The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook

The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook shows you:

The factors that determine an electric guitar’s sound

The factors that determine an acoustic guitar’s sound

The factors that determine an amplifier’s sound

Why the wood in a speaker cabinet makes such a difference

Why the type of type of tone wood used to build an acoustic makes such a difference

The techniques that A-list engineers use to record electric and acoustic guitars

How to use the guitar production techniques that you’ve heard on records

The secret to using alternate tunings on your recordings

and much more!

What It's About

No matter what your skill level, finding the guitar tone that you hear in your head, and then recording it, is a never-ending search for most guitar players. The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook is the definitive book for discovering that great guitar sound and making sure it records well.

The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (co-authored by guitarist/composer/author Rich Tozzoli) also features a series of interviews with expert players, technicians, recording engineers, producers and manufacturers that gives you an inside look into the business of guitar tone.

As a bonus, an accompanying DVD provides both an audio and visual reference point for achieving the classic sounds you hear on records, as well as an instructive comparison of guitar tone.

Kind Words From Readers

All in all The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook perfectly lives up to its subtitle: “A Definitive Guide To Creating And Recording Great Guitar Sounds.” I have never come across anything as exhaustive, yet so plainly written on the topic. For those interested in finding their personal “perfect” sound on guitar, this is an invaluable set of pointers.


I could have saved a lot of money personally over the past 30 years if I had had this Handbook to work from. Trial and error can get expensive with guitars. For anyone in the market, yet not exactly certain what they ultimately want, The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook is an invaluable resource.
Greg Barbrick

…and dozens more like it!

Let's Look Inside

Table Of Contents


Part 1 – Electric Guitars And Amplifiers
Chapter 1 –  What is Tone?
Studio Ears
It’s All In The Fingers
Other Factors In The Search For Tone
    The Room
    The Microphone
    Change Your Tone
Tone Killers

Chapter 2 – A Evolution Of The Electric Guitar And Amplifier
The 1850’s
The 1920’s
The 1930’s
The 1940’s
The 1950’s
The 1960’s
The 1970’s
The 1980’s
The 1990’s
The 2000’s

Chapter 3 – Tonal Factors Of An Electric Guitar
The Guitar Body
    The Wood
        Tonal Characteristics Of Wood
    The Finish
The Neck
    Neck Attachment
    The Fretboard
The Hardware
    The Bridge
    The Tailpiece
    Types Of Pickups
    Factors In Pickup Sound
    Intangible Factors
        The Changes In The Humbucker
    Other Types Of Pickups
The Guitar Pick
Vintage Versus Modern
Evaluating A Guitar

Chapter 4 – Tonal Factors In Guitar Amplifiers
Tube Amplifiers
        Preamp Tubes
        Driver Tubes
        Power Tubes
        How Tubes Differ
        Tube Suppliers
    Tube Amp Circuitry
        Gain Stages
        The Output Stage
            Cathode Bias
    3 Ways To Tweak Your Tube Amp
    Bad Signs
    Power Soaks
    Why Do Vintage Amps Sound So Good?
        The Design
        Component Tolerances
Solid State Amplifiers
    Amplifier Modeling
    Sonic Attributes
Hybrid Amps
Boutique Amps

Chapter 5 – Speakers And Cabinets
Speaker Cabinets
    Types Of Speaker Cabinets
        Open-Back Cabinets
        Closed-Back Cabinets
    Cabinet Parameters
        Cabinet Size
        Construction Materials
        Construction Methods
        The Baffle
    Cabinet Differences
    Cabinet Buzzes
    Speaker Parameters
        Number Of Speakers
        The Type Of Cabinet
        Speaker Wattage
        Magnet Structure
    Speaker Manufacturers
        Other Manufacturers

Chapter 6 – Electric Guitar Miking Techniques
Microphone Technique 101
    Choosing The Best Place In The Room
    Choosing The Right Mic
    Mic Placement
Electric Guitar Miking Setups
    Single Mic
        The Classic Setup
        Classic Setup #2
        Single Mic Variation #1
    Two Mics
        The Classic Two Mic Setup
        Two Mic Variation #1
        Two Mic Variation #2
    Three Mics
        Three Mic Technique #1
        Three Mic Technique #2
        Three Mic Variation #1
    For Marshall Cabinets Only
    More Sophisticated Techniques
        Jimi’s Sound
        A Caveat
        Miking The Strings
Recording Direct
    With A DI
        DI Types
        Direct From An Amp
        Compression – The Secret Ingredient
        What’s Cool About Direct Recording
    Through An Effects Box
    The Signal Path
    Recording Levels
    If It’s Distorting

