You thought learning Spanish in high school was a pain? Try learning how to speak “guitar tone!”

I’ll be honest with you… guitar players are full of it. We use some pretty weird terms to describe sound, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got to work with!

We hear all these vague terms thrown around but what do they really mean? Are they subjective? Does a “wet” guitar tone require a bucket of water?

Fear not, tone warriors in training, we’ve got you covered. Welcome to the guitar tone dictionary!

ARTICULATE: Allowing you to hear subtle nuances of your playing. A tone that lets you hear small variations in pick technique, volume, etc. with ease. A muddy or heavily distorted tone can often make a tone far less articulate, for example.

ATTACK: A tone that accents rhythm and pick attack, reminiscent of a percussive instrument such as drums. Pick attack can be thought of as the volume of the pick hitting the actual string, the small “click” that occurs before you hear the note itself. The more pick attack you hear and the clearer the rhythms are, the more “percussive” a guitar tone is. A percussive tone comes from both the player’s technique and the tone itself. Too much distortion can result in a loss of pick attack and clarity.

BALANCED: Not lacking in or containing excessive amounts of any particular frequency area such as treble, midrange, or bass.

BASS: The low frequencies of a guitar tone, this area typically defines how “tight” or “loose” a tone is, as well as the punch and “oomph” of the tone.

BITE: Typically a high-frequency trait, a specific sharp aggressive quality to the tone.

BOUTIQUE: An extremely vague fluff term derived from products that were made by hand in small numbers and large price tags, now used as a tonal characteristic on occasion. It is typically used to describe a tone that sounds “expensive.” A “boutique sounding pedal” essentially means that it sounds good… pretty subjective and vague, we know.

CLARITY: A clear guitar tone will allow you to play large, complex chords while still being able to hear each individual note, rather than a vague wash of sound.

CLEAN: Without any distortion.

COLOR: If a tone is being colored it means it is being changed from its original form into something different. If something “colors your tone” it can be either a positive or negative trait, mostly dependent on what it’s referring to. When discussing something like a guitar cable or other object that shouldn’t change the tone of your guitar, it’s usually negative.

DARK and BRIGHT: Darker guitar tones will have less high end and more bass and mid, bright guitar tones will have more high end, presence, and sometimes clarity.

DIRTY: A tone containing some amount of distortion.

DIGITAL: A negative term used to describe the cold, muddy, and harsh guitar tones of the early digital emulations of guitar amps such as the original POD. If someone calls a tone “digital sounding,” it’s usually negative.

DRY: With no effects on it, the purest form of the guitar tone. This can be a clean tone or a distorted tone (with or without a boost pedal), but it does not have any modulation or time-based effects on it.

DJENT: An onomatopoeia coined by Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah in reference to the sound of an extended power chord used heavily in their music at the time. A very abrasive, metallic, tight palm muted chord. A “djenty” tone will be a distorted tone containing a sufficient amount of upper-midrange frequencies.

DYNAMIC: Allowing for variations in volume. Heavily distorted guitar tones typically remove a lot of dynamics due to their natural compression, bringing the lower volume notes and higher volume notes closer together.

HARSH: Difficult to listen to, hard on the ears. Often the result of having too many treble frequencies.

HONKY: Very nasally, typically from a buildup of midrange frequencies.

MIDS/MIDRANGE: The middle frequencies of a guitar tone, this area typically defines how “forward” and “honky” a tone is.

MUDDY: Without any clarity or definition, sludgy, resulting from a buildup of frequencies in the bass or lower-midrange.

PUNCH: Describing the impact of the bass and/or lower-midrange frequencies in certain guitar tones. Punchier tones feel dynamic, whereas a tone that isn’t punchy feels flat and less powerful.

PUSHED CLEAN: A tone that is clean when played softly, but starts to distort when played hard.

RESONANT: A broad term usually describing when notes ring out for a long period of time, also known as “sustaining.” Can also refer to the loud volume of a guitar when it’s not plugged in.

ROUND: Interchangeable with “dark,” describing a tone that is conservative and softer in the treble frequencies, not harsh.

SCOOPED: Lacking in midrange frequencies, with lots of bass and treble frequencies.

SATURATION: A point at which a guitar tone becomes notably distorted. This can sometimes be known as the “sweet spot” on the gain knob where the amp’s distortion really starts to bloom and take shape.

SPARKLY: Containing heavy amounts of treble frequencies without being harsh. The sound of a clean Stratocaster, for example.

TIGHT: Can refer to two concepts: the low frequencies (also known as low end or bass) of a guitar tone or a noise gate. A tight noise gate setting means that the minute you stop playing all sound stops. Without a tight noise gate setting, you may still hear some vibrations come through the amp even after you’ve muted the note. Even without a noise gate this can apply to low frequencies, where tighter amps respond quickly and looser amps tend to have some sway and “sag” to them.

TRANSPARENT: Not coloring the overall sound of your guitar. Allowing the original sound and character of the instrument to shine through, rather than modifying it to sound quite different.

TREBLE: The high frequencies of a guitar tone, this area typically defines the aggressiveness and amount of definition and bite your tone has.

WARM: Typically used to refer to a darker, rounded tone that doesn’t sound harsh. This term is commonly interchanged with “analog” or “tube.”

WET: With effects on it, specifically modulation and time-based effects such as chorus, flanger, delay, or reverb.

Still got questions? Someone on a forum called your tone something crazy that you don’t understand? Let us know what other terms you want to be defined and we’ll put our guitar tone translators to the test!

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