When you think about your ideal guitar, one of the most personal and difficult-to-describe preferences is sound. Aesthetic appointments are the easy part, but understanding and describing your ideal sound is a bit more ephemeral – and can be wildly subjective. However, we have a few tips and tricks to help you become a tone pro. Learning how to listen carefully to each subtle aspect of a prospective instrument is a fundamental skill you’ll need to find exactly the right instrument for your preferences and playing style.
Let’s look at some active listening strategies you can use to better understand what makes a guitar’s tone special, and how you might effectively describe that sound.
First, you need a comfortable, quiet space to play and listen. The same guitar can sound quite different depending on what part of a room you are in. If possible, find a seat not too close to a corner, not to close to the center. This lets you hear the guitar without a false sense of the bass response, either exaggerated by the corner or diminished by being too far from any reflective surface.
If you are comparing guitars in several different locations, try to find a similar space in which to listen. Keep in mind the effect each space might have on tone.
Next, play something you are comfortable playing and listen to the overall voice of the guitar. Is the bass clear and deep? Is it trebly? Is it punchy? If possible, think of a song that the guitar sounds like. Does it remind you of an intro to a famous recording?
Next, listen to the various ranges of the instrument individually and see if you can describe those parts.
THE DEEP END
Play something that has prominent low notes. These notes may be quick or slow to develop. A quick response at the attack of the note makes them stand out and helps them be heard in the rest of the chord, or in the mix with other instruments. A slower response with less defined attack can also be good if you want the bass notes to blend in. Some musicians prefer if the bass notes bloom more, rather than having a strong, sharp attack. A slower, softer attack is not the same as “muddy.”
Listen to the way the harmonics of the sixth string interact with upper notes. Listen to how these harmonics may be clear and present, or subdued. Do the harmonics of the low notes sound in tune with the other harmonics? Keep in mind: What matters is being aware of what you’re hearing, and then deciding if you like it. Guitarists may hear the same guitar quite differently.
THE HIGH END
Play something with prominent high notes. Is the high end (the upper harmonic content) complex or simple? Is the treble content clear and defined or is it less-pronounced part of the whole? Do the notes sound bright to you? Some people like bright, and some don’t.
What do we mean by bright? A guitar with simple, but pronounced upper end is “bright.” Think: one strong harmonic. More complex upper harmonics, extending up to the edge of hearing, we consider “shimmery.” In between is “sparkly.” These are still vague terms, but they evoke a bit more imagery.
Some great guitars do not have complex upper ranges. They are more based on the fundamental of the high notes. This is what we call “dry.” Fingerstyle players seem to gravitate towards “sparkle” and “shimmer;” blues players tend to go for “dry” harmonic content in their highs.
Play something that features middle notes. Mids are that difficult-to-define range between the highs and lows. They seem to have a lot to do with what we call punch. Do you feel that strumming in your gut? That is punch. Do you hear the guitar as clearly defined, but with its harmonic content evenly distributed? That’s a more scooped midrange. Strong mids may produce a thicker sound. Again, none of these are necessarily good or bad; they are just ways to define what you are hearing.
There are a thousand ways to describe tone. Here at the Custom Sound Studio, we’ve chosen some basic terms and defined them, so we can all speak the same language. We aren’t suggesting they’re the “right” way to define tone. We’re just proposing a common language to make it a little easier to discuss a very subjective topic. To view the full vocabulary glossary online, click here.
No matter how precisely we define the words we use talk about tone, words often fall short. Words are simply not tone. Words are not magic – they can’t convey that special feeling you get when you play that guitar that is just right, that guitar you connect with.
The important thing is to learn how to listen. Take apart the tone; listen to all the parts. Keep a tone journal and describe what you feel and hear when you play a new guitar so that as you play other guitars you’ll have a description with which to compare them. Soon you will be able to remember guitars more clearly, recalling their sound in your mind.
Learning to truly listen and identify what works for you tonally is the perhaps the most important step towards designing the instrument of your dreams.