Chapter 7 – Electric Guitar Production Techniques
Production From A Player’s Perspective
    The Reason For Tone Controls
    Using A Variety Of Guitars And Amplifiers
        Small Amp For A Big Sound
        Large Amp- Small Cab
        Small Amp – Large Cab
    Well-Maintained Equipment Required
    Laying In With The Rhythm Section
Common Guitar Production Techniques
        Doubling Tricks
    Layering Guitars
        The Secret To Guitar Layering
        Different Tunings
    Battle Of The Guitar Tracks
    Clean Guitars
        The Sound Of The 80’s
        Sympathetic Vibrations
    Amp Simulator Plug-ins
        A Few Tips
Guitars In The Mix
        Compression On Clean Guitars
        Compression On Distorted Guitars
        EQ Techniques
        Guitar EQ Points
        The Low-Pass Filter
    Studio Effects
        Effects Tips

Chapter 8 – Effects
Basic Effects

        The Volume Pedal

        Signal Boost



        Noise Gate


        The Difference


        Treble Booster







        The Differences


        Flangers And Chorus Devices

        Pitch Shifters

Effects Interfacing

    Typical Effects Pedal Problems

        Tone Suck

        Noise Buildup

    Effects Order

        School Of Thought #1

        School Of Thought #2

        Proper Gain Staging

        Amplifier Effects Loops

The Pedalboard

    Multi-Effects Units

    The Bradshaw Switching System

    Less Sophisticated Systems

Part 2 – Acoustic Guitar
Chapter 9 – A Brief History Of The Acoustic Guitar

From The Beginning

The Originators

    The Father Of The Modern Guitar

    C.F. Martin

    Orville Gibson

Modern Acoustic Guitar Milestones

Chapter 10 – Tonal Factors Of An Acoustic Guitar
Acoustic Guitar Types

    Nylon String



    Steel String


        12 Fret

Basic Tonal Factors


        Back And Sides

        The Top

        Necks And Fretboards

    Body Size




        Small Body


    The Neck



        Scale Length


        Nylon Strings

        Steel Strings

    Fingers and Picks

Chapter 11 – Acoustic Guitar Miking Techniques
Acoustic Guitar Recording 101

    Recording Preparation

        Change Your Strings

        Tune It Up

        Listen To The Guitar

        Listen To The Room

        Stand Back From The Instrument

        Consider The Guitar Parts In The Production

        Take Off Your Clothes

    Choosing A Microphone

        The Condenser Microphone

        The Ribbon Microphone

    Recording Levels

        Setting Levels

        If You Hear Distortion

Acoustic Guitar Miking Setups

    Single Mic

        Single Mic Technique #1

        Single Mic Variation #1

        Single Mic Technique #2

    Two Mics

        Two Mic Technique #1

        Two Mic Technique #2

        Two Mic Variation #1

    Three Mics

        Three Mic Technique #1

        Three Mic Technique #2

    Stereo Recording

        Stereo Mics

        The X/Y Technique

        The Blumlein Pair

        ORTF Recording

    Other Possibilities

        Clip-On Or Miniature Mic

        Combined With An Internal Pickup

        Acoustic Preamp/DI

        Combined With An Amp

    Recording With Vocals

Chapter 12- Acoustic Guitar Production Techniques
Production From A Player’s Perspective

    Pushing The Track

    Variety Counts


        Open Tunings

        Drop Tunings

        Lower Tunings

        High Tunings


Common Acoustic Guitar Production Techniques

    Processing During Recording

    The Preamp Choice


        Listen First

        Mono Panning

        Two Mic Panning

        Panning Three Or More Mics

        Creative Panning Of Room Mics

        Reverb Panning

    Adding Spacial Effects


            EQing The Reverb

            Convolution Reverb


            Duplicate The Track

    Using EQ

    Using Dynamics

Chapter 13 – Additional Instruments
Twelve-String Guitars

    Tuning The Twelve-String

    High-String/Nashville Tuning

Resonator Guitars


    Miking A Resonator

Lap Steel Guitars

    Steel Guitar Tunings

Tenor Guitars

Baritone Guitars

    Baritone Guitar Tunings

Part 3 – The Interviews
Chuck Ainley – Recording Engineer

Paul Antonell – Recording Engineer/Amp Collector

Dick Boak – Martin Guitar’s Director of Artists and Limited Editions

Jim D’Addario – CEO – D’Addario Strings

Rob DiStefano – Guitar Tech

John Holbrook – Recording Engineer

Hernan Romero – Flamenco Guitar Virtuoso

Chip Verspyck – Amp Tech

Jim Weider – Telecaster Slinger

Chapter 3 Excerpt - Tonal Factors Of An Electric Guitar

Tonal Factors Of An Electric Guitar

Factors In Pickup Sound
Just like most things in life, something that seems so simple on the outside is very intricate on the inside and a pickup is no exception. Here are the numerous factors that contribute to a pickup’s sound.

