Get More From Your Guitar - GuitarPlayer.com

Get More From Your Guitar

These pro tips, hacks, simple mods and savvy upgrades will help you sound better with the equipment you already own.
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ELECTRIC GUITAR

01 Change Your Tone Without Changing Your Guitars

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Our desire to change our sound often becomes an excuse to buy a new guitar. But how about revamping your existing guitar’s sound with a new pickup? There’s a vast range available, allowing you to make dramatic tonal changes without routing your guitar’s body or replacing your pickguard. Want to swap your humbucker for the punchier cut of a P-90? Try a humbucker-sized P-90. Want the opposite? Check the offerings of Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Fralin and others. There are single-coil-size humbuckers for players who want more meat, and coil-splitting mods to deliver more diversity.

02 Check Under Your Pickguard

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Just because your guitar is factory-fitted with a single-coil pickup doesn’t mean that’s all it can take. Look under your Strat- or Tele-style guitar’s pickguard — it may be pre-routed to accommodate a humbucker. If so, modding your guitar will be as simple as adding a new pickguard to fit the new pickup. Hold onto your old parts so you can easily put the guitar back to its original spec if you ever decide to sell it.

03 Stratocaster Tone Mod

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If your Strat features the classic tone control wiring, you might find it frustrating that your tone pot doesn’t affect your bridge pickup. There’s an easy (and free) way to remedy this. Better still, it’s nonpermanent, so you can always restore the original control setup if you want to sell your guitar.

With the pickguard removed, you’ll be able to see the back of your pickup selector switch. This will have three wires going to your two tone pots and your volume pot. Simply desolder the wire in the middle and move it to the empty tag next to it. Alternatively, if you want to use the tone control for both the middle and bridge pickups, you can solder the piece of wire between the original wire position and the tag next to it as a jumper to give you control over both pickups.

04 Install a Coil-Split

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A coil-split lets you divide a humbucker’s sound in two and use it as a single-coil. In order to do this, you’ll need two things: a humbucker with four-conductor wiring, and a push-pull pot to replace your standard volume control (available at retail music stores and online).

To start, check inside your guitar’s cavity and see if your humbucker has a cable with four or five wires. The additional coil wires are typically soldered together and insulated, and are at the end of coil 1 and the start of coil 2. Check the color coding against the wiring codes for your pickup brand. The main solder terminals of the push-pull pot are wired the same way as your current volume or tone control but include an added switching function. When you pull the pot up, it’ll split the coil. Look at your guitar’s volume control and make a note of the three soldered connections. Swap the pot for your new switched one, add the existing connections to the three solder lugs as before, and add the coil junction wires and a new ground wire. You’re ready to start splitting!

05 Pots of Sound

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Is your Guitar dull and lacking bite? Did you know the pots and capacitors inside the guitar also flavor the tone? The rule is as follows: Pots with a higher resistance rating will bleed away less of the high frequencies; pots with a lower resistance will bleed more and make your sound duller. The capacitors in your guitar’s tone control circuit bleed some treble off too, even if you leave the tone control at 10. Similarly, the higher the capacitance, the more treble will be lost.

But which pot and capacitor are best? Gibson guitars with a humbucker retain some of their bite by using 500kΩ pots with a 0.047μF capacitor to allow for some darkness when the tone control is rolled off. By comparison, the bright-sounding Fender Jaguar uses 1megΩ pots and tiny 0.01μF caps for maximum snap. Try a few options and see which one makes your guitar sing like the ax of your dreams.

06 Get an Acoustic-Style Tone from an Electric

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Are you switching between acoustic and electric in a live set? We’d all rather avoid having to do so. But how about an effective compromise? You can get your electric guitar into jazzier semihollow territory simply by dialing down the tone control and using the neck pickup on its own, as it will deliver the most semi-acoustic vibe. You’ll need to clean up to enhance this tone, so dial down your amp’s gain and lower the guitar’s volume further if necessary.

07 Set Your Pickup Height

1. Plug into your amp and start by setting the
 bridge pickup. The screws surrounding it
 will govern their height. Tighten them to
 raise the pickup; loosen them to lower it.

1. Plug into your amp and start by setting the  bridge pickup. The screws surrounding it  will govern their height. Tighten them to  raise the pickup; loosen them to lower it.

2. Move the pickup closer to the strings and
 it’ll get louder. Go too far and it’ll add
 interference. Back it away until the noise
 goes but you still have lots of volume.

2. Move the pickup closer to the strings and  it’ll get louder. Go too far and it’ll add  interference. Back it away until the noise  goes but you still have lots of volume.

3. Set the neck pickup using the same
 method. You’re aiming to get each pickup
 to balance with a smooth transition
 when you switch between them.

