8 Ways to Get the Perfect Lead Guitar Tone

Are you looking for the best way to improve your lead guitar tone so you cut through the rest of the sound? Here are the 8 best ways to improve your lead guitar tone. 

8 Ways to Improve Lead Guitar Tone
  • Get a good starting point with your settings
  • Sort your gain and volume
  • Get the treble, mid and bass balance
  • Choose the bridge pickup
  • Utilise effects pedals
  • Check your guitar’s intonation
  • Change your guitar strings
  • Take care of your rig 

Start From Scratch

The first thing you need to do when figuring out your lead guitar tone, is start from scratch. If you start messing about too much with loads of different settings at once, it’ll be difficult to dial in the exact sound you want and how to tweak it to get it just right. 

Start by setting all your controls to 12 o’clock. 

This gives you the best place to start from to figure out what lead tone you want. Remember when making any adjustments from this position, to only change one thing at a time. So now lets jump into the controls and what you should adjust them to. 

Get the Volume and Gain Sorted

Starting with the gain and volume is a good place to start. Of course, the gain setting will mainly dependent on what style you’re playing. If you’re in a metal band, then obviously, you’ll have your gain higher. If you’re going for a clean sound, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have any gain at all though. You’ll want to start by turning the gain up until you start to hear the crunchy sound. Then turn it down to the point just before you heard it. 

Figure out the Balance

Tone controls are present on most decent amplifiers and are important in getting your lead guitar tone properly dialed in. There are usually at least three tone controls:

  1. Treble: this refers to the amount of high-end sound produced by your amp. The higher the treble, the sharper the sound. 
  2. Mids: this one is pretty obvious. It controls the mid-range frequency in your sound. A low mid setting sounds “scooped” whereas a higher setting will be more full-bodied.
  3. Bass: this refers to the low-end sound. The lower the bass, the thinner the sound will be. 

There are also a few other tone controls that you might have, depending on what amp you’re using. The EQ control will affect the tone of your lead guitar sound. There can also be a contour or filter setting which is an all-in-one treb-bass-mid setting and the effect varies depending on your amp. 

Now you now what all the tone settings mean, how do you use them to improve your lead guitar tone?

Well, first lets talk about mids. You usually want to have this on around 4-6. Much lower than this and you won’t get as much punch in your tone, and much higher can work sometimes but can muddle the tone a bit. 

You’ll want your bass set the higher in most cases, try and go for around 7 and work from there. You may even need to set this higher if you are using smaller speakers. 

Finally, you’ll probably want to keep the treble on around 5. If you go too high with the treble, then the sound can be a bit too harsh. Too low and it’ll start to sound weak and fuzzy. 

Choose the Pickup

So on most guitars you’ll have three pickup settings: neck, bridge and both. 

The general rule is, that you’ll want to use the bridge pickup for the lead guitar. The bridge pickup will produce a sharper sound, whereas the neck pickup is usually more “bassy”. Think of it similarly to the bass, mid and treble controls.

  • Neck pickup: high bass, low treble
  • Bridge pickup: low bass, high treble
  • Both pickups: more mid-range 
Generally, your amp settings will favour higher bass and lower treble and your pickup will put more of an emphasis on the treble. This usually creates a nice balanced sound. But this is all just preference. Using both pickups mau sound better for you. It’s unlikely that you should go for the neck pickup though, it usually won’t allow you to cut through the sound as well. 

Throw in Some Effects

One of the best ways to improve your lead guitar tone and develop your own sound, is by using pedals to add some effects in the mix. If you’re new to using pedals, then it’s best to start with one or two pedals and figure those out properly. It can be really easy to get carried away with pedal boards, they can get pretty addictive! But you don’t need to over complicate things, particularly at the start in order to get a great lead guitar tone. Here are some of the main types of pedal to consider. 

Distortion Pedals

This is the most popular kind of pedal out there. It adds some crunch, volume and sustain to your sound to improve the sound of your lead guitar performances. If you’re on a budget then the Boss DS-1 is a great distortion pedal to start with. But if you’re looking for something a bit more high-end, then go for an Ibanez Tube Screamer. It’s one of the most famous pedals out there and has been used by famous players like Noel Gallagher. 

Reverb Pedals 

Sometimes amps come with reverb built-in, but most of the time you can’t turn it off without changing the controls on the amp. This is no good when you’re trying to give your sound a boost for a solo. Reverb pedals give an echo effect which sounds great on lead guitars. If you want to splash out, then the MRX M300 is an excellent choice. But if you’re looking for something less flash and expensive, then the EX Digital Reverb Pedal Mini is a solid option. 

Boost Pedals

This allows you to increase the volume of your guitar quickly without adding any distortion. It’s a valuable pedal to add to your board if you’re playing songs that require a more prominent lead guitar sound in some parts and a quieter sound in others. For example, in the verses compared to the solos. The TC Electronic Spark Line is a good budget option to give you this effect and the Xotic AC Booster Pedal is a good choice if you want to spend a bit more. 

Delay Pedals 

These pedals do what they say on the tin. It allows the sound you produced to keep repeating after you’ve stopped strumming. It can be a great addition to the tone of your lead guitar and has been famously used in loads of classic songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Run Like Hell”. The Boss DD-500 is a popular high-end option, and the Electro-Harmonix Canyon is a great choice if you want something less expensive. 

Check the Intonation of your Guitar

One of the main things that can hold back your lead guitar tone, is the guitar itself. Now I don’t mean that you need to go and purchase a super expensive Gibson or Fender model to be able to sound good when playing lead guitar. I mean that you need to make sure that your guitar’s intonation is correct and there aren’t any issues with any part of your instrument.

Here are some things to consider to check your guitar is correct:

  • High action or extreme relief indicating the need for truss rod adjustment
  • Bridge and saddle height that needs readjusting 
  • Worn frets

If you’re not sure how to check the intonation of your guitar, here are some steps you can try.

  • Play a note on the 12th fret
  • Play the 12th fret harmonic of the same note 
  • Compare the pitch of the two sounds.

Now if you know your way around guitars, you may have some experience making adjustments to improve the intonation. But if you don’t have a clue what’s going on, then take your guitar to a well-renowned repair shop and ask them to check it and make any adjustments if necessary. 

Change the Strings

How often you should be changing your guitar strings will depend on a few things. 

  • The quality of your guitar strings
  • The age of the guitar strings
  • How often you play your guitar

With that in mind, you should change your guitar strings after around 100 of hours of playing, or every 4-6 months, whichever comes first. If you’re having trouble bending or sliding on your strings, that’s also a sign that you should change your guitar strings. 

When playing lead guitar it’s really important to change your guitar strings regularly to make sure you get a good tone. The older and more worn your strings are, the less bright and sharp your sound will sound. Old strings sound less clear which is less of an issue with rhythm guitar but a disaster for lead guitar tone. 

Care for your Cables

This might not sound the most important point on this list, but looking after your cables can go a long way to improving your guitar tone. 

Make sure you get a well-made and designed cable that’s built to last. Store your cable properly and wind it up when you’re not using it. Avoid kinks and stretching your cable at all costs.

So that’s it! Those are the 8 best ways to improve your lead guitar tone! I hope you’ve found this guide useful and thanks for reading! Here are some other posts you might find useful. 


Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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