Look vs. feel vs. sound. You cant have it all possible ways. You have to lean the most towards what is important for you. Do you want to look great on stage or in front of your mirror? Do you want the feel of your axe to be the most comfortable for the type of playing you do? Or do you want to sound unique ( or like your idols)?
There are ways to try and get the best happy medium of all three. So how do you solve this conundrum?
Well, I got some great news. There are simple tips to getting both the sound and feel out of your favorite axe.
The ol’ $.25 cent EQ. Not only do they affect playability (depending on what gauge size, alloy, and tuning your guitar is presently at) Pick thickness and materials will affect everything from the speed of picking to the cleanness of tone. Feel free to buy a lot of these. Your strings and couch eat these anyways. Buy at least one each in both size and material, and see what feels right or sounds right for you. If the feel is more important, you now know that you need to change something else in your sonic pallet. If the sound is most important, get an entire set of what made your tone come to life. Always hold on to those extra picks because you will need them in the next section.
I’d advise you to try at least one or two boutique picks before you settle on your favorite pick. I’ve reviewed a lot of them, and working on a lot more guitar pick reviews in the near future.
A great set of strings will make a horrible guitar sound better. But a bad set of strings will make a great guitar sound horrible. This makes your string one of the most important parts of your guitar tone chase. It is gonna be a lot more money to shell out than on picks, but it is worth trying out new brands and gauges than it is to play it safe. Manufacturers and string companies ask you to change strings every week to every month. They do this to sell you their product. However, in the beginning, take them up on this offer. Do not buy strings in bulk till you decided what brand, gauge, alloy, etc. define you as a guitarist. Buy a set at a time (I just very recently found a small string maker that I really like).
Try lighter or heavier gauges. I spent years buying into that myth that “Thick strings sound better”, but after testing it I found that it’s the other way around. Lighter strings vibrate more freely, resulting in a fuller low-end and more balanced treble. Try different metals. Some alloys will feel like a lighter gauge string. Don’t be a brand loyalist just yet. If they have a promo or a sale, try a new brand. I liked DR strings a few weeks ago more than I did Ernie Ball, yet I played Ernie ball for almost 10 years. Some brands based on how they are made are gonna sound and feel different regardless of what gauge or alloy. Hand-wound or machine wound? Cold or hot Tempered. Extruded or folded? Untreated vs treated? The choice is up to you.
Those pesky, easy-to-tangle cords that connect your guitar to pedals, pedals to each other, pedals to amps, and amps to speaker cabinets. These can be pricy, but materials, solder points, connectors, and length vs. girth are some factors to look for. Signal loss and impedance are ever-present. You need to minimize these the best you can to get the most controllable tone possible. Shorter the cables and fewer of them, the better.
I got just two words for you here. TRUE BYPASS! Buy pedals with true bypass over ones that do not. like the sound of one pedal over another? Still, I will choose the one with True Bypass over the one that does not, hands down! Also, look at what options each pedal has aside from its effect. What kind of EQ does it have? Can it boost? Cut? Does it do both? Is its EQ independent of the effect or a part of it? Does the effect itself rob or give you a better tone?
Try ’em before you buy. Take your guitar to the store and try them out. Bring in your own effects to see how nice they play together. One pedal you might have loved might not work with your new setup, and one pedal you hated, may now work perfectly with said setup. Do not be afraid to try. Also, the fewer effects, the better. Read more about the way I’m trying new guitar pedals here.
Pickups, potentiometers, and wiring harness.
So you are now at this stage. While most pickups are probably cheaper than what you spent on all of the above combined, it is still a costly and arduous task. They need to be installed for one. You can not really try them before you buy them. They do not hold their value well and if you have a boutique guitar, you need to keep all the old equipment you stripped off. How is it soldered, how many wires? How many revolutions were each coil wrapped? Are they exposed coils or are they open? Single coil, soap bar, or humbucker? Lace sensor? Coil tapping? Too many questions.
Find out first what sound you are looking for and find a pickup that comes closest to that goal. Materials and solder in the harness also affect tone as well as keep the signal loss to a minimum.
Potentiometers? now that is another issue. Are you someone who wants your 10 to sound like a 20 or your 10 to sound like a 5? What parameters do you want your potentiometers to be set to? 250k, 500k, 750k, 1000k? Think of POTS as a faucet? Do you want a trickle when at full blast or do you want a torrent at a quarter turn? These little wonders shape your tonal possibilities (even if changing out the volume pots).
Bridges and Nuts
So you spent a good chunk, may have even had to change strings and picks yet again after having your pickups changed, yet you are still trying to chase down that elusive sound. maybe it is your bridge? Fixed or tremolo, locking or non-locking? Free floating or one way? Stop tail or through the body? All of these affect tone. I prefer a lot more wood and a Tune-O-Matic bridge over a tremolo and a cavity. However, that is just me. You have to decide what you want and need. How bout that nut? is it plastic? bone? brass? Carbon/graphite? WOOD? Nuts also affect tone in many ways. Materials and how well they are mounted (glued) to the headstock are the determining factors. Overall, the nuts and bridges are some of the simplest guitar parts you can upgrade. So if you haven’t you should definitely give this a shot.
Combo or Head/cabinet? Hi-wattage vs. low wattage? Tube vs. Solid state transistor? Take your newly set up rig (pedals and all) to the store and try out amps all day. How does it sound when EQ’ed just right? Do you need to set it differently than other amps with the same rig? How do they relate to your pedals? Do you need to reset them? Pick one that makes the most of your sound rather than hides the errors in your sound. An amp that fits your style is a vital part of your guitar tone chase journey.
Electric guitar tone chase is a neverending adventure. Take your time with it and do your best to enjoy the ride. You can try some of the suggestions in this post, too. It’s more focused on acoustic guitar upgrades, but why not..
If you have more suggestions, post them in the comments below, and I will see you next time!