Dialing In Guitar Tone - Part 1

Updated: Nov 6

Today’s topic is for you meticulous, relentless, methodical guitar tone chasers.

I’m going to give you a step-by-step method for dialing in the tone you’re looking for.

This is something that’s near and dear to my heart. In fact, it’s my white whale. It’s my one-armed man.

I got my first electric guitar at around age 12 and, a few days later, my dad brought home a little Squire practice amp. It had a bunch of knobs on it.

Why do I need two gain knobs?

What is the difference between gain and volume?

I spent a lot of time trying to dial in that sweet Tom Morello tone from Evil Empire – which was the second cassette I ever bought.

Later, I was gripped by multi-effects pedals. My strategy back in those days was:

  • Dream up a signal chain that’s going to sound awesome while day-dreaming in class

  • At home, plug everything in and start turning knobs and pushing buttons

  • Repeat until greatest tone ever is achieved

SPOILER ALERT: This is NOT a good strategy if you’re a tweak-head (i.e., the type of person that is endlessly making adjustments in the search of perfection).

So, to start, let’s embrace the following Buddhist concept for our guitar tone quest (and for life if you’re enlightened enough to make it work):

Building a great guitar tone is about the journey more than the destination. Enjoy the journey.
Wait. These are BOTH electric guitars?

OK? Good. With that out of the way, let’s dig in.

First, let’s address why this is such a difficult and fascinating topic. It comes down to two things:

1. So many degrees of freedom

Think about our guitar signal path. Every time we run into something that we can adjust or change, that’s a degree of freedom. Let’s start at the hands and move down the chain:

  • Guitar pick: shape, size, material, thickness

  • Strings: gauge, winding, coated or uncoated, new or old

  • Guitar body: construction, wood type

  • Guitar neck: method of connection to the body, wood type

  • Nut and bridge type: material, construction

  • Guitar pick-ups: humbucker vs. single coil, active vs. passive, pickup position, pick-up height

  • Guitar knobs: volume knobs, tone knobs, coil taps and selector switches

That’s all before our signal has even left the guitar! Then we have cables, unlimited pedals, pre-amps, power amps, speakers, speaker cabinets and finally (if we’re recording) microphone and microphone position!

2. Breadth of Guitar Tone Possibilities

Think about the following guitarists and the roles their tones are playing :

  • Jack Johnson

  • Stevie Ray Vaughan

  • Jack White

  • Brian May

  • Eddie Van Halen

  • James Hetfield

  • Misha Mansoor

All VERY different tones.

Wow! How can anyone ever dial anything in?

The effects that all of these degrees of freedom have on tone are all interesting and I will explore them further in future posts.

Today, I just want to give you simple, actionable, step by step instructions and tips for dialing in guitar tone

Step 1: Choose Your Gear

You may currently be stuck with the gear you have but if you’re on the market or willing to upgrade, try the Playlist Technique.

On your streaming service of choice, create a playlist called: Guitar Tones.

Throughout your day listening to playlists, new bands, artist radio, etc., keep an ear open for guitar tones that are in the ballpark of what you’re looking for. When you hear one that's close, just add it to your guitar tones playlist. Don’t act on it any further for now.

Do this for 3-4 weeks. At the end of this period, sit down and pull up your playlist.

Create a spreadsheet (or any type of list) and write down each artist and album on it.

Then go on a gear site like equipboard.com or the Guitar Nerds YouTube channel and look up the gear used by those artists for those albums.

In your spreadsheet, write down the guitar, the overdrive and effects pedals and the amp.

Here's what the sheet can look like

I've made this available to everyone via Google Drive. You can download it here

This is going to take you some time but, if you have a specific tone in mind and you have enough data points,

I’m willing to bet you will start seeing certain pieces of gear creep up more than once. That’s the gear you want to consider.

I did this experiment about a year ago and found a somewhat obscure amp that I’d never heard of. It was the Hayden Mini Mofo. I bought the head and am absolutely thrilled with the tones I’m getting out of it.

The little guy I got after doing the Playlist Method. He's a killer.

Step 2: Understand the tone coming directly off of your guitar

First, make sure you have new strings and that your guitar is properly set up and tuned.

Check out this post for more information on that.

Next, open up your DAW and set up a click track. This will be important when we start A/B testing.

Plug your guitar directly into a DI (Direct Inject) box or directly into your interface - if your interface has a Hi Z input.

"Hi Z" stands for high impedance and describes the output of the guitar pick-up. It means that the guitar pick-up has a high resistance to flowing electrical current but, for practical purposes, just know that impedance of whatever the guitar is connected to can affect tone and to get an accurate representation of your guitar’s tone, you should connect to a Hi Z instrument input. Most modern interfaces have this as an option.

