4 Guitar Playing Tips to Have Better Tone (Without Using Pedals or Amps)

Updated on May 8, 2019
Matthew Scherer profile image

Matthew is a studio musician from south Texas. In addition to original recordings, he has provided music for short films and commercials.

1. Hold the Pick Correctly

This may seem simple, but is extremely important in achieving good tone. Many guitar players tend to sound muddy because they have a weak grip on the pick or are angling it incorrectly.

The guitar pick should rest flat underneath your thumb, with the sharp side pointing out. To get optimal control for harmonics, it's recommended you choke up on the pick so that only a tiny bit sticks out from your thumb.

Many guitarists choose to support the pick with their index finger, but the middle finger can also be used. This really comes down to preference, so go with whatever feels comfortable.

There are also many different types of picks to choose from, and this also comes down to preference. Note that certain picks will produce different types of tones. Larger, flimsier picks will produce a bright strumming sound, but are not optimal for playing heavier rock music.

Conversely, thicker picks are great for solos and distorted music, but produce a harsher, more aggressive strumming sound. It's important to take into account the genre of music you'll be playing when selecting a pick.

2. Attack the Strings With Efficiency

Another cause for the muddy sound many players get is they don't strum the strings properly, often hitting the strings at angle and with such force that it produces a banging sound more than the resonance of the actual chord or note.

To avoid this, attack the strings at a roughly 45 degree angle just above the bridge pickup. If you're playing an acoustic, strum the strings right above the sound hole, or just shy of it if you're going for a brighter sound.

Strumming the strings with force is by no means a bad thing, but it has to be handled correctly. When applying force, realize that on a guitar it doesn't take much to amplify the sound. Just a swift flick of the wrist is enough to get an aggressive sound without banging the strings.

3. Dynamics Are Your Friend

Nothing is more boring than hearing a solo that's played completely even in volume. Not too loud, not too soft, just vanilla.

The most skilled soloists employ a heavy use of dynamics, or playing lightly and softly. This is used to build tension. For example, when beginning a solo for a song that builds into a crescendo, you would want to start out playing very lightly. Gently attacking the strings with the pick so that they're almost barely audible.

Then, as the song begins to build, start digging in with your pick. As mentioned in tip one, if you have your thumb choked up on the pick so that not much is sticking out, pinch harmonics become much easier to execute.

If you're digging in with the pick and have this thumb position, pinch harmonics will begin to come out on certain notes. With practice, you can begin to control when they do. This aggressive harmonic filled playing will be perfect for when the song builds to its climax.

The same goes for rhythm playing as well. If you're backing up other instruments solos, light dynamics are preferred, and will help blend your instrument into the background. If you're playing a riff driven rock song, dig in like it's Thanksgiving dinner! Dynamics alone can help your playing make any amp sound stellar.

4. Vibrato, Vibrato, Vibrato

For the guitar, nothing makes it sound more emotive and soaring than good vibrato. What is vibrato? You may ask. Well, vibrato is simply shaking or "vibrating" a note by rotating the wrist.

This sounds simple, but is one of the most intricate parts of playing guitar. It's something easy to do, but difficult to master. However, through practice you can begin to develop your own style of vibrato.

Many famous guitarists can be recognized just by the sound of their vibrato. For example, BB King was considered to have one of the best vibratos. It was fast and shrill, and carried a lot of feeling. On the other side of the spectrum, Angus Young is also recognized as having excellent vibrato.

In contrast to BB's, Angus has a very wide, harsh vibrato, but manages to be equally as expressive. Like many other things, it comes down to preference. However, it's important to practice vibrato correctly. Good vibrato comes from a very controlled and brief shake of the wrist.

It is not an exaggerated motion, so don't shake your hand around like mad! Starting with very subtle vibrato is a good way to start, and if wider is your thing, bring it out from there.

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