Archive for October, 2022

English 101

Sunday, October 30th, 2022

This ten cent piece of nylon (Delrin) is a big factor in how your guitar sounds. the nut has more to do with sustain than tone but sustain is a big factor in how your guitar sounds.

I started college as a physics major. I was baffled by calculus and switched my major to English. So, when it comes to our native language, I must know what I’m talking about. Or speaking about. Or something. The lesson today is comparative adjectives. Good, better, best. All 335’s are good guitars. 59 to 64 are better guitars. 59’s are the best guitars. Lesson over.

So, if I have a good 335, how do I make it into a better 335. There are lots of factors that make a guitar sound good and play well (good and well…another English lesson for another time). Some you can change and some you can’t. I believe that the wood is a big factor and since you can’t change that that short of buying another guitar, we’ll leave that one out. I am of the opinion that 99% of the tone of a guitar occurs between the nut and the saddles. The relationship between the components that reside in this part of the guitar are key.

What do we have control over that will affect the tone. Here’s a list: 1. The strings. 2. The nut. 3. The bridge and saddles. 4. The frets. 5. The truss rod. 6 The pickups. 7. The harness. All the parts that fall outside of the area from the nut to the bridge have a slight effect on tone with the exception of thr amp. And don’t tell me how much better your guitar sounds with a vintage stop tail over the one that was on it when you bought it. It’s in your head. I’ve had at least 6 different tailpieces on my player 345 and it never makes a significant difference to the tone. Same with tuners. Grovers might work better than Klusons but they don’t sound any better. They may add some mass but I’ve never heard a difference in tone.

It’s all trial and error so, starting with strings, find a gauge that is comfortable for you (335’s seem best with 10’s or 11’s) and a brand that sounds best to your ears. I love the sound of a new set of expensive Pyramids but they lose their tone so quickly that I don’t use them. DR’s or D’Addario 10’s are my go to strings. The nut is a lot more important than most folks think. The stock nylon nut on a 335 is perfectly good but the slots are often too small. If your guitar goes out of tune when you bend strings, it’s usually the nut, not the tuners especially if it goes sharp. Have your luthier widen the slots of the strings that go sharp and see if that helps. A bone or Tusq nut will change the tone slightly

The pickups and harness are a big factor. Simply swapping out the pickups may improve your guitars tone by a lot or not at all. It’s worth noting that a great set of pickups in one guitar may just sound average in another. I don’t know why that is but I’ve experienced it enough times to simply accept it. I learned a lot about harnesses when I had an early 80’s 335 that sounded terrible. Too dark with poor sustain. 80’s 335’s had 300K pots and for reasons I don’t entirely understand (English major, remember?) lower impedance pots make for darker tone. I swapped in 500K pots and it made a significant difference. I tried other caps as well. And, contrary to popular belief and conventional wisdom (neither of which are terribly reliable) it made no difference. A higher value cap seemed to change the way the tone control functioned (it bled off the treble faster) but the tone of the guitar didn’t change. PIO, ceramic, mylar all sounded the same. That’s because an electrical signal only sees values-it doesn’t know that bumblebees are supposed to sound better than crappy little disc caps.

The big factor in sustain are the saddles. Cut them too deep and the vibration of the strings is choked and the sustain suffers. Cut them too shallow and they can be noisy and the strings will fall of the edge of the saddle on big bends. No more than half the depth of the string should be below the level of the saddle edge. The bridge itself doesn’t seem to make much difference though. Gibson thought it might in the 80’s when they switched to the Nashville bridge with bushings rather than the screwed into the wood posts from previous years. It didn’t make much difference. Changing the material of the saddles may make a difference. In the 80’s we all put brass saddles and brass nuts on our guitars thinking it would improve tone and sustain. It may have but not by much. I’ve gotten plenty of guitars that still had an 80’s brass nut and when I swapped in a stock nylon nut, it made very little, if any, difference. As far as saddles go, vintage Gibson saddles were already brass (plated with nickel or gold).

Properly maintained frets wont really change the tone but it will affect sustain especially when bending notes. Same with the truss rod. The key to sustain is the ability of the string to vibrate for longer. If the neck is dead flat or back bowed, the strings ability to vibrate can be affected by the next fret up the fingerboard. That’s why I dial in a little relief when I do a setup. As far as tone goes, changing frets won’t do anything.

Conclusions? By all means, try different strings and pickups. It can make a real difference. Make sure the nut slots aren’t too deep. Same with the saddle notches. Adjust your truss rod for slight relief (usually a quarter turn looser if it’s dead flat on a 335). If none of that works, change the harness or pots. Dress the frets. Paraphrasing Bob Fosse…”I can’t make you a good guitar but I can make you a better guitar.” If none of these things help, take some lessons. It could be you and not the guitar.

You can change the pickups and it will change the tone. They are perhaps the biggest factor in tone after the wood and you can’t change that unless you buy a different guitar.