It is not always easy to know what you should change first in your search for “better” guitar tone. With so much information out there on tone wood, string gauge, pickups etc. deciding what to focus on first is challenging.
In an earlier article we described how guitar amplifiers are a critical component with respect guitar tone. Once you are happy with your amp, what other factors can help improve tone?
Here is Fuzz Audio’s list of most important upgrades you should make for better electric guitar tone (from less to most important):
Although the wood your guitar (or amp) is made from can affect tone, it comes in last on our list, as it is generally a minor part of the overall picture when it comes to the final sound.
There is no doubt that different woods produce differences in sustain and timbre. All serious acoustic guitar players know this, but these differences in tonal qualities, for example differences in harmonics, make less difference when signals are moved through guitar pickups. Because pickups are not microphones, they respond much more to string movement that they do to vibrations in the body of the guitar.
Not only are tonal differences that results from different woods subtle but changing the wood on your guitar or amp would be a difficult and expensive upgrade. Best to keep your 62’ Tele all original and look for other things to improve.
Cables beat out tone wood by just a hair, in part because they are so easy to replace. Typically, changing a cable will not have much impact on tone, but a good cable can reduce unwanted noise and increase the clarity of your signal.
Our advice is to ignore expensive cables until you have completely nailed down your sound 100%, as cables will only “clean” up the tone you already have. On the other hand, do not ignore cable quality all together. A decent $10 cable with good reviews should be plenty good for most musicians. Darrell Braun Guitar has an excellent video on this subject that is worth a watch!
Every guitarist should experiment with strings, not only because they affect tone but also because they change the feel and touch of the guitar. How you attack the strings absolutely affects your sound. If you play with your amp at the edge of breakup you know this well, because when you play soft your amp stays clean and as you strum harder the amp with start to distort. Although string gauge does not change guitar tone a great deal by itself, changing how hard or easy your strings are to manipulate can have a large impact.
Strings make number 5 on the list because they are easy and cheap to experiment with, and you just might be shocked by the results. For more information on strings gauge, Rick Beato and Rhett Shull both have great videos on the subject.
This is the point on the list where making the right upgrade can really change your rig’s performance. We note that depending on your particular setup any of the next three upgrades could be the best move to make.
One of the best decisions you can make when trying to improve tone is to upgrade the tubes in your amplifier. Not only can replacing tubes optimize your amp’s performance, tubes are one of the easiest upgrades to perform.
Tubes are responsible for taking the signal of pickups, which is both low and electronically simple, and not only boosting it to high volume but also shaping it’s tone. As a result vacuum tubes are directly responsible for much of and amps ”noise,” whether good or bad.
Music would be much different today if not for vacuum tubes. We all owe a great debt to these tubes and the engineers that developed and continue to develop tube guitar amplifiers.
Ultimately, tubes can control SOOOOO MANY parts of your tone that it would not be fun to list them all here. Would you like to add or take away low or high tones? Reduce or increase responsiveness? Change how loud your amp is? Change where your amp breaks up/distorts? All this and more can be accomplished by swapping out the tubes in your amp.
There is just no getting around the effectiveness of guitar pickups at altering guitar tone. To take control of your sound, it is crucial to be aware of the types of pickups you use. The information on this subject is rich. Here are a few of our favorite video resources that go more in-depth about pickups and tone: “Single Coil vs P90 vs Humbucker,” and “5 Tips To Get Perfect Guitar Tone!!”,
The combination a guitar with a neck and bridge pickup, plus a tone nob gives you a huge variety of sounds available at your fingertips and is undeniably responsible for a large percent of your sound.
If you are comfortable doing basic guitar repairs, changing the pickups is one of the most significant things you can do to improve tone. This is particularly true if you have an otherwise very playable guitar, but the manufacturer has either scrimped on pickup quality or chosen pickups that don’t fit your playing style.
It’s shocking just how much difference a good speaker can make a in an amplifier. If you are just starting to chase legendary tones, this is something that is certainly worth experimenting with.
Speakers and cabinets make number two on the list. Although they are able to quite drastically change your tone, they are a set it and forget it upgrade. They can, however, be tricky to change in some tube amp models.
Darrell Braun says speakers are “one most underrated upgrade a guitarist can make.”
If you are interested in learning more about speakers vs tone, Weber is another great resource, and we highly recommend their products.
Pedals are hands down the best, most efficient way upgrade the sound of your rig. They can help shape tone in the ways mentioned above, and in addition you can get all kinds of new tones from fuzz to chorus to delay and synth sounds out of nowhere. Do not underestimate simple EQ pedals; they can work wonders for any guitar rig and are a must for serious tone junkies.
Not every guitar rig is the same, and it may not always be obvious what upgrade you should focus on first to improve your sound. To summarize: