Master the Tone You Produce with Your Guitar | Right Hand Technique Guitar
There are many factors that affect the tone of your guitar. Most guitarists and guitar teachers point to the right-hand, and rightly so!
However, specifics of the right-hand technique greatly impact acoustic instruments such as flat top steel string guitars and nylon string guitars or unamplified arch tops. Once a guitar is amplified, there are so many other factors that enter into the tonal qualities produced by the player. Still, starting with excellent right-hand technique will be the basis for a consistent tone and execution.
Let’s start by talking about pick shapes and the angle of attack on strings.
Basically, the more pointed the pick, the more “frontal attack”. If you are looking for a very bright front to your notes (that is, a clean sharp attack on each note), then the traditional pick shape is the way to go. However, shape alone does not produce tone. Traditional pick shapes are made of many different types of materials. Some are more flexible, producing a warmer sound, while others are more stiff, bringing a brighter attack.
Pick thickness is another consideration. Most guitarists are aware that a more stiff pick allows for greater speed and accuracy. Tone is certainly impacted by the thickness of the pick. Excellent players are often attracted to different thicknesses depending on whether they like to hear some string noise once a string is plucked or if they simply want a warmer tone. Generally, a thinner pick will produce a nice brushed effect for comping in an “old school, Freddie Green” style. In this case, string noise is desirable!
It is generally accepted that a thicker pick allows for more consistency in tone and much greater speed when playing single note style. As stated previously, the composition of the pick makes quite a difference in the tonal quality. Something like a stone pick produces lots of highs in your overtones, where a pick made of wood produces more of the fundamental sound. There are so many different composites on the market, each producing slightly different tonal qualities, that you might find it fun to get to your favorite guitar store and grab a wide variety of picks made of different materials but all in the same shape. Keeping the consistency in the shape will allow you to assess which pick material you find most desirable for the tone you seek.
More about tone:
Once you have found the pick type you think best for you, stop to think about the rest of your signal chain. Your strings, your amp, your pedal board, cables, and even your rehearsal space impact your sound greatly. Using the same technique discussed earlier when deciding on pick type, isolate each of these elements in your total palette and find exactly what suits you. A small change anywhere along the audio chain will greatly impact the end result. Knowing intimately each element along the way will allow you to tweak your sound and bring about the tone you’ve always dreamed of having.
Here is Guthrie Govan on Youtube talking about how Robben Ford’s Sound Really Comes From Robben’s Technique.
There are really 2 ways to approach tone for guitarist:
1. Experiment with all of your equipment. Look for new sounds and keep a notebook of tonal qualities you think will fit best for specific performance styles. This is always an exciting adventure, and little changes along the audio chain should be noted in great detail, allowing for you to control the smallest nuance in your color palette.
2. Most professional players will tell you that the sound of your instrument emanates from YOUR musical imagination. In other words, most professionals have a very clear picture in their mind’s ear as to what is the perfect sound for THEIR PERSONAL instrument. Using the “isolation techniques” when assessing their audio signal chain, they aspire to attain what they are hearing in the head. Some elements are out of their control, such as room acoustics or our LEAST favorite variable, the “insensitive soundman”. When working in a larger space, most professional players opt to use a close mic on their amp speaker set slightly off axis and just a bit right or left of the speaker center. This technique allows the player the most control over their sound output. Using a direct box is an option most sound men or recording engineers prefer, since this gives to them the greatest number of options for controlling the tonal qualities of your instrument. This scenario however, gives complete control to the soundman or recording engineer, leaving you with the sound and total colors THEY think appropriate. Why give up the power? This is your sound! You have spent years developing this, so don’t let them intimidate you.
Their preference for the use of a direct box is understandable. Using a microphone even at close range allows for sound bleed from other instruments. These ambient and transient sounds impact the sound man’s ability to control elements of your instrument. A good compromise is to ask for baffles to be placed aside of your amplifier to block the sound from other instruments.
One quick anecdote regarding tone and one’s personal sound:
One Friday night I found myself performing in a particularly difficult space. Nothing I did seemed to improve my sound quality. It seems I tried everything but could not achieve the sound I had in my head (that is, my “personal sound”). This was such a frustrating experience that it seemed to impact all elements of my playing and distracted me from the business at hand: making music!!!
The very next morning, I was on the way to my teaching studio, CLEMENTE STUDIO. When I put on the radio, a jazz guitarist was soloing. The sound of this person’s instrument was exactly what I was aspiring to attain the previous night!!! My frustration grew. “Why can’t I get that sound? What is it that is keeping me from getting that most perfect guitar sound? I’ve been looking for that sound my whole life! I will certainly have to call the radio station to find out who’s playing. My next step is to contact that musician and find out exactly what gear they’re using. I’ll ask about the amp, their guitar, the strings, even that pick! This is the sound I’ve always wanted… the sound that’s in my head.” After my rant, I began to listen more closely and found, much to my amazement, the guitarist was playing exactly the kind of lines that I would’ve heard in my head. After another 20 seconds of listening I understood why. The guitars on the radio was me! Then I realized, how could it not be? I spent my whole life looking for that sound, why would I release a recording if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to sound like? I guess this is the best example I can give of why I think it is important for professional players to carry the sound and “in their head” … their personal sound… and use every means possible to attain that sound while performing.
Looking forward to sharing more with you in the future regarding pick technique, finger style playing, and finger and pick combination.