13 is considered an unlucky number. But here, it’s your lucky guide to tonal nirvana.
Below you’ll find 13 great ways to help you make your gear sound great and perform at its best. Many of these are simple secrets of the pros that you haven’t thought of.
Better still, several of them won’t cost you a penny.
1. CLEAN IT UP WITH LOW GAIN.
Many tube amps have two inputs: one for high gain and one for low. As the pros know, plugging into the low-gain input can clean up those fat-sounding humbuckers and can even sweeten your tone.
2. ADJUST YOUR PICKUP HEIGHT.
It’s amazing how many guitarists never adjust their pickup height. Admittedly, it’s something that you may need to learn how to do for the pickups on your guitar. Search on YouTube for a video that demonstrates how, or go to a guitar store and talk to someone who knows. And then start tweaking. The thing about pickup height adjustment is that you have to do it for yourself. No guitar tech can possibly do it for you and get it right. You have to play, adjust, play again, and keep doing it until you hit the sweet spot. But when you do, you’ll be glad for the effort.
3. SWAP YOUR PREAMP TUBES.
If you have a tube amp, you can easily sculpt your tone just by swapping out tubes. Want to lower the gain of your preamp stage? Try replacing the 12AX7 with a 5751 (a swap employed by Stevie Ray Vaughan) or a 12AY7 like classic “tweed” amps use. Or swap your 12AX7 with versions from RCA (very hot sounding), Mullard (very smooth) or Telefunken (clean and quiet). Granted, this can be an expensive proposition depending on the make of tube you choose, so do your research. Visit online forums and see what others have to say before you dive in.
Two Things You Should Know About Preamp Tubes:
1. Replacing Preamp Tubes
To replace worn preamp tubes, or try out different makes, simply select a new tube of the correct type, gently wiggle the old one loose, line up the pins of the new one, and gently push it into the socket.
2. Tweak ’em To Mod Your Gain Structure
If your amp carries 12AX7 preamp tubes, as the vast majority do today, and its breakup tone is a little more harsh or fizzy than you’d prefer, you can try a 12AY7 in the first gain stage (usually the first preamp tube position, but check your owner’s manual) like many tweed Fenders used, to drop the input gain and smooth out the sound. A 5751 will work too, and drop the gain a little less (one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s favorite tricks). Or try a 5751 in the phase inverter position in an amp that usually carries a 12AX7 there to reduce some of the “splat” as the signal hits the output tubes.
4. DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE OUTPUT TUBES.
While we’re on the subject of tubes, don’t neglect your output tubes. Those large tubes all have their own tonal character and have a huge impact on your tone. From the 6L6GC to the EL34 to the 6V6GT and EL84 - these four varieties of power tubes have different characteristics, and it pays to know them.
Two Things You Should Know About Output Tubes:
1. Output Tube Replacement Requires More Thought Than Preamp Tubes
Many amps need to be re-biased when their output tubes are replaced; a job for a pro, unless you have the skills to do so safely yourself. This applies to most “class AB” amps using 6L6, 6V6, or EL34 tubes, such as Fender’s Twin Reverb and Deluxe Reverb, Marshall’s JMP50 and JCM800, and similar models. In order to bias an amp correctly - which sets the optimum operating voltage for the tubes, since even tubes of the same type will vary slightly - matched pairs or quads should be installed. Slightly mismatched tubes will work, but their bias levels will be somewhat unbalanced.
2. For Class A, Just Pop ’em In
Cathode-biased amps, on the other hand, which are often advertised as being “class A,” don’t need re-biasing when output tubes are replaced. This includes amps based on the Marshall “18-watter,” Vox AC15 and AC30, and Fender tweed Deluxe templates, as well as plenty of larger designs such as the Matchless Chieftain, which uses the bigger EL34s. Matched tubes might still help these amps sound smoother, with a firmer low end in particular, but it’s easier to get away with installing slightly mismatched output tubes in cathode-biased amps.
5. TAKE YOUR PICK.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: don’t underestimate the humble guitar pick. The pick you use, and the material it’s made of and thickness, have a tremendous impact on your tone. Get a handful of different picks and find the one that works best for you. It’s one of the least expensive ways to tweak your tone.
6. SWAP YOUR SPEAKER.
Just like your tubes, your speaker can be swapped out for something more suited to the tone you’re trying to achieve. This is one of the simplest tweaks to make, and there are plenty of speakers on the market, giving you tons of options to explore.
Here are four things to remember about speakers:
1. Speaker distortion can be a big part of amp distortion.
Many speakers contribute their own distortion to the brew. Crank up an amp too close to a speaker’s power-handling limits (15 watts for a Celestion Alnico Blue, or around 15 to 25 watts for a Jensen P12R type) and the speaker itself will start to break up, adding extra rasp and fur to the overall tone..
2. Speaker efficiency determines your perceived amp volume.
Every 3dB increase in output is heard as a doubling of volume. In short, that means that going from a 94dB speaker to a 100dB speaker can be a quick way of helping that drag-ass club amp to finally keep up with your heavy handed drummer.
3. A speaker’s inefficiency might help you hit the sweet spot.
Trading the super-efficient 102dB speaker in your 30-watt combo for a less-efficient (but great sounding) 96dB speaker should give you a double-dip reduction in perceived volume, and might just prove the perfect way to help that amp hit the sweet spot at manageable volume levels.
