What makes an electric guitar sound good? There is no easy answer to this because “tone” is subjective. A guitar is also only as good as the sum of its parts. Today we look at all the components that make up tone and sound.
What is Guitar Tone?
You can have all the gear and a great guitar, but a good guitar tone isn’t always guaranteed. How you play, your level of skill, the strings you use, the type of pick, even the weather can affect how your guitar sounds.
Creating and developing guitar tone is an art form in itself, a process that requires specialist knowledge, study, and near-constant testing and tweaking. For instance, I can use the Spark Amp to create a tone similar to what Adam Jones uses on TOOL’s Lateralus album.
Will it sound like it? Yes, it’ll be similar. Will it sound as good? No, not even close – Jones uses an array of tube amps, effects, and a beautiful Gibson Les Paul Custom. He’s also a fantastic player. All of these things help Jones create his guitar tone.
This is why a professional guitarist’s “tone” will always sound better than a hobbyist guitarist. They have access to the best gear, the best guitars, specialist knowledge, and a near-infinite budget for things like pedals and effects, as well as things like tube amps.
Professional guitarists, guys like James Hetfield or Buzz Osbourne, for instance, have been working on their tone for years, sometimes decades. And in more successful bands, like Metallica, they’ll have a team of guitar techs constantly working on and evolving their guitar rig for a bigger and better tone.
At its most basic level, guitar tone means the “finished” sound of your guitar playing through an amp or speakers, complete with all your effects, pedal settings, and amp settings, as well as your guitar tone settings dialed in.
How Do You Get Good Guitar Tone?
The electric guitar is made up of so many different parts. Every part of the guitar affects the tone in one way or another. But what makes it sound good?
Well…good is certainly a relative term. I listen to plenty of famous guitarists and I wonder what made them choose that sound. Likewise, I listen to some guitarists and wonder how they could make it sound so sweet.
Good and bad are going to change depending on the player, and it has always been that way. So what is good?
Well, that is totally up to the player since tone is so subjective. What I think sounds awesome may sound terrible to you. However, there are a few things that can affect the tone of your guitar, and that is what we are going to look at today.
#1 The Pickups
Pickups are the “microphone” of your electric guitar. Lots of other factors play a part in tone, but pickups are the front line. Pickups use a magnet to pick up the sound of your guitar strings.
The magnets take the sound of your strings and turn them into a signal that travels to your amplifier. The type of pickup used will drastically change the tone and sound. The different styles all produce different sounds.
Other factors can play a big part in your overall sound. Like your guitar, your amplifier, effects pedals…the list can get long! But what we are looking at today are the biggest factors when it comes to crafting tone.
Pickups, without a doubt, play the biggest part in your overall electric guitar sound. There are a million different pickups out there, but we can break them down into three easy categories:
The Different Types of Guitar Pickups
Single Coil Pickups
These use a single magnet. Probably the most famous guitar that uses single-coil pickups, is the Fender Stratocaster. But many different guitars use them!
Single Coils can be used for many different styles of music. They are popular in Country music and Blues because they are bright-sounding pickups. They certainly can cut through the mix of a full band.
They work best with a “clean” sound rather than a “dirty” or distorted sound because the single magnet is pretty noisy. The more distortion you add, the noisier they become, and the more prone to feedback they become.
This can be a good thing! Some people really like the sound of single coils and use the noise to their advantage. Single coils are lower output than most other pickups. Jimi Hendrix certainly had no problem making them sound powerful, though!
- Lindy Fralin
- Lace Sensor
Humbuckers are also known as Double Coil pickups, as they are basically two single coil pickups wired together. They look just like two single coils laying side-by-side. Seth Lover
Humbuckers get their name from what they accomplish: they get rid of the hum and noise that a regular single coil would have. Single coils are subject to what we call “60 Cycle Hum” which is a distortion of the signal sent to your amp.
Humbuckers kill the frequencies that cause all of the noise you would usually get with a single coil. This design also makes them sound bigger, or fuller than a single coil. This full sound was originally used by Jazz guitarists but eventually was adopted by Heavy Metal and many other genres.
These days, humbuckers are used in all kinds of music applications. Higher output humbuckers are used in Metal music, as it is easier to achieve a heavily distorted sound. You’ll notice that most “Metal” guitars come with humbuckers for this reason.
- Bare Knuckle UK
Active pickups can look like a single coil or a humbucker. The difference is the active pickups use a power source, usually a 9V battery, to run special circuitry connected to the pickup.
The special circuitry makes active pickups a great choice for Metal. The 9V battery runs a small preamp in the guitar that gives the active pickup a very distinct sound. This sound is usually compressed, meaning it is easier to distort and quieter than traditional “passive” pickups.
The advantage of an active pickup is that it will usually sound the same on any guitar. The preamp gives the pickup its distinct sound no matter which guitar it is installed in.