The number of turns or winding. This is the number of turns of wire around the bobbin of the pickup. The more turns, the louder the pickup, but the worse the high-frequency response becomes. The number of turns is measured by the electronic resistance of the wire, which is measured in ohms. The higher the ohms value, the hotter the pickup but the less high-frequency response you’ll have. Humbucking pickups have more resistance than a single coil because there are more turns of wire, which is why they’re hotter and have less high end.

Type of wire used. The diameter and insulation determines the number of windings that can fit on a bobbin, which will determine the resistance, which determines the output, etc.

Type of winding method used. We’ll look at this a bit closer in a bit, but many of the pickups in the early days of the electric guitar were wound by hand, which meant that there were more or less than the required number of windings on the bobbin, and an uneven wind would also affect the capacitance of the pickup, which can cause a peak in the frequency response. This problem was virtually eliminated when manufacturers switched to machine winding, but while every pickup was now the same, some of the magic that occasionally came from a hand-wound pickup also disappeared.

The type of magnets used. Although Alnico (a blend of aluminum, nickel and cobalt) is the alloy of choice for most pickups, occasionally you’ll find pickups made of other materials such as ceramic or neodymium. This will affect the strength of the magnetic field which we’ll cover next.

The strength of the magnets used. Magnets used for pickups are categorized by strength on a scale of two to five with five being the strongest. A stronger magnet will produce a louder and brighter sound  while a weaker one will produce one that’s warmer.

The magnet height. How close the individual magnets are to the strings will determine how loud that string is. On pickups that have adjustable pole pieces that’s not so much of a problem, but on pickups with fixed pole pieces (like a Fender Strat or Tele) that could cause a slight imbalance in the string output. As an example, prior to the late 60’s, most guitarists used a wound G string, so the fixed height of the magnets on a Strat were different to compensate.

Pickup Cover. Metal covers on humbuckers can cause a resonance that results in feedback problems at high volumes. That’s why many of the early rockers removed their pickup covers, and why many guitars and pickups are sold that way today.

Pickup potting. Many pickups are sealed in wax to eliminate vibration induced signals that make a pickup microphonic. The heat from the hot wax can weaken the magnet though, thereby changing the pickup’s sound.

Potentiometers. Although not exactly a part of the pickup itself, the volume and tone pots are part of the electronic circuit along with the pickup and can affect the sound. The higher the resistance of the pot, the more high end will pass. Fenders use 250k ohm pots, Gibson uses 500k, and many other manufacturers use 1 Meg pots.

There are other factors such as winding direction, magnetic polarity, and the type of bobbins used, but their contribution to the final sound is subtle at best.

Intangible Factors
As if the known factors in building a pickup weren’t enough, consider the many intangible factors as well. For instance, most pickups loose their magnetic strength over time because of environment and electrical interference. Pickups can become weakened or demagnetized completely by leaning your guitar against an amplifier with large transformers, or even from taking your guitar too close to the train motor of a subway (as happened with Andy Summers of the Police).

Another intangible is the fact that tolerances of just about every component were much looser until the 90’s. While the difference was indeed subtle, add enough components at the edge of their tolerances together and you suddenly get a pickup that sounds different even though it’s made the same.

Manufacturing intangibles are a whole other story and for that we’re going to go a bit into the history of the Gibson humbucker.

Chapter 11 Excerpt - Acoustic Guitar Recording

Acoustic Guitar Recording

Acoustic Guitar Recording 101
Before we get into the actual mic placements and recording setups, let’s take a look at some good practices both before and during the recording.

Recording Preparation
It would be nice if all there was to recording was plugging your mic in and playing, but unfortunately it’s not that easy. Before you begin recording even the first note of an acoustic guitar, there are a few steps you should take first.

