• Martijn de Groot

Keys to a great clean guitar sound!

A clean guitar sound is something people actually struggle with.

Yet it does not have to be so complicated, follow these pointers for a quick change in tone no matter what amp or gear you use.


Now what we mean with this is not turning down the volume on the amp, which will actually also impact it, but a lot less noticable than the way we actually mean.

The volume you should most likely turn down is the one located on your guitar.

A common point that causes the heavily overdriven and distorted tone on a guitar, especially ones build for rock music is from the guitar itself.

The output volume of pickups on a guitar has been steadily increasing over the years, causing the sound of modern guitars to sound harsher than they should on a boutique style amp.

A quick way to demonstrate the impact of rolling down your volume is to plug your guitar into your amp and dial down the volume to 1-2 on the guitar while playing on the Overdrive or Distortion channel.

You will notice that no matter how Distorted the sound was at first it becomes cleaner as the volume gets rolled down.

2. Tube Amps, Solid State Amps, And Your amp

Some amps are just designed in a way that they will always sounds harsh or like "rock".

We do recommend for that reason to also look at solid state amps as they have a far more transparent clean tone relative to tube amps, but we also understand that the sound of solid states are just to transparent a sound for most guitarists.

Reason for this is that a slight bit of drive can also add warmth to the overall tone.

To prevent distortion make sure to turn the pre-amp gain down as much as possible for the cleanest results, as any increase of pre amp will also result in more drive on the signal.

More drive by increasing the input gain is also one of the reasons Marshall Plexi amps got heavily used in the old days.

Another way to prevent any overly driven tones when playing guitar is to ensure to keep your strumming and picking dynamics in check. A softer touch will always result in less drive, simply because the input signal on the amp is lower in volume.

This can also be used as a creative effect to make accents jump out at the listener, heavily used by blues and RnB players, by pulling hard on their strings on the accents.

3. Dynamics

As discussed earlier dynamics can make a huge difference also in how clean you sound is on the guitar.

One thing to always avoid is playing loud when striking notes. If you listen carefully to bossanova and Jazz it always sounds gentle even during the fastest of phrases.

The reason for this is that not only do these musicians learn to play fast and heavily on theory, they also have heavy control on their inter dynamics as a musician.

Getting great control over your dynamics is also going to help in making sure your playing sounds great when you play, but also when you play together!

4. EQ & Compressor Pedal

Another reason why your guitar might still not give you that nice sparkle is, because maybe that sparkle you are looking for is slight drive.

Fender guitars, especially with singlecoils, tend to have far more mid frequencies in their signal than a Gibson - Les Paul.

Simple Mid Boost for a cleaner tone, or even better lead guitar tone

A good fast solution in this case is to use first off a simple mid boost pedal just to enhance the clean tone from your original guitar sound. This will already clean up a lot of the drive from the signal and is something I used recently as a trick on my Jackson V fitted with EMG 81 and EMG 85 pickups.

The input drive on the amp tends to be mostly affected by the bass frequencies in the guitar pickup and humbuckers have a tendency to have a lot more "oomph" and "low end" in them relative to singlecoils.

5. After Recording, EQ

A common question I get is that even though the sound was good in the studio during performance, it always does not sound right in the studio or on the album.

Now this has partially to do with that in the recent years we have gotten more used to compressed and sterilised sounds in general.

A quick point to check when mixing is low passing and high passing your signal. Now we do have to state to be mindful when doing this as it might clean the sound, but also lose all it's character.

Frequent causes of bad guitar tone during mixdown is that it has a lot of unwated frequencies that do not or barely add anything to the overall tone.

This happens in the low frequencies below 130 Hz up to 200 Hz, but can be even worse from anywhere above 3 kHz depending on the tone you are looking for.

Another point of interest to keep an eye out is the 450 Hz mark this is a frequency band that often tends to sound undefined and "woofy" in sound.

Sometimes just making a small dip around the 450 range can already clean up a lot more of the sound, especially on cleaner guitar sounds.

Examplary EQ base quite often used as a starting point for recorded guitar tones.

6. Maybe even some Multi Band Compression?

But what if you make cuts and boosts constantly at the same frequency points, but it never sounds right?

This might be an obvious case of boomy dnyamics instead of to loud frequencies and is also one of many reasons why mixing and mastering is easy to start learning, but hard to master.

The main sound that causes most of the time to boomy frequencies in the low mid band are palm mutes being played on the guitar.

To prevent this from over emphasizing the sound a simple narrow multiband or dynamic EQ with a range of 2-3 dB and a fast attack with fast/medium release can already heavily tighten the sound up of your guitar.

Now this change is hard to perceive if you listen to the guitar seperate from the rest of the track, but if you listen to it in the mix you will notice that all of a sudden the sound of the guitar might have cleared up or even gotten tighter.

There is more frequency bands where you can try this out on. The bands between 200-700 Hz tend to prever being a bit more expanded and dynamic to give other elements in your mix more space to sit and work with, especially vocals.

And sometimes doing the same type of multiband compression between 2 kHz to 4 kHz, can get rid of quite a bit of harshness and "glassy" tone without losing it's clarity.

Base Bands commonly used at Still Sound to clean up gutiar tones, settings may vary depending on what the tone requires.

7. Last but not least; RHYTHM

A thing that should always be in consideration with any form of music and tone is that the cleanest tones is still heavily dictated by the ensembles groove & rhythm.

If you are mixing a sound for more then 5 min and it always sounds like it becomes to thin or to muddy, try to think outside the box.

Often what is noticed is that the more you clean a ensemble of musicians when they are not playing tight, the harsher the sound might become.

This is one of the reasons that we always recommend to get during the recording stage the tone right, before recording as it will also emphasize where rhythm and accents are a problem in the overall sound.

And for artists and musicians the last thing you want is increasing your expenses, or spending more time than planned, on your project cause of heavy editting!

I hope you enjoyed the article and feel free to leave more comments on what you think is needed for a good guitar clean tone as some of these notes can even be applied to heavier guitar sounds!