“What is good tone? That’s a very good question, but difficult to answer succinctly,” says songwriter and record producer John Leventhal, known for his work with Rosanne Cash, William Bell, and other top artists. “It’s heartfelt and musical. It’s generally a fat tone, I don’t like thin tone. When it comes to acoustic guitar, I’m trying to pull a lot of tone out of the guitar.”
Pulling tone out of the guitar . . . it’s a sort of acoustic alchemy. Yet, the best players prove the old adage is true—tone is in your hands. For example, one of the most beautiful, warm, rounded acoustic guitar tones I’ve ever encountered came from Brazilian flamenco guitarist Badi Assad. She was visiting the AG studio to shoot an Acoustic Guitar Sessions episode. When I walked in on her warming up, I commented on her striking sound and asked about her axe, assuming she was playing a hotshot hand-built guitar. She wasn’t—she’d forgotten her guitar and borrowed a cheap (under $150) axe from then-senior editor David Knowles.
Oftentimes, acoustic guitarists, frustrated with their tone, opt to buy a new guitar in an effort to find the sound they hear in their minds, and that’s OK—sometimes it helps, and you can never own enough guitars. After all, who wants to play bluegrass on an all-mahogany single-0, or blues on a koa dread? Certainly, electronics can help shape your tone—plenty of guitarists swear by their ToneWoodAmp, L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI, or Fishman Platinum Pro EQ. But what does it mean when people say tone is in the hands? Is it the shape of your nails? Or the thickness of your pick (Richard Shindell uses a heavy 1.5mm Dunlop PrimeTone)? Or whether you use the pointed or the rounded corner of a standard medium pick? Is it the way you attack the strings? Or is it the gauge or tension of those strings? Does an ivory nut, saddle, or bridge-pin set improve tone?
One thing is clear: Good tone isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal—it is viewed by some as subjective, but competitions often judge, at least in part, on tone. Clearly, acoustic guitarists can learn about tone from each other—experimentation is encouraged. (And failure is accepted.)
So, Acoustic Guitar asked 15 prominent acoustic guitarists from a variety of disciplines, to share their thoughts in their own words on this elusive thing called tone. We also enlisted blues hound and AG resident repair specialist Mamie Minch of Brooklyn Lutherie to discuss the ways a professional setup can help achieve the tone of your dreams. And, after scouring internet guitar forums, we’ve added a list of tone-related items that are on the minds of the online acoustic-guitar community.
Share your own thoughts about tone in the comments section below.
JOHN LEVENTHAL, Songwriter, Record Producer
Live performance and the studio are two different worlds for me; they’re two different mindsets. In the studio, I don’t have too much guitar ego—it’s all about making the song and the recording happen. Live, I have a little bit more guitar ego. So, for the past 15 years, onstage, I’ve been using this Collings OM1. I have a Schertler undersaddle pickup and a Fishman soundhole pickup: The Schertler goes into the house direct and the Fishman goes into a Fender amp and I blend the two. It seems to work out.
I keep a flat pick in my hands, but I use my fingers a lot. Over the years, I have developed a lot of techniques to pull a lot of tone out of the guitar. I use a very heavy pick and I find that gives me a slightly darker, fatter sound. In fact, the heavier the pick, the more tone I get. Also, relative to most people, I play pretty deliberately—when I play something, I really mean it. I don’t hedge my bets. But having said that, I love ballads and I use my fingers as well.
AL PETTEWAY, Fingerstylist
I’ve always felt that each player has his or her own unique tone. I feel that, as a fingerstyle player, the most important thing is to have really smooth nails, whether they’re natural or artificial—I always make sure every surface is smooth and rounded off. Also, I’ve found that attacking the string from a slight angle helps the tone and allows the nail to slide off the string while plucking in a way that creates a more meaty tone. Probably the most important thing, though, is to use strings that are a high enough gauge to make the notes sound full and not thin—it’s important to have enough resistance to your attack that you can control the volume without losing tone. Higher action helps me achieve a better tone as well. Not real high, but high enough that I can dig in without worrying about buzzing.
