Five Tips For Improving Your Electric Guitar Tone

Written by
Dave Hunter
Published on
January 21, 2021 4:14:24 PM PST January 21, 2021 4:14:24 PM PSTst, January 21, 2021 4:14:24 PM PST
There are plenty of things you can do to alter or improve the tone of your guitar without undertaking major surgery, or swapping out any significant components worth more than a few bucks. If your electric guitar sounds “pretty good” just as it is, but you haven’t paid much consideration to these tips, it’s virtually guaranteed that one or more of them will help your instrument toward sounding like its best self. And the good part is… they’re all non-invasive, totally reversible, and can be tried at home by practically every guitarist.

One: Reconsider Your String Height

String height impacts several considerations regarding any guitar, but let’s deal primarily with tone here. When it comes to string height—or the playing feel for which string height is responsible, often referred to as “action”—plenty of players figure it’s best to get the strings as low as they’ll go without buzzing or choking out on bends, to facilitate super-easy playability. This can lead to a false economy of sorts, though, and impact your guitar’s tone for the worse.
Keeping the strings as low as possible can deaden your tone in ways that might not be obvious. Even if strings aren’t noticeably buzzing, their proximity to the frets with an extremely low action can inhibit their vibrational arc, impeding their natural resonance. Hit the occasional chord with extra gusto and they are likely to rattle against your frets, too, in a way that might not be obvious to the ear, but which will impact your tone and sustain in negative ways. 
Try this set-up alternative: raise your strings up too high to be comfortable for your preferred playing style, then lower them gradually until they are just comfortable enough to play. Give your fingers a chance to adjust to this action, and see if your tone hasn’t improved from the original lower setting. Chances are you’ll get more “ring,” resonance, and sustain out of your guitar, along with a richer, deeper tone overall. If you don’t like it… just put them back where they were to begin with, or somewhere in between. 
Note: In conjunction with an action/string height adjustment, be sure to consider #4 and #5 below.

Two: Try a Different String Type

There’s a lot said about “getting a fatter tone by changing to a higher string gauge.” Dial up some interweb guitar chat rooms and you might even come away with the impression that you’re a wimpy wet noodle of a guitarist if you’re using anything less than mega-gauge piano wires on your guitar. But let’s say you’re perfectly happy with the feel of your string gauge and don’t want to mess up your guitar’s familiar playability. Consider, too, that countless major guitar stars past and present have used .009 and even .008 strings to log huge sounding tones, and several mega-hits, and it’s worth approaching the string-based-tone-tweak from another perspective.
Different makes and types of strings, even of the same gauge, can fundamentally change the sound of your electric guitar, and might be a great way for you to dial in desirable characteristics (or dial out those that are undesirable). Is your guitar too bright or brittle sounding with standard nickel-plated steel strings? Try a set with pure-nickel wraps on the wound strings, which will make most guitars sound a little richer and warmer. Be sure to check the names of string types carefully, as many will say “nickel wound strings,” but unless they declare “pure nickel-wound” they are usually only nickel-plated steel wraps. As a bonus, pure nickel-wound strings often have a slightly softer playing feel, are a little easier on your frets, and can sometimes be perceived to last longer since they don’t lose their enhanced zing the way nickel-plated strings and some other types do after some playing time.
Of course, to go the other way and make a somewhat dull or dark guitar sound brighter and livelier, you can swap to nickel-plated strings if you’re using pure nickel. Or, if you’re already there, you might try some stainless-steel strings, or types by a range of makers that tend to include names like “power,” “boomers,” “steel,” or “bright.” Be aware, however, that pure uncoated stainless steel strings will be harder on your frets.

Three: Clean the Contacts

As far as this tip is concerned, the key word in electric guitar is “electric.” When you consider that there’s an electric signal carrying every drop of your tone from the instrument to the listeners’ ears, it becomes pretty clear that you want that signal to be clear and unconstrained. 
Even when carefully used and well cared for, the components within any guitar that carry the signal from one stage to another, and ultimately out to the cable and the amp, can become tarnished, gunked-up, oxidized, or otherwise compromised. You likely won’t see this grime as obvious “dirt” or a fault of any kind (even if you open up your guitar’s control cavities to visually inspect its various components), but if you haven’t cleaned any such parts in a long while, it’s almost guaranteed that doing so will help your signal flow more freely.
The main parts worth attention in this regard are your pickup selector switch, volume and tone potentiometers, and output jack. A routine cleaning of these parts with a quality contact cleaner (and sometimes with a little elbow grease to assist) will work wonders. The industry standard contact cleaner for this job is Caig DeoxIt D5: attach the narrow straw that helps focus the spray, and shoot it into the contact area of any selector switch then flick it back and forth a few times; spray into the “window” of potentiometers and rotate several times; and spray onto both the positive and ground contact surfaces of your output jack, then “scrub” those gently with a cotton bud (don’t apply so much pressure here that you bend the positive contact tip out of alignment). Some people will recommend a contact cleaner and lubricator spray for switches and potentiometers, but the latter part of that product can leave behind a slightly greasy surface that will become sticky over time, attracting dust and more rapidly degrading the pot after the initial “fix,” so that you ultimately need to replace them. 

