Though great guitarists typically use expensive, state-of-the-art gear, they would still sound great playing much lesser quality equipment. Great music isn’t produced as much by the equipment that goes into the musician’s hands as it is by his personality, heart, technique and energy. Here are a few great ways to learn how to improve your sound and tone without using any extra equipment!
I am sure you’ve heard it said before, that your sound is in your fingers. While that is a bit of an oversimplification (it is always easier to sound great on an expensive rig), technique for sure is one of the determining factors in creating great quality of tone. Following are a couple of the very common mistakes that diminish the tone quality on guitar.
- Pressing too hard on the strings: the intonation goes sharp and everything sounds out of tune when you do so.
- Not playing on your fingertips: this too can affect intonation, fullness of tone, and dexterity.
- Holding the pick too tightly: this creates a forced sound. It also makes that you hear every individual string attack when you strum. Always hold your pick very loosely and relaxed.
- Hitting strings too hard: keep a moderate attack. It makes the notes sound plinky when you pick them hard, as you hear too much pick attack sound.
- Hitting strings too softly. That too is common. You want to make sure that your string has enough vibration to sound full and big.
- Bad finger position: make sure your fingers are right behind the frets to avoid any string buzz against the frets.
- Not playing with vibrato: this makes the sound lifeless. All life vibratos and is in motion: gently and slowly moving the string up and down after playing a note, adds life and air to that note. In addition: not controlling your vibrato can be distracting. A nice vibrato is typically slow and controlled, otherwise it sounds quivering and distracting.
- Tension in the fretting hand: takes away fullness of sound. While this is very subtle, a tense hand is a bit like a tense vocal chord: you create a more nasally sound that lacks warmth.
- Not using the tone knob and volume knob: it is mind blowing how often those are overlooked. A volume knob, does not only affect the volume: it also affects tone a bit.
Other things that help: heavier gauge strings, thicker/heavier picks.
- Proper Set Up.
This certainly helps to make the instrument sound its best. Hand this over to a guitar repair professional. He will make sure that the intonation is optimal, that any string buzz is fixed, that the action is optimal, and so on. Tip: when your strings go out of tune after using your tremolo bridge, lubricating the nut with graphite powder will improve tuning stability.
- Develop Your Personality.
It’s been said before, that you can tell a musician’s personality by how he plays 1 note. How does he hold the instrument? How does he carry himself? Is he sitting slouchy or is he rather sitting straight and uptight while playing, or something in between? Is he expressive, or self-conscious? Is the guitarist impatient? When a guitarist has a tendency to place his phrases ahead of the beat, what does that tell you about him as a person? When on the other hand, a guitarist sounds very relaxed, playing all his phrases very freely behind the beat, guess who is going to be the easier, more fun person to get along with? When a guitarist has a tendency to cut his phrases short, or rush the time, or play with a nasal sound, or play unexpressive, coldly technical stuff that does not grab you… all these things say a lot about the guitarist. Does he play because he is in love with music, or because he has something to prove? You can tell those things about someone in how he phrases and sounds. All that being said: it is impossibly not to put your personality in your playing, cause your sound is the result of your personality. Without going at great length into spiritual meanings related to music, the message is clear: your sound will change and improve as you keep working on and developing your personality. If you want to improve your groove, work on becoming a more relaxed person. If you want to sound more emotional, deep, expressive and passionate, learn to dare to be vulnerable, which comes down to learning to let go of the need to be controlling. If you want to play more from the heart, get rid of your ego. If you feel you’re in your head too much, overthinking things constantly: learn to become the kind of person who focuses on the moment instead. If you have a weak, wimpy tone, become a more confident person. You can be whoever you want to be, and your sound is going to keep improving as a result of the choices you make.
- Understand the Story.
Loosing yourself into the music you’re playing rubs off on your listeners because you become the music. You are thus no longer ego: you are sound. One of the ways you can accomplish that; is by knowing the history of the song you are playing. Think of how it would affect your performance of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” if you found out that Clapton wrote this piece after his 4-year old son Conor died from falling from a window of a 53rd floor apartment. Do you think you’d play the song differently, if you knew that and kept that in mind while playing the song? Do you think you’d play it with more depth and expression if you tried to imagine the pain of losing a son, while playing this song? Projecting emotions into what you’re playing is a skill that will take your music from sounding mediocre to a level where it will touch people.
Practicing is key. Your “own voice” is gradually going to reveal itself to you as you keep practicing. Your technique, your coordination, muscle memory and touch, vibrato, expressiveness, sensitivity, timing, attack, flow and feel improve through practice. These are only some of the elements that make up your sound and tone.
- Feel and Imagination.
Steve Vai is one of the guitar players who experimented with the power of his imagination as a means to evaluate how this was going to affect his phrasing, feel and tone. As an example: close your eyes and imagine yourself being alone in this expansive, huge desert, with just your guitar. Feel the open space, feel the peace that comes to you, the silence, feel the sun caressing your skin, all around you, nothing but space, quiet, no one else in sight. Then pick up your guitar, and express that space, the vastness, the soothing loneliness, those feelings coming to you, with all your heart, without any thinking, without judgment. The only things that exist are: your imagination, you and the desert, and your guitar. Notice how your sound will be different. The more you loose yourself into the imagination game, the stronger your tone will be affected. Never forget: “everything is mental”.
- Get Educated and Live A Life!
Sure practicing is important. Sure spending as much time as possible with your guitar is important. Meanwhile: you also need to live life, go through break ups, have fights and arguments, see Van Gogh paintings and visit museums, smell the roses, fall in love, go hike, get drunk, feel deep joy and sadness, travel, read and study, because all those things are all going to show up in your playing and in your tone as well. The richer your personality and your life experiences, the better your sound is going to be.