Hello Troubadourians! Yes, it’s all in your hands. It’s inescapable regardless of how much or how little money you spend on instruments, amplifiers, effects, cords, picks… or whatever else you’ve been told will improve your tone or make you sound just like your guitar heroes. The truth remains that your hands define your tone. How can I say this with such absolute assurance? Well, I have first-hand experience with this. I’ll explain: I believe that the best, shortest path to good tone—your tone—is a simple rig, consisting of a good guitar and amp, and, of course, your hands. Hand angles and touch (fretting hand/picking hand) have a huge influence on the tone you can illicit from your instrument. The amount and type of pressure and phrasing you use can make your playing sound more vocal-like or spoken. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the auditory nuances of other instruments such as Dobro, violin, saxophone, and piano, and I’ve been able to emulate many of the tones and characteristics of those instruments just by the way I address the guitar with my hands. This extends into sounding more authentic when playing different styles such as blues and jazz, styles that demand a more nuanced approach. You can also emulate effects such as wah-wah or phase with subtle manipulations of how you attack and release the strings. Learn where to play to derive different tonalities from the guitar. And, okay, the pick you use can make a difference… but only a little… and not nearly as much as pick ads would have you believe. Oh, and only if you use it right. The weight, size, and material can change and influence that character of the note attack depending on how you hold you pick but that influence can be accentuated or negated by simply changing the angle at which you strike the strings.
This all works for acoustic and electric guitars. With acoustics, it works essentially as I just described. With electric guitars, you get all of that as well as being able to manipulate the controls on the guitar and amp. When I played with the Wild Truth—about 10 years ago—I created and developed a killer tone for the rock music that we were playing. My gear centered around two PRS guitars and a MESA/Boogie MKIV amplifier. I didn’t use much in the way of effects, just the reverb in the amp and some delay from a Line6 DDL4 on occasion. As a comparison, I now use a Collings City Limits and a Fender Princeton Reverb. Entirely different guitars, entirely different amp, yet I can still get that same tone—and more—because I’ve learned how to use my hands to sound like myself and how to get the tone I hear in my head out of my guitars.
But what if I don’t like how my hands sound? Can I change and improve my “natural” tone? The answer is yes, you can, if you work at it. So where do I start? Start with identifying the player or players who have a tone you covet. That’s your “target tone.” Electric, acoustic, or both find a tone you’d like to have. Then start working. Most players will notice a difference in their tone just by playing and practicing a lot. If you focus your practice on touch—with both hands—you’ll start to hear a change in your tone. When you hear a change you like, stop and examine what you were doing, how you were picking, how your fretting hand is holding the neck, and where your fingers are touching the strings. Remember those things and work them into your normal playing until they start feeling natural. Usually, you’ll find that the hand positions that sound the best are also what most good players consider “proper” positions. That said, trust your ears, not your eyes, when judging tone. Especially yours. Be rigorously honest with yourself. If you need outside guidance and counsel, seek the opinion of a trusted player whose tone and taste you admire and respect. But be careful that you don’t try adopting hand positions and techniques that hurt when you play. This rather defeats the purpose.
There are a few things that can help get you started. Make sure that the action and setup of your guitar is the best, most comfortable that is can be. If you aren’t ready to do your own setup work, find a luthier that you trust with your instrument and who will work with you to get it “just right” for your needs. (I’ve written previous columns on how to find and select a luthier. Check out my past columns on the Troubadour website: sandiegotroubadour.com). As you put serious work and practice into improving your playing—and paying special attention to how what you do affects your tone—you are likely to find that as your tone improves, you like your tone better than the target tone that initially moved you. Really, you are hardwired to like the sounds you make so it fits that you’d like your tone as it improves and becomes more acceptable as it moves toward your target tone. The more you practice tone the easier it becomes to control your tone. First, on your guitar, then later as you get better, on just about any guitar. Imagine being able to pick up a guitar and being able to get out of it whatever sound it is capable of delivering. Think of the money you’ll save not having to buy every cool piece of gear or feeling like you have to spend more and more money on more expensive guitars only to not have the tone you desire. But when you have command over your tone, you’ll be able to enjoy those boutique effects and guitars should you choose to buy them. And, remember, when you practice and play, be smooth. There is no substitute for smooth. Not even awesome tone can make up for not being smooth. But playing smoothly will help your tone.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)