Three Things That Will Give You Killer Tone

There are 3 main ingredients to getting killer guitar tone. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve sold all of my pedals, amps and even guitars so that I could buy new gear in search of that magic tone.

I’ve always been amazed with Eddie Van Halen‘s tone. He rocked a tone in the 1970’s that was hotter than any other guitarist. It’s a tone that I always come back to.

When the moment would hit, I’d take all the information I could find on Eddie’s gear setup and then start looking for bargains. If I was lucky I’d get close to the same setup. My wallet has never been big enough to mirror it exactly.

Here’s how my search for the ultimate tone went:

1. Pick the artist you want to sound like (Eddie for me)
2. Research their rig and make a list of all of their gear
3. Start bargain hunting to get the exact same gear

I did this many, many times. Man, I wish I still had all the gear I bought!

This formula kind of works. It will get you 80% of the way to the killer tone you want.

The thing I hate about it is that it takes money and often it takes a LOT of money to even get to 80%. I wanted to get Eddie’s killer tones without breaking the bank… or in my case needing to rob a bank to get the cash to pay for it.

In search of the cheapest way to get awesome tone I found that there are really 3 things that contribute to *most* of the tone you get. Let’s start with what we have to buy.

Guitar Pickups For Great Tone ($)

The guitar pickup is the most underrated piece of gear guitarists own. I have taken several cheap guitars and made them sound like their super expensive counterparts.

I once bought a Mexican Strat signed by John Fogharty on ebay for less than $300. It was brand new. I upgraded the pickups and put a new pickguard on it (sorry John). It sounded amazing.

Even “good” guitars often times will have not-so-good pickups. Back in the day, my new 1988 USA Jackson was $800 on sale and the pickups were terrible. I added a nice set of EMGs (81 & 85) and then wow – that Jackson smoked!

EMG 81 Active Pickups

Don’t underestimate the pickups. It’s worth the investment.

Overdrive/Gain ($)

Most guitarists are looking for hot tones that come from thick overdrive. You can either get this tone from the natural sound of your amp or from a overdrive/distortion pedal.

If you plan on adding delay and other effects to your sound then you need to take that into consideration. If your amp has an effects loop then you can feel free to use the distortion from the amp and run the effects through the loop.

If you have an amp (Vox) that doesn’t have an effects loop then you should buy a pedal for your overdrive/distortion. Run the distortion before any modulating effects such as delay. This will give you the cleanest and best sounding tone.

Both amps and pedals can get pricey. I just bought the new EVHIII head which retails for $699 after I sold 2 pedals ($350 and $132) and an old Vox amp ($400). Again, I’m buying and selling in search of the ultimate tone.


While I was waiting for my new amp to arrive I searched CraigsList and found a cool Vox Pathfinder 10 watt practice amp. I got it for $30 and it sounds incredible. No effects loop but the tone is killer.

My point is that you can get great tone from small amps, pedals or big expensive amps but you can’t get any tone without one of them (obviously).

Your Fingers (FREE)

You probably don’t want to hear this but it’s true. Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson or any other pro guitarist can play through the modest of setups and still make it scream. The most important piece to getting good tone is you.

You need to practice, practice and practice some more. Concentrating on each note.

I remember reading long ago, back when I first started playing guitar, that Steve Vai would just hang on a note for an hour. He would focus on that one note. I did that.

My mom thought I was weird sitting in my room with the lights out playing one note but I got it. Steve knows what he’s talking about!

Focus on each note and you’ll end up with many options for getting great tone. As your guitar skills improve so will your tone. So stop reading and go play!

About the author

Craig Kelley

Hi, I'm Craig and I write most of the stuff on this website. Feel free to catch up with me on Twitter. You can learn more about me on my site here and listen to my music here.