7 Ways To Tweak Your Tone Without Breaking The Bank
Article by Logan Tabor
There is no limit to the many ways one can tweak the sound of their guitar rig. The real problem is the cost of most of these approaches; adding new pedals to your chain, changing speaker cabinets, and buying new amps and guitars, are the more expensive ways to make a change. Often times, your sound can be shaped and customized without going to such extraordinary lengths, and it’s even fun seeing what kind of new sounds you can unlock by making minor changes to the gear you already have. Today we will discuss 8 ways to tweak your tone without breaking the bank.
The speaker, while only a part of the equation, gets the final say in how your tone comes across. Between the variety of materials used in speaker construction, the different sizes of speakers, and the varying quality assurance protocols in their respective manufacturing facilities, the number of different voices a speaker could offer your rig is just about infinite. Often times amp designers will pair a speaker with a circuit, and this is usually done a careful and calculated manner. However, every player’s taste is different from the next, and we might not all agree on the speakers paired with our amps, so why not do some experimenting? Try using American-voiced speakers with British-voiced amps and vice versa. Try switching from a ceramic magnet to an AlNiCo magnet and see what happens. Go with a higher power rating if you want to clean your sound up a bit, or go with a lower power rating to hear a little more speaker breakup (yes, speaker breakup and tube breakup are different). And don’t be afraid to spend hours reading about the tonal characteristics of all these different speakers; doing the research is always worth it, and there’s plenty of research to be done here. Mojotone offers speakers of all shapes, sizes, and flavors, from industry leaders such as Jensen, Celestion, Weber and Eminence.
Your guitar’s pickups are the very first electronic component in your entire signal chain, and they are responsible for laying the foundation of sound that gets pushed through every subsequent component. The best philosophy, as with anything else, is to get the sweetest sound possible at the very start of it all. With a lot of guitars, it seems like pickups are almost an afterthought. Pairing isn’t always reliable right out of the box, and typically pickups aren’t the main focus for a guitar manufacturer, thus upgrading your pickups should be a major consideration. A lot goes into designing a quality pickup: choosing the right type and value of magnets; using the best kind of wire, the best gauge of said wire, and the appropriate amount of wire for the application; potting the pickup properly, when necessary...the list goes on. At this stage, every piece of the puzzle will have a dramatic effect on the outcome, so it’s imperative, once again, to put in the research hours; listen to sound clips, read forums, look at output charts and tone descriptions. Mojotone has spent years developing an all-encompassing pickup line with offerings to cover any guitarist’s needs.
A 6L6 is just a 6L6, right? Wrong. Just as with most everything else, every manufacturer is different, and so are their products. I’ve had a number of amps over the years, and I’ve experimented with tube configurations on each and every one of them; trying an Electro-Harmonix tube here, and a Tube Amp Doctor tube there, etc. Some tubes have a shorter-bottle with quicker breakup, some tubes are darker-sounding where others are more bright and crispy. Maybe you find that you like using all JJ brand tubes, or maybe you find that you like a combination of NOS and modern production tubes in your amp. The point is, vacuum tubes aren’t all that expensive, so it’s worth buying a few different types and doing some A/B testing. And don’t just limit yourself to power tubes; your preamp tubes are vital to your amp’s character and it’s absolutely worth spending a day or two figuring out what you like. Most players just take what they are given, and when it comes time to put new tubes in, they just buy the same thing that came stock in their amp and never even give themselves the opportunity to hear what else is possible.
This is something a lot of guitarists don’t think to touch because, “how much could a few pots and some wire really affect my tone?” Valid question, but the answer is, “a whooooooole lot.” Every electronic component, big or small, has an affect on your signal, and your ability as a musician to shape that signal. Having a wiring harness equipped with well-made tone caps of the proper value, quality potentiometers, and durable, well-insulated wire can go a lot further than one might think. For instance, a potentiometer that has been designed to give the user a good clean taper, can be of great value to a guitarist. This level of build quality allows you to use your volume and tone knobs more effectively in a live setting as well as a studio setting; it allows you to fine-tune your sound on the fly without losing any fidelity. And if your pots and pickups aren’t matched with the right tone capacitors, you could be missing out on certain parts of your frequency range, and then you are really short-changing yourself. Checkout Mojotone’s full line of guitar wiring harnesses; whether you play Tele, Strat, Les Paul, SG or anything in between, it’s important to make sure your guitar is loaded with the best electronics possible.
This one could almost have gone under the “Guitar Electronics” heading but we felt it needed its own little spotlight. Most guitar wiring harnesses do not come with this simple mod on the volume potentiometer, but it goes a long way in helping retain certain qualities while rolling back the volume on your guitar. If you’re the type of guitarist that uses their volume knob often in a live setting, you know how drastically this can affect the responsiveness of your entire rig; your pedals will react to the change, your tubes will react, your speaker will react, and you the guitarist will even react. The issue is, when rolling back the volume to clean things up on the fly, you might notice a significant deficit in highs when doing so. Mojotone’s Volume Mod is designed to retain your high end clarity and punch when dialing the volume knob back. This way you get the dynamic benefits of using your volume knob without losing the tone you spent so many hours perfecting. This is an easy mod that anyone with basic soldering skills can perform; you can have it done in five minutes and it only costs $3.
We’ve all heard the old saying; the one about how the REAL tone comes from your hands. Well, in a lot of way it’s true. Before any signal even makes it to your pickups, your hands have to create that signal. The material that strikes your strings will absolutely have an impact on the sound that makes it to your pickups, through your pedals and amp, and out of your speaker. Try messing around with different pick weights and materials. It may seem trivial, but it actually goes a long way. Next time you’re in the music store just grab ten different types of picks and see how they feel; you may realize the picks you thought you loved so much are actually uncomfortable and don’t do anything for your sound.
Now that you have spent countless hours making sure you have the right pick for your style, let’s make sure that pick is striking the right strings! Different strings are made to serve different purposes and it’s worth exploring all the options. I know I played with nickel strings forever simply because I didn’t even know that I SHOULD try something else out. I discovered, like so many others that nickel wound strings had a more round vintage sound to them, where stainless steel strings had a brighter feel with a bit more sustain. Same with flat-wound strings being a bit warmer where round-wound strings have more bite and clarity. I’ve said it before, but every piece of the machine is just as important as the next, and strings are no exception. It’s also important to make sure your strings are fresh, as the older they get the less articulate and lively they become.
These are our favorite 7 ways to tweak your tone without breaking the bank. All of these adjustments are cost effective and easy to implement. No matter what, the important thing is that you keep experimenting with changes big and small. If all you have is a guitar and an amp, you have the makings of some monster tone and a platform for countless mods to be made. It just takes a little time and a whole lotta love to find the right combination.