Les Paul Faded

For all the tone chasing players get wrapped up in these days, there are plenty of simple little things you can do on a regular basis to ensure that you’re getting the most from your current guitar and its related accessories, without spending more than a few bucks at most. Let’s look at ten quick and simple checks and tweaks that can make a difference in the performance of any electric guitar you might own.

1 – Check Pickup Heights

The proximity of the pickups to the strings can have an enormous impact on how any electric guitar sounds. The short rule of thumb tells us the closer the pickups, the greater the guitar’s output, but getting them too close can lead to a ratty, harsh tone and, at the extremes, odd dissonant harmonics and a lack of sustain if they’re close enough that the pickups’ magnets are pulling on the strings.

The cool thing, though, is that with most types of pickups you can quickly and easily experiment with overall pickup height to see what works for you. Gibson recommends a gap of 3/32” between the top of the neck pickup and the bottom of the strings, and 1/16” between bridge pickup and strings. Many good techs will adjust a little further, though, so that there’s a hair more space between the low-E string and pole piece than there is between those of the high-E string, to better balance their relative outputs. You might find, though—as do many tonally conscious players—that adjusting your pickups even lower (that is, increasing the pole-to-string gap) results in an improvement in overall sound, enhancing both richness and clarity (output might decrease slightly, but hey, you can always turn the amp up a little!). Try a few different adjustments yourself and see what works best for you.

2 – Clean Your Cords’ Plugs

Some players spend a small fortune on high-end cords these days, and most of us are at least aware of the importance of using a decent quality cable between our guitar and amp (or guitar-pedals-amp), but few players realize that the fidelity of these cords can decline over the years as the plugs (aka jack plugs) become tarnished through natural exposure to the atmosphere and the salt, oils and moisture from human handling.

Every few months use a quick squirt of Deoxit or other quality contact cleaner combined with a vigorous rub from a clean, lint-free cloth, and you’ll have those cords conducting their best again in no time. (Note that you want a straight-up contact cleaner, and not a cleaner-lubricator; also note that standard WD-40 is not a contact cleaner, although the company does make a product that is, which is called WD-40 Specialist.)

3 – While You’re At It, Check Your Cords’ Directionality

This one might sound entirely whacky, but it only takes a few minutes to check for yourself, so what’s the harm? Furthermore, it was recommended to me by one of the gear world’s best respected tone gurus, the late Ken Fischer, and upon trying it myself I did find a few subtle differences in a few cables, so again… what the heck, give it a shot. Fischer’s theory is that, since signal wire of the type used inside a guitar cord is extruded in a directional manufacturing process, the electrons that flow through it in use—that is, the signal from your guitar’s pickups—might flow more efficiently in one direction than the other, making the cable sound a little better when used in one direction as compared to its reverse.

Plug your guitar straight into an amp that’s adjusted to sound good in the room, play long enough to get an impression of your tone—listening particularly for its clarity and high-end content—then quickly unplug that cord at the amp first, then the guitar, reverse it, and play some more. Do you hear any difference? If so, make a note of which direction is preferable to your ears; if not, eh, you’ve only wasted a few minutes of your precious time. (Note that some electrical cable is manufactured with the legibility of the brand or any legends printed on the outer insulation corresponding to its electrical directionality, but it’s hard to know when this is the case, so it’s still best to test it out for yourself.)

4 – Clean Your Guitar Jack

Just as your cord’s plugs can become tarnished with use, so can the “hot” tip of your guitar’s jack, although we rarely check this unseen component. To tackle this job, however, it’s far better to use a cotton swab (aka Q-Tip) than a dust cloth, because too much force on a rag might bend the delicate jack tip out of shape.

Spray a little contact cleaner on the swab (see “Clean Your Cord Plugs” above for recommendations), and rub against the point of the “V” in the jack’s contact tip—using enough pressure to work the cleaner into any grime, but not enough to bend the tip (it helps to support it from behind with a finger, if you can access it easily enough). If your guitar’s jack is difficult to get at, or you don’t feel confident removing any control access covers that conceal it, you can still insert the swab into the jack and get a pretty good “blind feel” of the contact in order to clean it adequately. Don’t forget to similarly clean the inside of the surrounding body of the jack to also achieve good contact with the “ground” or “negative” side of the connection.

5 – String It Up Straight

This is a simple tip, yet it’s a practice that all too many guitarists ignore: when putting new strings on your guitar, be sure to run the strings straight all the way from the tailpiece anchor point, across the bridge saddles, through the nut, and to the tuner-post hole where you wind the tight at the other end, ensuring there are no kinks or bends or twists anywhere in their entire length from anchor to anchor.

A kink or twist—even one you can’t see once the string is pulled tight and in-tune—might impede or distort that string’s natural vibration, and therefore deplete its potential tone or sustain. When you first insert them through your guitar’s tailpiece and seat the ball-end in that anchor point, most strings will exhibit a slight arc across their length, which follows the direction in which they were wound in the packet. Don’t fight against that arc or twist the string into a different orientation; better to let that gentle arc cross up and over the guitar body and fingerboard from bridge to nut, and try to preserve the string’s natural integrity as you wind it tightly and tune up.

6 – Pre-Bend Your Strings for Bigsbys

The Bigsby is still a popular vibrato on many Gibson models, and it can work great when set up right; but this cool, retro-looking piece of hardware can also lead to tuning instability if you don’t take a little care with its use, and particularly with how you load on new strings.

