5 Tips To Get A Better Live Guitar Tone

February 13, 2015

Have you ever wondered what the pros are doing that you aren't in terms of getting their tone? In this article I'm going to reveal some of the best kept secrets in the industry to help you improve your live guitar sound. If I had known some of these tips when I started playing guitar, it would have made my life a lot easier!

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need expensive and sophisticated gear in order to achieve a great live sound. You also don't need a wall of amps behind you. Good tone has more to do with knowing how to use your equipment, and less to do with what you're using.

1. Fretboard Cleaning & Conditioning

If you play live regularly, you may find that you get a lot of dirt and sweat on your fretboard. What many people don't know is that this is one of the biggest tone killers! Have you noticed that professional guitar players always have shiny and sleek frets? This is because fretboard cleaning and conditioning is very important for maintaining optimal tone and playability.

If you restring your guitar with a fresh pair of strings, you will find that they will have an extremely short lifespan if you don't clean your fretboard properly beforehand. Maintaining the brightness of new strings is vital if you want to achieve the best possible tone. Strings can also be pricey, so this is also a great tip to save you some money.

Before every string change, it's necessary to clean and condition your fretboard. In order to get a good indication of when it's necessary to change your strings, lightly rub your finger underneath your high E string. Dirt tends to accumulate mostly underneath strings, so this will give you a good idea of how much wear your strings have received.

When it comes to methods of cleaning, there are many options in terms of products you can use. The best solution I've found is a product called Gorgomyte. It's a chemically treated cloth that both cleans and conditions your fretboard in one go. It also makes your frets ultra-shiny.

2. Amplifier Settings

This has to be one of the most discussed topics in terms of guitar tutorials. Most people over-complicate this aspect, and in many cases end up completely missing the point on how to dial in a good tone on your amplifier.

I'm going to show you a really simple way to make the tone of your amp really come to life. What's even better is that it will take you about 30 seconds to dial in your tone using this method.

But first, I want to discuss what type of amplification you're going to need. Solid-state amplifiers produce odd sounding harmonics at high volume, making them unsuitable for gigging scenarios. In order to get the best possible tone, you're going to require a good tube amp of your choice. Good tone has a lot more to do with the type of amplification you're using, so if you're going to be spending money then it should be in this area.

So here's how it's done.

Every control on a tube amp has a sweet spot. This is where the control goes from doing virtually nothing to making a big impact to the sound. Many people only think of their master volume control this way, but it actually applies to all other controls (treble, bass, mids) except reverb.

Start by setting each knob to 0. Then slowly turn it up until you hear the obvious cusp point. That's where it needs to be set. This needs to be done individually for every control. I like to do this while having my neck pickup selected. As a side note, make sure that you don't pay any attention to how the knobs on your amp look but rather to how it sounds. Use your ears!

3. Cabinet Simulation

When you're playing live it's usually necessary to mic your guitar amp in order to run your sound to the front of house PA system. In reality, there are a few issues with this concept:

  • You need to be clued up on mic placement and where to find the "sweet spot" of your amp;
  • The room you're in will affect the sound of your amp. You may find that you end up with a completely different sound at the gig in comparison to the rehearsal venue;
  • Normally there are feedback issues associated with a miking a guitar amp;
  • During a gig it's very easy to knock the mic out of position, resulting in the audience not being able to hear you.

In order to overcome these issues it's possible to use a high quality speaker cabinet simulator. This is a device that can emulate the sound of your cabinet, giving you the ability to send a direct sound to the mixer. You can still use your amp as a stage monitor as it won't affect the sound coming out of your amp in any way.

One of the most common speaker cabinet simulators is the Palmer PDI 09. Many professionals and amateurs alike use it because of its simplicity and great sound. It simply connects between your speaker out and speaker of your amplifier. The through out allows you to still keep your speaker connected to your amp. You can then plug a standard XLR microphone cable into the device to connect your amp to the mixer.

4. Using Delay

A great way to add fatness to your sound is to use a small amount of delay. Reverb can work too, although reverb has a tendency to make your sound washy when playing live.

For this to work as we need it, it's necessary to utilize a very clean sounding delay. This is not the type of delay that comes from a pedal plugged into the front of an amplifier. What we're looking for is delay that's present between the power amp and pre-amp sections of an amp. Amp manufacturers have included an effects loop to allow just that.

There are two different types of effects loops, namely series and parallel. Time based effects work best with parallel effects loops. If you have a series loop, it's possible to have it modified by an amp technician.

In order to use your effects loop correctly, you're going to require an effects processor that can run at +4dB as opposed to -10dB (which is the volume guitar pedals run at). Any time based effects processor will work; however guitar players are generally in favour of the TC Electronic G-Major. Make sure the unit is set to 100% wet to avoid any dry signal being added to your tone.

You also want to set your delay to a relatively transparent feel. Not too much feedback. You don't want to clutter your sound in any way as its not being applied as a prominent effect, but rather to add some flavor and dimension. Whether you set the delay time to a short or long setting is really down to personal preference. Personally I like a slightly longer delay time.

5. Live EQ

What many people don't know is that the PA system also has an effect on the way your guitar sounds and plays. First you want to make sure you're sending the best possible signal to the mixer by using the methods highlighted above.

Secondly, you want to make sure that you apply the appropriate equalization to your guitar signal on the mixing desk. A knowledgeable sound engineer can be a huge help in this regard. It means you can obtain a professional sound without requiring any sound knowledge yourself. This, however, isn't always the case as for many musicians it's simply not practical to hire a sound engineer.

Here are some guidelines to EQ your guitar on your own:

  • Warmth - Between 250Hz and 300Hz;
  • Clarity - Found at 3kHz;
  • Distortion/Fuzz - Between 5kHz and 8kHz;
  • Air - Found at 12kHz.

You want the sound that's coming out the front of house PA system to match the sound of your amp as closely as possible. You can use the EQ tips above in order to achieve this. Remember to always rely on what sounds best to your ears!

About the Author:
Dean Hailstone is a professional guitar player, recording artist and touring musician. You can view more of his insights on his blog at playguitarlive.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.