Hi everyone, I’m Ric - Paul’s friend, and now bandmate in Esimorp, and I’m pretty stoked to finally doing my first guest post here. In this post, I’m going to talk about some common ways people limit their tone’s potential and some possible fixes. Pretty much everything here is from personal experience, which means I’ve made most of these mistakes as well. The one or two I haven’t made, I’ve definitely observed directly and heard in stories from fellow guitarists.
Now on to the list of (not so) super secret tone magic tricks!
1) Too Much Echo/Distortion
This one’s easy. But everyone does it for at least a little while. Everyone. Most people move on after talks with producers, sound guys, trusted audience members, or band mates. Simply put, when you play live, you need a good deal less gain and reverb/delay than you think you do. This has to do with the other instruments, the mix, and the venue. Everything is louder and fuller than in your practice room. Nuance definitely still has its place, but the end result you get from using various effects will be fairly different when you’re on a stage. Side note: in my opinion setting dirt pedals and echo effects to be slightly more subtle on their own, then stacking them (i.e. using two or more at the same time) for more extreme settings produces more pleasing and interesting tones. And yes, stacking reverbs and stacking delays is a thing, and it’s awesome!
For starters, The massive amounts of gain that can sound so brutal and awesome will usually turn to mud and bury your guitar once the bass and drums - especially cymbals - kick in. Bump your volume up ever so slightly louder than your clean tone. My usual rule is about half a notch for each level of extra gain - 0.5 for medium gain OD, 1 for high gain OD, 1.5 for fuzz - give or take a little. Now dial out 10-20% of the gain you think sounds good at home. Your chords will be a lot more distinct when you do.
Now let’s set those echoes. Reverb is easy enough. Dial in the amount of reverb you think sounds good. Now turn it down at least one notch, two if you’re a reverb fiend. Delays typically have two main controls that determine how they react with your signal: feedback (how many echoes you hear) and mix (how loud the echoes are compared to your non-affected or dry signal). Usually when one of these two controls goes up, the other goes down. There are three main types of delay: tape, digital, and analog. While these all can sound good in different roles, their differences tend to make them stronger for certain sounds, which determines how you should balance the feedback and mix controls.
Tape delay and digital delay produce fairly clear, percussive repeats. If you want bouncy delay, this is it. But if there are too many echoes your playing sounds messy, and if the echoes aren’t loud enough, you lose that bounce. That’s why on these delays I like a short feedback and a high mix. Analog delays are usually the legendary beasts behind those super ambient swells and drones you hear. You want long feedback, but a high mix washes out your playing. The result is that all your playing sits behind the band rather than that nice pad you want. So for analog, turn the feedback all the way up and bring it down until it’s relatively tame, then turn the mix all the way down and bring it up just until you can barely hear it with the rest of the band.
2) Bad EQ
Mids. The lifeblood of the electric guitar. Get them right, and you’re rewarded with the sweet blissful nectar of tonal heaven. Get them wrong, and you’re the worst. Forget what your amp knobs say (especially since many amps continue to call tremolo “vibrato,” but that’s a different story); about 2/3 of your guitar signal falls under the “mids or high mids” spectrum on an equalizer. Check it out here! So if you’re into drastic mid scoops and you’re not playing a 7-string or a baritone, you just cut almost 70% of your signal. That's before factoring in the human ear's changing sensitivity to different frequencies at various volumes. Probably the most popular solution to this is to simply boost your mids. I prefer to cut rather than boost - and control how much I cut. A lot of that is personal dislike for common pedals and amps which add mids, and the rest was adopted from sound guys I know who take the same approach.
Here’s the real problem with mids though, the more present you are in a mix, the more you will compete for attention with other important things, like vocals. While I’m sure you’ve got some killer chops, if everything you do is cutting through the mix, you’re cluttering your songs. Similarly, if everything you do is “warm” or “full,” my bet is that either a) I won’t hear your guitar when everyone is playing or b) your mix is muddy. If you have keys or another guitarist in your band, and both of you are cutting/filling at the same time - that’s a bad time. I’ve been there. You don’t want this.
I really like Fender amps. Yes, they’re slightly scooped in the mids. I prefer a flat or even slightly scooped sound on my clean(ish) tone. Clean(ish) Fender amp - check! For medium gain (or crunch), I only cut my highs - just enough to be noticeable. They get offensive a lot faster than lows do. Just look up “icepick” tone, or check out this chart on the sensitivity of the human ear. Finally, for my high gain overdrive, I cut my highs pretty heavily - probably around 1.5-2x as much as my medium gain - and my lows just enough to reduce the woolliness without taking away the punch from my power chords.
3) Effect Dependence
The Edge is a pretty cool dude. You may or may not have seen one of his videos showing what his parts sound like without effects. They are up there with the most minimal of minimalism. I’m sure you’re cool, too, but you’re not The Edge. Unless you’ve also risen to rock’n’roll superstar status and joined the Hall of Fame while writing lead parts with single-digit note counts, you should probably consider his approach the exception rather than the rule. Minimalism is indeed a beautiful thing. Less is more, and that applies to effects at times as well. If your part doesn’t sound good without any effects, there’s a pretty decent chance that adding a bunch of dirt, modulation, delay, etc. won’t make it sound extraordinary.