KEN BONFIELD, Fingerstylist, composer
I’ve long believed that a guitarist’s most important piece of gear as it relates to tone are the hands and fingers. I also believe a lot of my tone is in my acrylic nails, and to a certain extent how I maintain them. And, of course, how I attack the guitar is as important as what I attack it with. Attack really matters tonally when I’m plugged in, especially with under-the-saddle pickups.
LAURIE LEWIS, Songwriter, Bluegrass Guitarist
I make sure that whatever pick I use, the edges are smooth. Picks with a slight molded edge around them give a scrape-y tone to the strings. And picks with a lot of wear from the strings also sound scratchy. When a pick gets a worn edge, a little fine sandpaper helps it along, followed by a buffing on the blue jeans—a polished pick slides more easily across the strings. I like a fairly heavy pick, and use the weight of my hand to carry the pick across the strings. I also find that the nail of my first finger has a lot to do with the tone, as it hits the strings along with the pick.
In addition, if I allow the guitar’s back to be free of my body, with the top and bottom of the lower bouts just resting against my rib and thigh, the instrument is more lively-sounding (a good argument for keeping weight off the belly). I try not to dampen the tone with my body.
SEAN McGOWAN, Educator, Fingerstyle Jazz Guitarist
Playing your guitar without excessive tension is paramount to achieving good tone and avoiding a repetitive strain injury. The best players’ technique looks and sounds intense, yet is tension free. Shaking out and stretching your hand and fingers before and after playing will help rid your hand of excessive tension or muscle cramping. It’s important to find the balance in your hands between “normal” engagement of your hand muscles and excessive tension that could result in injury. If your hands are unusually sore or fatigued after playing, you’re probably holding too much tension in your hands. If there’s tension in your arms, shoulders, or neck, stretch before you play and consciously try to relax while playing. And don’t forget to breathe!
Lastly, make a mental note when you get that elusive tone you’re going for. You may not even need to know exactly how you got that sound, but if you mentally identify it when it happens, you’ll end up there more often.
DARRELL SCOTT, Recording Artist, Nashville Studio Player
I took a year and a half off from the road . . . and I didn’t play a lot in that time, on purpose. I know there’s a mentality that says, practice, practice, practice. But I found that if you get away, it’s good. Yes, I lost my calluses and at the end of the first gig, after I returned to the stage, my fingertips were all tattered and flaked, but I noticed that I was playing quieter. I found that I was playing underneath the sound when I returned—before, I had been slamming down on the instrument and hitting harder than I needed to. So the general premise is to come up underneath the sound as opposed to coming down on it and demanding, “Come out of that box, out of those strings.” I was saying, “Let me command, through my power, let me slam you into being with my right hand.” That’s not a good way to go. The better way, in terms of volume, dynamics, sensibility, presence, is to come up underneath the sound, and tone will show up much more readily than if you were slamming it into being. People think that they have to say with their guitar, “I’ve got to get my point across, I’ve got to get this guitar playing across, you’ve got to hear what I have to say!” Uh, no you don’t. Come up underneath the sound and see what reveals itself in a sweeter kind of way.
JAMIE STILLWAY, Fingerstyle Soloist, Educator
Right-hand considerations: For fingerpicking guitarists, before advancing into the world of fingerpicks, try growing short nails on your right hand and explore the basic classical techniques of a rest stroke versus a free stroke. For those comfortable with fingerpicks, make sure to try a variety of fingerpicks, as each material has its own unique tone. For flatpicking, I always prefer a thicker pick, my favorite is a [1.4mm] Wegen bluegrass pick. Left-hand considerations: Practice scales very slowly, and concentrate on letting each note ring as long as possible before fretting the next note. Of course, always be mindful of where you are placing your fingers in relation to the fret; being too far away from the fret will often lead to a buzzy tone, and you might overcompensate by pressing too hard.
JASON VIEUX, Grammy-winning Classical Guitarist
Tone is really in the ears. I know that may sound funny, but if you don’t know the tone or sound you want aesthetically, what it should sound like, then it’s a lot harder for the hands and fingers to find it. The end part of the process is in the hands, certainly, but that connection between your hands and your heart is really your ears. A lot of experimentation mixed with, hopefully, a good teacher that plays well can be a path to finding your tone or sound. When I was practicing as a kid growing up in Buffalo, I was not afraid to improvise and compose and jump (briefly!) off my studies, simply because I loved the sound of the guitar for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities. I prepared my lesson assignments with absolute seriousness, but my excursions into pure guitar sound were brief—little commentaries on the piece I was playing for my own amusement, or some improv off of the material I was practicing, again, only for the joy of finding the sound I wanted to find at that particular time.
