There are many ways to make an acoustic guitar sound better and many other ways to make them sound different. So, what are your options when it comes to improving the sound of your acoustic guitar?
To make an acoustic guitar sound better, changing the type of strings and plectrum you are using actually has a huge effect on your guitar’s tone. The material used to build your saddle/nut also has a big effect and this is another thing you can change without buying a new guitar.
Ok, so now that we know a few of the basic ways to improve your guitar’s tone, it is time to go into more detail on the particulars. In this article, we’ll be showing you how to make your guitar sound better without having to buy a new one. Let’s get stuck in!
Choose the Right Strings
This is a big one, so it is good to get it out of the way first. Once you have bought your guitar, few things will make a bigger difference to the tone than the type of strings you are using. How often you change the strings and how much you stretch them first will also have a big effect on the tone. Here are a few tips on how to choose the right strings to achieve the sound you are looking for:
There are a surprising number of different materials you can get for acoustic guitar strings, and each one will have its own tonal characteristics. What kind of tone you will want will partly be determined by what style of music you want to play and the guitar you play. In this section, we’ll look at the characteristics of some of the most popular string materials and discuss which music genres they suit the best.
Steel or Nylon?
This is something you will have to decide before buying the guitar, so if you are reading this, you have probably already committed to either steel or nylon. Still, it is worth going through the differences. By far, steel-stringed acoustics are the more popular option and are likely the guitars being played on 99% of all your favorite acoustic tracks. It is worth noting that even bronze or nickel-wound strings are still ‘steel’ because the wire inside is made of steel.
Nylon-stringed acoustics are also called ‘classical’ guitars because they are primarily used for playing classical music. The other major genre which utilizes them is flamenco. Unless you plan on playing either of these genres, chances are you are going to want a steel-stringed acoustic. Nylon-stringed guitars have a wider neck and are much easier on the fingers, so some recommend them as a first guitar, especially for children. We will be focussing on steel strings.
Bronze strings are one of the most popular choices around today. Again, these still count as ‘steel’ strings since the wire inside is steel. These gold-colored strings are known for their bright, lively tones and good corrosion resistance. They often work well on ‘dreadnought’ style guitars, like those made by Martin and Taylor. Any guitar with a ‘dark’ tone will work well for these strings since the string’s bright tone will provide a balance.
Bronze guitar strings are often referred to as ‘80/20’ since they are composed of 80% copper and 20% zinc. Funnily enough, that actually means that they are made of brass, not bronze!
Phosphor bronze strings produce a less bright but much more natural tone than bronze. Invented around 40 years later, phosphor bronze strings last a lot longer than their bronze counterparts. Another unexpected benefit is that, unlike bronze strings, phosphor bronze strings are more resistant to corrosion caused by sweat and oils on your fingers. These strings work well on a guitar with too much high end.
Phosphor bronze strings have basically the same composition as bronze, although they are 93% copper rather than 80%. Plus, they have some phosphorus thrown in, hence the name!
Choose the Right Plectrum
You may be surprised that which plectrum you use is such a big consideration. It’s just a piece of plastic, right? It is also the only point of contact between the player’s right hand and the strings. Which plectrum (or ‘pick’) you use can end up having a huge effect on the final tone of your performances and your level of comfort when playing. In this section, we’ll be looking at a few of the things to consider when choosing a plectrum that is right for your style.
The thickness of your plectrum will have the biggest effect on your sound. When it comes to acoustic guitars, you will generally want a thinner pick. Anything under around 0.45mm is considered super thin and will only be used for very delicate playing. Picks between 0.5mm and 0.85mm thick are considered thin to medium and are also popular choices among acoustic players. The picks on the heavier end of the spectrum are generally used for electrics.
That being said, which thickness you use is really a matter of preference. Using a very heavy and stiff pick on an acoustic, for example, you will increase the bass and mids’ volume, giving your guitar a powerful, booming tone. A thinner, more flexible pick will give you more treble and will sound better when delicately played. Try experimenting with different thicknesses to find out which is most comfortable for you and which gives you the tone you are looking for.
There are a few different shapes of guitar picks, and each will have its own purpose and benefits. As a general rule, picks with a rounder top will be better for strumming, whereas pointier picks will be good for playing single notes, for example, for solos. For example, Jazz picks are tiny and pointy, making them perfect for complex single-note melodies. Using the wrong pick shape for your style of playing can make things very uncomfortable!
Which material your pick is made of will also have a significant effect on the tone! While picks used to be made from turtle shells (although they were commonly incorrectly referred to as ‘tortoiseshell’), this practice has now been banned to protect vulnerable turtle populations. Here are the pros and cons of some of the less cruel materials.
Nylon is perhaps the most popular choice and has been since the early days of rock and blues, which gives the tone a vintage feel. Of course, as mentioned above, nylon picks can offer a huge number of different tones depending on the thickness of the pick. Most nylon picks have raised lettering, which gives them extra grip. If you are the sort of player who is always dropping their pick, then nylon might be the right material for you.
