Own Your Tone!

Owning your tone means simply that: Your sound defines who you are as a guitar player.
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Owning your tone means simply that: Your sound defines who you are as a guitar player. So simple, but why are some players able to achieve a definitive and instantly recognizable sound—think Carlos Santana, SRV, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Page, Eric Johnson, and Wes Montgomery to name a few—while others remain harder for the listener to name-check within a few notes?

Is it as fundamental as knowing what you want to sound like and choosing the right tools to achieve it? Is it about cloistering yourself like a monk and practicing 12 hours a day? Is it about what you grew up listening to and how it was assimilated into your personal playing?

Yes, it’s all those things and much more, because everyone develops differently as a player and chooses a musical path to follow based on what they know they can do and the opportunities that are presented to them. The goal, of course, is to make great music, love your life as a guitarist, and hopefully turn your passion for playing into a successful venture.

What follows here is a discussion about what it takes to own your sound. From the physical and mental elements that shape your identity as a player to understanding how amps, pickups, and effects impact the total equation and ultimately lead to creating a sonic signature that’s yours to keep.
—Art Thompson


By Matt Blackett

One of Brian May’s most famous solos, the lead to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” was cut with a Fender Esquire into a Mesa/Boogie amp. And yet, upon hearing it, people still say, “You can recognize that guy’s sound anywhere, after just one note.” How is that possible? Why does Eddie Van Halen sound exactly like Eddie Van Halen no matter which of his many rigs he plugs into? Why is the same thing true about Bonnie, B.B., Stevie Ray, and Jimi? It’s obviously not the gear, so what is it? Is it the note choices, the phrasing, the attack, the bends, the vibrato?

Yes, it is …

As we’ve said, all of those things—and there are certainly other factors—make up not just the style but the sound of those great players. It’s their fingerprint and their identity, and that doesn’t change appreciably if they employ different equipment to do their thing, because their thing is their thing.

So where does that leave the rest of us, who might not possess such singular talent, chops, and vision? In precisely the same place. We all will sound exactly like ourselves regardless of our guitars, amps, or effects. We don’t need a new guitar. We need to take a lesson, write a tune, catch a show, get in nature, or find inspiration from a beautiful work of art.

That brings us to a fascinating conundrum: It’s not about the gear, and the gear can’t make up for what we lack as players, but we love the gear! New guitars are exciting. New effects are inspiring. New amps are a blast. Even a new set of strings can brighten your day. It’s not fair to say that none of that matters, so instead let’s just say this: It matters and it doesn’t, and, to make sense out of that, we’ll look at the question from a few different angles.


Two famous tonemeisters, Tom Morello and Brian May, forged their unique sounds by intentionally limiting their gear choices. May did it when he plugged his homemade guitar into a treble booster and a Vox AC30. Bam! That was the sound he had heard in his head and once he could produce it, he had no need and no desire to change it (save for mixing things up occasionally with some outboard effects). I once asked Dr. May if it was at all fun for him to experiment with, say, a Les Paul into a Fender amp, just to see how that might move him. He was quick to say no. “That’s not my voice,” he explained, “and it feels very strange to speak in a voice that’s not my own.”

Tom Morello credits his tonal epiphany to “giving up.” He broke it down in his December 2005 GP story. “For years, I tried to find this perfect tone I had in my head. Then, one day, I spent a few hours fiddling with my gear, and I decided that I didn’t particularly love the tone, but it wasn’t going to get any better. So I marked those settings and said, ‘Now I’m done. This is my sound.’ And those settings are the same ones that I used in today’s rehearsal—as well as on every record and every show I’ve ever played. When I stopped worrying so much about tone and started worrying about music, the problem went away.”

Two great players who have relied on pretty much the exact same signal chain their entire careers. And even though those signal chains are more involved than “guitar-cord-amp,” they’re actually fairly simple. And yet both of them have a seemingly infinite array of sounds at their disposal, and both are instantly recognizable. Let’s dig a little deeper into that.