This exercise is particularly good for classical guitarists, where the tone and sound is “finished” through their fingertips. We have to find a very specific sound for a specific character in a musical piece, section, or passage to honor the composer and their stated desires. The only conduit is our ears and fingers, whereas an electric guitarist would achieve their same goal in most cases through a more complex and varied chain of technology. Which I love, by the way. When listening to electric guitarists, I love how Stephen Carpenter, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Chilton, Adrian Belew, and Pat Metheny, among others, get to their place, however they do that. As I’m writing this, I realize that I probably listened to more electric guitarists than acoustic this year—hmmm.
The main thing is, try a lot of different things. Try different nail lengths, nail shapes, angles of attack to the string. It’s not all that helpful for one to be super goal-oriented in this kind of exercise—it’s a lovely journey. John Holmquist, my professor at Cleveland Institute of Music, had this great teaching exercise where, once I found a more acceptable sound/tone to his liking, he would say, “OK, now play me what you sounded like before.” And that command would make you think about how you executed your previous “different” tone/sound. It’s such a fantastic way to teach, because it takes you out of yourself and you start to hear sound as it really is. And it made you think how you physically produced both sounds.
For classical guitarists, try to study with as many of your favorite tone or sound guitarists as you can. We’re pretty approachable for the most part, and willing to share what we do and how we do it.
JEFFREY TITUS, Harp Guitarist
Apart from the ears, tone is the vibration produced by an acoustic guitar most directly captured to players’ minds through our hands. As we manipulate the strings, our minds anticipate the tones before they manifest as sound waves. This makes us time travelers, seeing the future, experiencing past, present, and future sound all at once. By this example, we should anticipate increased quality of tone through the practice of “visualizing” sound—taking the focus required to prepare and perform acoustic-guitar music clearly and with confidence. We should extend that focus and concentration well before and far after we actually play our instruments. Relaxation is certainly key. The guitar has an incredible dynamic range that may be exploited most effectively by knowing how quietly you can play your instrument, with the least amount of stress on your posture, and still have the top move enough air to reach the listener.
TERRI HENDRIX, Singer-songwriter
I’ve played all types of guitars in just about every setting imaginable. Heat has not been kind to my instruments. I gave up the wrestling match and have been playing a composite these days. Live performance aside, no matter where I play or what guitar I play, the tone is going to come from my hands. Bells and whistles are nice. But in the end, it’s about the player. My favorite players have mastered their instrument. A great example is Sonny Landreth. He has tone, but is in total control of his instrument.
A few tips I picked up from other players: Playing too hard has diminishing results. I made myself learn to play with a heavier pick. I gave up fake nails and learned to play with metal fingerpicks, even though it’s taken a long time to get the tone warm. I find these picks are much more reliable than fake nails and have a more consistent tone when I fingerpick. Also, I concentrate on relaxing my right hand, so I get a better tone. When I tense up, I lose tone.
JOHN STORIE, Jazz Guitarist, Educator
For the purpose of solo acoustic-guitar playing, it’s always fun to experiment with thumb picks and flat picks of various strength. When playing with other musicians or in a situation in which the guitar needs to “cut” through the mix, I’ve found it’s always helpful to use a thicker pick. To get a greater dynamic range out of a steel-string guitar, using a heavier pick can help make the strumming much more “punchy,” delivering a bold articulation. Thinner picks can get a very transparent sound, which can be helpful when trying to get a strumming part to sit inside the mix or sound more distant. Experimenting with microphones can also bring out the pick sound on a guitar through a PA system, and sometimes can help create a very percussive sound when strumming, not unlike a shaker or hand percussion instrument.