These picks were designed to replace the ‘tortoiseshell’ picks of old, which is why the pattern on them often looks like a tortoiseshell. They are generally much stiffer than nylon, making them perfect for electric guitars and certain acoustic playing styles. They are generally described as having a ‘snappy’ tone with lots of high ends. They have also been described as ‘flappy’ due to the flapping sound you can sometimes hear when strumming with them.
Wood or Metal
Less common materials for picks include wood and metal, both of which will be much harder on the strings than the more common plastic alternatives. Naturally, both wooden and metal guitar picks will be very stiff and will not have any give at all. Wooden picks produce a unique warm tone, whereas the tone of metal picks will be more aggressive and chunky. Both will be more difficult to use than plastic picks, so these are not recommended for beginners.
Upgrade Your Pickups
There are a few different types of pickup, and each one will make the guitar sound better when played through an amp, PA, or interface. This section only applies to electro-acoustic guitars, which are acoustics that can be plugged into sound systems. Changing the pickups is a great way to improve the sound of your acoustic without having to buy a new guitar. Here is some background on the types of pickup and how they affect the tone of the guitar:
This is the type of pickup that is also used on electric guitars. They use magnets to detect the vibration of the strings, which means they do not pick up the resonance of the body of the guitar. That makes an acoustic with a magnetic pickup sound quite a bit like an electric guitar. (Question: Can Electric Guitars Be Wireless?). (Question: Can Electric Guitars Be Wireless?). You will need to do some work on the signal with EQ if you want this to sound like a natural acoustic guitar, but these are still a popular and convenient option with small amounts of feedback.
Magnetic pickups often sit in the front of the ‘soundhole,’ making them the easiest pickups to remove and replace.
This is the most common type of electro-acoustic pickup. They use piezoelectric crystals to detect the pressure created by the vibration of the strings. They tend to sound a bit more natural and bright than magnetic pickups. They also have a great dynamic range, meaning that the harder you play, the louder it will get. However, that means that you often have to use compression on piezo pickups to stop the highs being too high and the lows from being too low.
Another drawback of piezo pickups is that they require professional installation, unlike magnetic ‘soundhole’ pickups.
This option will give you the most natural sound since a microphone picks up both the vibration of the strings and the resonance of the body of the guitar. The major drawback of these types of pickup is that they are very prone to feedback. The other drawback is that they are the most expensive of the three types of pickup listed here. However, another benefit is that they are better at picking up the percussive elements of your acoustic playing.
Internal microphone pickups are also quite difficult to install. It is not recommended that you attempt it at home unless you already have a good understanding of woodwork and soldering.
Upgrade the Saddle/Nut
At the point where the strings meet the body of the guitar, there is a block of wood supporting the strings called the ‘bridge.’ On top of the bridge is a small strip of plastic, bone, or ivory, which the strings actually sit on. Since this is the bit that actually transfers the sound from the strings to the body of the guitar, which material you use makes a big difference to the tone. The saddle is also a part that can be easily replaced, so it is a good way to improve your tone.
There is another similar part where the strings meet the head of the guitar, and this is called the nut. This serves a similar function, is made of the same materials, and is also easy to replace.
This is a common material, especially in the cheaper models of acoustic guitar. Plastics absorb a lot of the energy of the vibration of the strings, meaning that you get less volume and clarity from a plastic saddle or nut. Basically, the only reason why you would choose a plastic saddle or nut is for budget reasons. If you have a plastic saddle and nut, then replacing them with another material will be an amazing way to improve the sound of your acoustic guitar.
Bone is a big step up from plastic and is the high-end option of choice. It actually doesn’t cost that much more! You can get a plastic saddle for about $15, whereas a bone saddle will only cost around $25. Many guitarists consider bone the ideal material for saddles and nuts since the material is great for transferring the vibrations from the string to the guitar’s body and produces a tone that is hard to beat!
This is definitely the most expensive option, despite not being objectively much better than bone. The two materials transfer the sound to the body about as well as each other, but ivory will give you a more mellow, less bright tone. Choosing ivory over bone is a matter of tonal preference. Since many saddles and nuts are made of bone, choosing ivory can be a good way to give your guitar a unique and distinctive tone.
Upgrade the Bridge Pins
This is more of a side-note to the saddle/nut section. The bridge pins are the little pins that hold the strings in at the bridge. They are usually plastic, but replacing them with bone or ivory will have a similar, although smaller, effect on the guitar’s tone. How well the pins fit into the grooves will also affect the tone since a tighter bridge pin allows for less wobbling.
Fix the Action
The action of a guitar refers to the distance between the strings and the frets. This has a big effect on how easy it is to play a note and how aggressively you can play before causing buzzing. One way to tell whether the action is right is to play a string open, then play the 12th fret harmonic and compare the notes. If the action is correct, then the two notes should be identical.
If the action is too high, you will need to press down quite hard on the fretboard to get a note out, which can make playing awkward and slow you down. If the action is too low, you will be able to tell because you will hear buzzing from the frets hitting against the strings as the strings vibrate. The action might be wrong because the truss rod, which is the rod running through the neck, could be bent.