4. Impedance matters.
Match speaker impedance to rated amp output for optimum sound, performance, and component safety. With multi-speaker amps (or cabs), remember this rule of thumb: two speakers wired in parallel present a load that’s half that of each individual speaker (i.e. 8Ω+8Ω=4Ω), but two speakers wired in series present a load twice that of each speaker (8Ω+8Ω=16Ω). Each sounds a little different, too, a pair in parallel being a little tighter than a pair in series.
7. KNOW YOUR WOOD.
One thing you should ask yourself is whether it’s even possible to get the tone you want from the wood used in your guitar’s manufacture. It pays to know the characteristics of common guitar tone woods.
8. CHANGE YOUR PICKUPS.
The market for replacement pickups has never been larger. When choosing pickups, some things to keep in mind include:
• Different magnet structures (or magnet-and-pole piece structures in many designs) will respond differently, because they are creating different types and shapes of magnetic fields.
• Different-sized or differently structured pickups will present different magnetic fields, and will therefore present different readings of the strings’ vibrations to the coil.
• Different types of coils will translate the disrupted magnetic field differently, and therefore send a differently shaped signal down the wire to the amp. And, of course, differing numbers of turns of wire in an otherwise similar coil will also lead two pickups nominally of the same “type” to produce slightly different signals.
• Different string types will affect the magnetic field differently, according to the type of steel they are made from, their condition, their gauge, and other factors. Although these conditions are not part of the pickup itself, it’s worth remembering that their interaction with the magnetic field is where it all begins.
9. GET SET.
If your guitar isn’t set up right, there’s no way it’s ever going to play to your satisfaction. Check out our guide to setting up your own guitar, or take your ax to someone who can give it a complete checkup and adjust anything that’s out of sorts.
10. FRET ABOUT IT.
Have you ever given thought to your frets? Fret are made in a range sizes, all of which can have a big impact on not only how your guitar plays but also how it sounds.
Here are five things you should know about frets:
1. Their shape affects playing feel.
From wide and low to narrow and high - and all possible variables - each fret yields a different “touch," and in turn, inspires and encourages a different form of playing. Wider frets (jumbo or medium-jumbo) are often preferred by heavy benders, while narrow frets are often the choice of guitarists looking for a sharp, precise feel, but there can be plenty of compromise in between.
2. Their shape also affects tone.
Many players are convinced that fatter fret wire equates with fatter tone, and there could be some logic here, considering that more metal in any fixed component usually means a greater vibrational coupling between string and guitar. Wider frets also present somewhat blurrier, “thicker," less distinct noting than narrow frets, which can yield a more precise note and more shimmering harmonics.
3. Different fret materials also sound and feel different.
Fret wire is commonly made from only two different materials: a “nickel” alloy, which actually contains approximately 18 per cent nickel-silver (also called “German silver,” itself a silver-free alloy of nickel and copper), and the less-traditional stainless steel. The former is far more common, although the latter is making inroads. Think of nickel frets as warm, round and juicy, while stainless-steel frets are clear and precise, in relative terms.
4. Fret condition is a key factor in any guitar’s performance.
Frets that are dinged, rough and abrasive will feel rough and scratchy under the fingertips, and will bite against the strings when you’re bending. Frets whose “crowns” - the top edge that meets the fretted string - have been worn down from heavy playing will impede your tone and your intonation by providing a less precise end point to determine the note.
5. Frets are a consumable, and when they’re consumed, they’ve got to be replaced.
When the frets are worn down past the point of no return it’s time to get them replaced. For guitars that are anything less than ultra-collectible, don’t be precious about your frets: if they’re heavily worn, get them replaced by a professional. Done right, the job will breath new life into any instrument.
11. USE YOUR VOLUME KNOB.
It’s strange, but many guitarists never touch their guitar’s volume knob. They just keep it parked at 10 and play on. Experienced tonehounds know that a little volume knob action can be useful for making your guitar and amp work in tandem to produce just the sound you’re looking for.
12. CHECK YOUR CORD.
How much thought have you give to your instrument cable? Even if you’re using a quality cable, it’s good to know what else is on the market and to sample different varieties. You might not want to use the best cable when playing out, due to the wear and tear it can suffer, but for woodshedding and definitely for recording, you want the best you can afford - or at least the one that sounds best to your ears.
13. CHECK YOUR CABLE, TOO.
Speaker cable, that is. They look just like guitar cords, but speaker cables are very different. Guitar cables introduce capacitance to the connection, which can create an impedance mismatch between amp and speaker. This can diminish your tone and put a strain on your amp’s output tubes. If the cable shorts out, you could blow your amp’s output transformer, necessitating a repair that’s much more expensive than if you’d just purchased a proper speaker cable in the first place.
Dave Hunter is a writer and consulting editor for Guitar Player magazine. His prolific output as author includes Fender 75 Years (opens in new tab), The Guitar Amp Handbook (opens in new tab), The British Amp Invasion (opens in new tab), Ultimate Star Guitars (opens in new tab), Guitar Effects Pedals (opens in new tab), The Guitar Pickup Handbook (opens in new tab), The Fender Telecaster (opens in new tab) and several other titles. Hunter is a former editor of The Guitar Magazine (UK), and a contributor to Vintage Guitar, Premier Guitar, The Connoisseur and other publications. A contributing essayist to the United States Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board’s Permanent Archive, he lives in Kittery, ME, with his wife and their two children and fronts the bands A Different Engine and The Stereo Field.
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