Many years ago, a wise friend said to me, “You should play for a solid month with nothing but a Tele into a Twin Reverb. You’ll be amazed at what that will do for your playing.” I rejected the premise immediately. I loved my hum-sing-sing super Strat and my effects rack and my stereo amp rig. But it got me thinking to when I first started—when all I had was a one-pickup SG copy and a Fender Champ. If I wanted different sounds back then, I couldn’t hit a stompbox, call up a preset, switch channels, or even switch pickups. I had no choice but to use every little thing at my disposal. I rolled off the Tone knob to approximate the woofy distortion on my favorite records. I hit my strings with a pencil or a penny to vary the sound. I picked behind the nut. I discovered that if I placed the headstock on my amp, it would feedback and sustain in a way that belied the squeaky-clean tone (and sounded surprisingly like the intro to “I Feel Fine”). I explored and I uncovered because I had no choice. The less gear I had, the more creative my hands and brain had to be ... and all of those tricks have been part of my trip ever since.

We can all do this, and we all should. Take any guitar, any amp, and maybe a pedal or two, and that’s it. Then just start playing, and don’t stop. Keep going even if it sounds boring or one-dimensional, because it’s neither of those things. Once you get past that, you’ll start to hear how much of your tone and your soul is in your hands, and you’ll start to investigate further to reveal your unique voice. Maybe you’ll turn the amp up so loud you have no choice but to roll your volume back (that’s the counterclockwise direction most of us never use). You might crank the Treble and cut the Bass on the amp and then turn your guitar’s Tone knob down (which is a Jeff Beck trick, by the way). What you’ll truly be doing, though, is getting your sound, no matter what the equipment is giving you. Because deep down, we all know what we want to hear, and we all instinctively adjust our attack and approach to pull our tone out of any rig.

That’s ultimately what we’re talking about here: sounding like ourselves. Making our voice heard. When we feel like we have no distinctive voice, it’s only natural to blame the tools, but that’s wrongheaded. Simplifying the gear and really digging in and getting back to basics will remind you of what you sound like: your style, your identity. And it will prove to you that you can do it with any rig. That realization (or reminder) should boost your confidence and make you feel refreshed and enthused. Which is a perfect time to…


We’ve already established that you don’t need another piece of equipment to sound like yourself. But “need” is a very strong word. You certainly want some new toys, and there’s nothing wrong with that. With your renewed sense of tonal self-awareness, getting a cool new guitar, amp, effect, or accessory will be super fun and make you feel like a kid again. Pedals and pickups are relatively inexpensive and can instantly provide a kick in the butt, especially if you get something out of your same-old same-old. Maybe you’ve never really explored delay effects. Hearing your signature licks bouncing back at you can be a real mindblower. If you’ve always been a Strat cat single-coil user, exploring a high-output humbucker, a gold foil pickup, or a P90 will let you sound like you, but with more punch, jangle, or clang. If one of your favorite stompboxes has an expression pedal input, get a damn expression pedal and plug it in! It won’t take much for you to hear your tone in a new way. All this holds true for bigger ticket items like guitars and amps. Once again, this isn’t using gear as a crutch—it’s about finding inspiring tools to do your unique thing with.

And speaking of your unique thing, it’s crucial to constantly expand it. That could mean tackling a new style, but it absolutely doesn’t have to. I’m talking about things as simple as picking at different points along the string. Picking 12 frets above where you’re playing will give you a big, bell-like sound; picking near the bridge will produce a skinny, tinkly tone. (Eric Johnson, anyone?) Drop the pick altogether and play your favorite licks with your thumb, or by snapping the strings against the fretboard. Bend with a different finger—it’ll lend a new flavor to a go-to phrase. Slap a capo somewhere up the neck and work your shtick. Everything old is new again! All of these little tricks will force you to really play to your sound—and truly listen to what your hands are creating as they’re creating it—rather than just relying on muscle memory, which is where feelings of being stuck in a rut or sounding generic often come from.

No matter what we do, we will always sound like ourselves. That’s good news. Don’t ever be afraid to sound like you, because that is something no one else can do. The goal of all of this is for you to sound exactly like you, only better.


By Dave Hunter

Despite the many alternatives available today, the majority of professional guitarists still achieve their lifeblood tone from amps that use vacuum tubes. There’s just something magical about the way tubes do what they do, and how they make an electric guitar sound in the process.

