The sound that comes out of the guitar, electric bass or any similar electric musical instrument is the end result of many hours of study, dedication, talent, and overcoming. What makes a tone, a sound to be recognized, appreciated and desired? Perhaps it is a jargon purposely imposed by the equipment industry over decades that we cannot have a perfect and satisfying tone without spending tons of money on equipment. How do you get powerful and creative sounds inspired by artists you have always liked, who show off their shiny equipment like newly discovered diamonds? And how do I get sounds on my instrument that seem to sing coming out of the speakers? Should I use modular racks, digital pedals, or analog pedals? In which order? What about cables? How do I use electricity to power my equipment? Are vintage 9V batteries really better for overdrives? Strings? Is it true that different reeds radically change the sound of my instrument?

These are legitimate questions, all of them. And there is probably an answer for us to begin to unravel: Do the best you can with what you already have at hand.

It doesn’t matter if you have only a single effect pedal or already have dozens of FX units, if you have one guitar or several, the amp A, B or C… It doesn’t matter, I repeat. Let’s start working on your tone from now, right now. The idea here, in this series of posts I am producing, is to bring as much knowledge as possible so you can creatively use sound processing effects without having to be an audio engineer or studio professional.

In this series of posts about sound effects for guitar and bass or whatever musical instrument you do want to use, I will not focus on technical details or tell you to regulate your distortion this way or that, etc. No. Let’s take it a step further. Let’s move forward in the huge sea of information that exists in this modern world and let’s get creative. And if you, after reading all this and giving it some thought, think it is worth trying to find a unique tone, that will definitely help you to find… your sound, voilá!, I consider myself rewarded in the best and way possible!

First Steps

The first thing you should keep in mind is to know exactly what kind of sound you are aiming for. What is the tone you want to achieve so badly? And this today is something very difficult to know, especially if you are younger than 30 years old. When I started playing guitar, equipment was rarer, there was not even a tenth of the information that exists today, and everything took longer. So we did the best we could with the equipment we had. If it was a pedal, this pedal would be dissected, every knob, every knob would be tested in all the possibilities, all the ranges of options that those simple controls could offer to the player and/or music student. The same thing would happen with an amplifier or a new guitar, for instance. Therefore, you must first define what the tone of your dreams is.

Do you know how to define the tone you want? Let’s take a walk around to see (and hear, listen to these examples!!!) some well-known guitar tones today, just to use them as examples:

– For example, the guitar sound of U2’s guitarist The Edge is something simple, but very efficient and characteristic. Edge always has an almost clean sound, with a lot of repetition effect, but what characterizes his sound above all is a more arpeggiated, rhythmic, and repetitive way of playing, generating a more staccato sound;

– And how about Joe Satriani’s well-known sound? Apart from the first few albums, Satriani has gone to a full-bodied guitar sound, with less distortion, more defined notes and chords, and a lot of wah-wah use; notice how the melodic lines coming out of Satriani’s guitar seem to “sing”. Which pickups should he use more, the bridge pickups or the neck pickups? Think about it…

– Jeff Beck’s guitar sound needs no introduction, but can you define how he gets that sound out? And the harmonics, the way he uses tremolo, can you imagine that with lighter strings or is it only possible to do something similar with heavier strings? Have you heard Beck’s version of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”? How does he make that guitar sound after all ?!?

– The amazing Stevie Ray Vaughan… How did SRV do all that? After all, it was just an old Stratocaster and an old amp… Could he get all that guitar sound out of that equipment alone? Could it be that if you had access to the same equipment as SRV you would have the same guitar sound?

– How about the weird, modern sound of Vernon Reed from Living Colour? He uses a lot of distortion and chromatic phrasing, but beyond this more technical aspect, how does he get such a powerful, almost clean sound with so much saturation together?

– And the ultra clean and rhythm sound from Badi Assadi’s right hand? How does she makes so perfectly and (well, it seems) easy to play those arpeggios and chords all broken into small groups of intervals, with different dynamics and articulation?

– Well, what about the eternal Allan Holdsworth? What about him? It is almost impossible to hear the sound of Holdsworth’s pick sound… Is it just the equipment, is it just the choice of hardware factors?

