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Is there a perfect guitar tone?
Learn how to critically listen to what a song needs and how to adjust according to the guitar part.
Discover many tones you can use as a part of your signature sound.
Us guitarists can be real sticklers when it comes to achieving the “perfect tone”. We can spend hours sitting on the floor, fiddling around with the knobs on our amps and pedals. All because we want to get the best tone possible when the truth is…
There Is No Perfect Tone
One of the things many guitarists get stuck on is fixating on one “perfect” sound. They think they need a magic guitar, magic pedals, and a magic amp in order for them to get one very specific tone.
Some will find their heart lies with high gain amps such as the Boss Katana series, whereas others will favour the crisp cleans of a Fender Twin Reverb,
However, the refreshing truth is not many people listen to music for the guitar tone alone and at the end of the day, people care more about the song as a whole. When people like a song, they like it for the lyrics, rhythm, and melodic hooks, and don’t necessarily care about the song’s specific tonal elements.
So, instead of fixating on finding the “perfect” tone, try to focus on finding a tone that will serve a specific purpose in a song. This means you will have multiple “tones” that you adjust to different parts and styles. So the idea of a “perfect tone” falls apart on these grounds alone.
It’s good to know that these different tones will still be joined by your own artistic flair, and you’ll probably find yourself leaning towards certain settings on pedals that are unique to your own tastes.
So while there are guitar parts we love in our favorite music that we would think of as having “perfect” tone, it’s important not to get hung up about it. Just focus on what makes that particular guitar tone appeal to you and how that can inspire new ideas in your sonic exploration.
Use EQ To The Part’s Needs
Usually when I get asked to play a session for someone, or if I record my own songs, I pay close attention to how all the parts fit together. This is called arranging. You basically create a roadmap of when a certain part gets played. When arranging a song, or guitar parts for a song, I pay close attention to the nature of a part to determine what kind of tone I want to go for when using EQ.
For example, if I play a guitar solo that goes all the way up to the highest fret I will not need a lot of low end, so I will take that into account when I track a solo by reducing lows on the EQ.
However, with less low end I might notice a lack of body, but that body can be brought back by increasing the amount of midrange and reducing the highs just a touch.
When recording a chunky rhythm guitar tone I try to go for a sound that doesn’t get in the way of the other parts that have to stick out, like vocals and guitar solos. This usually requires a tone that is less present in the midrange.
One of the things live players say all the time is that “if you want to be heard you need to crank the mids”. This is true in a lot of ways, in terms of how sound works in the context of a live mix. When playing live you don’t always have the luxury of having a good sound engineer that knows how to make every instrument shine, especially if they are unfamiliar with the speakers and room tone.
Therefore, you have to take matters into your own hands and increase the mids to be able to hear yourself and be heard in the front of house mix.
Having said this, don’t change your amp settings after soundcheck. Start with this tone already dialed in and insist on it as being necessary for your sound. A good sound engineer will respect your “signature sound”, and if you can get a trusted friend to check the mix for you, you’re golden.
In a studio mix, however, this completely changes. Not every guitar part needs to have a cranked midrange, because then you might risk making the mix itself sound too nasal.
Unless that’s what you’re going for, don’t try cranking the mids just because you want to be heard in a studio recording. So, if you need a chunky rhythm tone don’t be afraid to turn the mids down!
Keep It Balanced
One of the key EQ goals is for everything to be balanced. If you want to make a song sound pleasant to the listener’s ears, you want to have a guitar tone that does not distract from the main focus of the song. In order to do that I go for a tone where everything gets represented equally.
First, I look for things to remove that don’t add anything “musical” to my sound. This means nasty peaks in the high mids, or boominess in the low mids around 200 to 350 Hz. If someone is listening to a song and then gets distracted by a shrill sounding instrument, the listener will not enjoy the song as much.
This practice extends to the mixing process – you may want to apply cuts to other tracks when you want the guitar parts to cut through the mix better.
The Amount Of Distortion Is Key
When people think of great rock tones they think of a huge wall of amps cranked to their breaking point. When guitarists try to achieve that tone, they completely misjudge how much gain they need in order to get that tone.
I’ve been lucky enough to play a few vintage Marshall amps at full blast and the thing that blew me away was how little distortion there actually was. I really had to work hard to get the notes out, because it was very unforgiving, due to the lack of overdrive. However, the tone I got was rich, harmonically complex, and insanely punchy.
It’s Easier To Add Than To Take Away
The amount of overdrive a guitar tone should have is a hotly debated topic, and this debate differs from genre to genre. Generally, when guitarists start to experiment with recording they tend to use way too much distortion. Which can result in a sound that is very muddy, and can greatly disrupt the listener’s experience.
Usually when I go for a rock guitar sound that needs to be heavy and hard-hitting, I will start the gain at 0 and turn it up until I can play the piece comfortably. When I find that sweet spot I turn it down slightly to make sure I’m not adding too much distortion.