PETE MADSEN, Blues Artist, Educator
A guitar is an instrument, tone is what you do with it. A talented guitarist can find something in even a cheap guitar, as long as it plays decently. I know that many people seek a particular sound from a particular instrument, but if you keep an open mind you can actually find that funky, even thin-sounding instruments have their place. I used to seek out a big boomy bass in the acoustic guitars I played. But the more I got into acoustic pre-war blues, the more I realized that a big bass didn’t really serve me well. The bass tones in fingerpicked blues sound better when they are sharp and percussive, whereas a guitar with a boomy bass can sound a bit muddy. So I drifted from Brazilian rosewood to mahogany, from X-braced guitars to ladder-braced guitars. Now there are times when I favor my rosewood guitars—like when I tune down or play slower-tempo songs, where the lush tones can resonate. But when I want to play a faster-tempo ragtime, I like a guitar with a faster decay and a crisp percussive sound.
I also think there is a psychology to iconic guitars, in which there is a certain expectation as to how it’s supposed to be played—a certain style, certain licks. Whereas a no-name guitar has no expectations attached to it, so you can play whatever.
PAT KIRTLEY, Fingerstylist and Thumbpicking Hall of Famer
Tone comes from listening to yourself and having the idea that you’re always going to improve it. What I think about is making it have more impact, more drive. You can have drive even in a song that is slow—don’t hold back because it’s slow. You add a little bit of intensity with the force that you use with the right hand, but it’s really controlled. I struggled for years with getting the best tone out of my fingers. What I ended up with was the thumbpick. The first thing I noticed was that I could play louder. But then my fingers were nowhere near as loud as my thumb. It took me a long time to discover acrylics [for my fingernails]. They don’t wear away, and the tone is there as long as they last.
TIM BERTSCH, Six-string Player, Harp Guitarist
An old friend once told me every guitar has its song. I also believe every guitar has its optimum string and pick match. Find the right strings for the right guitar, including creating hybrid sets that aren’t available. (Got an unwound third?) It’s worth going down the rabbit hole and trying strings you will ultimately replace after 30 mins. My 1965 Gibson J-45 was always a challenge to find balance between the highs and lows. A few years back, at NAMM, I discovered the Martin Guitars Clapton signature strings—they’re absolutely magical on the Gibson and I have found no equal. My nearly 100-year-old Washburn parlor guitar sounds best with silk and steels, my Breedlove loves DR [nickel] strings.
My checklist when I receive a new acoustic guitar includes removing the nut to lower it for better intonation, as well as evaluating the nut and saddle material. I have always been a fan of bone, with its direct crisp, transfer of sound, almost like a maple fingerboard. I have also thoughtfully planed braces inside some of my favorite acoustic guitars to give them more life. For my harp guitar, carefully cutting a line between my fretting and sub-bass strings on the bridge plate made all the difference in the world when it came to amplifying, separation, and transference of frequencies. I have also found that transcribing melodies from different instruments, such as mandolin, sitar, banjo, vibraphone, piano, and even horns (for example, John Coltrane and Miles Davis) has enlightened me to the need for different attacks on notes and nuances, such as ghost notes I had not realized on guitar previously.
And experiment with different pick materials and the pressure of the grip of the pick itself. Having started 34 years ago with very light picks, I eventually found myself drawn to the Dunlop stubby 3 mm. Although I have used this pick for years, I am finding inspiration for new songs with different pick materials, such as my Gypsy bone pick, horn material, and even a pick made from coconut shell a student made for me years ago. All extreme game changers on the acoustic guitar. I also use my thumbnail and the fleshy part of my index, middle, and ring finger to have options in color and tone on compositions which need “bite” and “warmth.”
Experimenting with different picking positions on the guitar, such as by the bridge or over the soundhole or even as far up as the 12th fret. These are great sources of tone choices as well. Also, I’ve found that I can create a softer dynamic by placing my hand in front of the soundhole while I am picking.
ERIC SKYE, Acoustic Jazz Guitarist
The important things as they relate to the instrument, in my view, are the setup and the strings. The striking of the strings is the only source of energy in the instrument, so clearly the fixed amount of tension in the strings is going to be a crucial factor in the way the wood resonates. Without getting into materials, and so on, unless you have a small vintage instrument you’re concerned about structurally, or your aging hands require them, using anything lighter than standard light gauge—12 through 53-ish—is going to make your tone anemic. You need a certain amount of tension to get that wood moving.