And other musicians like John Scofield? Julian Lage? Michael Landau? Well, we could stay here for pages and pages illustrating guitar sounds from musicians that are recognized all over the world for their sound. But I think you get my point:

Your musical sound, your very personal tone, will be born from your hands and your brain first.

It’s as simple as that. As the old Buddhist saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, you won’t get anywhere… The first thing you have to do, for your own good, and before you go spending money on equipment, is to stop and think, reflect and experiment to find out what kind of musical sound you want. And for this you need nothing more than an electric guitar or any other electric instrument that you play, an average mid-sized amp (or any other kind of audio monitoring system), and some kind of access to effects that are preferably available online, such as the MOD digital effects platform portal. Of course you need some guitar picks, or something similar and strings as well… So this is the part of the exercise that is up to you, only you and no one else to do and figure out. Now, let’s continue with some elements that will help you on your way…

Start Simple

Before you start fiddling with the controls of your guitar, you bass, mic or any other kind of musical instrument that you may have, your pedals, pedalboard or any other kind of FX unit (even an app or software) and your amplifier, you should spend some time dedicated to each one of them, to get to know in depth each step that makes up your entire guitar signal until the final result, which is the much desired and dreamed of tone. I suggest you start with your instrument plugged directly into the clean channel of your amplifier.

Let’s do this:

Leave all the EQ controls in the middle, take off the reverb or any other effect it has, and leave the volume at a reasonable height, neither too high nor too low. You have to understand first how your guitar works. Listen to the sounds produced by each of the pickups. What do the bridge pickups sound like? And when they are plugged together, like a Stratocaster in position 2 and 4, i.e. there are two pickups plugged at the same time, what does it sound like? If you have a guitar with only two humbuckers, leave the switch in the middle and listen to the result. If your guitar has the option of single coil, usually in the form of a push-pull, try it.

I want you to try all possible combinations of your instrument, listen and define for yourself what the characteristics of each position are. Now, one important thing: the TONE control. Yes, it is present in almost all electric guitars, basses or any other electric/electronic musical instrument, but it is amazing how few players are aware of the immense use this simple knob can have on the final result of their sound. You should probably always play with it fully open, so now try playing with it fully closed on all pickups. It will surely produce a dark and very muffled tone. Now open the tone control little by little, and try to find out where exactly is the balance point between the fully open and closed tone. Try playing like this for a few hours, and you will see that when you go back to the fully open position, you will most likely feel that your guitar sound is too high and shrill. Do the test.

Now that you know your musical instrument better, pay attention to your amplifier, or the type of equipment you use to amplify and distribute the sound of your musical instrument, whether it’s a traditional guitar or bass amplifier, for example, or an active or passive audio monitor system, or even a mini PA system. Understand the range of tessitura that go into the bass, mid and treble controls of your amp. Does it have presence control? If so, it is another important addition to the overall control of the instrument, after all the presence is nothing more than a midrange control, the most important region to tone an instrument in the guitar frequency. Does your amplifier have two volume controls, one master and one per channel? What happens if the master is louder and the volume controls are lower? And the other way around, what about the tone? Understand the relationship that exists between the pickups and tone controls of your electric musical instrument and the equalization controls of your amplifier. And one very important thing: the space relation between you and your amplifier. This alone can change absolutely everything! If you play standing up, and your amp is on the floor, the sound you actually hear is very different from the sound that is produced directly from the speaker. Try changing the position of your amplifier. Put it on a chair. Let it lean against the wall and face slightly upward. Change the position it is in the room where you play, study, or rehearse. Try listening to your amplifier in several different ways until you find a position that you find satisfactory for the sound you get. Understand how they work and identify where you like the sound and where you don’t like it. Spend time in this discovery! It will be very worthwhile and will teach you a lot about you own instrument, and what you may want to add to it as a sound colour palette.

Next month I will bring some basic examples that already contain the main core effects features for instruments such as the guitar, acoustic guitar and bass.

See you then!

André Martins

Guitar player, composer, Ph.D. in Music and Improvisation, Brazil