3. Set the neck pickup using the same  method. You’re aiming to get each pickup  to balance with a smooth transition  when you switch between them.

Setting the distance between the pickups and the string can dramatically change the way a pickup behaves and sounds. Each pickup model has a different magnetic strength, which is worth bearing in mind because that magnetic field can mess with the string. If the pickup is too high, it can pull the string in like a black hole and produce a strange howling. If it’s too low, you won’t get as much power and tone. In addition, bear in mind just how much room you’ll need to clear the pickup when you perform heavy strumming. Here’s how to adjust your pickups to perfection:

AMP & EFFECTS

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01 Gain Stacking

1. WHAT AND WHY

A gain stack combines different types of overdrives to create a new range of tones and options for your sound. Knowing how they relate to one another in a stack is vital, as it’s different from how they usually work independently. The payoff is massive. Plus, it gives you an excuse to dust off your old, unused dirt pedals.

2. UNDERSTAND RELATIONSHIPS

Observe the golden rule of stacking: The second pedal in the stack dictates the tone. Thus, the settings on that second pedal will affect the way the first one sounds with it. Think of the stack as a system. Try moving each element in it until you find the best arrangement. Use your ears, not your eyes.

3. THINK VOLUME

The effect of turning up your pedals’ levels in a gain-stack scenario is different from how it would usually be. Turning up the volume in the first pedal won’t actually increase it, but it will affect the second pedal’s gain. The second pedal dictates the stack’s volume. That considered, you may want to treat the second pedal as a boost and bring it in for certain parts, like solos.

4. COMPLEMENT YOUR TONE

Look for pedals that add to the tone you already have. If your existing overdrive is dark, consider adding a boost to bring out the high end. If you like the overdriven tone you have, try adding a low-gain dirt box to the equation to provide subtle enhancement of the grit.

5. CONSIDER YOUR AMP, TOO

You can also perform tone stacking using one pedal and your amp’s drive. Many famous guitarists have done this (often with a Tube Screamer and a Fender or Marshall amp involved) to raise the tonal stakes for a solo. A tube amp on the edge of breakup is a great sound to add a drive to.

02 How to EQ Any Amp…Fast!

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Need to get your tone together quickly? Here’s how to do it:

Set all the EQ dials to 12 o’clock. Turn the treble down, then slowly roll it up until you notice your tone change. Repeat for the bass and middle controls. If your amp has both master and normal volume controls, turn the normal knob down and repeat the same test as the EQs. Then use only your master to control your level.

03 Five Ways to Use a Volume Pedal

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The volume pedal might be the most underused and underrated tool on your pedal board. Here are five ways you can put it to highly effective use:

1. AS A BOOST

Your volume pedal offers a simple and effective way to boost your level. And unlike a standard boost, it can be adjusted gradually for added expression.

2. FOR SWELLS

You can use your volume pedal to control the attack of notes and chords, creating a violin-like “swell” that can be evocative of orchestral strings. Start with the volume pedal heel down; play a note or chord and bring the volume up, then pull it back to heel position at the tail end. Use a reverb pedal for a more symphonic sound and to add ambience that can cover the silences between the swells.

3. IN FRONT OF OTHER EFFECTS

Some guitarists place their volume pedal at the end of the signal chain or before it. Why not try putting it in front of specific pedals? For example, placing it in front of your distortion pedal allows you to create natural-sounding breakup as you increase the volume. Putting it in front of your delay or reverb ensures that the tails won’t be cut off when you pull back on the volume. Volume pedals can be even more effective when used…

4. IN YOUR EFFECT LOOP

Placing your pedal in the effect loop of your amp means it no longer functions like a foot-controlled guitar volume. With gain in play on your pedalboard, the volume pedal now acts as a level control. You’ll have the same amount of gain no matter how you set the level with the volume pedal.

5. AS A NOISE GATE

Simple and highly effective at gigs, a volume pedal cuts out your signal between songs for guitar changes or breaks. It also gives you an organic way to fade out your guitar at the end of songs if you want.

04 Effect Order

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The order in which you run your effects can have a huge impact on your overall tone. For example, placing your wah before or after your distortion gives you two tonal options. Conventional wisdom suggests starting your chain with your tuner, then gain stages (such as boosts, overdrives and distortions), followed by modulation effects and ambience pedals. There is no right or wrong approach, though — pedals are modular and interactive — so if you want to get creative, think about what each pedal does to your signal. For instance, placing a gain stage after your reverb will give you distorted reverb rather than a reverberating distortion sound. Using a compressor after a delay will change the way your repeats decay. Experiment and find what works for you.

