If you’re looking for a silver bullet on your quest to find how to get a good clean guitar tone, this guide will try to get you there but can’t make any guarantees. Many say tone is in the hands or head of the (great) players. Here are some tricks you can try to help get you there.
Simply put, tone is the sound that your guitar produces when you play it. So as you can probably guess, there are just about infinite tones you can create with your guitar. Those wobbly wah-wahs in Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” are one tone, and Tom Morello’s harsh, overdriven blasts of sound in Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name” are another.
Many things come together to create an electric guitar’s tone. Something strikes a string and makes it vibrate. The vibrations are converted to electricity by pickups. Then the electrical signal travels through cables (and possibly pedals) until it reaches the amp and exits as sound.
Variations in any step of the process change the tone. Using a thin, smooth pick sounds different than using a thick, textured plectrum. Other pickups receive sound differently. Two of the same pickup can create very different sounds based on how they’re installed.
Achieving a clean tone
At first thought, it might make sense to think that a clean, undistorted tone would be the easiest to create. But the opposite is true. Subtle tone changes from things like pick type and pickup tuning hide when using a distorted tone. When hunting for a clean tone, tiny imbalances stick out like sore thumbs.
An optimized clean tone results from eliminating or counteracting all the possible causes of distortion. Each note should ring clearly and at a similar volume.
There are three main “spots” on an electric guitar where a player can hone a clean tone.
- Where the pick meets the strings.
- At the pickups.
- At the pedals and amp.
An electric guitar’s sound starts with the strings’ vibrations, and the tool used to strum the strings affects those vibrations. Try strumming a guitar with a quarter – or actually, maybe don’t because it’s bad for your strings. But trust me when I say it makes a harsher and more grating sound than strumming with a pick or a fingernail.
The best picks for creating a clean tone are the opposite of a quarter. They are smooth and slippery and tend to be thinner. The soft surface allows the plectrum to slide off the string and create smooth vibration patterns vs. rougher picks, which snap the string down more. A thinner pick will flex more, which caps volume output on powerful strums to limit peaks.
Fingerpicking can also create a pristine sound. Fingernails work basically like very soft, smooth picks, and fingertips are even softer and smoother. They make a much softer tone than guitar picks. But there are other tradeoffs to finger-style picking than just tone. For example, it’s harder for most people to play faster riffs and solos with just their fingers.
Pickups are significant in creating a clean tone on an electric guitar. They convert the vibrations of the strings into electrical signals that tell amps what sounds to make.
With a few funky exceptions, pickups are magnets wrapped in metallic wire. They live underneath the strings of a guitar and create a magnetic field. When a string vibrates, it interrupts that field, making the electrical signal that shoots towards the amp.
There are 3 critical things to watch out for when trying to get the cleanest tone possible from your pickups.
- Buzzing or distortion at higher volumes.
- Picking up different frequency ranges (bass, mid, and treble) unequally.
- Picking up specific strings unequally.
You can solve these issues by altering which pickups you use, how you install them, and how you use them with your amps and equipment.
Single-coil pickups vs. humbuckers
There are many different types of pickups, but single-coil pickups and humbuckers are the most common two.
Single coil pickups are a single magnet wrapped in wire. They produce a very clear tone and pick up high-frequency treble sounds well, making them sound bright. But, they’re also susceptible to picking up interference easily. They produce a hum, called a 60 cycle hum, at higher volumes.
Humbuckers are pairs of magnets with opposite magnetic poles, wrapped in wire and mounted side by side. Built to cancel out the 60 cycle hum (aka “bucking the hum”), they produce a deeper, louder tone than single-coil pickups.
In general, single-coil pickups handle clean tones better, and humbucker pickups handle distorted tones better. You might think that a humbucker would produce a cleaner sound at higher volumes than a single-coil pickup because of the single coil’s hum, but at volumes that high, an amp would likely have started to produce distortion on its own.
Selecting a guitar with single-coil pickups or replacing the pickups on the guitar you have can certainly help produce a clean tone. But even if you have humbucker pickups and don’t want to change them, there are techniques and equipment to coax good clean tones out of them anyway. More on that later.
Tweaking pickups to produce the cleanest tone
Regardless of the type of pickup you use, properly set up pickups can help you achieve a cleaner tone. Changing the height of the pickups themselves, angling the pickups, or changing the height of the pole pieces can create clearer, more balanced, longer-sustaining notes.
High pickups can sometimes crowd strings so that they don’t have enough room to vibrate correctly. Remember, pickups create magnetic fields. If a pickup is mounted too high, its magnetic pull can tug down on the string while it vibrates and alters the vibration pattern. Those alterations can distort what would otherwise be a clean tone. They also prevent the note from sustaining itself for as long.
Lowering the pickup solves these issues. With more room for the string to vibrate, the note will ring clearly for a longer time.
But the lower a pickup is, the closer its magnetic field is to the strings, so the more sensitively it picks up string vibrations. That means that, in general, higher mounted pickups produce more output than lower mounted pickups.