The biggest advantage is the total absence of noise in your guitar signal. Even under extreme distortion, active pickups stay clear and defined. This makes them a great choice for Metal guitarists.
If pickups are the basis of your tone, then what are some other factors? Keep in mind that some of these are subjective. Just like tone itself!
There is some debate on which strings sound best for different applications. Luckily, there are also some cold hard facts when it comes to strings.
String Gauges: Different string sizes will have a slight effect on your overall tone. Heavier string gauges will “beef” up your tone for sure, but will make your tone a little more muddy at the same time.
Likewise, lighter gauges will be more clear but lack the bass that heavier strings will have. I personally like the lightest string gauge I can get away with and I think my tone is pretty heavy!
You can always add more bass, but it is ostensibly harder to take it away!
String Types: There are all kinds of strings out there. There are plain nickel wound, flat wound, and coated. The coated ones seem to make a difference in tone to me more than others.
Coated strings have a protective film on them that adds to the longevity of the strings and prevents corrosion. I have always found these to sound a little less bright to my ears.
Flat wound strings are usually used for Jazz, due to their fat and even tone. Some people use them for Blues as well.
Best Strings For Metal & Down-Tuning
- Ernie Ball 10-46
- Elixir POLYWEB Super Light
Because the Les Paul has a shorter scale length, these strings that have a higher tension feel better to play, in my opinion. They allow for easy note bending, while at the same time keeping the lower strings tight.
These are my wild card pick for the best strings for a Gibson Les Paul. Some people swear by Elixir strings and become life-long customers. Elixir is a coated string. This provides more longevity to each set of strings. While a regular set of strings may only last a couple of weeks, Elixir is known for lasting for a month or more!
I always recommend to students to use a standard nickel-plated set of strings when they are just starting. They are just easier. Not to forget, these are some of the same strings that pros use!
As you can see, there are a plethora of factors that go into what makes an electric guitar sound good. But there are so many others we can touch on.
#3 The Guitar Amp
Probably one of the most debated parts of any guitarist’s sound is the guitar amplifier. There are several different types, and the only way to find out which one is best for you is to try them out!
There are three basic types of guitar amps that dominate the market. Let’s take a look at the features, pros, and cons of each:
These are the amps that started it all! They are powered by vacuum tubes that were used in many electronics in the 1950s. People still use them today because it is hard to achieve the warm tone that they produce with any other amplifier technology.
They really knocked it out of the park, 80 years ago with this technology. But tube amps require a good bit of maintenance. The tubes have to be replaced regularly. This can be done at home by more experienced users.
Some tube amps need to be “biased”. This usually needs to be done by an experienced technician, since so much power runs through the tubes that you risk electric shock! You need precise meters that measure electric current. This is not for beginners!
Another factor that is neutral in my opinion is the price tag on tube amps. They are definitely the most expensive of the three types of amps we are discussing. They can cost anywhere from $500 to $5000. That is pretty steep for players on a budget.
For a beginner, this can be very daunting. On the other hand, nothing quite sounds like a tube amp. They are dynamic and react to your play style. The same 3 guitarists could use the same tube amp on the exact same settings, and all three guitarists would sound different.
Solid State Amplifiers
Most “beginner amps” that you see are usually solid-state or transistor technology. These use complex circuitry to create your guitar tone. They do not use tubes and are known to be more reliable.
There are advantages to using a solid-state amp. They are more reliable for daily use. You never have to maintain tubes or have them biased. This makes them very easy to care for.
The disadvantages reside in the sound. Most of the best solid-state amps are “one-trick ponies”. Meaning they make one sound, and they usually do it pretty well. But they certainly do not have the same type of sound that you get from a tube amp. They lack versatility.
Many famous guitarists are known for using solid-state, like Dimebag Darrell. Some people simply prefer the tone you get from them. They work especially well for a good clean tone. It is only really in the distortion channels where they lack versatility.
These amps are the elephant in the room in the guitar community. Their purpose is to mimic the sound of a tube amp as close as possible. They also usually have different effects built-in and the entire amp is programmable.
This can be a huge advantage for guitarists that don’t have the money to buy a tube amp but desire that sound. Modeling amps had a rocky start that came with a stigma of being too “digital” and “fake” sounding.
The Powercab 112 Plus by Line6 is perhaps the best overall option on this list. But it is expensive. For the extra money, however, you get a ton of functionality, one of the meatiest sounds around, and built-in support for 128 presets, IR loading, MIDI In/Out, AES/EBU I/O, L6 LINK, and a USB audio interface. This thing is incredible.
These days the technology has definitely progressed beyond its bumpy entry to the market. They are even used by professionals. However, the professional models usually come at the same price point as a tube amp.
