I recently witnessed an interaction between two guys on a gear forum that opened my eyes to an all too common mindset that prevents many musicians from easily improving their tone. The mindset is this: “Why should I spend a few bucks more on quality picks, strings, tubes, etc. when I can spend hundreds on pedals to improve my tone?”
The conversation was between a reputable session player who used to tour with Alice Cooper and an experienced church guitarist. The session player was telling him how amazing the Vintage Nickel Alloy strings by Sonotone are and how they were the missing link for him. He went on to talk about how his tone is better, neck tension is improved, and his strings, which he was meticulous about changing before each session or gig, are lasting much longer and require fewer tuning touch ups between takes. The other guy wasn’t buying the hype and responded, “Why should I spend $14 on a pack of strings when I can get D’Addarios on sale for $3?” For me the answer was simple… Because the original sound generated by the strings is what we are spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars processing and amplifying in search of our desired tone.
So this got me thinking “What other relatively inexpensive investments have I made that have reaped greater benefits than the more costly items that many are so quick to invest in?”. Here are a few that I personally use and have recommended to customers, artists, and friends over the years. The risk and investment is low with all of these suggestions. If something is not for you, you’re only out a few bucks. But, don’t give up! Keep searching for effective tools. One of them might just turn out to be your missing link. If you find something or already know of something life changing be sure to post it in the comments for the rest of us.
V-Picks ($4 USD)
If you haven’t tried V-picks yet you are missing out on one of the simplest tone improving inventions of our era. These acrylic picks have precision beveled edges that increase playing efficiency, are made of materials that improve the sonic response of your strings, and have a micro-surface that makes them slip proof. Yes, I said slip proof! These picks are adored by the masters of the sweep-picking technique, but I found them to be the perfect remedy for keeping my tremolo picking in time (tremolo picking is that beautiful fast picking technique you hear in the background music at nearly every Italian restaurant). V-Picks are available in every imaginable shape and size. They even come in colors, so you can find them later should you somehow escape their slip proof grip.
Snake Oil Brand Strings ($13 USD)
As referenced earlier these strings really do offer a huge improvement in feel, tone, and longevity. The creator of these strings, Dean Farley has been in the boutique string business for a very long time. As an experienced metallurgist and student of the history of guitar strings, Dean had a eureka moment that set him on a path to recreate the superior quality nickel alloy strings that can be heard on all of the recordings we love from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. This silky warm tone that can be heard on the recordings of every legend from Hendrix on down was lost when the penny-pinching accountants began to decide which materials would be most beneficial for the manufacturers of these disposable products back in the early 80’s. It was then that more affordable stainless steel became the metal of choice. The problem is steel contains carbon, the same material that makes diamonds hard. What do you think happens to your nickel frets when you rub steel against them versus softer nickel? Can you say “fret job”? Even coated steel strings won’t protect your frets, since the contacts points are the first place the coating wears off. You will quickly discover that high quality nickel alloy not only sounds much fuller, but it will resist also environmental conditions and stay in tune longer than equally priced coated strings.
Be warned though, the Snake Oil String website is overwhelming at first. Dean has dedicated himself to creating acoustic, electric, and bass strings for every player and application. He even designs them for different model guitars. I recommend using his Rock Formula pure nickel round wound strings as a median point and then working to find your desired brightness from there. The Vintage Formula is a little warmer and the Lord Headbangers are perfect for players who require brighter strings to cut through their saturated amps. My strings usually arrive within 5 business days when I order them direct from Sfarzo.
PM Components Amplifier Tubes ($10-$25 each)
These tubes by legendary tube designer Peter M. Watson are so amazing I dedicated an entire Tonesmiths Report to them. Mr. Watson honed his craft while working alongside the brilliant tube innovators at the factory that invented the 12AX7! After meeting Peter at NAMM a couple years back and taking some samples home, I contacted PM Component’s home office in the UK and begged them to make me a dealer for these game-changing tubes. This is the only product on this list that I’m a dealer for. I’m completely unashamed about this, because it’s about time someone make these premium tubes known to someone besides all the hi-fi enthusiasts. They are the closest thing to NOS in tone and quality being made today. All of my clients are going crazy over these tubes right now. Those who ordered a few to try want to retube every amp in their stable. I haven’t had one customer yet that wasn’t completely blown away by the noticeable improvement in their amp’s tone and response immediately upon installation. And the best news is and they cost no more than JJ tubes.
Here’s the link with an interview featuring Peter M. Watson:
Guitar Tone Capacitor ($15)
I’ve been suggesting this little trick to friends and clients for quite some time now. There are quite a few other upgrades you can make to your guitar electronics. But, this one has proven to have the most dramatic effect for the money and it’s easy to install. I was fortunate enough to discover a stash of NOS paper in oil caps at a local electronics warehouse many years ago. This gave me a chance to A/B different value and types of caps against each other in many guitars. Those caps found their way into many of my friends’ guitars and elicited a “Wow!” every time. Paper in oil are suggested for single coil (.047 mfd) and humbuckers (.022 mfd) equipped guitars, though ceramic caps are still preferred by many traditional Tele players (.01 or .05 mfd). A .047 mfd paper in oil cap will give your Tele a more Strat like sound, especially on the neck pickup. Some modern Tele players prefer this. Try a .033 mfd paper in oil cap on your P90 pickups to release the snarl.
I’m sure I forgot a bunch of stuff. But here’s a list of a few other fairly inexpensive accessories that have worked for me:
Quality instrument cables – oxygen free copper cable with a rugged exterior and solid connections
CTS or Bourns volume and tone potentiometers – better tone, smoother, and quieter
Treble bleed cap – keeps tone from getting thin as you turn the volume pot down
Shielding on single coil guitars to reduce hum– use spray-on for cavity and sticker for pick guard
Signal buffer – use on pedalboards with more than 5 pedals to retain tone
Dunlop extra thick glass slide – maximum tone with minimal string rattle
G7th Nashville Capo – perfect tension and contact surface increases clarity/ quick change
Professional Set up- Not necessarily inexpensive, but essential
And lastly… Altoids Can- to keep your picks curiously fresh!
Tonesmiths Customer Testimonials http://www.tonesmiths.com/pages/testimonials
Tonesmiths is a professional tone consultation service. We offer free tone-shaping advice to touring and aspiring guitarists. Please contact us on the form below if there is anything we can help you with.