8 guitar tips to help you sound and play better for free

Niall Horan performs on Radio 1 Stage during BBC Radio 1's Big Weekend 2023 at Camperdown Wildlife Centre on May 28, 2023 in Dundee, Scotland
(Image credit: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns)

You might be surprised by just how much power you have over your tone in your guitar pick choice, the way you use it and also how you use the controls of your electric guitar. There's huge potential at your fingertips and we'll show you how to explore it… 

1. Use your volume control to create volume swells 

For volume swells, turn your guitar’s volume down then gradually raise it as you play a note for a smooth, violin-like crescendo. It’s easiest on long notes where there’s time to coordinate all the movements. Generally, guitarists stretch out their fourth finger to reach the volume control as they pick. Hear it in action above from John Mayer's former guitar teacher Tomo Fujita and our example below. 

2. Use your volume control as a gain boost 


(Image credit: Future)

Welcome to the handiest boost around. Turn your guitar up to max and then set your amp to the point where you’re happy with its medium to high gain tone. Now dial back your volume and it will start to clean up as well as becoming quieter, leaving you a boost to call on mid-song when you turn up. We’ve gone from light drive to dirty in our hard rock audio example below.

3. Use both pickups to access two gain settings. 

Les Paul

(Image credit: Adam Gasson/Future)

If your guitar has a volume control for each pickup (such as on a Les Paul) you can set a medium drive tone on one pickup by lowering its volume to halfway, and a high gain sound on the other by keeping the volume maxed. Just flick your selector switch to change gain. We set up a cleaner neck pickup and a higher gain bridge pickup on our funk-rock audio example.

4. Try woman tone 

Get in the smooth ballpark of Clapton’s fabled Cream tone by choosing the middle position on a two-humbucker guitar, turn the bridge pickup’s tone to zero with volume fully up, add some overdrive and crank your amp’s treble.

5. Use your neck pickup to tune up more accurately 


(Image credit: Future)

Do you struggle to get your guitar as perfectly in tune as you’d like? Flip your guitar onto the neck pickup and roll the tone all the way down – this will reduce the overtones that can confuse electronic tuners, and give you a clearer signal with which to get yourself in perfect pitch.

6. Use different guitar picks


(Image credit: Future)

They say tone is in your hands but it’s also in your plectrum, too, and a change in habits can have a real impact. Lighter gauges can be great for strumming feel, but they also encourage you to approach notes and vibrato in a more considered way. And if you’re not cutting through rhythmically, a heaver pick can help. Try a few different textures and gauges of pick and you’ll see what we mean

7. Quickly find harmonics above the last fret 


(Image credit: Future)

To master Eddie Van Halen and Dimebag Darrell-style pinched harmonics (aka ‘squealies’), you’ll need to target your pick at a specific point on a string. Get started the easy way. If you’re playing below the 12th fret, target your pick 24 frets higher than the fretted note. If you’re playing above the 12th fret, aim 12 frets higher. Work out the exact spot in relation to your guitar – the harmonic might be in line with a pickup, a scratchplate screw, top horn, and so on.

8. Create instant dynamics with your picking hand placement


(Image credit: Future)

It’s very easy to fall into default comfortable positions with our guitars, especially where we hit the strings. But where you pick in relation to the pickup can directly effect the sound and utilising it can give you new dynamics. Try playing over the pickup you’re not using for a more acoustic-natured sound, now switch to the pickup you have selected – instant boost that cuts.

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Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.