Are you wondering what affects your electric guitar’s tone? And why some guitars sound better than others? We’ll go through the most important factors that affect an electric guitars tone, and how you improve the sound of your instrument. So let’s get started!
7 Factors that Affect your Electric Guitar’s Tone
- Body Type
- Tone Wood
- Neck Construction
- Effects Pedals
1. Body Type
There are three main body types of electric guitars, and each of them has a different impact on the tone.
- Solid Body
These, as suggested by the name, are made from one solid piece of wood. Solid body guitars are usually what you think of when you think about classic guitars. The most famous ones include the Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Les Paul Custom 24, SG and Flying V. Solid body guitars are better known for their high sustain. They also are less susceptible to feedback. Solid bodied guitars are great for pretty much every playing style and offer excellent versatility.
Hollow body guitars are on the opposite end of the spectrum to solid bodied guitars. Unsurprisingly, they have a more acoustic sounding tone. The main drawbacks of hollow electric guitars are that they have less sustain, and also are more prone to feedback, so typically don’t suit high gain. That’s why they’re more popular with guitarists looking for a cleaner sound, like in jazz music. One of the most famous hollow bodied guitars is the Gibson ES-175.
This type of electric guitar offers a middle ground between solid and hollow bodied guitars. It’s very similar to a hollow body guitar, except it has a block running through the centre to split it into two sections. The most famous semi-hollow electric guitar is the Gibson ES-335, which is popular with a range of guitarists from Noel Gallagher to David Grohl. It can handle gain better than the hollow guitars, so it’s a good choice for blues, jazz and classic rock.
In a Nutshell
There are three main electric guitar body types: solid, hollow and semi-hollow. Solid bodies are the most versatile, have the best sustain and least feedback. Hollow bodies have a more acoustic-sounding tone and suffer from low sustain and high feedback. Semi-hollow bodies are somewhere between the two, but more closely related to hollow-bodied guitars.
2. Tone Wood
There is some debate as to just how much tone wood affects electric guitar tone. It’s definitely agreed that it impacts acoustic tone, more than electric, but it does still have some effect.
There are many different types of tone wood, and each of them has different properties. For example, some have more gaps and grains than others. And this affects the tone.
The sound your guitar produces originates from the vibrations produced when you pluck a string. The density of the wood affects how these vibrations move. The more dense the wood, the less space the vibrations have to move around in, leading to a sharper and brighter sound. The less dense the wood, the more the vibrations will be soaked up, so you’ll get a darker sound with better sustain. Head over to our post on how tone wood affects electric guitar tone for some more detail.
There are three main types of wood that affect the tone of your guitar: the body, fret board and neck. The body is arguably the most important, followed by the fret board and finally the neck. Here’s a quick diagram to show the kinds of tones produced from the most common types of electric guitar wood.
In a Nutshell
The kind of wood your electric guitar is made from isn’t the most important factor in determining its tone, but it does still play a part. The denser the wood, the sharper and brighter the sound. Dense woods include Maple and Ebony. Mahogany and rosewood are less dense woods so produce a warmer sound. Alder, ash and basswood offer a middle ground.
Pickups are really important when it comes to determining your electric guitar’s tone. When you pluck a string, this sound is detected by your pickups, which then send a signal to your amplifier and the sound plays out of your speaker. So it’s no surprise that pickups are super important.
There are usually three settings on your guitar which determine which pickup is active. One that activates the bridge pickup, one that activates the neck pickup and one that activates both. Some guitars even have 5 settings which activates the neck and bridge pickups to varying degrees. Activating the neck pickup produces a different sound to the bridge pickup.
- Neck pickup: produces a mellow and softer sound more suited to rhythm guitar.
- Bridge pickup: produces a sharper and brighter sound better suited to lead guitars.
As well as the different positions of your pickups, they style of pickup is also really important. Pickups consist of a core material wrapped in coils of wire. The different materials and number of coils affects the tone produced by your electric guitar’s pickups. There are two main types: single-coil and humbucker.
Single Coil Pickups
These consist of a wire wrapped around six individual magnets. They’re known for their bright and sharp sounds. They have a slight buzzing sound, which some players like, but others don’t. Single coil pickups are most famously found on Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
Humbuckers have two coils, rather than one. Each coil has the magnets going in opposite directions. They produce a thicker and beefier sound than single coil pickups. These types of pickups are famously found on Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335 guitars. They are versatile and can suit jazz and blues, but they’re also good for heavier genres like rock and metal.
In a Nutshell
Guitar pickups are super important when it comes to determining the tone. There are two main types of pickups, single-coil and humbucker. You can also change your tone by activating your neck or bridge pickups, or activating both at the same time.
You’ll already know that your guitar’s strings are fundamental in creating your electric guitars sound. There are several different factors that affect how your strings actually sound. Here’s a quick guide.
The thicker your strings are, the higher the gauge is. High gauge strings produce a heavier and darker tone than thinner strings which sound brighter and twangier. Thick strings offer better sustain because they hold more energy so vibrate for longer. They’re also louder for the same reason.
The main disadvantage of thicker strings is that they’re harder to play. They’re more difficult to bend and hold the string down. This means that they are less popular with beginners who may find them really difficult to play with.
The most popular guitar string gauge sets are between 0.008 and 0.015. Having 0.010 gauge strings is usually a happy medium between play-ability and a great tone with good sustain.
Most electric guitar strings are made from steel, nickel or a combination of the two. Steel strings produce a brighter sound that’s useful if you want to be able to cut through sound when playing in a live band, as they produce higher frequency sound. Steel strings are popular with metal and hard rock guitarists. Nickel strings sound warmer and more mellow and suit lighter genres like blues and classic rock music.