In the early days of the instrument, from the 1930s through the ’50s, tubes were the only viable tech available for amplifier manufacture, but they quickly proved they do much more than just making a guitar louder. In the process, they also add all kinds of depth, thickness, richness, and harmonics—a lot more sound, regardless of volume—all of which makes an electric guitar much more than just a higher-decibel representation of itself. In short, they make a slab of wood and wire into an instrument, with all kinds of crazy expressive potential.


Much of the glory of tube tone occurs in the way these devices amplify your guitar signal, and the fact that they clip (distort) a little, and sometimes a lot, while doing so. As tubes clip (in ideal scenarios, at least), they do so gradually, so the resultant distortion sounds smooth and natural and dynamic, rather than hard and harsh and sudden. And when they clip, tubes also add harmonic overtones to the raw guitar signal, the result being a thicker, more lush sound than you’d get from the same guitar merely amplified via a very clean, linear amplifier.

“Ah, but what about so-called ‘clean’ tones,” you ask? Yep, even those benefit from a touch of tube distortion—it might not be heard as “distortion”, but it’s just enough to add character and texture to what might otherwise be a very dull, stark guitar sound (ever plugged your guitar into a high-powered solid-state PA amp?).


The thing is, there are many different types of tubes out there, and each has its own sonic characteristics. How do you know which is right for you? That’s where GP’s Tube Tone Guide (below) comes in!

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It’s worth noting that a talented amp designer can achieve a wide range of sonic ends using just about any viable tube, depending on how he or she voices the circuit. But, while tubes don’t have a “sound” in isolation, different types are known for characteristics that enhance the sonic qualities of several established guitar amp designs, so it’s pretty easy to plug them into an equation that at least gives you an idea of what to expect.


Output tubes (also known as power tubes) are the big bottles that increase signal strength to a high-wattage output that can, with help from an output transformer, drive a speaker. Preamp tubes are the smaller tubes in front of them that increase your guitar’s raw signal to a strength that the output tubes can then further amplify.

Our tone chart features output tubes, because they’re more easily quantifiable and more individually related to specific classic guitar amps. Different preamp tubes do enhance different sonic ends too, but roughly 95 percent of amps use the same preamp tube type—namely the 12AX7 (known in the U.K. as the ECC83) and its related equivalents—so there’s less variation to talk about. Different types and makes of 12AX7s can sound subtly different, although the ways in which they do so are more difficult to quantify precisely in this context.

In addition to the 12AX7, the general sound of which most tube amp owners will already know, there are a few other preamp tubes appreciated for their diversity. Among the nine-pin types, the highgain EF86 (heard in amps like the vintage Vox AC15 and Matchless DC30) is beloved by many for its thick, full-throated sound. The 12AY7—a lower-gain tube than the 12AX7—is the legendary tube of tweed Fender amps of the mid to late ’50s, while the 5751 (somewhere between 12AY7 and 12AX7 gain-wise) is sometimes used to achieve more headroom in a preamp stage.

Furthermore, there’s a wide range of larger eight-pin (a.k.a. “octal”) preamp tubes that were found in many early guitar amps and which some boutique makers still enjoy using today, but these are far less in circulation, so we won’t try to detail them here.

Finally, note that you should never swap one tube type—preamp or output—for another without first ascertaining from the manufacturer that it is safe to do so.


By Dave Hunter

Pickups are what make electric guitars electric, and they’re responsible for a huge proportion of any guitar’s sonic signature. But many guitarists choose an instrument with only scant regard to what its pickups can and can’t do—only to find themselves bucking against it as they tweak, swap, and modify amplifiers, pedals, and all sorts of components in an effort to alter the fundamental core of their tone.

In simple terms, a guitar pickup is an electro-magnetic device that wraps a coil of very thin wire around a source of magnetism. When vibrating guitar strings disrupt the magnetic field above the pickup, a small electrical signal is induced within the coil, and that signal carries an “electric” approximation of your guitar’s sound to the amplifier.

The thing is, these basic components—magnets, coiled wire, and some structure to hold it all together—can be put together in almost limitless different configurations and still work, but the ways that those configurations translate string vibration into sound can all be different, and sometimes dramatically so.

These things all affect a pickup’s sound and performance:


The very thin wire used to form pickup coils ranges in thickness from fine 42-gauge to very fine 44-gauge (for reference, the average electrical lamp wire is 18-gauge), and is coated in a thin insulating layer to keep the wire from shorting out within the coil. The type of wire, type of insulation, the way the wire is wound into a coil, and the overall shape and size of the coil all contribute to characteristics of any pickup’s performance.

More wire (measured by reading the pickup’s DC resistance, in ohms) means a hotter pickup, assuming the same magnetic strength and same overall design, but several other aspects of how the coil is wound also contribute greatly to its sound. A little irregularity in the winding pattern can sometimes add character, while the same amount of wire shaped into a tall, narrow coil or a wider, flatter coil will result in different sonic signatures—brighter and tighter in the former; smoother and warmer in the latter.

You can think of one aspect of the way coil shape and overall pickup structure influences tone like this: The wider the coil and the area that senses string movement, the warmer that pickup is likely to sound (all else being equal).


In addition to the coil(s), all pickups need a source of magnetism to function. The strength of that magnet and the material it’s made from play a big part in how the pickup translates your strings’ movement into an electrical signal, and therefore how your guitar sounds.

Ceramic magnets tend to be stronger than Alnico magnets and therefore make a pickup “hotter,” while Alnico is known for richness, and a gentle compression in some cases. (Be aware that a good pickup maker can make either type of magnet perform wonderful sonic tricks if he or she knows their craft, but these are the general characteristics to keep in mind.)

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Even when using the same ingredients, the constructional variable of putting the magnet within the coil (either as a single bar, or cut into six individual polepieces) versus mounting it beneath the coil (in contact with steel polepiece of some kind that run up through the coil) results in different-sounding pickups.

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The first—magnet within coil—will lean toward brighter, clearer, and more articulate; the second—magnet beneath coil, steel poles within—will lean toward thicker, meatier, and often a little grittier.


Any additional metal parts used in a pickup’s construction can also influence its sound, by affecting and directing the magnetic field, or by influencing other aspects of its electromagnetic properties. The instances of these and the ways in which they occur are too detailed to mention here, but it’s simply worth noting that the shape and construction of parts like base plates, covers, polepieces, spacers, threaded “keeper” bars and other components can all play a part in shaping your tone, however minor that may be.


As described, a single-coil pickup has just one of ’em, and can hum as a result. Humbuckers join two reverse-polarity/reverse-wound coils together, resulting in the cancellation of 60-cycle hum, and some sonic differences besides.


By Art Thompson

When considering what kind of amplifier you’ll need to make that righteous new guitar sing, the choices are overwhelming. You can spend $2,000 or more on a hand-wired boutique 1x12 combo that has one channel and cranks out 20 watts, or less than half that on a “production” 50-watt tube combo with footswitchable channels, spring reverb, and an effects loop. You might go the digital route, and get a 120-watt 1x12 combo that features tube modeling, extensive effects, and comes in at under $400. How about a solid-state combo with 100 watts and a bevy of digitally rendered effects for less than $350?

Gee, what a surprise that there are tons of affordable options out there for those who want maximum bang for the buck. But even though the low-price category is dominated by solid-state and digital designs, the term “digital” and “low cost” aren’t necessarily one and the same.

In fact, if cost is not a concern, there are the high-end digital modelers from Fractal and Kemper that perform so well that they have become the main rigs for many pro guitarists who tour with top-level bands. Fractal and Kemper are very different animals, but if superb sound and the flexibility afforded by having all that digital power under the hood is attractive to you, then you might want to join the crowd of players who have found that these modelers rival the best tube-powered amps, and can even replicate the sounds of any amp/speaker combination; so you can leave your prized vintage tube heads and combos at home, yet still dig their sounds onstage.

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So have we reached the point where tubes are essentially obsolete? Of course not, because, as with many things, there are other reasons why people love tubes above all else, and why such ancient technology is destined to be around for a long time to come. For starters, James Burton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mike Bloomfield, and many other great players and innovators made history by plugging into amplifiers powered by the technology of the day—i.e. vacuum tubes—and that emotional connection we guitarists have to the past is something that just can’t be modeled.

