Guitar Tone From The Fingers
There's a common debate among guitar players about the origin of tone. Does it come from gear or the guitarist's fingers? It's a silly debate, really. Good tone is completely objective, but more importantly, tone starts with the fingers, and is enhanced by the proper gear. If you're not satisfied with the tone from your fingers, you'll never truly be satisfied with the tone from any guitar, amp, and pedal combination. If you know how to manipulate tone with your fingers, however, you'll be able to make the most out of whatever rig you're playing. Since the last post on my site is all about gear, I thought it would be important to spend some time discussing the fundamentals of tone and explain why and how your fingers can affect your guitar tone.
As I will explain below, the quality of your tone is not an accident. Beautiful tone is generated by a physical act that begins with what, where, and how you attack your guitar string, and continues with how the note is treated as it decays. As a result, your tone can be manipulated and improved by changing the way you play your instrument. Tone truly comes from your fingers.
The Fundamentals of Musical Sound
Sound is produced when vibrations are transmitted through matter. These vibrations produce waves. Waves transfer the energy of the vibration through the air, or any matter, and eventually to your ear. As long as the wavelength is within the frequency range of our hearing, we perceive the sound.
When these vibrations produce uniform, complex waveforms, the result is musical sound.
There are properties to musical sound that can be explained through physics. For a better understanding of the physics of sound, watch this video and pay special attention at 2:21 as it explains overtone structure and complex musical tone.
As explained in the video, musical tone is created by a fundamental frequency (pitch) for which we name the note, and a combination of overtones. The overtone structure helps us distinguish one instrument from another, and in many cases, good tone from bad tone.
You are probably already familiar with overtones on the guitar in the form of harmonics. When you lightly touch the string over the 12th fret, you are dividing the wavelength in half, creating a pitch one octave higher than the open string. Similarly, if you play a harmonic on the 7th fret, you are dividing the wavelength in thirds, resulting in a pitch that is an octave and a perfect fifth higher than the open string. Here is an illustration of the harmonic series on a guitar:
What you may not have realized is that when you play a note on the guitar, all of these harmonic pitches are present within the vibrating string. This is because the length of the vibrating string can be equally divided into shorter wavelengths. Keep in mind that wavelength is proportional to frequency, and frequency determines pitch.
In other words, when the D string vibrates on a guitar, all of these pitches are present in the overtone structure, listed in ascending order:
- D (the fundamental pitch)
- D (1st overtone)
- A (2nd overtone)
- D (3rd overtone)
- F# (4th overtone)
One of the beautiful things about the guitar is that multiple strings can interact to add richness to your tone. Even if you are playing a single note on one string, other strings that contain that pitch in their overtone structure will begin to vibrate.
To demonstrate this, grab your guitar and make sure it is perfectly in tune. Play the 7th fret on the 3rd string (this is a D), but be sure to not touch any other string. Let it ring for a moment and then release the note. Listen closely. Do you still hear the pitch? Dampen your D string and it will stop. Now try it by playing an A (10th fret, 2nd string), D (10th fret, 1st string), and F# (14th fret, 1st string).
The proportionate relationship between the fundamental pitch of the open D string and it's overtone structure is what creates it's tone. As summarized in the Physics of Sound video, this physical relationship is the basis for musical tone.
The video also demonstrated how sound can be visualized through waveforms. If you've ever done any recording, you've probably seen the waveform of your guitar as it is picked up by the microphone and recorded on the computer. Here is a sample of a guitar part I recently recorded:
The waveform seen here is actually the result of many different sound waves interacting with each other. This is because there are several notes ringing at once, and each note includes it's fundamental frequency and overtone structure.
So what does a sound wave look like in it's most basic form, and how do those waveforms sound?
The following images and sound examples are borrowed from an excellent write up on sound waves by Ben Harris. Please read the original post for a more in depth explanation of sound wave basics and how their music application.
Here are the four basic waveforms. A sine wave is the most basic waveform, made up of a fundamental frequency with no harmonics or overtone structure. The other three waveforms: triangle, sawtooth, and square, each contain the fundamental frequency with some or all harmonics present in different overtone structures.
Let's listen to a pitch using these waveforms and hear the differences. The only thing changing from one example to the next is the shape of the wave. Click play on the example below and scroll through the four waveforms.
[audio:sine.mp3,triangle.mp3,square.mp3,sawtooth.mp3|titles=Sine Wave,Triangle Wave,Square Wave,Sawtooth Wave]
How would you describe the tone of each waveform?
The sine wave has a rather mellow, dull tone. This is because there are no harmonics.