4) Wrong Place, Wrong Time
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that fuzz usually doesn’t go in a ballad. I’m sure one of these days someone will prove that wrong, if they haven’t already. I suppose a couple songs from Mumford’s album Wilder Mind probably count, but they’re also the exception and not the rule. Anyway... for the rest of us, it’s easy enough to avoid this kind of faux pas. The real traps lie in more subtle scenarios. These mistakes might not necessarily be song-breakers, but they can definitely detract from an otherwise great song - reducing “wow” to “alright.” The average audience member likely won’t be able to peg exactly what’s off, but chances are quite a few will notice a lack of “polish” or “tightness.”
For the sake of example, let’s imagine a rhythm and a lead guitarist in an alternative rock band. The first song of the set has a lot of attitude and punk edge. Since the lead guitarist is used to having delay always-on to fill out her practice tone, however, as she palm mutes her power chords the delay spills echoes over the percussive attack of her pick. The end result is an epic wall of sound rather than angsty punch. The second song starts with a quiet verse which quickly crescendos to a massive power ballad chorus with a belted sing-a-long chorus. But the rhythm guitarist continues playing open Em, C, G, and D chords with his gobs of distortion, producing a swarm of angry tone hornets instead of a defined, larger-than-life drive to energize the audience. The next song features simultaneous riffs, and as the rhythm guitarist plays minimalist ambient triads past the 12th fret, the lead guitarist plays what would be a thick-sounding riff with all the swagger of a 70s rock hit, if it was played with something more than a low-gain overdrive. The final song of the set features the vocalist strumming an acoustic guitar with rich, story-like lyrics and a down-to-earth, relaxed mood. Then as the other instruments strip away in the chorus, the rhythm guitar lightly strums chords drenched in ethereal, otherworldly reverb and delay. Suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
While this was a fictitious set purely for example, I’ve seen most of these situations, or at least something extremely similar, play out on stage. Again, doing this probably won’t ruin a song, and in some cases using the “wrong effect” at the “wrong time” might produce a highly unique and desirable tone for a part, but that’s almost always the result of intentional - not accidental - effect use.
5) Pigeonholing Effect Types
This last mistake might not directly affect how good you sound, but you’ll definitely be missing out on some awesome tones. It’s easy to get a particular sound from any given effect and permanently attach it to the effect making it. Many guys only think about percussive dotted eighths or over-the-top solos whenever someone mentions delay. Many people only picture fuzz as this weird untamable beast. Overdrive easily becomes “vanilla” rather than inspiring. Then, if you let it, it happens. You hear a guitar part, and you wonder what type of sorcery that player is using to make THAT sound. It could be reverse reverb, bandpass delays, overdrive from a torn speaker, or any of a wide variety of new applications for traditional effects. Suddenly that old, tired tonal palette is new again.
Get to know different effects. Listen to new bands and styles. For me, it started with chorus. I never dreamed of using chorus - ever. It was that weird swirly effect from hair metal and grunge. Then I did some double-tracking on guitar parts in the studio. Now, chorus is indispensable to my sound in 3- or 4-piece bands. Next was compressor. “It kills my dynamics.” “It’s only for country.” Wrong again. Now it’s always on. Then it happened with tremolo. Then loopers. And again with filters. I heard a song not too long ago that made me think “That phaser sounds absolutely killer on that part!” I generally think phasers sound awful. Wrong yet again.
The moment you limit an effect to one sound or one style, you lose the potential to create a unique tone with it. Experiment with different settings. Try different placements in your signal chain. Break every “rule” at least once. Even the ones I’ve written here. Though it’s probably best to do so during your private practice time. Keep whatever is beneficial enough to justify the trade-off of not doing it the other way.
Lastly, and this one is a bonus/freebie, there is one tone mistake that is worse than all others. It makes me twitch and cringe and loathe my very being in the moment every single time I hear it. “What is it?” you ask. TUNE. YOUR. GUITAR. Do it often. Check and set its intonation. Invest in a high quality tuner. Upgrade your tuning machines. I’m not talking about when you’re playing for fun with friends or practicing. Being out of tune in those situations can be bothersome, but it’s forgivable. If you’re busking, playing open mics, local shows or other semipro events though, you need to stay in tune.
Guitarists playing out of tune has been a surprisingly consistent trend at local shows I’ve attended both as a spectator and as a performer. I will tell you here and now that I don’t notice anything else about their tone. Their tone isn’t “warm” or “bright;” it’s “out of tune.” If the players catch it during or after a song, great. No harm done. If not, the end can't come soon enough. Sure, people in the 60s may have gotten away with playing E 3/4 sharp in their A major chords, but that was over 50 years ago, and musicians from other genres joke about it to this day. Stay in tune! Musicians everywhere will thank you, and you will already sound more awesome than quite a few people taking the stage.
Happy Tone Hunting!
Ric - Esimorp