10 Easy Ways To Improve Your Blues Guitar Tone
By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
For many, the start of a new year is a reflective and contemplative time. People look back at the year just passed, assess what went well and what didn’t, and make resolutions for the year ahead.
If you fall into this category, then you might well be thinking about what you would like to achieve on the guitar in 2022. And if you are like the vast majority of guitar players out there, you won’t just be thinking about your playing; you will also be thinking about gear and tone.
When it comes to this second category, a lot of players focus on making big changes. They think about adding new guitars, amps and pedals to their setup to create their desired tones. And whilst totally changing your setup can sometimes be what is needed, you can also make dramatic changes to your tonewithout breaking the bank. In this article then, I am going to look at 10 easy ways you can improve your blues guitar tone.
The focus here is not on completely revamping your setup. Rather it is on maximising the gear you already have, and making small tweaks to bring out the best in your playing and improve your tone.
With that in mind then, let’s get into it! Here are 10 easy ways you can improve your blues guitar tone:
1. Set a target
I am always surprised by how few guitarists have a clear idea of the tone they want to create. Players talk about wanting a ‘better tone’, and they often buy a lot of gear to help make their tone ‘better’. And yet despite this, they don’t have a clear definition of what ‘better’ means for them.
If you haven’t got a clear idea of where you want to go, it is impossible to get there. And it is for this reason that a lot of players end up spinning their wheels when it comes to tone. They keep adding new gear to their rig, yet they don’t really know what to do with it, as they don’t truly have a target tone in mind.
So before you continue reading or go out searching for new gear, have a detailed think about what tone(s) you are trying to create.
Are you trying to recreate the sounds of your favourite guitarist? Do you have a clear idea of the kind of tone you want? How close do you feel you are to achieving your desired tone?
Try to think through your answers in as much detail as possible. Doing so will put you into an empowered position and make it a lot easier for you to make decisions about your rig and setup.
2. Raise your action
Blues lead guitar isn’t about playing lots of notes; it is about making every note that you play count. You want your guitar to sing out and for the notes to really resonate. And it is difficult for this to happen if your strings are too close to your frets.
This is because they need space to vibrate and resonate properly. Give them this extra space and all of your notes will resonate more. You’ll increase your sustain and you’ll get a warmer and beefier tone.
It is for this reason that Stevie Ray Vaughan played with such a high action, and why modern players like Josh Smith and Dan Patlansky also favour a higher action.
Just one word of warning - push the action too high and you might struggle to play at speed or voice more complex chords. You have to push down further and with more force to fret each note, and this makes it challenging to play with a higher action. Start with moderate adjustments and tweak your action until you find the sweet spot between tone and playability.
3. Change your strings
I recently chatted to a guitarist who was enthusing about his tone after changing guitar strings. He told me that he was amazed at the difference that changing his strings had made to his tone. I asked him when he last changed them, and he told me that he had been playing them for a year…
If you are looking for a killer blues tone, I would not recommend taking this approach.
The tone of your strings changes and diminishes over time. And strings that are very old and worn will start to sound quite lifeless. Not only this, but they become more challenging to play. They start to feel rough to touch, and this can make playing them and using techniques like sliding more challenging.
In this article here you can read up on the 7 signs that will help you understand when you need to change your strings. But if you tend to be a little slack when it comes to changing your strings, keeping them relatively fresh will do a lot to improve your tone.
4. Tune down
Over the years, a number of famous blues and blues rock guitarists have tuned their guitar down a semitone to E flat. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Slash are just some of the most notable of these. Modern blues and blues rock guitarists Philip Sayce and Dan Patlansky also use the same tuning.
Tuning down a semitone reduces the tension across your strings. This makes string bending easier and allows you to use heavier gauge strings, which can help with sustain and make your tone beefier. As a result of its popularity amongst blues and blues rock guitarists, tuning down a step will also help to add a distinctly bluesy vibe to your playing.
Of course, playing in E flat might not always be an option. But it can have a significant and positive impact on your tone.
5. Pay attention to picks
The guitar pick(s) that you use can make a significant difference to how you play your guitar, which in turn will affect your tone. Guitar picks come in a wide range of different shapes, sizes and thicknesses. However if you are interested in dialling in soaring blues tones, I would recommend looking at picks that are small and thick.
Thick guitar picks give the notes that you play greater clarity. They also give you a wider dynamic range. You can dig in with your picking hand and add bite and aggression to your tone. Equally, when you reduce the pressure of your pick attack, you can produce a softer and more mellow sound. Having this dynamic range is very useful in a blues guitar context, where you want to be able to control the nuances of your sound.
Small guitar picks allow you to keep your hand closer to the strings of your guitar. This puts your hand into a more comfortable playing position and makes techniques like palm muting easier. Small guitar picks are also easier to control as they are more compact and easier to move around and manoeuvre.
If you have been used to playing larger picks in a thinner gauge, then I would recommend trying out some of the following sets:
These will help you to get more out of your guitar, which in turn will improve your tone.
6. Take control
I often think that guitarists pay so much attention to their amp and pedals, that they forget that their guitars are fitted with different pickups, as well as tone and volume controls. Adjusting and altering which pickups you use, and how the tone and volume controls are set can totally transform your tone.
You can see this illustrated very effectively by Joe Bonamassa in this video here. Bonamassa does not change any of the controls on his amp, nor does he use any pedals. He simply uses the controls on his guitar to create a wide variety of different tones.
