Guitars: What Actually Matters for Tone
We are ecstatic to announce our new dealership agreement with Ibanez! In light of the good news, I felt it prudent to write a blog about what actually impacts an electric guitar’s sound and playability. This is a hotly contested topic, and there is no shortage of opinions online. I recommend following the advice of individuals who have done genuine scientific experiments and have building experience to back up their claims. I have personally built several guitars from scratch and have repaired many instruments of varying quality. The opinions here are what I’ve discovered – if you have varying information, please let us know!
A further disclaimer: Paul of PRS Guitars famously follows a 21-point checklist that his company developed. This list includes 21 points on the instrument that impact sound quality. My list below isn’t to say that I don’t believe Paul or conventional wisdom on the topic – I’m just of the belief that the list can be heavily skewed towards things that matter a lot versus things that hardly matter at all.
What Matters A LOT:
- Pickups. At this stage of my career, I’ll die on the hill that pickups are the most important feature of an electric guitar. This is only tied with the neck (see below). A good quality pickup can make or break the sound of the instrument and how the signal is translated to the speaker.
- Pickup orientation. There’s a huge tonal difference between single-coil pickups, humbuckers, active pickups, and other types that you commonly find in guitars. For example, the thinner, chime-y sound of single-coils is what defines country, southern rock, funk, and classic rock. What’s more, the pickups can be wired to virtually any configuration. Whether it’s three-position, five-position, or more… coil tapping, wiring mods… the possibilities are endless and can all change the tonal palette that you have on your instrument.
- Neck/Fretboard. The neck of the guitar has the biggest impact on how it feels when played. In my opinion, a good neck should be straight and slick with frets that are set well and intonated correctly. If the neck is excellent, your playing will improve dramatically.
- Setup. Every guitar needs a professional setup to play and sound its best. A setup includes action adjustment, or how high the strings are from the fingerboard, and intonation adjustment, or how in tune the guitar is with itself. Both of these have a massive impact on how easy it is to play and how correct it sounds.
- Speaker/Amp. This a bit beyond the scope of this blog, but your output setup matters. An incredible and expensive guitar will only sound average when played through a low-quality speaker or amp. Balance the quality of your speaker with your guitar for best tonal results.
- Tuners. I’ve found that tuners don’t change the sound of the instrument – their job is to stay in place and be reliable. However, this is important when you’re playing frequently and doing lots of re-tuning and bending. Low-quality tuners will go out of tune frequently and make your instrument sound wonky. I always recommend locking tuners – even the cheaper models are above and beyond what standard tuners can accomplish in regard to reliability.
What Matters A LITTLE:
- The pick that you use. Picks of different hardness and elasticity will have different strengths of attack against the strings. This mostly translates to loudness, but different picks also change how you play.
- The strings. You’ve probably heard of string gauge, or how thick a string is. You can get monster sound from both thick and thin strings – what really matters is tuning stability and sustain. Thicker strings stay in tune longer and sustain more, but they are difficult to bend and can hurt the fingers. Thin strings have the opposite features. Experiment with what size strings are best for your play style, and don’t forget that fresh strings will always sound and feel better than old ones.
- The nut. Players often get into arguments about what material of nut is best for the sound of the guitar. I don’t have strong opinions on this topic, but I do believe that cheap plastic nuts should be swapped out for better-quality materials like bone, synthetic bone, or brass. This is to prevent breakage and keep the strings in tune longer.
- Internal electronics. Better quality electronics like potentiometers and wires don’t have a huge impact on the signal of the guitar, but they’re much more durable and feel better to use. I always recommend swapping out stock electronics for ones of better quality simply because they’ll last longer and resist wear.
What HARDLY MATTERS at all:
- “Tonewood” or what the body is made of. This has a big impact with acoustic guitars, but it doesn’t matter very much at all for electric guitars. Your primary concern with the body should be its shape (how does it feel to hold it and play for extended periods?) and its weight. There’s nothing worse than playing a multi-hour gig with a brick tied across your shoulders. Check out this video by Glen Fricker for a tonewood side-by-side comparison (parental discretion advised: language) and this video of that one time someone made a cement guitar.
The Final Takeaway:
If I were building a guitar on a budget for a professional gig, I’d splurge on nice pickups and a good neck. Nothing else has a massive impact on my style of playing. Check out this video for a demonstration of why pickups matter, even when there isn’t a guitar body at all.
I hope that this helped clear some things up! Let us know if you’d like to check out some awesome new Ibanez products, and until next time with the Knowlege Blog, keep practicing!