Many of the amplifiers these guys used back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s remain in production in reissue form. Some builders have gone even further to bring the past back to life. Witness Steven Fryette’s revival this year of Sound City amplifiers and introduction of the Master 100 and other updated models, whose circuit DNA is rooted in this mysterious British marque from the 1960s. There’s also Supro’s 1695T Black Magick—which replicates the amp Jimmy Page used on so many led Zeppelin tracks—and Mesa/Boogie’s King Snake combo from a couple of years ago, which revived the revolutionary Mark I amp of 1971 that Carlos Santana made so famous.

Speaking of old-school amps, there are plenty of models from the ’50s, ’60s, and, ’70s that are available at prices that remain well below that of guitars from the same eras. If you’re thinking of buying a vintage amp, one of the first things to consider is how well it has been maintained. Many components in an amp are prone to wear, and the cost of having a technician replace resistors, caps, potentiometers, tube sockets, etc., can really add up. If you know how to safely troubleshoot and repair high-voltage tube circuits, maybe it’s not even an issue.

Do vintage amps sound better than the equivalent models made today? Many tone hounds say yes, but the differences between, say, original and reissue Marshall JTM-45s when cranked up on stage may be hard to discern; while in the studio or other critical listening environments it might be very noticeable. If you can afford an old Marshall or tweed/blackface Fender in good working order, certainly consider adding one to your collection. Even though the original tubes, filter caps, and other components have likely been replaced, if the transformers are original (and they probably are) you can be in for a real treat. A vintage output tranny in particular can give the oldie more richness and complexity. A well broken-in speaker can be the final smoothing touch, however, as with any electro-mechanical device, speakers are only good for so long, and eventually will need to be replaced or rebuilt.

Another nod to going vintage it that it’s just so cool to look at wiring that was soldered in place by someone decades ago, who may have had Leo Fender or George Fullerton, or—on the British side—Jim Marshall, Ken Bran, or Steve Grindrod looking over their shoulder. Check out an old Hiwatt that was wired by Harry Joyce—simply incredible workmanship! Many of today’s boutique builders offer similar masterpiece circuit detail, which explains the lofty cost of some of these builds.

Steering out of vintage land, a reissue amplifier makes a lot of sense if you plan on doing a lot of gigging with it. In that context, does it even matter that a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue looks completely different on the inside than a real one from 1965? And fear not, if you decide later that hand-wiring is the only way to go, consider a conversion: Boutique amp builder George Alessandro offers a service to convert certain reissue Fender amps to hand-wired circuitry. See the details at alessandro-products.com.

No matter which way you end up going, however, there’s no doubt we live in a fantastic time with all the amplifier choices that abound. From multi-channel tube models that go from clean to scream (and all points in between) at the press of a button to beautifully rendered boutique amps that blend aspects of the best classic American and British amps to the cutting-edge modelers that have cracked the codes to the riches of tubes, we live in an era of having it all, and that’s a mighty sweet thing.


By Michael Ross

When I began playing guitar, one or two types of distortion pedals, a phaser, and maybe a wah pedal were all that were available to modify the basic sound of my guitar and amp. If I was lucky the amp might have reverb and tremolo options. Today’s fledgling guitarist is faced with a galaxy of pedal possibilities: at last count over a hundred overdrive options alone—and that doesn’t count distortions and fuzzes. This wealth of sonic modifiers can prove daunting.

The good news is that some basic information and principles are still all you need to start adding effects to your guitar sound. The best place to begin is by understanding the three main effect groups: Gain, Modulation, and Ambience.


Gain pedals affect the level and distortion of the guitar signal, differing largely in the amount and texture of the grit.

A boost pedal increases only the level of the signal put out by your instrument. Boosting the signal a little can make up for sparkle lost when using long connecting cables and a large pedalboard, while more boost can drive your amplifier into breakup.

