument is of low quality it can be hard to attain the sound we are so ardently searching for. “But I can’t afford a $1,000 guitar”.

No need for that, my friend. As I said, it can be hard, but not impossible. You can get fantastic sound out of just about any guitar or bass with the right arrangement of pick-ups, electronics and other factors. Here are a few guidelines to maintain as you are finding the proper axe to start crafting your tone with.

  • Make sure first of all that your guitar is comfortable to YOU. That’s right, you could have the best rig in the world and a $5,000 guitar, but if it doesn’t hang just right around you, if it just doesn’t seem to sit on your lap properly, if the fret board feels funny under your fingers and it just doesn’t “resonate” with you or feel like a part of you then the sad truth is, no matter the monetary value you will not enjoy playing it…pure and simple my friends this is where it starts. A perfect example of this is Willy Nelson’s guitar named “Trigger”. It’s an old, beat up classical, with holes literally worn in it. But even though Willy could buy a guitar factory tomorrow he continues to use “Trigger” because he loves it’s sweet dulcet tone and it feels right to him when he plays, nothing more. It just feels right. Don’t be afraid to shop around and find a guitar that clicks with you to start with, it will make all the difference.
  • From comfort we move into technicalities. Here we are talking about things like the “action” on the neck, the bridge style, fret size, neck leveling and electronics, even the type of wood can affect the sound. The term “action” refers to how the strings rest over the fret board due to the settings of the bridge and saddles. Some people like a high action, which means the strings are lifted higher off of the fret board. Low action means that the strings are very close to the fret board. I prefer my action low (action is literally the guitar equivalent of salting food…everybody likes it a bit different) — consult your local guitar tech and he can make recommendations for you. Fret height is important. The bigger the fret the faster your guitar will intonate, but also the harder chords will be. If you’re a shred guy, you might like big chunky-size frets. I am a rhythm player and personally prefer a smaller, low-profile fret. Again, fret your guitar according to your preference. Finally, we move into the neck leveling. This is very important because it is what is directly responsible for stray sounds such as fret buzz and loss of sustain. The easy way to check neck leveling is to lay the guitar down on a flat surface and bring your eyes to plane with the bridge looking toward the headstock. Pay close attention to the level of the neck under the strings in relation to the butt of the bridge. They should be parallel and the neck should have a slight tapering slope on the left and right edges. If one side seems to be higher than the other, or if you see a dip or rise in the level of the fret board then, my friend, you have a torqued neck. Not to worry though, most guitars are fitted with a truss rod under the name plate or just inside the body which can be used to reset your neck’s alignment. This process of truss rod adjustment is very delicate. One can unseat a truss rod and move into hundreds of dollars of repair trying to do it themselves while trying to save $25-30 at a local tech. DON’T DO IT! Would you try to straighten and set your own dog’s leg or would you go to a vet? These are the moments to spend a few bucks and have it done right, folks. It’s not worth a $150-200 dollar repair and what could be many weeks without your musical friend. Get it done right and you will notice a big difference in your old friend’s playability.

neck - maple neck - rosewood neck levelling

Maple Fret Board Rosewood Fret Board Inspecting the Neck

  • Finally let’s focus on the last part of the tone in this article: the electronics you have in your guitar. When you are listening to your favorite rocker and find that sweet spot where he digs into the solo just right and your ears say, “There it is – that sound!” Please remember one thing first. The chances of that musician using an off the rack guitar is more than slim, it’s almost non-existent. The fact is the electronics are more than likely custom in some way, shape or form. For example, changing the values of tone capacitors and potentiometers (a.k.a. “pots”) can have a drastic effect on sound. The larger the value the more sound. A 250k pot literally can be ½ as loud as a 500k pot and a .22uf tone capacitor will cut less high end than a .33uf capacitor. When it comes to pick-ups, a lot of things make a difference: the number of pick-ups, single coil vs. Humbucker, the number of switch positions.

Pickup style 2 - humbuckers Pickup style 3 - telestyle Pickup style 1 - single coil

Humbuckers Single Coils Active Single Coils

In this example I am replacing the pickups in a Peavey Generation EXP series guitar that I got because it played well, it felt great and I loved the look. I have always wanted a Telecaster, but found them to be a bit too bright and twangy due to the two pick-up design and not always the sound I am looking for. While this guitar has a Telecaster style neck, body and bridge providing the feel of a Telecaster, it maintains a three single coil pick-ups configuration with standard 5-way switching. This means that I have the pick-up configuration and tonal options of a Stratocaster at my disposal. While I love the feel of the guitar, I was always a bit disappointed in the sound of the pick-ups — they were obviously stock and nothing amazing. A good friend of mine named Dave, who is my local ear to the ground in Houston for gear I am searching for, came across a great deal on Craigslist for a pair of Fender custom shop ’57 reissue Telecaster pick-ups for under $100. I went and met him, swapped for the pick-ups (it doesn’t always have to be money out of pocket you know), then made my way back to the shop and got started with the planned upgrade and soon-to-be switch mod on my beloved but rarely played Peavey EXP.

Pickup style 3 - telestyle Pick-Ups 1 Pick-Ups 2

Peavey Generation EXP Proposed Pick-Ups Fender ’57 Custom Shops

I started by removing the strings, followed by the bridge and pickguard, in order to gain access to the gooey insides where the pick-ups live. I then heated up the soldering iron and removed both the bridge and neck pick-ups, making sure to notate in my bench notes which pick-up went to which switch position. This would prove very important for the future switch mod to be done. After disconnecting the stock pick-ups I then mocked up how I would be mounting the pickups and proceeded to place the in the bridge and neck position of the pickguard. They looked very pretty. From here we move to running the wires through the body and soldering the pick-ups into their respective positions on the 5-way switch. After this comes what would normally be the final step of the installation process, which is the reassembly of the bridge and pickguard back onto the body of the guitar and testing the pick-ups’ connectivity. With this done we move onto the final two steps of my guitar’s tone transmogrification.

Pick-Ups 12 Pick-Ups 3 Pick-Ups 4

Strings Removed Removing the Bridge Exposed & Ready

Pick-Ups 5 Pick-Ups 9 Pick-Ups 6

Inspect Connections! Bridge Pick-Up Final Connections

While most Telecaster style pick-ups provide a very bright and high range profile, I prefer my guitars to be a little more on the mellow jazzy side. To achieve this I raise the micro farad (uf) value on the tone pot from the standard value, which on this guitar was .22uf to a larger value of .33uf . Now, while this small value change of .11 may not seem like a lot, it is enough to just get rid of the sharp edges my ears perceive on a typical Telecaster and bring it into the range of my sound as I like it. Finally, to this guitar I decided to add one extra little bonus: a standalone micro toggle switch that, when activated while the standard 5-way switch is in either the neck or bridge position, will allow the opposing pick-up to become active and immediately allow me to have the neck and bridge pick-ups active simultaneously. This is where I chose to emulate part of the tone of my personal axe-slinging favorite: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. He has had this switch on his legendary black Strat for years and it is an integral part of attaining his classic tone.

Pick-Ups 13 Pick-Ups 14 Pick-Ups 15

Tap the Hole The Magic Switch Install Guard & Jam

So there you have it, the instrument you have been looking for for so long. You don’t have to spend thousands; you just have to be picky enough to know what you’re looking for and yet flexible enough to know that slight flaws and imperfections can be hammered out and tone can be achieved through many facets of your instrument. Next month we’ll explore the second part of crafting your tone: amplification. Until next time, be nice to your neighbors and keep it below eleven.

Pick-Ups 16

The Finished Project

~ as published in ROCKSTAR Magazine ~



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