Understanding the potential of these controls gives you a lot of options for adjusting your tone. You can alter it in a significant way (as Bonamassa shows in the video linked above) or in small and subtle ways to gently shape your tone.
With the increasing popularity of guitar pedals, it can be easy to forget the power of these controls. And so if you have been neglecting them, go back to your guitar with a renewed focus. See how you can use your pickup selector and tone controls to help shape and improve your tone.
7. Optimise your pickups
If you are already using different pickup positions to create different tones, the next step is to make sure that your pickups are set up properly. This will ensure that they are functioning at their maximum and helping you to dial in the best tones possible.
The first step here is to make sure that your pickups are set at the correct height. This creates a strong magnetic field that will give you those beautiful blues tones you have in mind.
You can either adjust your pickups based on the specific height recommended for your instrument (it differs between every guitar), or you can adjust by ear until you find the sound you’re looking for. If you go down this route, make sure you use an amp with a clean tone, so you can really hear the impact of every adjustment that you make.
Where you set your pickups will depend largely on your tonal preferences, as well as the gear you are using. But some general recommendations to keep in mind when you are searching for those beautiful blues tones are as follows:
Firstly, you want the bass side of your pickups to be lower than the treble side. This will prevent the wound strings from overpowering the treble strings.
You also want to set the neck pickup a little lower than the bridge pickup. This is because the neck pickup on your guitar typically generates a bit more volume than the bridge or middle pickup (if applicable).
Finally, you want to tweak the heights of each of your pickups so that your volume remains relatively stable when you toggle through each of them.
Give this a go, and play around until you’ve found those beautiful blues tones you have in mind.
8. Dial in your amp
This next tip comes from British blues guitarist Matt Schofield, who has a tried and tested method of getting the best out of any amp. Schofield states that on every amp - regardless of make or model - there is a point on each pot where it ‘kicks in’. So as an example, you might find that moving the treble dial on your amp from 1-5 adds almost no treble to your sound. But when you roll the dial up to 6, your sound suddenly becomes much brighter. The same goes for bass and presence etc...
This point, where the amp ‘kicks in’, is the level at which you want to set each dial (apart from reverb, or any other effects like tremolo that are included in your amp).
Not only will your amp be tonally balanced, but it will respond amazingly to the nuances of your playing. If you want to get extra bite and aggression, you can dig in with your picking hand. If you want more warmth, you can just back off a bit.
Give this a go and you will find that your amp becomes much more responsive. Your tone will instantly improve as a result and you will also feel much more in control of your sound and how you shape it.
9. Soften the edges
If you are playing with an amp and perhaps some choice pedals, don’t forget to dial in a little reverb. Reverb is a natural effect that occurs when a sound is reflected off surfaces and objects in a room. Reflections 'build up' and then the sound naturally decays as it gets absorbed by the objects and surfaces in a room. This isn't just related to musical instruments. Every time you speak or make any noise in a room, you create reverb.
As such, a guitar tone that does not contain any reverb can sound quite unnatural. It can sound quite abrupt and harsh on the ear. Adding some reverb into the mix will soften up the sound of your playing. It will add some natural decay to your notes and do a lot to improve the quality of your tone.
10. Control your G.A.S.
This closing point is arguably more philosophical than it is practical. But nevertheless I think it is important. With so much high quality (and often very affordable) guitar gear out there, it is easy to let your guitar/gear acquisition syndrome (G.A.S. for short) get the better of you.
I know a lot of guitarists who believe that buying pedal after pedal is the way to get their desired tones. And yet so often they end up with a wide range of pedals, many of which they have not fully explored or tried out.
You don’t need a huge range of gear to dial in killer blues tones. In fact I would argue that it is much better to have a more streamlined rig that you are maximising to the fullest, than it is to have a wide variety of pedals that you have not utilised effectively.
So as challenging as it may be, try not to get too wrapped up in chasing new pedals to add to your board. Focus on the gear you do have and work on really understanding and appreciating the possibilities of this gear before you start adding more gear to your setup.
The 10 tips outlined here are just some of the ways you can improve your tone with the gear you already have in your setup. However, depending on your particular setup and the tone you are searching for, there might be further ways for you to improve your tone beyond those noted above.
As such, I have two pieces of closing advice when you are working on your guitar tone at the start of this year. And these are as follows:
Firstly, don’t forget to focus on the smaller and seemingly less significant elements of your rig. It is so easy to focus on guitars, amps and pedals. And yet as I hope I have illustrated here - the smaller elements of your rig are also important. The picks and strings you use make a difference, and these differences add up. If changing picks improves your tone by 5% and putting a fresh set of strings on your guitar does the same, then you’ve boosted your tone by 10%. Significantly, you’ve done so whilst incurring minimal expense.
Secondly, keep experimenting and trying different things out. Just look at your guitar and amp. There are different controls on each and an almost limitless variety of tones you can create by tweaking them and the way they interact with one another. This potential becomes only more profound when you add different strings, pedals and a variety of other factors into the mix.
As such, try to maximise the potential of the gear that you already have in your setup. Not only will this process be fun, it will also be immensely rewarding. You will discover new tones and hopefully discover that your ideal tones are not as far out of reach as you may think.
Good luck! I hope your guitar playing year gets off to a great start, and I look forward to making 2022 a killer year for blues guitar!
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