Age and Condition
Older and more worn guitar strings produce a duller and flatter sound than newer strings. This can really be a huge factor in determining your tone. If you need a bright and sharp tone with good clarity, then you’ll need to make sure you look after your strings and replace them frequently.
As a general rule, you should change your strings after every 100 hours of playing or every 4 months, whichever comes first. If your guitar won’t stay in tune, or the strings feel stiff, or you feel a lot of friction when sliding, then it’s time to change your strings.
If you want to make your strings last longer then making sure that your hands are always clean, and keeping your strings and fret board clean is very important. It’s also a good idea to store your guitar in a case to stop it accumulating dust and dirt which leads to corrosion, making your strings age faster.
In a Nutshell
The sound of your electric guitar is originally generated by your strings, so they’re super important when it comes to your tone. The gauge, material and condition affects the tone that your strings will produce. Take a look at our post on how strings affect a guitar’s tone for more information.
5. Neck Construction
This is lesser known factor when it comes to determining your electric guitar’s tone, but the neck construction can play a role in the way that your guitar sounds.
There are three main types of neck construction: bolt-on, set-neck and through neck.
This is the cheapest type of neck construction, and is most commonly found on lower-end guitars. As the name suggests, this is when the neck is bolted on to the body. They generally don’t have as much sustain, and produce a twangier kind of sound.
Set neck constructions are a step up compared to bolt-on necks. This is when there is a slot in the body for the neck, and the neck is then glued in. They are a bit more expensive and produce a fuller sounding tone.
This is the most premium neck construction available. This is when the body and neck are made from one piece of wood. Of course, they offer the best sustain and resonance. But unfortunately, they’re very expensive and also impossible to replace if damaged.
In a Nutshell
There are three main types of neck construction. Bolt-on necks are the cheapest and have a twangier sound. Neck-through constructions are the most expensive and have the best sustain and resonance. Set-necks are a balance between the two.
Your amplifier is super important when it comes to determining your electric guitar’s tone. Most amps come with the following basic controls. Knowing what each of them does is really important when it comes to figuring out how an amp affects the tone.
- Gain: refers to the amount of distortion produced.
- Bass: refers to the amount of low-frequency sound produced. Higher bass means a thicker tone, but too high can cause it to sound muddled.
- Mids: this refers to the mid-range frequency produced by your amp. A low mid setting can lead to a “scooped” sound, which tends to get lost when you’re playing in a band.
- Treble: this refers to the high frequency sound produced. The higher the treble is, then the sharper and brighter the sound will be. But if it’s too high, then it can sound a bit too harsh.
The best thing to do when making adjustments to your amp to try and impact the tone, is to go back to basics. Turn all the dials to 12 o’clock and then make slight adjustments to each control, one at a time. Then listen to how this affects the tone with both chords and individual strings.
In a Nutshell
There are several different controls on your amp which will affect your tone, each in a slightly different way. Try adjusting each control individually to figure out the perfect tone for you. Head over to our post on the 7 ways to make your amp sound better for some more information.
7. Pedal Effects
If you want to create a more unique tone, or try and replicate the tone of another famous guitarist, then pedals are a really great addition to your setup.
Advantages of Pedal Effects
- They allow you to change your tone, without getting a new amp or guitar.
- Pedals can be easily switched on or off during a song so you can have multiple tones without having to mess with your amp.
- They give you a range of effects that most amps aren’t capable of.
There are tonnes of different pedals on the market, each offering a different effect on your electric guitar tone. Here are some of the most popular pedal types that you should look into.
These imitate the sound you would achieve if you cranked a valve amp up to its maximum setting. The harder you play, the heavier the gain will be. And the softer you pluck the strings, the less you’ll hear the gain. Overdrive pedals are used in loads of different styles of music, but are best suited to classic rock, indie and blues styles. The Ibanez Tubescreamer TS9 is one of the most popular overdrive pedals and is used by famous guitarists like Alex Turner and Noel Gallagher.
These are super popular amongst hard rock and metal players. They add tonnes of sustain and gain to your tone and often produce a higher quality tone, than if you turned your gain up on your amp fully. They’re often confused with overdrive pedals, but distortion pedals are more aggressive and heavy, hence why they suit heavier styles of music. If you want a distortion pedal option, then the Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion Compact pedal is a great option that can be picked up at a very affordable price.
This is a really popular effect used by loads of different guitarists in loads of different genres. They sound similar to echo. Imagine playing in a huge empty hall, and this is what reverb sounds like. They add more depth to your tone, but without adding any gain. The MXR M300 reverb pedal is a great option if you’re looking for this kind of effect.
These produce a fizzy and noisy sound. Fuzz effects sound very unique, and although they are often confused with distortion and overdrive, they have their own unique tone. They’re usually associated with guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Billy Corgan and Keith Richards. The Electro-Harmonix Op Amp Big Muff is a popular choice in this category.
EQ stands for equaliser, and affects the frequency of the sound you hear when you’re playing. They allow you to control the amount of bass, mids and treble of your sound, so you can get the best balance. The Boss GE-7 is a solid EQ pedal option.
- Tremelo pedals: sounds increases and decreases the volume rapidly.
- Phaser pedals: adds a whoosing sound.
- Chorus pedals: sounds like multiple guitars are playing at once.
- Boost pedals: increases volume without having to increase gain.
- Delay pedals: takes a note or chord and plays it back repeatedly.
In a Nutshell
Getting some pedal effects is a great way to change the tone of your electric guitar. They come in loads of different forms and can be combined together to create a unique tone.
So that’s it! Those are the 7 more important factors that affect the tone of your electric guitar. I hope you’ve found this guide useful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts that you might like: