Tag Archives: frequency

Guitar tone: have you been missing the obvious trick?

Still looking for a better guitar tone? You might have been missing something obvious for some time. You have the guitar, the amp, the overdrive pedals, EQ, but that sound isn’t quite there? It just doesn’t feel right. The obvious answer is to do less. More specifically…

Dial down the gain. Clean up your sound.

Sound ridiculous? Stay with me for now and I’ll try to explain why I believe a cleaner sound makes for not only a better guitar tone, but also helps your sound cut through the mix of a full band. A few things to consider…

Here comes the science (sort of)

Adding overdrive or distortion to your guitar smooths out the tone. Yes, it can sound lovely and ‘syrupy’, not unlike Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’ or the thick lead sounds of Gary Moor or Slash, but have you ever noticed how your solo cans till get lost in the live mix? This is particularly true if your band includes keys, a second guitar player or a horn section, as all of these instruments predominantly occupy the midrange of the frequency spectrum. In effect, your smooth tone is competing with many different voices, and all that lovely smoothing-out (which sounds so cool for your legato runs, etc) makes your sound more likely to dissolve into the wider sound of your band.

The trick is volume over distortion

Try listening to pretty much any classic rock record from the late sixties and seventies (the age of the ‘guitar hero’). Notice how so many of those riffs are only slightly overdriven, at best? Some, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, make use of guitar sounds which are virtually clean. That classic sound you hear is usually a small amp (say 30 watts) being turned up full, and breaking up into a light overdrive sound. This applies to most of the back catalogues for most of your favourite ‘heavy’ bands, from Led Zeppelin and The Who to early Aerosmith and even Black Sabbath.

My favourite example to highlight this is the classic song, Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. The link takes you to the studio recording. Compare this with every covers band that had played this song. Ever. Heck, compare it with how Deep Purple play it now! Everyone has a different opinion, but wouldn’t most agree that the original sounds better?

These bands sounded heavy because they were playing the loudest amplifiers available, and as they got bigger, the sound got heavier, but we’re still a long way from the Mesa Boogie levels of heaviness the eighties would bring along…

Wouldn’t these bands have played heavier, if they had been able to?

Quite probably. They were considered pretty noisy for their time! If those full, thick distortion sounds had been more readily available in the mid-sixties, would the sound of rock guitar have been very different? The truth is, we’ll never know. Those artists used the equipment they had available, and we can only hypothesize as to alternative outcomes. Here it becomes a little too ‘chicken-and-egg’ for my liking, though there are numerous threads on guitar forums across the internet if this is the kind of debate you’re looking to investigate further.

Of course, one counter-argument would be the fuzz pedal. This was heavily used by some artists, notably Hendrix (if you’re not sure how that fuzz sounds, think of the opening riff to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones as your starting point). This effect created a thick and – it goes almost without saying – ‘fuzzy’ sound to the guitar’s tone, making solos sustain for longer and creating a warm, distorted sound. However, the fuzz pedal didn’t take over the sound of rock  guitar as we know it. Perhaps distortion wasn’t the end-goal for guitar players back in the sixties, after all?

So should I play clean but loud for the rest of my guitar-playing career?

Probably not a good idea. Your band mates will most likely not appreciate it!

However, I might suggest you start by dialing back the gain a little on your drive channels, pedals, etc, and make better use of volume and tone controls (on the guitar, amp and any stompboxes you are using) to allow the sound of your guitar to ring through.

But what about sustain?

It’s not always possible to turn up loud and play away. I currently gig with a digital amp which is DI’d into my band’s mixing desk, with no output from the amp itself. My main channels are a clean and a slightly overdriven channel, both of which are fairly ‘dry’ signals (not effects except for a very small amount of reverb). My lead sound (for solos) is another version of the overdriven sound, with a slight boost in volume and treble frequencies. Crucially, this sound also includes a fair bit more reverb dialed in, plus a short delay mixed low underneath the original signal. The reverb and delay both act to thicken up the sound, and assist my guitar sound not only through increased sustain, but in helping the sound to cut through the mix.

Another trick to use in the studio is to use two amps when recording; one with an overdriven sound, and another set to an almost clean tone. The cleaner of the two amps can be mixed quite low, but it’s presence will add some clarity of definition which the heavier sound loses. The whole thing makes for a guitar tone which is not only more thick, but more true to the sound of your guitar – try it!

