The Be All End All in Sounding Like a Pro
Nothing screams amateur more than a guitarist who’s out of tune. Unfortunately, just getting your tuner to light up green when you play each open string may not be enough to make your guitar sound in tune. Intonation matters a lot and the cheaper the instrument, the more potential there is for your intonation to be bad.
You can check your intonation very easily. First use a guitar tuner to tune all the strings. Then check the pitch of the 12th fret harmonic against the note at the 12th fret of each string. They should both be perfectly in tune. If the 12th fret is flat or sharp against the harmonic, then you have problems.
Adjusting the intonation of a guitar isn’t all that difficult but could be daunting if you’re a novice. In that case, seek the help of a professional guitar tech. If you’re adventurous, here’s a helpful how to article on wikiHow. Beware, I’ve encountered on many occasions cheap guitars that just cannot be intonated properly. Basically, their craftsmanship is so poor that no amount of saddle adjustment is enough to compensate. If you find yourself to be in this position then, unfortunately, if you want to play in tune you’ll need a better guitar.
Treat Your Cables Nicely and Replace Bad Cables Immediately
When was the last time you saw your favorite guitar player in concert fidget with a crap cable on stage? It just doesn’t happen and you should avoid it too.
The instrument cable is an often forgotten but very important part of your guitar rig. You won’t win over any fans if your guitar rig is constantly crackling and cutting out due to a loose connection or a break in the wiring of your cable. If you’re cable goes out completely and you don’t have a spare, that’s a gig ender. Don’t put yourself in that position; always bring a spare.
Check your cables before the gig starts. Give each end a wiggle and make sure it won’t cut out on you once you start moving around on stage. If you come across a bad cable, swap it out immediately for a spare. Set all bad cables aside and mark them so they don’t some how work their way back into your rig.
Sometimes instrument cables just go bad, but most wear and tear is avoidable simply by treating your cables nicely. Wrap them up in very neat loops with a cable tie after every use. Do not wrap cables around your thumb and elbow and then toss them in to one big pile that will likely become a giant tangled mess. That’s how you ruin cables. Even inexpensive cables can last a long time if cared for properly.
Use The Right Tool For The Job
Don’t lug a 100 watt head and 4×12 half-stack rig into a small club gig, especially if there’s a sound guy there to put a mic on it. Big rigs like that are for large clubs and arena’s, not Bob’s Bar and Grill. Cranking such a beastly rig (and if you’re not cranking it, what’s the point?) in a small venue will make getting a good mix impossible and will likely drive people out the door to avoid hearing damage. Even if you play the heaviest of heavy metal, taking the size of the room and audience into consideration when choosing what rig to bring can help you balance the sound of the band and thus sound more professional.
This rule applies to guitars too. Maybe leave the Floyd Rose shred machine at home if all you’re doing is playing a bunch of alternative rock cover songs. Are you planning on adding some wicked dive bombs to that Sublime song? Bass players too, you really think you need that 6 string bass to play “Rocking In The Free World?” Use common sense and don’t look like the guy who showed up at the wrong gig.
Kill The Buzz and Reduce Noise
A rig that buzzes and hums loudly will not help you sound like a pro. Single coil pick ups are notorious for getting 60 cycle hum, and the cheaper they are, the noisier they tend to be. You can easily kill buzz (and give your guitar a sonic makeover) by upgrading your stock single coils with noiseless versions from aftermarket companies like Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio.
Something else that could help reduce buzz and noise is electrical shielding. The process of shielding the electronics inside a guitar involves covering the body cavity with a thin layer of metal and re-soldering a few connections to create better grounding. If done right, it can make a huge difference. If you’re interested in giving it a go, here’s a DIY guide. But even if you have to pay someone, shielding is likely to be much cheaper than upgrading pickups; so maybe try that first.
If you’re looking for a solution to your noise problem that does not require soldering, you can try a noise suppressor. The Decimator by ISP Technologies is one of the better noise suppressors on the market today. Just place it at the end of your pedal board effects chain and let it work its magic.
Hone Your Tone
Tone is a very personal thing, and there is no real right or wrong. But there is tone that will make people grimace, cover their ears, and walk out to have a cigarette. You don’t want that tone. Developing good tone takes time; for some, it is a life long quest during which their tone is constantly evolving. So take the time to hone your tone. Play around with the settings on your amp, try different combinations of effects pedals, try different guitars, amps, pickups, speakers, etc. Experiment but also always compare.
To start your quest for good tone, look to those who have already blazed the trail. Listen to your favorite guitar players and try to emulate their sound with your gear. Set up a practice session where you can play some of your favorite guitar songs on a decent stereo system in the same room as your rig and do some tweaking. After some time you’ll either find the perfect settings, settings that come close or realize your equipment just can’t do what you want. In the latter case, you may want to start thinking about upgrading.
Of course, it would be great if we could all be millionaires and buy all top-of-the-line equipment. But for most of us, it’s a frustrating balance between utility and affordability. Remember though, buying the best gear isn’t always the same as buying exactly the gear you need, so do your research.
I know this is corny, but really the most important part of your rig is you. A complete beginner won’t sound any better playing through a $2000 amp as opposed to a $50 practice amp (maybe just louder). On the other hand, a real pro can plug a Squire Strat into a $50 practice amp and make it sound like a million bucks. Of course a pro who uses really nice gear will sound even better, but you get the picture.
The old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out,” is unavoidably true. So practice as much as you can and avoid amateurish things like not muting unused strings when playing solo lines, sloppy picking, bad timing, and bending out of tune. More time practicing will also mean more time with your rig, and that will help you get to know it better and hone your tone.