If you have passive pick-ups (i.e., your guitar does NOT need batteries), turn all of the guitar knobs up to 10.

If you have active pickups (i.e., your guitar needs a power supply – typically a 9V battery) then turn all the knobs to 5, or the middle position.

Record some riffs that are representative of your style of music. For example, if your songs have an assortment of chugging riffs and big open chords, record a passage that that features riffs of both styles.

Also, record every section of the passage twice so that you have a string of repeating sections (e.g., Riff 1, Riff 1, Riff 2, Riff 2, Riff 3, Riff 3). Again, this will be useful when we start to A/B test our tones. We’ll want to hear the same phrase back to back with different processing.

Now, listen back to your tone. Sure, it’s not distorted or processed but does it “feel” right?

Ask yourself the following questions:

- Is it too bright?

- Is it too muddy?

- Is it too honky and telephony?

- Is it too thin?

- Do the notes hold pitch or does the pitch seem to wander?

Repeat the exercise using another pick-up on the guitar.

Now you should have two recording of identical passages, one with pickup A and another with pickup B.

Start playback from the beginning and switch rapidly between the first recording and second recording. Note the difference by asking yourself the same questions as above.

Choose the pick-up that seems closest and stick with it. Repeat this as necessary with the goal of choosing a pick-up that sounds closest to your target sound.

Next, turn the tone knob all the way down. Play the same passage again and do the A/B comparison. Note what the tone knob is doing and adjust it to taste.

On passive pickups, the tone knob is basically a way to roll off the top end of the tone. It acts like an EQ that turns down high frequencies and makes your tone darker. Find a setting that seems good and move on.

You can start to see what we’re doing.

We’re building our tone from the absolute ground level up in a very methodical and simple way. It’s easy to play with only one variable at a time and answer the question “is A better or is B better?”. If we’re playing with 10 variables, then we have to ask ourselves “which is better, A, B, C, D, etc.,” and that’s a much harder analysis.

Repeat the exercise above for any other settings on your guitar. You can of course go back and make adjustments but don’t “leave” the guitar until you feel you’re as close to your target tone as you can get.

The next biggest factor (by far) will be the guitar amp.

Step 3: Understand Your Amp Tone

Plug your guitar directly into the amp (no pedals yet, my friend) and set all of the amp knobs to the 12 o’clock position. We’re starting with neutral settings.

Here is what you need to know about Gain and Volume and the difference between the two.

Gain controls a part of the pre-amp circuit that’s going to add distortion. Turn up the gain and you will turn up the volume but also turn up the distortion.

Volume (or Level on guitar pedals) refers to a clean signal boost that will not add distortion to the signal. It will make your signal louder without distorting at that stage. It could, however, push the signal louder into the next stage and cause that stage to distort. We will use this to our advantage later.

Set your amp volume to a reasonable level to keep from blowing out your ears (and pissing off your neighbors) but don’t play too quietly either. Guitar amp tone will change significantly at volume (especially for tube amps) so you want to be close to the volume you will be recording at.

Next, adjust the gain to taste. Gain adds distortion. For a heavy distortion tone listen to the point where your tone starts too get too "washy" and notes blur together. Play a tight riff and see if the individual notes still have definition or if they're starting to blur together. If they're blurring, turn down the gain.

Now adjust your EQ section on the amp to get a tone you like. Start with the low end (usually a bass knob).

Keep in mind that getting a bass-heavy tone may sound great while you’re playing alone but it may be too much in the context of a full mix. In most cases though, just go with what feels the best. The low end can always be dialed down in the mix.

Now, ask yourself:

Does my music require more than a single “channel”? In other words, how many different types of sound will you need to get out of this amp?

For example, you may need a clean tone in some sections, a medium distortion tone in other settings and then a maxed out, super-heavy tone for other sections.

OK. We have to make a decision here. Think about the tone you’re getting out of your amp right now. Which is it most appropriate for: the clean channel? The dirty channel? The super heavy channel?

The answer to this question is going to drive (um, sure. Pun intended) our overdrive and distortion pedal strategy. This will be the topic of the next post.

In the meantime, let me know about your journey!

Want more production tips? Check out my DIY Recording Guys Podcast.

Vadim is a mixing engineer and producer. His passion for recording and mixing was sparked through playing guitar and writing music as a teenager. Today he operates Calm Frog Recording where he helps artists get their songs to sound as good as they possibly can.

For many more tips, check out Vadim's FREE eBook at www.howtorecordyourband.com