How To Get a Jazz Guitar Tone Without Spending Any Money
Besides knowing how to play jazz guitar, getting a jazz guitar tone that you are happy with is also important. Perhaps you’re new to playing jazz and you haven’t played using a clean sound much in the past and are wondering how to dial in some darker jazz sounds.
Every guitarist spends time working on their jazz tone no matter what level they’re at. Finding a sound that works with your style is important. Many of the jazz greats sound help define their style. For example some of Jim Hall’s older recordings have a very dark and dry sound that worked well with his playing style.
Of course there’s no substitute for time in the woodshed and hours of practice which ultimately makes you a better jazz guitarist but every once in a while every guitarist benefits from spending some time on improving their tone.
Achieving a great jazz guitar sound doesn’t mean spending a lot of money on expensive equipment; it can simply mean adjusting your guitar settings or changing your pick.
I remember when I first began taking jazz guitar lessons when I was about 17 years old. Every week I’d turn up with my trusty old Strat and my guitar teacher played his big lawsuit era 175 guitar.
For months I thought I needed to spend a lot of cash on an archtop like what the teacher had to sound great, but I couldn’t afford one at the time, so this forced to really make the most of my gear. Fast forward a couple of years and I am still using a solid body guitar as my main axe having played and owned some fantastic archtops.
Don’t get me wrong I love playing archtops, but because I mainly use Fender style solid body guitars at gigs I am often asked how I get a jazz sound using a guitar which is typically known for treble and twang, so I’ve decided to share some points I’ve discovered from experimenting with different settings and talking to other professional jazz guitarists over the years.
These tips wont be of much interest to the gypsy jazzers, but they should help you if you use electrified guitars with pickups so archtops, Tele’s, Strat’s, Les Pauls, 335’s etc.
With technology constantly changing, new jazz guitar tones are being produced so ‘jazz guitar tone’ becomes a very subjective term. For the purpose of this article I am going to be discussing getting a classic straight head, clean, neck pick up jazz guitar sound.
Of course, even that is quite a broad term when you consider all the different players right and techniques, but this article should help you get a generally good jazz guitar sound on any electric guitar.
Barney Kessel playing a telecaster
Using the Tone and Volume Controls
Guitarists who are used to playing other styles will probably play with their volume and tone on full, but adjusting them will give you much more tonal variety, whether you’re looking to dial in Clapton’s ‘woman tone’ or get a dark dry Jim Hall sound.
A lot of guitarists don’t like rolling the volume knob too far back because the guitar tone gets lost, but rolling it back just a little between 7 and 9 takes off some of the top end of the guitar.
Having a little more volume available is also useful in practical settings too because you can easily get some more volume without having to mess around with your amp.
Lowering the tone control is also a must for cutting some highs, and gaining a warmer sound.
Use your ears to decide how much tone you want to take off because this will probably change with different guitars, amps and when you play in different venues and settings. Generally if you’re looking for a dark Jim Hall/Pat Martino sound, keep the tone well below 5 nd for a more general jazz guitar sound I’d say somewhere between 4 and 7 usually hits the spot.
Every Amp’s Different
After owning a number of amps over the years ranging from hand wired heavy tube amps to small portable dedicated jazz guitar amps I’ve noticed that each one works differently. There is no ‘perfect EQ’, but one mistake a lot of beginner jazz guitarists make is cranking up the bass and turning the treble down which results in a loss of clarity.
While this may work for some, to me, a good jazz guitar sound often means more mid range than bass, so instead of increasing your bass try boosting your mids first.
As with using the tone and volume control use your ears to decide on how much mid you need.
Being quite a lazy guitar player, I dont like carrying gear and sometimes use house multi channel modelling amps at gigs or in colleges which have very sterile and digital sounding clean channels. One quick and easy way to warm these amps up is by using an overdrive channel but turn the gain way down.
Take Your Pick
A thick heavy thick pick gives a fatter sound than a thin one. I’d recommend using at least a 1mm pick, but the thicker the better; I personally use a 2mm.
Of course, you could completely ditch the pick and try out other jazz guitar right hand techniques such as using fingers or the thumb for the ultimate jazz sound. Besides having the right pick, it’s also important to consider where to pick, because this also changes your sound.
If you play with your right hand above the neck pickup a very mellow sound is produced. Picking near the bridge produces a brighter more woody sound that I associate with players like Mike Stern and John Scofield.
Picking near the bridge cuts through a live mix great and works well with effects, but you do loose some of the thickness that you get when picking near the neck, so most guitarists adjust where they pick for different sounds they want.
Touch and Dynamics
Spending time in the woodshed on touch and dynamics is also time well spent because I feel that this by far the most important part of getting a jazz sound. Before playing jazz I was mainly a blues guitarist and used to play with quite a heavy attack which was good for that style but didn’t work too well for jazz.
Jazz guitarists tend to let their amp do the work and play with a softer touch than most other guitar players which results in a warmer sound.
To play with a softer touch, keep plucking a note and each time play it softer until you get a sound that you like. You could also try playing along with your favorite players but instead of jamming along to a whole solo keep playing along to one phrase and each time try to really dial in on their sounds.
I’ve tried to only write about easy fixes to get a sound so you don’t have to spend a lot of money on new equipment, but there are a few other factors not mentioned in this article that a lot of jazz guitarists associate with good tone, one of those is sting gauge.
For quite a long time I used to believe that bigger strings equals bigger tone, but when I found on that Ed Bickert uses roundwound 10 gauge strings on his Telecaster my view changed.
I own two Telecaster’s; one strung with 11’s and the other is strung with 10’s, and there really is no difference, strings are more about feel than tone. Because of this I like to use heavier strings on my archtops and acoustic guitars and light strings on my solid bodies.
Some guitarists also like to use flatwound strings instead of rounwound which are not essential in getting the sound, but they’re worth trying at least one. Using flats will get rid of any freboard squeeks.
Most jazz guitarists tend to play archtop guitars too which sound great but are not quite as practical as solidbodies in most playing situations. I enjoy playing archtops in small quiet combos but when cranked up I feel they loose a lot of their tone and can sometimes even sound muddy.
So with these points in case does that mean you shouldn’t ever spend money on new gear? Not really, as far as the points will get you, certain amps and guitars can only sound sound so good, but that’s not the point of the article.
If you wanted to upgrade one piece of equipment, let it be your amp because this is where most of your sound comes from.
So whatever axe you have, I hope this article brings some new ideas on how to get closer to the sound that you’re looking for.
What do you do to dial in your favourite jazz tone? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.