What's a great guitar tone and how do I achieve it? How do I know it's good? There's only one thing that really matters and that you should learn to listen for.
These are really the only two questions you need to answer.
When it comes time to engineer a guitar tone for a song, most people start with thinking about amps, microphones, EQ settings, etc. But all of these things are useless and all of your decisions are pointless until you're able to answer the questions above. You need to know where you want to go.
So where do you want to go?
We tend to answer this with things like "I want lots of distortion" or "I want a clean, shimmery and wide sound", or a more detailed answer like "I want a full, but tight low end, plenty of attack in the upper midrange and not too much gain to preserve definition and clarity".
Unfortunately, none of these really answer the question above. At least not completely.
Instead we could answer "where do you want go?" with:
"I want this song to feel aggressive and angry, so the guitars can't be too pleasing sounding. They need to be unruly and loud. They'll have to fight the vocal a bit. They need to be clear, bright and upfront and have a nasty type of distortion."
"This is a sad song, but there's also some hope in it. The lyrics are super important. So the guitars need to be mellow and smooth. They also need to be dreamy, wide and not step on the vocals. Clarity is not super important here, it's the desperate atmosphere and deep sonic landscape we need to create."
Now these are great answers that help us make good decisions! And if you've spent enough time with your gear, you'll immediately know what to choose and how to set it up to create those emotions. You know what it can and can't do.
It's all about broad strokes at this point. You can always refine later. The tone you're getting quickly and intuitively should work and make you feel a certain way without a ton of filtering, EQ moves, or detailed tweaking. If you nail it, you're 90% there, if you fail to convey the emotion of the song, no amount of processing will give you the right tone.
Don't create guitar tones in a vacuum
It doesn't matter how the guitars sound on their own, so you need to make all decisions in the context of the whole song and arrangement. You need to make sure the song feels a certain way, not just the guitars. They serve the song, so you ned to define their role and find a tone that works for that.
Guitars are midrange instruments
They are clear and loud in the frequency ranges we are most sensitive to. This means they impact our perception of the overall sound a lot. This part of the spectrum is audible on every playback system and it's what we react to first. It's also where the vocals live. This is why guitar tones matter so much when it comes to how a song feels.
To say it one more time:
It's not as important to get every technical detail "right", whatever that means. It's also not important how they sound on their own. It's how they work within the song and how they make us feel.
Here's what to do Step-By-Step:
- Figure out what it is in a guitar tone that makes you feel a certain way. Try to put it in words.
- Learn every detail about your gear and experiment as much as possible to find out what it can and can't do. That includes not only amps, pedals, cabs and guitars, but also strings and picks.
- Learn everything about playing techniques and how your fingers affect the tone.
- Define the emotion you want to convey through your song.
- Define the role of the guitars in conveying that emotion.
- Use the knowledge from step 1-3 and create tones that serve the song.
That's your starting point and the most important thing to get right. Only then it is time to get technical and refine even further. Nothing else will matter if you get this part wrong.
PS: I often post videos to these daily blog posts in my Instagram Stories: @benedikthain
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