The triangle wave has odd harmonics present, but they are relatively quiet. It sounds just a bit brighter than the sine wave.
The square wave, like the triangle wave, includes odd harmonics but with more presence. Subsequently, it has an even brighter tone.
Finally, the sawtooth wave, has all harmonics present in it's overtone structure and creates a brighter, fuller tone.
This demonstrates that overtone structure greatly impacts tone.
Manipulating Sound With Your Fingers
Pick up your guitar and try a few things with me:
- Pluck a string with a pick, then pluck it in the same place with the fleshy part of your finger.
- Pluck the string with the pointed corner of your pick, then one of the rounded back corners.
- Pluck the string with a pick at different angles against the string.
- Pluck a string right next to the bridge, then just over the fingerboard.
- Attack the string as soft as possible, then as hard as possible, and everywhere in between.
- Pluck the string outward so it slaps back against the frets.
- Play the open high E string, then play the same pitch on every other string:
- 5th fret on the B string
- 9th fret on the G string
- 14th fret on the D string
- 19th fret on the A string
- 24th fret on the low E string
- Hold the guitar tightly against your body, trying to touch every surface of the guitar, then play while trying to touch as little of the instrument as possible.
With each of these techniques, you are changing the attack of the note, which in turn affects the emphasis on the note's overtone structure. Do you hear the differences in tone?
The roughness of your pick, for example, can bring out higher overtones and create a brighter tone. A very smooth pick with have a quick release and produce a mellower tone because there is less emphasis on the overtones. The flesh of your finger might sound even darker.
Picking closer to the bridge also brings out overtones. When the string vibrates against the frets, overtones are emphasized. Where you play a pitch will affect the overtones and the sustain of the note. How much of your body touches the guitar affects the resonance and subsequently, the richness of overtones.
The heart of your tone, however, occurs just after the initial attack. You have less control over the sound at this point, but your vibrato and release of the note are equally as important as how you pick the string. You can also use trills and slurs, such as hammer ons, pull offs, and slides to sound other pitches with a different sort of attack, or no attack at all.
How Do You Achieve The Best Tone?
Practice, practice, practice.
Many novice players want to believe tone is more heavily influenced by gear because it's typically easier to blame an external factor and buy more gear, rather than spend hours honing your skills as a guitarist.
When it comes to playing guitar, there is no right or wrong, only different. Each technique produces a different sound, and every player has a natural inclination to produce specific tone based on their style and technique.
If you want to improve your tone, you must practice all of these techniques until they become a natural extension of your playing. Then you can pick up any guitar or play through any rig and at least know how to adjust your playing to get the tone in your head.
For example, if a guitar or amp sounds especially bright, I might pick closer to the neck with a very smooth release. Similarly, I'll adjust to a dark or muddy sounding rig by playing with a brighter attack close to the bridge.
Once you're able to make any guitar sing to it's full potential you will achieve far better results from expensive, high quality gear.
The Role of Gear
Without a doubt, the quality of your instrument will effect your tone, and any pickups, effects, amps, and microphones used along the way will also have an impact on the sound waves.
One reason Stradivarius violins are so coveted is because they resonate exceptionally well at the frequencies within the instrument's overtone series. This is a result of the shape of the instrument, the hollow spaces inside the violin, and the properties of the wood.
Similarly, some acoustic guitars will have more resonance than others. Solid wood, for example resonates better than laminate, which is essentially plywood.
Even high quality pieces of wood sound different. Maple is very hard and does not resonate much, resulting in brighter tone. Cedar is soft and produces a warmer tone. Spruce, which is commonly used for the tops of guitars, is a happy medium. One can go even further and compare differences in tone based on a wood's grain and age.
Electric guitars tend to resonate less, but they do resonate similar to acoustic guitars, and using the same principles. Additionally, there are different types of pickups. Pickups essentially turn the physical vibrations of the strings into electrical current. The conversion process is an opportunity to add or remove emphasis on certain frequencies, which is why different pickups produce different tones.
Until the sound of the guitar hits your ear, every piece of gear can affect your tone. Some gear is designed to have minimal effect on your guitar's signal, while other pieces of gear are made to dramatically change the tone.
Certain types of pickups, overdrives, and tube amps are designed to emphasize higher frequencies, resulting in brighter tone. If you produce a bright tone with your fingers, the wrong combination of gear might end up sounding harsh and brittle. Adjusting the way you play can usually mellow the sound.
Regardless of what the gear is designed to do, it has to work with the sound created by your fingers.
Good luck on your quest for great tone!