3 Cheap Ways To Improve Your Blues Tone
The quest for tone is never ending. It is a quest that is both pleasurable and painful in equal measure. Guitarists spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and money to attain their desired tone and many are left feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the process.
This frustration is often a result of money. There is a widespread assumption that you have to spend a lot if you want to achieve a desirable tone. Many give up in the belief that they won’t sound like the guitarists they idolise unless they go out and buy a lot of expensive gear.
Obviously, there are limitations to the tone you can achieve when you’re on a very limited budget. The tone of guitarists like Eric Clapton and Peter Green came from vintage guitars and amps. Buying reissues of this gear now is going set you back thousands of pounds. I would love to have the disposable cash to buy a custom shop Gibson Les Paul and a vintage Fender or Marshall amp, but unfortunately have to exercise some degree of financial responsibility.
Not one to give up, I have resolved to make the best improvements I can to my tone with the gear I have available (a beautiful Fender Stratocaster Elite and an ancient Marshall practice amp).
The result of my little experiment was overwhelmingly positive. I discovered that you can make profound improvements to your tone and get change from a £10 note. You just need to focus on the basics. Get these nailed and take them seriously and your tone will change dramatically for the better.
Here are 3 easy things you can focus on and change to improve your tone, without breaking the bank:
Much has been written about string gauge and tone. Perpetuated largely by players like Stevie Ray Vaughan (who famously played 13s!) there’s a popular belief that thicker strings are needed for a thicker sound. When I first got into Stevie Ray Vaughan, I fitted my guitar with 13s. Unfortunately, all I discovered was that I couldn’t bend my strings anymore and my fingers really hurt. This is what people overlook when they’re buying strings. They forget that it’s not so much the strings but what you do with them that makes the difference.
I now play 10s, because I’ve found that it’s the gauge where my playing feels most natural and comfortable. I can dig in and get aggressive with the plectrum, and the strings are thick enough to fight back against my vibrato. This produces my best tone. With strings thicker than 10s I struggle to bend and add vibrato with the intensity I want. Conversely, 9s feel too flimsy and don’t fight back against my fingers at all, so I achieving that muscular Paul Kossoff style vibrato is more difficult.
Ernie Ball vs D’Addario
Settling on 10s has improved my playing and definitely gotten me closer to replicating the tone of my idols. I currently play Ernie Balls but I’m also experimenting there. I’ve used D’Addario at various points and loved their nickel wound strings. Unfortunately, I found my greasy mitts eroded through them in little over a week. I have neither the time nor the desire to change my strings that often, so I went back to using Ernie Balls.
Long story short – I’d recommend experimenting with different gauges and styles of string (heavy bottom; slinky top, nickel wound etc) whilst keeping the rest of your rig the same. Find what feels best and gets you closest to being able to produce the tones you want.
Strings are comparatively cheap but they can have a huge impact on how you engage with your instrument and the sounds you produce as a result.
When you have in your hands a guitar that is worth hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds, it’s easy to overlook the small bit of plastic that most of use to produce sound from it.
Small it may be, but the plectrum is certainly mighty. So much of the sound you produce comes from your right hand. The way you ‘attack’ the strings is the difference between silky smooth B.B King style tones and grittier, more aggressive blues tones.
For about 10 years I used 1mm thick nylon Dunlop picks. That was until I discovered ‘Dunlop Jazz III’ picks. It may sound like an insignificant change, but it has totally altered my playing. The extra thickness allows me to dig in and adopt a more aggressive approach, which gets me closer to the Stevie Ray Vaughan tones to which I aspire.
I also love the fact that the pick doesn’t flex at all during playing, which gives me more control. The best part of all of this, is that a whole bag of plectrums costs less than £5. The value to cost ratio of this small change is unbelievable.
Even if you feel totally content with your choice of plectrum I would urge you to experiment. Buy a variety bag of plectrums and see what works and what doesn’t. It may be the best £5 you’ve ever spent!
Go ‘Au Naturel’
The other option is that you ditch the pick altogether and play with your fingers. This is an approach adopted by a much smaller group of players, but it is always to great effect. Derek Trucks, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler are just a few examples of famous guitarists who opted to use their fingers.
Mechanically, using your fingers allows you to play in a different way. You achieve quite different sounds to a pick. Most notably, it allows you to pluck different strings at the same time more frequently than is possible when using a pick. In other words, you can sound different notes of a chord simultaneously, as opposed to one after the other.
Generally speaking, I think playing with your fingers produces a warmer and less sharp tone than using a pick. This is because it’s almost impossible to attack the strings with the same aggression.
Personally, I find fingerpicking with my right hand limits my playing in other ways; particularly if I’m trying to play at speed. Having said that, I think that learning to fingerpick is worthwhile. It’s paying off for me now I’m trying to learn slide guitar. It’s also necessary if you want to play old school acoustic blues or bluegrass.
Tone and Volume Controls
Your guitar alone offers a whole variation of tones that we rarely utilise fully.
I’m very bad at using the tone and volume knobs to manipulate the sound of my guitar. Again though, learning to utilise these properly can have a profound impact on your playing. Although the configuration of pots varies between guitars, they ultimately perform similar roles. The tone pots alter the levels of treble and bass produced by the pickups. The role of the volume control is (hopefully!) fairly explanatory.
Adjusting the tone pots on a guitar like a Fender Stratocaster can take you from the warm, thick and rounded sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan to the bright, thin and sharp sound of Robert Cray. Given that you can alter the levels of treble and bass across each of the different pickups, the multitude of different tones that open up to you are numerous.
When you combine this with the clever use of the volume control – which you can use to alter the amount of gain and ‘top end’ produced by the guitar – you realise how many different sounds are available within the guitar itself. On a guitar like a Gibson Les Paul, which has an independent volume control for each pickup, the possibilities are almost endless.
You can have the volume and tone rolled off on the neck pickup, but jacked up on the bridge pickup. By switching between the pickups, you will go from a warm, clean and comparatively quiet sound on the neck pick up; to a bright, crunchy and louder sound on the bridge pick up. This is perfect for switching between a rhythm and lead sound. That’s just one example, but hopefully it illustrates the broader ways you can alter your tone without spending a penny.
Some Closing Thoughts on Tone…
In the quest for beautiful blues tone, there is no magic bullet. The tone that you produce is a unique result of many different elements. This article is just a scratch on the surface of the different routes you can explore and the techniques you can implement. I’ll cover many of those in more depth in future articles.
What I hope this has driven home is that re-focusing on the basics is important. It’s very easy to get carried away by pedals, amps and beautiful guitars.
They all have their place, but make sure you don’t neglect those little things like picks and strings that we all take for granted. Spend as much time obsessing over these as you do over expensive guitars and amps. It will work wonders for your tone.