A compressor is essentially a little amp that keeps boosting your guitar signal as the strings stop vibrating and the natural volume diminishes. This creates more apparent sustain. A compressor can also limit the level of your initial pick or finger attack. The combination of the two makes your playing sound more even and often enhances the sound of modulation effects.

Unlike a simple boost, an overdrive adds some natural sounding dirt of its own. It often sounds best in front of an already slightly distorting amp.

A distortion pedal provides more gain than an overdrive. Different distortion pedals can create a variety of dirty, amplike tones, even through a clean amp and at low volumes.

Fuzz pedals generally produce a more aggressive, less amp-like distortion. Some sound thicker if used with an already gritty amp, or in front of an overdrive pedal.

Many modern pedals flow across these categories, with wide sweeping gain controls that go from clean boost at one end to near fuzz tones at the other. Here are a few tips that will help your distorted sound, no matter which dirt pedal you choose. When it comes to distortion (and effects in general) less is often more. Heavy gain may sound huge in your bedroom and can be more forgiving for fast playing, but in a band context it can sink you into the mix to the point where that flurry of notes becomes indistinguishable. If you should need extra dirt, running multiple lower gain drive pedals into each other often sounds better than turning the gain all the way up on any single pedal. Also, not all drive pedals are necessarily compatible with all amps; one that works well through your friend’s amp may sound terrible through yours and vice versa.


Modulation pedals change their effect over time. They typically have depth controls, which determine the subtlety or extremity of the effect, and a rate control that lets you choose how fast the sound changes.

Choosing the effect that’s best for you often comes down to personal preference.

Tremolo, which continually raises and lowers the signal volume, has become a ubiquitous sound in roots music. You will want to watch the tremolo’s depth settings, especially if the tempo of its volume change doesn’t match the song’s. Too much trem can obscure your notes and conflict with the song’s rhythm.

The chime of the chorus pedal was the soundtrack of the ’80s. A chorus creates an effect similar to two guitarists playing the same part at once, or a 12-string guitar. Using a chorus with a mix control will allow you to keep the depth level up while blending in some dry signal for clarity.

One of the earliest guitar effects, a phaser pedal varies the guitar signal’s frequency over time. Its swirling sound can be heard in every kind of music from funk to metal.

A flanger pedal can sound like a swirlier chorus (think early Police records) or a metallic phaser, depending on its settings. Using it with grittier guitar sound will bring out its jet plane-like woosh.

A last hint before we move on: Faster rates on many modulation pedals will simulate an organ’s rotary-speaker sound.


These artificially alter the sonic environment around your notes, emulating everything from a small room to the Grand Canyon.

A delay pedal set to shorter delays might fatten your sound, extend the sustain of your notes, or recall the tape-echo “slap-back” sounds of the rockabilly era. Longer delays can create epic ambience for power ballad solos, or evoke Lanois-esque moods. Too much delay in the mix can obscure your original signal. Tape delays, analog delays, and their simulations are popular because the frequency response of the delayed notes degenerates rapidly, letting the newly played ones stand out—but even these delayed repeats can mess with the rhythm of the tune if they are too prominent. Using a delay that lets you tap in the delay tempo to match the song will allow you to mix the effect higher.

Reverb, whether of the pedal or amp variety, uses multiple short delays to mimic various size rooms, from a concrete basement to a cathedral. These may be created digitally or by sending the guitar signal down a series of springs and back into the amp. As the delays are not heard discretely, you can typically use more reverb than delay without obscuring the rhythm. Still, the cavernous setting that sounds awesome in your bedroom can make your playing disappear in a band context. Also, consider the natural ambience of the room in which you are performing when deciding whether to add or cut back on delay and/or reverb.


The most commonly asked question about effects is, “What order should they go in?” A good place to start is compressor, drive pedals, modulation pedals, then ambient pedals, but the actual answer is, “Whatever sounds good to you.”

The second most common question is, “What is the best distortion/chorus/delay/etc. pedal?” The answer remains the same. We live in a golden age where there are virtually no “bad” sounding pedals. It is like asking, “Which is better—ketchup or mustard?” Effects are the condiments that add flavor to your musical meal. The point is to trust your ears and not your peers: The pedal that gives you the sound you hear in your head is the best one. Bon appétit.