wes montgomery

How to Get a Good Jazz Tone

This is a Guest Post by Jazz Guitarist, Christopher Flynn

When it comes to jazz tone, nothing replaces proper technique and quality phrasing. Jazz tone is as much about the sound of the chords and strumming as it is about having the proper guitar, EQ settings, and speaker choice. In spite of this disclaimer, I must admit that you will find it hard to play like Wes Montgomery with a Schecter Hellraiser through a Mesa Triple Rectifier. However, you do not need to spend your life savings on a vintage arch top from the pre-war era to get that infamous jazz sound. The sound of jazz guitar is usually defined as having a rounded envelope, similar to a piano, instead of a sharp attack decay cycle, as in country music. While the common choice in a jazz guitar is a semi hollow or hollow body guitar, such as a Gibson L5 or an Epiphone Sheraton, solid bodies have been commonly used in jazz fusion and modern jazz genres. The trick to getting that rounded attack from such a guitar is to use the neck pickup and roll off the tone knob to cut the cut some of the high end spike. The rounded sound of jazz comes from a curve in the higher frequencies of the guitar. On an acoustic or hollow body electric, these curves come very naturally due to the construction and acoustic resonance inside of the guitar body itself. On a solid body, the higher frequencies are not able to soften and often become harsh. This issue, however, is completely manageable via the guitar’s tone knob and amplifier settings. On the road currently, I use a Mexican Stratocaster with Harmonic Design pickups and receive compliments from old jazz professionals about my tone all the time.

Jazz tone is often described as a “clean genre” and having a great clean sound is crucial. When I started playing in jazz clubs, I was told by countless professionals that I needed various boutique amplifiers that costed the same amount as my car in order to get authentic jazz tones. After years of playing, and a lot of wasted money, I realized that the secret to great jazz tone lies far more in how the amplifier is set. Any amplifier with a great clean sound can garner a great jazz tone. By pulling back the treble, boosting the bass, and rolling your mids to taste, the classic jazz tone can be found in almost any amplifier. As a jazz player, the gear that you’ll have to rent or get backline at a show will likely be a standard amp that did not cost a lot of money. I have been stuck with a JCM 2000 on multiple occasions. Developing your ear and ability to dial in an amplifier will give you the ability to get great tone through almost any system.

Effects are a subject many veteran jazz players shy away from. The truth is, you do not need any effects to play great jazz music, but that does not mean you can’t bring out your pedalboard. Jazz music loves experimentation and combination with various musical genres. I have seen phasers, choruses, delays, even fuzzes and distortions in professional jazz sets. While great guitars and clean amps are certainly an excellent basis for jazz tone, feel free to experiment with whatever you want to. Follow your ears, not what the internet or some guy at a guitar shop says.

3 thoughts on “How to Get a Good Jazz Tone”

  1. Thanks for the great article Chris. You mentioned ” I use a Mexican Stratocaster with Harmonic Design pickups”
    Which model pups?

    1. Ian, they are HD 54 specials. Great sound if you want jazzy tone that you dont have to worry about taking on the road. Responses very similar to my nicer hollow bodies with the tone rolled back.

  2. hello-i’ve been playing for 58 years and been playing jazz
    for 10 or so-i love the sound thru acoustic amps-i have a
    gibson es-137, sheraton 1 (gibson) sheraton 11, a fender tele with a humbucker neck which i love for jazz (heard some
    jazz players use teles.) i acyually use bronze strings on it
    i like to experiment-so, what are hd 54’s-waiting to hear back-thanks much-p.s. i learned from real pros back when

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