How those strings sit on the instrument is also critical. It’s important to find a setup person in your area that you can develop a relationship with. They really need to watch and hear how you typically play, even just for a few minutes. Your personal right-hand attack should be a determining factor in how to approach the setup. Of course, we all want low action that is easy to play, but this robs you of volume, bass response, and likely introduces fret buzz. Many acoustic guitar players are also electric guitar players and want the transition to acoustic to be minimally noticeable. This, of course, is understandable, but the acoustic guitar is a different animal that operates in a different way. You need a certain amount of space for that string to move around when it is struck. You have to find that personal sweet spot.
As for the player, the most important aspect of tone is your concept of tone, the way you idealize it in your head. Listen to recordings that resonate with you and try to hear them in your head as you play. Your hands can probably find it, or get close to it, by making many small unconscious adjustments in pressure and angle. If you’re not hearing something in your head first—if you’re just trusting that having the right gear will lead you there—good luck with that.
Also, the way you hold the guitar, allowing it to resonate more freely, affects the sound. As does your left hand, in terms of having clean finger placement, perhaps allowing strings to resonate longer. Holding down previously struck notes that you momentarily don’t need to move, can encourage sympathetic ringing, and give you that natural reverb and more complex overtones. But, mostly, it’s about your right hand, how you attack the strings. And what you attack with. Experimenting with picks, materials, and nail shapes is important, but also experiment with the angle at which those connect with the string, and where in the length of the string.
But, of course, the most important thing of all is listening. If your attention is mostly on fingerings, and so on, your sound will suffer. A singer can’t help but pay attention to the sound that they’re making, and guitar players have to train themselves to develop that continual awareness. You have to practice catching yourself when you drift away, and come back to the sound you’re making. It’s music, after all; it really is all about the sound you’re making.
AG managing editor Whitney Phaneuf and senior editor Mark Kemp contributed to this article.
5 Ways a Setup Can Improve Your Tone
A professional setup is one of the smartest things you can do for your guitar. The right setup (avg. cost $75-$100) will not only enhance your guitar’s performance, it will further customize its sound and feel to support your playing style. So how do you know when you need a setup?
Most newly bought guitars—especially those aimed at beginners—will need to be set up when brought home for the first time. After that, once or twice a year is enough. Professional players may do it more often, due to the shifts in humidity and temperatures that accompany seasonal changes or because touring life can be hard on a guitar. If you notice something change in the way a guitar plays or in its tonal response, chances are your guitar is ready for its regular 10,000 mile check up—a professional setup.
Here are some key points:
1. Saddle If your new guitar came with a plastic saddle, it can only get better from there. Fitting a bone saddle to your guitar will be the single most striking thing you can do to improve the tone (avg. cost: $100). Bone is denser and harder than plastic, and will give you more volume, sustain, and clarity across the frequencies. While the cost of a new saddle is not included in a standard setup, fine-tuning its height is. The height of a saddle figures into more than just the action—the break angle of the strings over that saddle can affect the drive of a top. And making sure the saddle fits neatly into its slot—it should be snug in the bridge without being glued in—will help that vibrational transfer, too.
2. Bridge Here, your tech will look for more ways to eliminate vibrational loss. Is the bridge glue joint still good, or can you slip a piece of paper under it? Are the bridge-pin holes tapered and do the bridge pins fit well, nicely anchoring the ball end of the string against your bridge plate?
3. Nut If your nut is plastic, upgrading to bone is a great idea (avg. cost: $100). A well-fit bone nut will transfer more vibration to the right places and improve tonal quality when the strings are played unfretted—it’ll be more subtle than at the saddle, but it makes a difference. In a setup, the nut slots will be dialed in: Are they the right depth? Are they pitched correctly, and can the string ride through the slot without binding?
4. Neck How’s your neck looking? You may know it’s time for a setup from a change in how your guitar plays thanks to your neck bowing forward—but a neck can also bow back. Most subtle neck-relief issues can be fixed with a truss rod tweak. A neck that is healthy—straight but with just the right amount of relief—will do a better job of transferring vibration down its length.
