The quest for the perfect tone is a lifelong journey for most dedicated guitarists — even those who are already in the music’s hallowed terrain. In fact, tone is the heart of artful playing. Think about the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Warren Haynes, Robert Fripp, Steve Howe, Alex Lifeson and the list goes on. All of these players are instantly recognizable by their tone.
Two of the terms often used to describe tone are “warm” and “bright,” with the latter occasionally teetering into “brittle.” Here, we’re dealing with various ways to warm up your guitar’s tone. “Warm” tones are built around midrange frequencies. The highs are rolled off to a point where they may come subtly into play, and the lows are full, rich and present without being boomy.
Tubes, by nature, have a warmer tone, so if you’re looking for a comfortable and harmonically rich, rather than searing, sound it’s best to employ a tube amp rather than a transistor amp. As a rule of thumb, keep the gain low and move the volume up for a warm sound. Of course, you need to find the balance between deafening volume and tone. That’s a matter of taste and practicality. It’s easy to turn up on a large stage in a big room; not so much in the smaller clubs or spaces that most of us play.
There’s a good chance the sound you want can be found in a balance of the tone pots of your guitar and the bass, mid and treble settings of your amp. Start by leaving the pots on your guitar all the way up — maximum bright — and fiddle with the amp’s controls. Roll the amp’s treble back between three and five. To achieve a warm tone, you likely won’t want to go higher than five or six on the amp’s treble, unless you’ve got a really sludgy sounding guitar — in which case you should probably being your quest by replacing the pickups.
Next set the midrange at six and the bass at four. Don’t turn the bass up past five or the mids past seven or eight, but work within that range to get as close as you can to what you hear in your head as an ideal sound. Then roll the tone pots on your guitar back until you dial in the tone you want. Toggle between the bridge and neck pickups — plus both blended — so you can get on fix on how changing pickups while you play will compel the tone to change, and alter your amp or guitar tone pots accordingly.
Speaking of pickups, you’ll get a warmer tone using the neck pickup, which on Gibson guitars is identified as “rhythm.” This is because the strings vibrate more at the neck pickup position than in the bridge position, which makes them less bright sounding. Some neck pickups also have fewer windings.
Another amp or pedal option is adding reverb. Reverb provides an artificial ambience that warms up tone. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up obscuring your sound. You can also buy an EQ pedal to lower highs and sculpt the mids and lows, but if you’ve got to resort to EQ to get the right tone your guitar and amp are failing you, so go back to ground zero and rethink the instrument you’re playing or the amp you’re plugging into.