Now we get to the fun stuff. There are things that you can add to the guitar to change the sound. The place to start is the last place you might think to look: the pick. The pick is the direct connection between you and the guitar and has the greatest effect on your tone. Many players just pick with whatever is convenient, while others realize that variety is the spice of life (and sound).
The Twenty-Five-Cent Tone Shift
The number of picks on the market is staggering. The variety of different materials, colors, shapes, and thicknesses make for much variation. Some players are content to stick with the normal Fender-type heavy pick, while others prefer small teardrop-shaped picks. If you've been using the same pick for a long time, buy some new picks. Most picks are about twenty-five cents each, so buy several. Experiment with shape, hardness, and material—each pick will give you a different sound. You can even buy picks made out of steel and copper (heavy metal?). You may be shocked at how much a new pick can affect your sound.
Certain picks are better suited to certain types of playing. Rhythm players tend to like light picks that have a fair amount of flex. The flex helps facilitate strumming without getting in the way. Players who enjoy playing fast tend to like small, hard picks. The size lets them move around the guitar with more efficiency, and the hardness translates directly to speed: the harder the pick, the faster it moves through the strings.
Don't think that you have to hold the pick point down all the time. Try turning your pick every which way for different sounds, especially upside down. You don't even have to use a pick at all. Many players successfully use their fingers to play. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits uses his fingers all the time. Some acoustic players grow out their fingernails to imitate the sounds of a pick, while others use the fleshy pads of their fingers.
Strings are another crucial factor that influences your sound. The type of metal they're made of and the gauge of string can change your sound dramatically. Bigger is better. The heavier gauge you can use, the better and fatter your tone will be. Light strings can sound anemic and weak. If you play on 9-gauge strings, try going to 10, and you'll notice a nice change, especially in the low end. Stevie Ray Vaughan is legendary for using 13-gauge strings on his guitar. These huge strings contributed to his huge tone.
If you play acoustic guitar, experiment with gauge and metal types. You can commonly find strings of bronze, phosphor bronze, and other metals. These different metal wraps have an effect on your sound. For you speed freaks, lighter is better (usually). Many shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen use 8-gauge strings because the lightened string gauge helps increase overall facility. Heavy strings can make bending very difficult, so if you plan to increase your string gauge, do it slowly in steps so you can get used to the new tension.
Every time you change your string gauge, you should have your guitar set up by a qualified repairman. The new string tension may affect the neck angle and intonation.
A capo is a small device that attaches to the neck of the guitar. It changes the location of the nut so that the open position can be replicated in other places on the neck. Usually, capos are an elastic wraparound or spring-loaded clamp. The spring-loaded clamp is often easier to take off and on. Capos can cost between $10 and $15.
In first position, you get certain chords that are easy to play. For the most part, the pitches of the open strings dictate these chords. Because these chords contain open strings, they're easier to play than barre chords. A capo allows you to play the easy shapes from the first position, yet have different chords come out. It's very useful for transposing chords to other keys. For instance, many singers/songwriters use capos to match the natural keys of their voice while keeping the chord shapes simple. Try placing a capo across the third fret. No matter what capo you use, it's important to get the capo right next to the third fret, but not on it! Once you're set, go ahead and play what you know as an open C chord. With the capo, all your open strings are three frets higher so you're not playing the C chord anymore. You're playing the C chord shape, but it is now a E because the capo has changed the open strings. Before, the E chord involved an uncomfortable barre. Now, with a capo on the third fret …
• C becomes E.
• G becomes B.
• A becomes C.
• D becomes F.
Capos are usually used in acoustic playing, especially southern rock and country styles. The Eagles used a capo on the intro to “Hotel California.”
The capo can be placed anywhere on the neck you want. The third fret is a handy spot because it gives you chords that are very difficult to achieve in the first position. Using the capo effectively will allow you to play parts that are otherwise impossible.
If you play a song with a lot of barre chords, the capo makes your life easier. Try it on different frets to see how the simple chord shapes change.