5. Strings You need the right gauge of string—and the right tension—for your guitar. If you go too light, they’ll feel jangly and the guitar will sound thin, too heavy and they’ll be no fun to play and may produce more tension than your guitar can handle over time. Your tech will help you choose your strings based on the kind of guitar you have, its scale length, and the style in which you want to play.
Hot Bonus Tip How do you know if your saddle is bone? Check the color: plastic is usually a brighter white than bone, and over time, your strings will wear grooves in a plastic saddle. This softness is why it’s bad for tone. If you are having a hard time figuring it out, try this: Take off the strings and pull out the saddle. Smile! Now tap the saddle against your teeth—does it make a bright, hard click, like your teeth and the saddle are the same material? Or a darker, quieter thunk? If it’s the former, it’s bone, if it’s the latter, it’s plastic.
7 More Quick Tone Tips
1. Location, Location, Location
Picking close to the bridge can produce a tight, percussive tone, while picking toward the neck will present a darker, bassy tone. Great players tend to strum in different locations along the strings’ length, sometimes moving from one location to another, from bar to bar, or verse to chorus, to produce a complex, textured tone. Experiment. Look for the sweet spot.
2. Tone in the Palm of Your Hand
Palm muting, or lightly making contact with the strings with the heel of your picking hand, most notably when strumming, can add a lot of thunk to your tone. Greg Brown uses this percussive technique a lot (check out his laconic song “Now That I’m My Grandpa”), and singer and songwriter Ani DiFranco told AG that she initially used palm muting for emphasis in loud bars and it became a signature.
3. Thumbs Up
A lot of attention is paid to picking or strumming with a plectrum, or fingerpicking with the nails or pads of your fingertips, but strumming with the fleshy pad of your pick-hand thumb can produce a soft, warm tone. This might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how few guitarists strum with the thumb. Add it to your tone toolkit.
4. Lean to the Left . . . or the Right
Fret-hand technique is a major factor in producing warm, rich tones filled with emotion: Practice your vibrato, bends, and slurs. Someone once asked Eric Clapton if he practices, assuming that the guitar god had transcended this discipline followed by mere mortals. Clapton assured the interviewer that he practices every day. What does he practice? Bending the strings, so he can get it just right (quarter step, half step, full step). Make it sing.
5. Down But Not Out−Try a Drop Tuning
Drop-D tuning (DADGBE) is a favorite among folk and blues players. But try using double drop-D tuning (DADGBD), sometimes known as the Neil Young modal tuning (though Pieta Brown and others use it often). You can hear the results on Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” It’s friendly to the standard D-chord shape, but lends a moody minor tone to your playing. Or drop your sixth and fifth strings one step (DGDGBE), which offers a slack-key effect. Once again, it’s friendly to the D-chord shape (as well as D minor and A minor shapes) while broadening your tonal palette. One other suggestion: tune all your strings down a half step (D#G#C#F#A#D) to darken your tone—some guitars love it.
6. Check Your Technique
Using different techniques to visualize your sound can have an impact on your tone. For example, guitarist Earl Klugh says he tries to “visualize the guitar more like the piano−particularly the way [jazz pianist] Bill Evans would play. I’ve listened to his records for countless hours. He had so much expression, and there was economy in a lot of the things he did, in his voicings—all that close harmony . . . . Since I’m not a plectrum player at all, and I don’t have terribly fast right-hand technique, I tried to find something else that would be musically interesting . . . . A guitarist can’t really do everything a piano player does, but you can get that feeling going.”
7. The Thing About Strings
It’s not unusual to fall back on a favorite brand of reliable strings. But experimenting with different types of strings, and even mixing string sets, can be a treasure trove of tone. For example, silk-and-steel strings can decrease string noise, but also lend a warm, 1960s folksy sound to your tone. The same goes for half-rounds. And nickel strings can be a warm alternative to bright 80/20 phosphor/bronze alloy strings. Or try a set of 92/8 phosphor/bronze strings. In general, heavy strings will produce a darker tone, but string gauge isn’t the only consideration when choosing the right tone, and not every guitar can handle heavy strings. String tension is equally, if not more, relevant. Low- or mid-tension strings can enliven an older instrument, which may struggle with handling tension on the soundboard due to the age of the guitar. So many strings, so little time.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.