Often, nylon-stringed guitars do not have adjustable truss rods, making it more difficult to fix the action. Steel-stringed acoustics, however, normally do have the option of adjusting the truss! It may even be a good idea to adjust the truss rod if you have recently decided to switch to a heavier gauge string full time. You may also have to file down the saddle and the nut to get the perfect action.
String the Guitar
You might not expect it, but how you string the guitar can have a pretty big effect on how well the guitar stays in tune, and this can affect how the guitar sounds during a performance. One of the worst things that can happen during a performance is that your strings lose their tuning in the middle of a song. Even if it’s not your fault, it can reflect very badly on you as a player. Here are a few tips for how to string your guitar so that it stays in tune properly:
If the string is all bunched up on top of itself and overlapping itself in untidy ways, this can cause the string to go out of tune as you play since the metal gets compressed by the pressure of the messy stringing job. You want the string on the machine head to look like a coiled rope, with each loop sitting neatly above the last. The neater it looks, the better it is likely to be! It is also good to put a little pencil mark on the nut where the strings sit for better friction.
You should always stretch out your strings when you are stringing the guitar since this stabilizes the tuning. Don’t go crazy, though! If you stretch the strings too much, you can negatively affect the string’s intonation. If you fail to stretch out the strings, your guitar will refuse to stay in tune for a few hours of playing after the string change. If you change your strings before gigs, then you should absolutely stretch them to make sure you are in tune for the performance.
Make Sure the Humidity Is Right
This may seem silly, but wood is very susceptible to changes in ambient humidity. If the humidity is very high where you keep your guitar, more water in the air can be absorbed into the wood, causing swelling and distorting the sound. In this section, we’ll look at the dangers of storing your guitar in a place with too high humidity and too low humidity. Each poses its own dangers and can seriously affect how your guitar sounds!
The ideal humidity for a guitar is between 40 and 60%. The humidity can be affected by a huge number of factors, from the air temperature to the frequency with which you boil your kettle. A dehumidifier is a great way to remove excess moisture. Humidifiers are also available to increase the moisture in the air, although that can also be solved by doing things like hanging your laundry indoors or having more houseplants. Houseplants also purify the air!
High Humidity (Too Wet)
As mentioned above, if the humidity is too high, that can cause the wood to absorb moisture and swell. This can make the action higher, making it more difficult to press down the strings. High humidity can also cause your guitar to grow mold, which can be a fatal defect for your guitar! Guitars that have been stored in high humidity tend to sound dull and are more likely to have strings randomly fly off while you are playing.
Low Humidity (Too Dry)
While humidity of over 60% can present serious dangers to your guitar, humidity below 40% can be just as bad! Dry air causes the guitar to contract slightly, which will lower the action and increase fret buzz. There is also the danger of the wood cracking, which affects the resonance characteristics of the guitar. If the guitar dries out too much, the bridge might even fall right off! In summary, dry air can be hazardous for a guitar.
Fixing Humidity Problems
One way to prevent humidity issues is to make sure you always store your guitar in its case since this will make it less susceptible to humidity changes outside the case. As mentioned, a dehumidifier is a great way to reduce the moisture in the air, although the electricity bills can end up running quite high. However, reducing humidity is often a good idea anyway since it reduces the likelihood of mold growing in your home. This is especially true in hot climates!
Clean Your Guitar
Over time, lots of playing can cause dirt and gunk to build up on various parts of your guitar, with the fretboard being most at risk. Every time you change your strings, it is good to take them all off at once and give the fretboard a good cleaning. This will make it look better, feel better to play, and extend the life of your strings. It is also a good idea to use a specialized fretboard cleaner since these contain oils that will prevent cracking and warping.
You should also occasionally polish the body of the guitar. On acoustic guitars, the strings are not the only part that produces sound. The whole body acts as a resonance chamber, which is why the material used to build it is so important. Every little bit of dust and grime on the body will also have an effect, however small, on the final tone of your guitar. Cleaning and polishing will not only make your guitar look new but also sound like it did when you first bought it!
Practice Makes Perfect
We have spent a lot of time in this article talking about guitar parts, maintenance, and add-ons. However, when it comes down to it, the best way to make a guitar sound better is by playing it better. No matter how much you practice, you will never stop getting better. A great player can make a terrible guitar sound great, and a terrible player can make a great guitar sound terrible. Making sure you are playing right is the single most important factor in determining your sound.
On an electric guitar, you can change things like the tremolo by adjusting your pedals. On an acoustic, however, that is determined by the finesse with which you move your fingers. Without effects like overdrive and phasers to hide behind, acoustic players need to play a blinder if they want to stand out from the crowd. The only way to play better than the next guy is to play more often and make sure you are practicing right!
There are so many different ways to improve your acoustic guitar sound, from changing the strings to buying a dehumidifier. Things like plectrums and pickups also make a huge difference in how your guitar sounds both on and off stage.
Perhaps the most important of all is how much you practice. The more you play, you will get a better feel for fretting the notes in the perfect way to get the tone you are looking for. Plus, you will be able to play faster and more impressive melodies and chord progressions.
Good luck improving the sound of your guitar!
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