Take away points:

  • Clean up your tone – wind back that gain!
  • Use effects to create the impression of more volume (such as reverb and delay) instead of piling on the distortion


I fully appreciate that everyone’s opinion is bound to differ on subjects as personal as guitar tone. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. It is also worth remembering that certain styles of guitar-based music rely on a super-distorted sound as an integral element to their sound (think of bands like Nirvana and Skunk Anansie, for instance). However, don’t be afraid to try experimenting with a cleaner tone. Be warned though, with a clean sound, there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses in your playing technique!



Pitching the argument: The reality of 432 Hz vs. 440 Hz tuning

I recently noticed a post on my Facebook page arguing in favour of what is called Scientific Tuning. This is where A4 (just below ‘middle C’) =432 Hz. as opposed to 440 Hz, the modern standard to which all tuners automatically calibrate, and most of the music you hear is tuned to.

The post itself was of a kind I had seen before, and it featured the popular tuning of the universe argument. The idea that as our brains vibrate at 8 Hz, and the solar system vibrates at a perfect multiple of this, music pitch based around a=432 Hz has ‘greater resonance’ with the spheres and our own physiology. Some even use ‘representations’ of how water molecules and snowflakes look based on varying frequencies. What is especially interesting about some of these sites, other than some highly dubious arguments which often have little scientific backup, is their connection to a product – the invariably wish for you to ‘see the light’ about the ‘truth’ of 432 pitch, then buy their music recorded at this frequency! (Quick – it’s for the good of your wellbeing!)

I agree that we are tuned into the universe’s vibrations. As creatures which have evolved on this planet, based on matter being constantly recycled for thousands of millennia before humans appeared, it could only ever be so. But our ears are incredibly complex and amazing instruments, capable of discerning minute pitch differences. We also have an in-built system for relative pitch (the sequencing of one sound connected to the preceding and following sound).

This is not only how we appreciate and enjoy music, but how we developed speech patterns as a species across the globe. It stands to reason, therefore, that the pitching of music is entirely relative. An out-of-tune guitar (with itself as opposed to any other sounds) would sound unpleasant. This is because while one note in isolation is always on set pitch, a chord will include several pitches which are not quite correctly aligned, and therefore out-of-tune. The overall tuning of the instrument only matters when performing with another, and even then they only have to be in tune with each other to produce pleasing-sounding harmonies.

Another classic argument propagated by those opposed to the A=440 Hz tuning is that is was first proposed by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief. It is true that Goebbels commented on the effects of 440 tuning, but many had done so before. Several orchestras were already tuning closer to 440 than 432. The general tuning of ‘middle C’ seems to have risen slowly since the 18th century, highlighting the benefits of standardisation in pitch across the globe. This had already begun to happen before WWII, and was only officially standardised in the 1950’s, after the war had ended (and Goebbels’ suicide). It was also increasingly commonplace for instrument manufacturers to use 440 tuning by the 1920’s as this blog states.

In terms of inducing ‘mass hysteria’, or even attempting to illicit a greater emotional response from a populace through music, 440 tuning would only work at large-scale events, with hundreds of people present, if not more. It could then be argued that the hysteria comes from the crowd (consider the almost war-like ‘crowd mentality’ witnessed and experienced at sporting events) rather than the music’s pitch itself. As social animals, we are designed to be ‘swept along’ by crowds and emotions. It is how we connect. Once again, everything is relative, and I can’t see any proof that the tuning of the music to a specific pitch is the cause of social control, unrest of poor human wellbeing.

Finally, there comes the acid test: Use a controlled experiment, playing listeners the same clip of music but tuned to different pitches. Professor in sound and acoustic research Terry Cox did this very experiment. His results found no preference whatsoever in listeners hearing music played at 432 Hz, compared to 440 Hz. You can hear the clips he used and read his full explanation and results here.

In conclusion, I agree there are good physic-based reasons that music pitched at A=432 Hz. should sound better. However, I strongly encourage you to worry about the bigger problems in life and enjoy music for what it is: the organisation of pitch and rhythm. These pitches, like physics, and indeed like the human condition, are all relative: They are not only what you make them, but what you interpret them to be.