Change Your Strings
It may seem obvious, but putting on a fresh set of strings may help alleviate any potentially problematic issues such as tuning and a lackluster tone. Don’t be lazy about this because unless you’re going for a dull sound, a fresh set of string will make the instrument resonate stronger, and therefore sound better to the microphones placed around it. Recordings are snapshots of time, and you won’t want to listen back after that magic performance and wish you had a clearer, brighter sound because you didn’t change your strings. With an electric guitar, you can compensate slightly for dead strings by turning the treble up on the amp. No such luck when recording an acoustic, unless you choose to run it through an amp, of course. Also, fresh strings will hold the guitar’s tuning longer, which in turn will make for a smoother recording session. You can even put a little graphite from a pencil in the nut slots to let the strings move a bit easier.

Don’t forget to keep wiping your strings down during the session, as the dirt and oil from your fingers, as well as the simple oxidation of the air, will shorten their useful life. The type and thickness of string you use, which will also be dictated by the type of instrument you play, will also alter the tone of your guitar.

Tune It Up
Tune your guitar with as precise a tuner as you can get your hands on, and check to see that it’s intonated correctly. You can do this by tuning each string, then playing it’s harmonic at the 12th fret, and then by fretting each string at the 12th fret. All three should register ‘true’ on the tuner. If they don’t, you know your intonation is off a bit, so either fix it first or be prepared to work around it.

Listen To The Guitar
Just sit quietly with the instrument and play it for a few minutes. Listen closely for any buzzes on the neck, since they signal positions you want to avoid if it’s an issue that can’t be immediately fixed. Get a good feel for how the instrument really sounds so you can compare it to the recording when you hear it played back.

Listen To The Room
Listen to how the guitar resonates in the room you’re playing in. Does it enhance the instrument’s sound? A good room will definitely compliment the sound of an acoustic guitar. Consider whether the room is worth miking. Do a quick check of the room by loudly clapping your hands and listening for any unwanted echoes or reflective ‘pings’. If the room isn’t great, it will dictate the type of mic you choose because you’ll want to pick up less ambience in the recording. However, if the room does sound good but has too much reverb, your sound can end up sounding cloudy and less defined. You can sometimes overcome this by setting up on a rug instead of the hard floor to keep the reflections to a minimum.

A short, bright room sound is best for acoustic guitar recording, especially when it includes any combination of wood, tile and brick (see Figure 11.1). Carpeting will deaden the sound, depending on the thickness, so use it sparingly. To get a woody room tone in a carpeted space, lay down an area of wood tiles, like the kind you find in a hardware store. The sound of the guitar will reflect upwards off the floor, depending on the type of wood and how much you’ve lain down. Having the guitarist face a heavy wooden door is another great trick to get some additional positive reflections, if needed.

In mediocre to poor sounding rooms, consider close-miking close the guitar with a tight cardioid mic to keep the sound focused only on the projection of the instrument. Avoid using omnidirectional mics in poor sounding rooms as the 360-degree recording pattern will capture unwanted room reflections that will not compliment the overall sound.

Stand Back From The Instrument
If possible, have someone else play the guitar, using the same technique as you do (pick or fingers), since what you hear from the players’ position is different than what the mics will hear. Close your eyes, move around, and to try to listen for that sweet spot where the guitar sounds best as it’s direct sound combines with the reflections of the room. Is the best sound on the neck, on the body, or both?

Does your instrument resonate better a few feet back or up close? The only way to know is to listen. The results may surprise you, as different acoustic guitars project in different ways. Remember that the soundhole may not always be the best choice for mic placement. All of this listening will help you make suggestions to the engineer (or yourself!).

Consider The Guitar’s Part In The Production
Is the part you’re about to track supposed to fit into a dense mix, a sparse mix, or is the guitar to be recorded solo? Discuss this with the engineer/producer ahead of time, as it may dictate not only the type of guitar you choose, but also the amount of mics you select to use on it. The more mics you use, the wider the sonic space you can create in the mix, but this might not be what the song calls for. Do you really need to use stereo mics? If possible, think about the guitar’s place in the mix before you begin.

Take Off Your Clothes
Well, at least take off any offensive items such as watches, rings, or jewelry that may bang against the instrument. Also, certain jackets and/or shirts may have buttons that can cause a problem. And no big belt buckles! Big watches are also usually a problem, so don’t forget to take it off before you begin tracking.

Many great takes have had to be redone because of extraneous noise from clothing and jewelry, so remove the problem even before it becomes one.