Before stringing up, try these two tips to better help the ball-end of the strings adhere to Bigsby’s roller bar and anchor pins: first, using a pair of needle-nose pliers, gently bend the opening of the ball-end at a right-angle to the rest of the string; second, hold that bent ball-end against the barrel of a pencil or pen shaft with your thumb, and wrap the first half-inch or so of the string beyond it around that shaft, gently bending it as you do so to form a natural arc. Now when you hook the ball-end onto the pin and thread the string around the roller bar, it should adhere much more easily to the shape of the mechanism, and achieve tuning stability more quickly. (Another tip to help with Bigsby string-loading is to use a capo positioned at about the third or fourth fret to keep the loose end of the string in place—pulled tight and clamped beneath the capo—while you wind it onto the tuner post.)

7 – Use Your Guitar’s Controls

This one would seem obvious, but it often comes as a revelation to players who tend to ignore their guitars’ volume and tone controls and achieve all level, gain and EQ adjustments via their amps and pedals only. When used well, however, the traditional Gibson four-knob control complement of two volumes and two tones, along with a three-way switch for two pickups, offers a surprisingly broad range of tonal options.

Experimentation with your guitar’s controls is best done with your amp of choice set just to the edge of breakup—or perhaps, if you’re primarily a rock player, well into breakup—so you can achieve a wide range of gain levels without touching a thing on your amp or pedalboard. Once you’ve got that set, find the point on each pickup’s volume control where an entirely clean tone is achieved without notably losing any fidelity (usually somewhere between 4 and 7 on the knob) and get a feel for finding that spot without looking. Play a while, and roll between the two positions to segue naturally from clean to lead and back… then try stopping somewhere in between for a slightly crunchy rhythm sound, too. Now bring your tone controls into play by winding each down to 6 or 7 or so, and also try balancing between different volume and tone levels on each pickup with your three-way switch in the middle position.

Ultimately, this might be the easiest way to get your head around expanding the use of your guitar’s controls: don’t think of the starting point for these knobs being their full-on positions, everything on 10; instead, consider a lesser setting—volumes and tones on 5, 6 or 7—as a starting point, wherever you achieve a good, clear tone that’s also relatively lively, and take it up from there to see what else you have on tap.

8 – De-Gunk Your Nut and Saddle Slots

Any grit or gunk or general uncleanliness or irregularities in the tiny slots in your guitar’s nut and bridge saddles will likely lead to tuning instability, and perhaps degraded tone—but hey, when was the last time you checked these things? Any physical deformities in these slots such as burrs or ridges will require attention from a qualified guitar repair person, since trying to file or otherwise smooth down such things yourself—if you don’t entirely know what you’re doing—might lead to worsening the problem, or even ruining the component entirely (after all, these are the break points and anchor points for either end of the “speaking length” of your strings, and their condition directly affects string vibration, and therefore intonation, overall tone, and sustain).

What you can do yourself is carefully run a length of un-waxed dental floss through each slot, working back and forth several times exerting reasonable downward pressure, to clean out any built-up gunk or grit. If you want to go a little further, apply a dab of either dry or wet graphite or silicon-based lubricating compound to the slot, gently rub it in, and wipe away any excess before replacing the string. This should help to keep the slots functioning optimally during tune-up, string bends, and vibrato use.

9 – Try Out Some Tone Caps

For this one, I’m just giving a general suggestion since you’ll need soldering and basic tech skills to do it yourself, or will have to take it to a qualified repair person otherwise. But if you haven’t considered the effects of the optimal tone capacitor on your guitar’s sound, or have generally felt these knobs were useless or elicited minimal or lackluster results at best, this might be something to dig into.

The tone capacitor (“cap” for short) attached to your guitar’s tone control determines the character and range of that control’s function, and both this cap’s value (.022µF vs .046µF vs. .1µF, for example) and construction type (polyester vs. paper-in-oil, for example) will impact how it does its job. The trick is, it’s difficult to predict exactly how any given type will behave in any guitar, while, although more predictable, you also kind of need to hear the impact of different values for yourself to decide what really works for you. Given these factors, the only really effective way to determine which tone cap is right for you is to undertake some experimentation.

Gibson uses everything from Orange Drops to reissue Bumble Bee tone caps in its high-end models, where the veracity of such components is given a little extra consideration, so the results of these are fairly well tried-and-tested. If you don’t have these installed already, you can get your hands on some pretty easily, or do some research and pick up a few other types—which will cost anywhere from pennies apiece to a few bucks each—and try them out for yourself. The quickest way to swap a few is to temporarily solder miniature alligator clips to each of the two leads of several different tone caps, then clip one into place after the other while playing and listening. Once you decide the value that suits your tastes, try out caps of a few different compositions to find whether you hear any difference between them, too.

10 - Pick A Different Pick

Most of us stick with generally the same type of pick (aka plectrum) according to a preferred shape and general thickness, and rarely think of what a change in this tiny component might do for us. Consider, however, that the very generation of your precious tone really does start right here, and add to that the fact that picks of different thickness, densities, and compositional types will elicit a slightly different sounds, and it certainly behooves every guitarist to try a few alternatives.

As a rough guide, a thinner pick will elicit a brighter and lighter sound with a more audible percussive “clack” against the strings (that “baseball card in the bicycle spokes sound”), while a thicker pick will elicit a deeper and meatier sound; whichever is appropriate for you depends on the song and your playing style. Different types of composition—from cellulose, to plastic, to vinyl, to faux-tortoiseshell—will also sound different. It’s easy, and costs very little, to check out a few different types and thicknesses to find whether you’ve been missing out on your ideal pick all along, and in fact experienced players will often keep a variety on hand, selecting different types for different requirements.