Somewhere along an axis based on your guitar, amp and, perhaps, one or two pedals, is the tone you’ve been seeking all your musical life — the personal sonic Holy Grail that you’ve been hunting for years. To get there, you just need to find the right balance of that gear. Easier said than done, and at times — depending perhaps on the song being recorded, the room played or even the relative humidity of the day — small adjustments have to be made on even the most dialed-in sound.
One myth worth dispelling is the idea that volume or power equals tone. Some of the greatest guitar tones have been recorded via low-output pickups and amps. Consider Jimmy Page’s sound on Led Zeppelin’s debut where low-wattage Supro amps roar like Godzilla, or that Clapton recorded “Layla” with a three-watt Champ. And conversely some terrible guitar sounds have been cut with walls of 4x12s. Limp Bizkit, anyone?
What’s important to remember is that the more gain your use on your amp, the most the inherent clarity and punch of your guitar’s signal — its voice — will be degraded. So even a stunning 1959 reissue Gibson Les Paul can sound like an infernal buzz if gain is applied too liberally. Listen to the truly great, distorted tone kings of rock: Hendrix, Cream- and Bluebreakers-era Clapton, Page, Trower, Gilmour, Beck, Lifeson and so on. The meat of their core sound is fat, round well-defined notes and chords, with a burnishing of distortion around the edges.
Of course, the ideal tone is subjective, but here’s a starting point for your search. Let’s begin with your amp. Keeping gain at the minimum level necessary to produce a comfortable, almost conversational level of sound, play your guitar and increase the “master” or “volume” control on the amp until notes and chords start to sound full, round and ripe. If your amp doesn’t have a gain, it’s a simpler matter – just turn up the volume knob. To begin with your bass, med and treble settings all at noon is reasonable. When the volume of your amp begins to flesh out your tone without causing the amp to break up and distort, stop. You’re looking for a good core sound before the fur gets piled on top of it, and you’re getting close.
If what you’re playing is sounding lush and full to you – like fat dew drops on a flower petal, to get a bit poetic about it — then begin adjusting your bass, mid and treble controls to bloom out the mids (first), then the highs (don’t be shrill; country pickers — that’s obnoxious) and then the lows. The mid control is going to yield the most desirable qualities for a fat burnished core tone. The highs will give you more clarity and the ability to cut the air and be heard more effectively. And the lows will give you the bottom needed to add character.
So we’ve come that far in our balancing act. Next, adjust the tone dials on your guitar. Chances are your best, fattest tones are going to come from rolling those back three to five numbers — unless you’re going for the full-on Cream-style “woman tone” sound, in which case you’ll want to roll the tone pots all the way back and let the amp do most of the sculpting. This is especially effective with vintage or vintage-style Gibson humbuckers.
Increasing the amp’s volume is going to affect this balance of instrument and amplifier, so you will have to tweak accordingly for live gigs or to get the exact variation on your core tone for different recordings. Should growling distortion be the order of the day or the gig, then it is time to lean on the gain. Be prepared to reexamine every setting when volume and gain levels change. Especially gain, which has a profound effect on the harmonic architecture the tubes create.
Sometimes the heft and definition you’re seeking can’t be achieved by a guitar and amp alone. That’s when pedals come in. Typically when seeking rich, thick, lush, fat, greasy tones the pedal to reach for is an overdrive rather than a distortion. You want to boost and thicken a signal you’ve already sculpted, not slice it up into more prominent saw tooth wave forms. There are a lot of options from the traditional SRV and Beck favored Tube Screamer to a bunch of pedals with “fat” or “tone” in their names, like Fat Boost, Fat Cat, Fat Fuzz, Tone Bone and Tone Bender. The list goes on. Go to a musical instrument store with a comprehensive collection of pedals and run through the lot until you find what you like, or, if you don’t have the luxury of a pedal-head shop near you, visit YouTube and watch pedal demo videos before placing an order.
Most of these pedals will have a volume or level knob, a tone knob and a drive knob. You’ll want to set the tone pot in as neutral a position as possible to build on what you’ve already achieved with your guitar and amp. Keep the drive control low, since it will add hair, and work with the output level/volume to enrich your signal before bringing the drive up incrementally until the combination sounds right. Again, remember that dive, gain and similarly marked functions on your amps and pedals will inherently degrade your guitar’s signal, so be careful and employ those as the last step in crafting your own timeless tone.