Electric guitar has six strings, just like an acoustic guitar. That’s about where the similarities end. It’s a completely different instrument! You’ll need a different mindset to play it well.
IT’S NOT ABOUT LOUD
While acoustic guitars are self-contained sound-boxes, electric guitars are pretty useless without an amp. It’s that unique guitar-amp combination that creates your final sound, and there’s many different ways to get there.
Ever notice how everybody seems to back away when you turn on your amp? Electric guitarists have always gotten a bad rap because of the thousands of players who just crank it up and ‘noodle noodle noodle’. Electric guitar is not a license to dominate. Respect the POWER.
There’s a universe of sounds and tones that can be had if you know how to make them. Unlike acoustics though, every little tick and sound is super-amplified and it takes a sensitive player to keep it all under control. Getting the best sound out of your instrument means you may have to do things that seem backward from acoustic guitar playing.
TO GET LOUDER, PLAY SOFTER
Playing hard on an electric guitar only makes the strings rattle and chokes off your sustain and tone. Many artists will hide behind distortion to cover up their sloppy playing. Don’t do this! The most solid and sustaining sound is created by the cleanest playing. All that grimacing and straining you see on stage is just showmanship. Play lightly.
Unless you’re playing traditional jazz or surf music, most guitarists find themselves using some kind of distortion. In the dawn of rock, guitarists would get that sound by cranking up small (and large) tube amplifiers to ear-splitting volumes. Lots of attempts have been made over the years to recreate this same kind of sound at lower volumes, like pedal distortion, modeled distortion, preamp distortion, power amp distortion, power-soaking, speaker distortion and so on. Most guitarists agree that while these techniques are quite practical and useful, none sound quite as sweet as a tube amp and speaker driven to near-nuclear meltdown (but the manufacturers keep on trying!).
MASTERING THE BEAST
Playing with high feedback and distortion is like trying to control the uncontrollable. In their haste to play faster and faster musicians sometimes tends to only listen to what they’re TRYING to sound like, rather than what they ACTUALLY sound like.
When first attempting lead and rhythm playing it’s a good idea to try recording yourself and listening back. Hear all those extra noises you’re making? Your lower strings are likely droning along sloppily as you play those screaming high leads, along with other unwelcome sounds. You have to work extra hard to clean this stuff up.
The best players usually spend half their time just muting all the noises they DON’T want hear.. The more distortion and feedback, the cleaner you have to play.
“How do I get that GOOOOD sound?”
Millions of words have been written and millions of pieces of gear have been combined trying to answer that very question. The only things most agree on is you need a well set up, sustaining guitar and a practiced, talented, sensitive player.
YEAH, BUT REALLY, HOW DO I GET A GOOD SOUND?
There’s really no one perfect, absolute electric guitar sound. There’s just lots of different ones. Follow your ears. What do YOU like? Humbucking pickups? Single coil pickups? Hollow body? Solid body? Locking? Drop-tuning? Begin by listening to other players and styles and note the guitars and gear they use. You’ll probably find you like lots of different sounds. Prepare to settle in for the long haul though, as this quest for the ‘perfect sound’ can become a never-ending one.
I once worked with a guitarist whom over a period of several years swapped out dozens of guitars and amps and nearly hundreds of pickups trying to find ‘the ultimate guitar tone’, but was never entirely satisfied (He always sounded fine to me, though!).
Don’t be too surprised if you can’t reproduce another artists sounds, even if you have the same gear they do. Recorded and live sound pass through a lot of steps on their way to the listener, and what an artist starts with isn’t necessarily what is finally heard. Also some recorded sound techniques are ‘one of a kind’ – even the original artist can’t reproduce it!
What is tone? What is good tone? What is bad tone? Does anybody really know? One place to start is realizing that electric guitar is not a full-range sound. It’s really a mid-range instrument and not as bright-sounding as it may seem. Most guitar sounds just peak at various points in the mid-range along with varying degrees of ‘grit’.
Do you want that smooth, singing melodic distortion? Start by turning the treble down. Do you want to cut through the music? Cut down on the bass.
Effects are NOT tone. Used excessively they tend to smear and obscure your sound. Adding too much will actually begin to make you sound smaller rather than bigger. Start with a good, basic guitar tone and a good basic distortion, then season to taste. Don’t overdo it.
THE SUSTAIN MYTH
There’s no such effect called ‘sustain’. It’s more of a technique, really. Start with a naturally sustaining guitar, add a little compression, then experiment with controlled feedback and see what you get.
Don’t get too hung up on gear. Your amp and effects are just tools after all, and your guitar is your hammer. YOU’RE the carpenter. While most artists develop preferences for what they use, it really doesn’t affect much WHAT they play in the end. As they say, “Nobody was ever famous for what they bought!”.
Finally, respect the audience. Don’t just crank it up. This is not a loudness contest! Support your band. Support the song. Blend. Make everybody else sound good. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn. Show ’em what you got. Make the most of it!
© 2014 Leo Bidne