As you lower a pickup, you will have to increase the volume on your amp to balance the loss in output. That can cause issues when using amps that distort at higher volumes.
The key is to hunt for the sweet spot. In general, setting the screws in the top of the pickup (which are called pole pieces) 5mm – 7mm beneath the strings is a good starting point. But the perfect pickup height for a given guitar is a balancing act best achieved through trial and error.
Lower pickups favor a cleaner sound vs. higher pickups. Even though you’ll have to turn your amp up to make up for the lost output, that will probably be a minor inconvenience compared to the new clarity you get out of the pickup itself.
Some pickups are stronger or weaker at picking up and broadcasting different ranges of sounds in some instances. One pickup might pick up relatively more bass sounds from the 1st and 2nd strings, while another might pick up more treble sounds from the 5th and 6th strings.
As I mentioned before, single-coil pickups tend to be more treble-sensitive, making them sound bright.
If your pickup works like that, installing it at an angle can help balance out issues. For example, if bass notes were coming in a little muddy and unclear, you could lower just the pickup’s bass side to give it more room to breathe.
Pole piece heights
Sometimes, even sitting at the perfect height, a perfectly balanced pickup will still have a wonky relationship with a string or two. If that’s the case, it’s likely the pole piece’s fault.
Pole pieces are the screws that sit beneath each string in a pickup. They are the fine-tuning mechanism to ensure each string is just the proper distance from the pickup itself. If all the strings on your guitar are ringing out with a crisp, clear tone except for one which sounds choked, screw its corresponding pole piece down until it sounds as clean as its siblings.
Every pickup is going to have the pole pieces in a slightly different position. If you’re hunting for a clean tone, it’s a good idea to go string by string and adjust them by ear until they’re perfect for your guitar.
And finally, the equipment that you use and how you set that equipment up can take your clean tone to the next level. While perfecting your pick and pickup setups can cut down on natural interference, a little electronic wizardry with amps and pedals can counteract flaws and give you a clean tone that would otherwise be impossible to get.
Adding compression will work wonders for clean-tone guitar playing. If you watch the sound waves that your guitar produces while you play, you will see lots of peaks and valleys in the waves. Compression compresses those waves down to a neater, more uniform shape and will even out your guitar’s signal.
Compression makes your sound more consistent. Bass, mid, and treble will be in better harmony, the volume of each note will equalize a bit, and jarring bits will smooth out.
Adding compression is a great way to achieve a clean tone even when using humbuckers or a rough pick.
There are a few ways you can add compression to your clean-tone guitar playing.
- Compression pedals compress your guitar’s electric signals as they journey to your amp.
- Some amps have compression equipment built right into them.
- If you’re recording, you can add in compression during post-production.
In addition to compression, you may want to experiment with some other effects pedals. With most of these effects, just a little bit will go a long way in making your clean tone better or uniquely your own.
Overdrive & Distortion Pedals
Even though you’re trying to improve your clean tone, a little bit of overdrive or distortion may be what you need. An overdrive pedal can push a tube amp to run a little hotter (also adding more compression) and add a little warmth to your tone.
A stereo chorus can make your tone huge, but even a mono chorus pedal can add some depth and warmth to your sound.
Not just for guitar solos, a phaser pedal can thicken up your tone when arpeggiating chords.
The type of amp you use plays a significant role in achieving a clean tone on your guitar. The two main types are solid-state amps and tube amps. Solid-state amps use electronic transistors to convert your guitar’s electric signals into sound, while tube amps use vacuum tubes.
If you are hunting for the absolute cleanest, most consistent tone possible, then solid-state amps are the choice for you. Transistors maintain a crisp, undistorted tone even when turned to deafening volumes. On the other hand, tube amps naturally distort at high volumes because of the construction of their vacuum tubes. Minor imperfections in the tubes also create very slight distortion at all volumes.
You should know, though, that many guitarists prefer tube amps over solid-state amps, even when hunting for a clean tone. They find that tube amps’ natural distortions add character and definition to their sound. Tube amps are also more versatile because you can “play” with how they distort to create new tones.
Modeling amps are a mix of both worlds. They are solid-state amps that include digital processors, which allow them to recreate tons of different amp sounds. But, many in the guitar community find their impression of tube amps a bit lackluster. They should be just as good as their solid-state brothers for providing a clean tone, though.
And finally, if you’re looking to get your clean tone riffs recorded, amp simulators are a reliable and relatively cheap way to get your jam sessions into an audio file and throw some compression on there. They can create some unpleasant digital noise when you’re using high gain, but they handle clean tones like a charm.
Well, that just about does it! If you’re searching for a clean tone on your guitar and you don’t want to spend any money, tweak your pickups and bum a softer, thinner pick off a friend of yours. If you’re willing to pay a little more for an extra clean sound, search for single-coil pickups, compression pedals, and solid-state amps. Happy jamming!