Four: Adjust Your Pickup Height

Most of the guitarists who perform even the more rudimentary set-ups on their own are aware that raising any guitar’s pickups closer to the strings will increase a guitar’s output. I’m going to urge you, however, to consider other aspects of pickup adjustment which, as often as not, will lead you to move the pickups further away from the strings rather than closer.
While increased output might outwardly sound like a universally desirable thing—for rock players in particular—raising your pickups up as close to the strings as they’ll go without actually causing any contact buzzing while you’re playing, will often result in a harsh, ragged, and overly raw-sounding tone. At the same time, pickups with magnetic pole pieces (as opposed to having steel pole pieces with the magnets beneath the pickup), such as most traditional Fender designs, Gretsch Dynasonics, and the like, will exert magnetic pull on the strings themselves if adjusted too high, which can result in ghost notes and poor resonance and sustain, particularly when a neck pickup is too high.
Instead, try lowering your pickups down into the body a little more than is considered standard—that is, position them further away from the strings—and you can be sure of giving the strings plenty of unencumbered air in which to vibrate. The result of this is, in part, a little less output. But in most cases, this isn’t a problem, and you can always get more gain and volume by adjusting your amplifier and any booster or overdrive-type pedals in your sound chain. What you do often achieve in doing this, is a woodier and more resonant tone with greater dynamics and touch sensitivity, as well as a “livelier” feel to the playing response. Pick lightly and it’s clean yet warm; dig in harder and you get increased drive and output, but without a big sacrifice in note definition or clarity. 
Many pickup-and-guitar combinations have a real “sweet spot” in this regard, and you’ll benefit from playing around with pickup heights (taking notes as you go) until you find the position that really clicks for your own particular marriage of wood, wire, and magnet. Perhaps start by dropping the pickups down somewhat lower than you might normally consider, and then raising them gradually (maybe half a screw turn at a time) as you play and listen. Note the point where richness, depth, harmonic content, and playing dynamics all come into place—and be prepared to back down into it again if you end up going too high and passing the sweet spot.
This is all pretty easily achieved on most guitars with traditional adjustable pickups, other than dog-ear style P-90s and old-school Gretsch Filter’Trons and Dynasonics (aka DeArmond Model 200s), which provide adjustable pole pieces only, and require shims (or some other minor modification) to enable raising and lowering the entire pickup.

Five: Optimize Your Truss-Rod Adjustment

Many players proceed on the understanding that you want a guitar’s neck to be “as straight as possible,” and while this might lead to the easiest playing feel when the strings are also set low (aka “low action”), this isn’t always optimal for overall tone and sustain. We’ll consider the factors involved here, and some alternative points of view for maximizing the impact of neck relief on tone, but if you’re not already skilled in checking and adjusting your own truss rod you should look elsewhere, or to your guitar manufacturer’s guidance to help you correctly undertake this work. Also, forget back bow: we never want back bow in our neck, so let’s start working from the perspective of a perfectly straight neck with no relief whatsoever. 
With a perfectly straight neck, and strings stretched across the frets set to a fairly low action, the vibrational arc of those strings in motion when played with even a little gusto will most likely put them in contact with the tops of the frets. Not only will this induce buzzing and rattling when you play, it will also impede the guitar’s resonance and sustain. If you’ve got a super-light playing touch with the picking hand, and never really attack the strings in anger at all, you might be able to get away with this. Likewise, if you are a high-gain shredder who needs a super-easy touch and uses a lot of saturation at your amp and other effects, such a neck adjustment and set-up might work for you. However, most players, whether average strummers or heavy hitters, will need a little relief (aka forward-bow) in their necks to allow the strings to vibrate freely.
As measured with a capo at the first fret and your right hand pressing down on the low-E string a fret or two past the neck/body joint, a gap between the string and the top of the 7th fret of around .010" +/– is ideal for most players. If you tend to play hard more often than not, and your strings need a wider arc to vibrate freely, add a little more relief. This might all sound pretty scientific, but if you don’t have the right feeler gauges you can generally eyeball the gap just fine, and experiment a little until you find the adjustment that best marries optimal resonance and playing feel for your own style. 
The average business card is about .016" thick (as is the average greeting card), so you might find this a tight squeeze between the low-E string and 7th fret if adjusting for average relief, and a smooth and accurate fit if adjusting for more heavy-hitting playing. Always make such adjustments and measurements with the guitar tuned to pitch and in playing position, and go easy when turning the truss-rod nut or adjustment point, starting with just about 1/8 of a turn at a time.