Martin Guitar's Dick Boak Interview Excerpt

Martin Guitar’s Dick Boak
Interview Excerpt

Let’s talk about tonewoods. 
The first thing to understand is that a guitar needs to be thought of as a drum. The back and sides of a guitar are the shell of the drum, whereas the soundboard is the skin that stretches across the back and sides.

With respect to tonewoods, Brazilian Rosewood has always been considered the optimum material for back and sides because it’s hard, dense and resonant, as well as tremendously good at reflecting sound (see Figure 16.1). Those are important traits as wood for back and side material, but in the process of absorbing the vibrations from the top, it flavors the tone with a complexity and balance that’s kind of unprecedented. Unfortunately, Brazilian rosewood is extremely rare, regulated, and near extinction at this point so it’s probably a moot point to talk about how wonderful it is. It’s also probably inappropriate because of the devastation of those trees and the illegal trading of it.

If Brazilian rosewood isn’t available, what do you use instead?
There are many different species of rosewood. East Indian rosewood is the most available (see Figure 16.2). It’s not quite as dense as Brazilian, but it has a nice tonal flavor to it and a nice rich warm bass response. Rosewood is always valued for bass response. In a worst-case scenario, it could be criticized for being muddy or thick, but it typically has tremendous and pleasant low-end.

There’s also a Honduras rosewood (see Figure 16.3), but the tree is quite small and you only occasionally find one big enough to make guitars out of. It’s the primary material for making marimbas (wooden xylophones) since it just rings when you hit it and it’s easy to get xylophone mallets out of small logs. It would be a great material for guitars if only the tree were a little bigger.

You also have Amazon rosewood, which is a close relative to Brazilian but not restricted as of yet (see Figure 16.4). Cambodian rosewood is similar in properties to Amazon rosewood. Madagascar rosewood (see Figure 16.5) has a close visual appearance and even a lot of the tonal properties of Brazilian rosewood, so we are quite encouraged to have acquired some beautiful sets of that tonewood.

Tulipwood is also a member of the rosewood family, as is Kingwood. The big problem is availability, quality, and sizes large enough to make guitars.

Is there any other wood besides rosewood that’s suitable?
The complete opposite spectrum for back and sides is Mahogany (see Figure 16.6), which is an extremely light weight material. It’s actually not as reflective, but it has an absorptive quality that produces a very light, crystalline and glassine tone. Guitar tone can sometimes be thought of in the same breath as its weight. A light guitar is typically more responsive and vibrant than a heavy one, so mahogany is very underrated as a tonal material since it produces a crisp, clean, bright sound that is really valued in the recording studio. Rosewood guitars might not be as appropriate in the studio because they might be too bottom heavy, depending on the needs of the track.

Between mahogany and rosewood you have a whole rainbow spectrum of different tonewoods that vary in weight and density. Koa, from Hawaii (see Figure 16.7), is popular for guitar making since it has a density that falls really nicely between mahogany and rosewood.

It seems like tone woods are getting tougher to find these days.
Guitar makers are going to have to experiment with other woods a great deal because of the difficulty in acquiring the traditional tonewoods. They will need to experiment with more localized woods like walnut, cherry, ash and maple because they are temperate domestic hardwoods that don’t come from the rainforest.

At Martin we’re trying to educate our customers about the viability of those as tonewoods, but it’s tough because guitar players tend to be environmentally conscious. But as environmentally consciousness as they are, they don’t necessarily want to give up the tone.

Moving on, cherry is actually an excellent material and so is maple. Maple is a traditional choice for violins and many other instruments (see Figure 16.8), but it’s extremely hard and doesn’t have the resonance of rosewood. While it’s also very projective in tone, it’s sometimes considered harsh without the flavoring or character of rosewood and mahogany. But with the right combination of soundboard wood, maple can result in an absolutely wonderful, projective and powerful guitar sound.

Other woods are ovankol, also called shedua or African teak (see Figure 16.9), which has an olive coloration and is kind of like walnut in its tone as it’s a bit dark sounding. It also is not as dense as rosewood.

How do you rate the different woods?
With just about any wood you choose, you can look up its density in comparison to the density of water. What they do is weigh a square gallon or meter of water, and compare that to a square meter of the selected wood. If you get a number like .9, it means the wood is not as heavy as water and it will float. If a wood is 1.1, it will sink in water.

Ebony is very close to sinking in water and African blackwood sinks in water, as does ironwood, so those woods are probably too dense to use for a guitar, but any of the woods that fall between mahogany and rosewood are viable as tonewoods. There are a lot of choices.

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