The reasoning behind this approach is that it’s easier to add any extra distortion you need with plugins, and they generally have more options for fine-tuning when you’re mixing. This is something you just don’t have time for during a recording session, but it’s much better to be in a position where you need to add distortion rather than to somehow remove it.
So, in case the lesson is not clear, it’s better to underuse than overuse distortion, especially when recording!
Let’s take a look at one of the songs I played on so I can give you a detailed explanation of why I went for the guitar sounds you’re hearing.
The song we’ll be looking at is my classic rock inspired tune “I Don’t Care“. This song has a relatively simple arrangement for the guitar parts. Two rhythm tracks, a few ad-libbed lead lines, one intro solo, and one outro solo.
I wanted this song to have an old school, blues-rock vibe, so I went for my main Fender Stratocaster with two single-coil pickups and one humbucker. For the rhythm tracks, I wanted a warm squishy sound, so I knew I would be relying mostly on the neck pickup for the rhythm tracks.
I wanted my solos to have a nice amount of attitude, which meant I had to go for a brighter tone with more directness. The Bare Knuckle Riff Raff humbucker in the bridge position (which you can check out in this article) would be my weapon of choice for this.
I’m a pedalboard guitarist so all my overdrive tones come from effects pedals. With this song, I used three different overdrive pedals to get the sounds you hear on the track.
For the rhythm tracks, I used different pedal combinations depending on the section of the song and the playing style used. For the verses, I relied on a medium crunch sound from my TC Electronic Dark Matter, which is an affordable plexi type amp-in-a-box pedal.
In the choruses, I used The Dark Matter along with a J. Rockett Archer pedal to increase the amount of overdrive and make the chorus section louder. I also used this pedal combo for the lead ad-libs, because I wanted those parts to sound like they were played by the rhythm guitarists, instead of them being dedicated lead sounds. This also meant they wouldn’t stand out too much, because they would play right around the same time the vocalist sings.
For the lead sounds I used my JHS Angry Charlie V3, which you can check out in this article, and I also used the Archer for increased overdrive in the last guitar solo. I also used an EQ pedal to shape the tone more to my liking, and a delay pedal to add create the illusion of the guitar being recorded in a larger space.
This one’s fairly simple for me, because at the time I only owned one amplifier, which was my Bugera V22 with a Celestion Creamback 75 speaker. I set it up to be as clean as possible, with a fairly neutral frequency response, so I could use my pedals to shape the sound.
For the rhythm sounds, I went for a warm guitar tone because I knew the Hammond organ would take up most of the space in the upper mid-range. I also didn’t want to have too much bass.
If your sound already lacks high-mids, having a bit too much bass can make your tone even worse. For my song, this meant that I had to get the meat from the low to medium midrange. I also dialed in just enough gain so you can hear a nice bit of breakup, which one could describe as being slightly heavier than the amount of gain Stevie Ray Vaughan would use.
But when the chorus kicks in I turn on the Archer to add the smallest amount of gain possible for a little extra attitude in the chorus.
For the leads I wanted to go heavier because I would be playing in a more agile way on the fretboard, and since I’m not a virtuoso I couldn’t help but get a little more distortion involved.
The JHS Angry Charlie fit that bill perfectly. The Angry Charlie is really good at delivering a warm and cutting overdrive sound, which feels great under the fingers, yet it doesn’t sound forgiving. I went for a sound that was heavier in the midrange that didn’t take over the mix.
The solos are a moment for the guitar to shine, so they should be put in the spotlight. By getting rid of some bass I managed to make the guitar sound thick without it being muddy.
I also added a bit more treble to give the sound more edge, which helps the guitar cut through the mix. Again, this proved to be quite necessary due to the number of instruments involved in the final solo. Drums, bass, Hammond, Rhodes, a grand piano, and two rhythm guitar parts are all playing at the same time.
Here Are The Tools, Now Build Something
I am a firm believer in creating tones that fit the song. This means I don’t like it when people get specific and say “turn the gain up to six, and crank the mids up to eight, and add a slight shelf boost at 8.95 kHz”.
Sure presets could be used as starting points, but are they suited to your playing style? At the end of the day, the tone you want is specific to the song, and that means it can take time to find what works.
It’s also helpful to remember that the perfect guitar tone does not exist and there are multiple “tones” that you can have as a part of your signature sound. For example, you may have a “crunchy rhythm guitar” tone as well as an “amp-is-on-fire guitar solo” tone that you use for different parts in different songs.
So try not to think of tone as any single “perfect combination” of magic numbers. Think of the guitar part you want to play, and how you need to dial in your tone match the sound you want. This may take some experimenting, but the more you do this, the easier it becomes. This also extends to the plugins you use when mixing in a DAW.
And remember, if it sounds good in the mix and suits the song, it is good!