RECORDING

01 Recording in the Free World

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Recording yourself using software and effects can be expensive, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a world of great free DAW (digital audio workstation) software and plugins out there for you to download and use to create your own songs. Many digital audio interfaces and effect units come with free versions of popular software, such as Cubase and Ableton Live. But be sure to also check out various websites like pluginboutique.com and splice.com, where you can download free amp and effect plugins. Meanwhile, Manda Audio’s MT Power Drum Kit (powerdrumkit.com) will give you realistic-sounding drums for your tracks, all for free!

02 Use a Small Amp for Recording

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If you live in an apartment, you may regret that you can’t use a stack to create a big cranked tone for your home recording. The good news is that a small valve amp will work just as well. Mark Tremonti is a purveyor of big overdriven tone, but even he used a 15-watter for the bulk of his tracks on the last Alter Bridge album. Mic it correctly (see the next tip) and no one will know the difference. Better still, a 1x10 combo trims away the lower frequencies and makes it easier for your guitar to sit alongside the bass track.

03 Mark Your Speaker Grille for Mic Placement

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Placing a Mic in front of a speaker cab for recording isn’t rocket science or voodoo, but people have their preferences. Some use one mic, while others use several. Let’s start with a basic winning approach using a dynamic mic — it’s rugged enough to place close to a speaker, as it can handle the high sound-pressure generated by the amp. Start by facing the mic directly at the center of the speaker (or just one of them, if there’s more than one), and almost touching the grille cloth. With the mic at that distance — and while monitoring the sound through headphones — move the mic from the center of the speaker toward its edge and take note of the changes in tone. Angling the mic up to 45° will also affect the sound. Experimentation is key here. Most importantly, once you’ve found your ideal spot, mark it on the speaker cloth using a piece of gaffer tape. This will make it easy to get repeat results in the future.

04 Use the USB Output on Your Pedal or Amp as a Recording Interface

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You don’t have to buy a dedicated interface to record with your computer. Many new pedals and amps have a USB output that can serve as the main hub for your inputs and outputs. Simply connect your guitar to the pedal or amp, then plug the USB cable into your computer. Within your recording software’s audio preferences, assign the USB-connected gear as your audio device. You can connect your headphones or speakers to the pedal’s audio output, or use your computer’s built-in speakers or output. Most devices are plug-and-play and won’t require special drivers.

05 Stack Your Tracks The Right Way

Double-Tracking your guitar parts can produce bigger sounds, but the devil is in the detail. Rather than simply recording the same part using the identical gear and settings, change things up for each take. Switch to a different pickup type or position, adjust your gain settings or change your amp’s EQ. Using different chord inversions or even a capo on subsequent tracks can really help too. The combined effect of different sounds will make the end result sound fuller.

LIVE

01 Use Two Picks in a Set for Dynamics

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Next to your own hands, the humble plectrum may be the most important tonal tool you have. Many of us just find a favorite type of guitar pick and stick with it, never experimenting or trying others to see if something else might inspire or suit us better. Instead, when performing, try swapping between two picks of different gauges, such as a thin pick for a softer strum and a heavy one for a more hard-driving sound. The variation in sound could be just the thing your music needs.

02 Mark Your Pedal Settings

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It’s easy for your favorite pedal settings to be moved when your pedalboard is in transit. Avoid confusion by marking them with masking tape in a strip over the control knobs. If you change settings for songs throughout the set, mark them ahead of time using a different color for each tune.

03 Elevate Your Amp to Cut Through

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It’s easy to get caught up in the details of tone, but when it comes to playing live there are two essentials: being heard and being able to hear yourself. This is more challenging when you’re playing in a band on a smaller stage with an amp that’s not being mic’d through the P.A., because your guitar won’t be in the monitors. In those situations, you need to physically raise your amp to help you and the audience hear it better. Otherwise, you’ll physically obstruct the sound. The easy solution is to place your combo on a stool or angle it upward, either by tilting it back on an amp stand or using a wedge underneath it.

04 Find the Sweet Spot for Sustain

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When it comes to sustain, every amp has a sweet spot — you just need to find it. Doing so requires taming and controlling feedback, allowing you to generate sustain just by positioning your guitar at a certain distance from your amp.

Start with your amp’s master volume low and gradually turn it up until your tone goes from sounding thin to rich and full. Do the same with your gain control. If you’re using an older tube amp that doesn’t have a gain or master volume, turn it up to the point where it starts to break up. For solid-state amps, you may need to use an overdrive or boost pedal to get the necessary level. Next, find the place onstage where you get a hint of feedback and mark it with an X using a couple of pieces of gaffer tape. Now when you want more sustain, you’ll know where to stand to increase feedback.

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