The Guitar Tone Equation

(C) 2008 Hank Wallace

You know how difficult it can be to get that ‘in the zone’ tone that you hear from other guitarists, and that you get 1 out of 10 times you play. Why is that? Let’s take a look at the tone equation.

There are so many variables regarding guitar tone that it’s tough to control them all. In fact, many are randomly determined and are totally out of your control. Some you can control, like pickup selection, but it’s expensive and time consuming to do so. And when you are going after another player’s tone you hear on a recording it’s difficult or impossible to determine how the recording engineer modified the sound!

I made a list of some of the factors that affect overall guitar tone for each element in the signal chain.

practice, style, influences, attitude, education, mood, nutrition, sleep, temperature, humidity, distractions, band relationships, spousal condition, clothing, crying kids, financial pressure, hangover
strings, wood, humidity, temperature, hardware, finish, pick, dirt/rust, pickups, feedback responsiveness
cable capacitance
tubes/transistors, amp and pedal effects, AC line voltage and variations, temperature, humidity, amp maintenance, tone settings, volume, speakers, speaker position, circuit design, power output, through-air coupling to guitar
crowd size, enclosed/outdoor, monitor sound, crowd participation, reverberation/damping, temperature, humidity, ambient noise, sunlight, volume level

I’m sure you can add a few more items, especially to the ‘player’ category. There are items such as audience response that do not directly control guitar tone, but if the audience is laying there like a pack of slugs, your playing will suffer for it. (You can determine for yourself the cause and effect.)

The point here is that about half the elements that affect your tone are out of your control. From whining kids to whining band managers, these are the things that drive us crazy in pursuit of the holy grail of tone, whatever that is for you.

Look at the list and identify which of these things you can control. When was the last time you re-tubed your amplifier? Checked out your speaker cabs? Apologized to a band member for being an ass at the last gig? All these things affect how we play and how we sound.

One interesting item here is that your guitar cable affects your tone in only one way: Cable capacitance. Other things, such as shielding and microphonics are important, but as peripheral factors. To understand how cable capacitance affects tone, read our article here. It stuns me how a guitarist will buy a $$$K guitar and $$$K amplifier and then connect them with the cheapest cable hanging on the rack. Some guitarists rightly conclude that they should be using a decent cable, but the high end, premium cables actually can have more capacitance than the cheap ones! Our tone shootout compares capacitance and sound for the ZEROCAP and other cables.

I wrote this article to show you that all the guitar’s tone and sound is piped through that cable, and that’s the bottleneck in the tone equation. The cable can actually delete some of the sound coming from the guitar. To ensure that ALL of the sound gets to the amplifier, you should be using a low, or preferably near-zero capacitance cable like our ZEROCAP cable.

Would you choose the tone of a stomp box based on its color? What a ridiculous question! But people have been choosing cables based on color, insulation weave, conductor shape and other nonsense for years. The only tone influencing characteristic of guitar cables is the capacitance. Low capacitance, plus durability make for a performance worthy cable that won’t be a distraction as you comfort that whining band manager.