Professionals use digital amps these days because they are reliable, and can replicate any sound the artist has used over the years. This can be a big advantage for the artists with multiple albums and tones.
Bands That Use Modeling / Digital Guitar Amps
- Coheed and Cambria
At the end of the day, their versatility is undeniable. Unfortunately, they can also be complicated to program. These amps come with a lot of options and can be hard to navigate. But on the plus side: Once you have your sound dialed in, it is there forever.
There are many configurations that can be used when constructing an electric guitar. Hardware includes everything usually made of metal parts on your guitar.
- Tuning machines
- Pickup mounts
- String trees
All of these have an effect on how the guitar performs, but not necessarily the tone. I suppose you could argue that tuning machine quality affects tuning stability. But that bears no weight on how good the guitar sounds in terms of tone.
The main difference when it comes to hardware and tone is the bridge. It is totally up to the guitarist which one is right for them. Some of us like a fixed bridge as much as we like a Floyd Rose. Neither is better, just different.
There are three main types of bridges.
Fixed bridges are mounted directly to the wood of the body of the guitar. The strings are either top mounted or they are strung through the body. This kind of bridge doesn’t have any moving parts.
Guitarists prefer them because of their tuning stability, and easy maintenance. They come in a few different styles but the idea remains the same.
Guitarists that prefer a fixed bridge usually do so because of the ease of use. There is really only one downside, and that is the versatility. To change note pitch, you have to do it with your fretting hand by using bends.
If you want to have other options when it comes to doing big bends, you’ll need a guitar with a tremolo system. This is where the other two styles come into play.
A standard trem is the same idea as a fixed bridge, but it moves in a subtle back and forth motion. This allows you to bend notes and change pitch. The most popular example is the Fender Stratocaster.
This kind of bridge can really change the dynamics of your playing since you can just grab the whammy bar and bend notes up and down. This kind of bridge definitely affects the sound of the guitar, though.
Since the bridge is floating on pivoted screws versus being screwed directly into the body, this changes the tone. To me, floating tremolo systems change the tone by making the guitar sound a little thinner. The more contact the strings have with the wood of the body, the better.
This is totally subjective. To some people, a floating bridge sounds better than a fixed bridge (I am a notorious whammy bar abuser). The thing to note is; it certainly changes the tone.
Floyd Rose Bridge
The Floyd Rose double locking tremolo is the most loved and hated bridge on the market. The opinions are so polarized for and against Floyd Rose. These bridges can bend as far as you want, without going out of tune at all! That sounds pretty cool, right?
The downside though, is they are hard to maintain by a novice. They take a ton of adjusting to finally get setup, and sometimes need a professional tech’s hand to get right.
They also affect the tone of your guitar since this bridge makes the least contact with the body of the guitar. It basically floats in place pivoted by screws and the tension of the strings.
Of course, the tone changes it makes to your overall sound is totally subjective. I like the tuning stability, and I don’t feel like they make the biggest difference in tone. Although, to some players, the tone sounds thin.
Our final category is probably the most controversial subject when it comes to what makes an electric guitar sound good.
I hate to even try to tackle this subject because it is different for everyone. Some people believe that the woods used to construct the guitar affect the tone. The “general consensus” is:
- Mahogany: Warm tone
- Swamp Ash: Accentuates the mid range
- Poplar: Bright tones
- Basswood: Balanced tones
I personally don’t know where I stand with this argument. I have tried 100s of guitars in the past 24 years. I have never really noticed a difference in sound depending on the wood.
Now different wood certainly makes a difference when it comes to weight. My mahogany guitars are much heavier in weight than my swamp ash 7 string.
Some woods are definitely prettier than others! Flamed wood and Bird’s Eye Maple look gorgeous on any guitar. But does it affect the tone?
This has been argued to death at this point. Some people say that it has no bearing on tone. Some swear to only play guitars made out of a certain wood because it creates their sound.
All I know is I watched Jack White put a pickup on a scrap piece of wood from his yard. He threw some strings on it and started playing it. That scrap wood sounded pretty awesome.
I think pickups will affect your guitar sound before anything else on this list will. That is why they are the first on the list. The next is by far, is your amplifier.
Wood affecting tone is not a hill I want to die on. It can be debated back and forth until the sun goes supernova. Personally, it is not a factor to me.
So What Makes An Electric Guitar Sound Good? A Lot of Things!
Like I said in the beginning, it’s complicated! So many factors go into making your guitar tone. If you change one part of a guitar, you can change the way it sounds.
Luckily, most of the things on this list are things that you can modify. You can swap different pickups out, change the bridge…the possibilities are limitless.
The best thing to do is get out there and try as many guitars as you can! Preferences come with time also, and experience. What you start with liking, is subject to change. Just like anything else, you will eventually develop your own taste.
What makes an electric guitar sound good? The biggest factor? Something that cannot be debated?
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