by Scott Zimmerman

This article will show you how to put together a good lead guitar tone on your electric guitar. You can also check out our guitar courses here.

When it’s time to play your solo, it is important to have a good lead tone. One that will cut through the mix, put your guitar out in front, and sound good. For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on analyzing the type of lead tone that is typically used in most rock music. (In the blues and heavy metal genres there is some variation to this recipe.)

How can you get a good lead guitar tone? Creating a good lead guitar tone consists of four ingredients: distortion, equalization, delay, and reverb. Understanding how these elements work, and when and how to use them, is essential for creating a good lead tone.

Sustain and equalization are both a constant; whereas, the use of delay and reverb will depend on specific circumstances. Let’s take a look at each of these elements and then explore amplifier and equipment options for producing a good lead tone.

Distortion = Sustain

The first ingredient is a sustained tone. In order for your guitar lead to be heard, and the subtleties of your playing style to cut through the mix of a rock band, you will need a sustained tone. Distorting the original sound wave of a tone will increase its sustain. (Distorted sound waves are square and asymmetrical.

This type of sound wave creates new frequencies apart from the fundamental frequency, which produces what we experience as note sustain.) Distortion can be applied to your original tone either by using an effects pedal or processor, or by using the built-in distortion in your amp. Set your gain or overdrive knob to its maximum level and make sure that the volume on your guitar is all the way up; this will give you the most sustain. (Mostly likely, you  will have to reduce your overall volume knob so that it is not too loud.) 


In terms of the overall mix of the band with regard to each instrument’s individual frequencies, the guitar lead tone “lives” in the low-mid to mid-range frequency range, i.e. approximately 200hz to 2000hz. For example, the E minor pentatonic scale, played in twelfth position, using the bottom four strings, will be in the 330hz to 960hz range, which are mid-range frequencies. This means that you can boost the mid range knob or E.Q. on your amplifier to make these frequencies stand out more in the overall mix. In addition, higher frequencies can be rolled off by using the pickup tone knobs.

High-lighting the mid-range frequencies by either reducing the higher frequencies and increasing volume or boosting the mid-range frequencies with or without a volume increase, will allow your solo to “move forward” in the mix. Distortion and mid-boost equalization are the two most important ingredients that create a good lead tone. (For Heavy Metal, the mid-tones, typically, are “scooped” out, i.e. reduced, to create a distinct lead tone.) 


Using a delay will allow you to add more sustain to your lead tone. Adding delay works best when you are playing less notes in mid to slow tempo songs. The extra delay will enable more of the finger articulations, such as vibrato, bending, sliding, etc. to stand out. In this application, the amount of delay added to the original signal is very minimal. If you can plainly hear a delay or echo, it is too much for this purpose.

Setting the mix close to dry, the feedback to a minimal setting, and using a short delay time will produce a very subtle sustaining effect. However, if you are playing an uptempo song with a lot of notes, it is best, subjectively speaking, not to use delay. The delayed sound can reduce the clarity of your tone when playing many notes quickly. (Keep in mind, these are general principles, not hard and fast rules: experiment and find the right amount of delay for your purposes.)


When reverb is used, it will place the guitar farther back in the mix. By doing this, the guitar occupies its own space, and therefore, setting it apart from the rest of the instruments. This is useful in lead playing situations because by creating a unique sonic space, the guitar lead will stand out. However, if the mix is already dense and loud, reverb will cause the lead to get lost in the background.

Therefore, it is best used in situations where there is plenty of frequency room for the guitar to dominate, e.g. slower tempo songs with song arrangements using fewer instruments, or when the accompanying instruments, such as rhythm guitar and piano, purposefully stay out of the mid-range frequency area during the solo.

Otherwise, using reverb will cloud the good lead tone by pushing it down into the mix. Note: Applying reverb often sounds good when practicing solos without the rest of the band; however, in a live performance situation, except under the above-mentioned circumstances, it is best to use very little reverb, if any at all.

Practical Applications

For the purposes of this article, let us assume that we are just starting out. There are three options, in terms of paths, you can take to achieve this good lead tone: 1) A modeling amplifier, 2) A non-modeling amplifier and an effects processor, 3) An amplifier (modeling or non-modeling) and effects pedals. Let’s take a closer look at these three options.

Modeling Amplifiers

A modeling amplifier digitally reproduces the sounds of different amplifiers, speaker cabinets, and effects- all in one unit. Modeling amplifiers are relatively new in terms of amplification history. From an economic and utility perspective, they are the best “bang for the buck”. For under $200 you can have all of the resources available to create not only a great lead tone, but other tones as well.

Some modeling amplifiers will also include a tube preamp which will give your sound a more authentic vintage tone. Essentially, a modeling amp is an amplifier and an effects processor in one package. This option is great for studio playing and at home practicing. The wide range of tone possibilities will allow you to experiment with creating your tone without spending a lot of money.

If the modeling amp is designed for an external foot switching device, it can also be used in a performance setting. If you are interested in using it for live playing, be sure to get a modeling amp that allows you to save presets. By doing this, you can switch between preset sounds during your live performance.

Traditional Amplifier And An Effects Processor

If you already have an amplifier, that is not a modeling amp, using an effects processor is another option. Like a modeling amplifier, you will have access to a wide variety of amplifier and speaker simulations as well as effects. Typically, these units are designed with foot pedals so that they can be used in live performances.

Furthermore, some models include a tube preamp which provides a more authentic vintage tone. This is a great option if you already have an amplifier that works well. Similar to modeling amps, you will be able to pre-program your lead sound and access it by the foot switch.

Traditional Amplifier And Effects Pedals

This is the rig most professional guitar players use. Many pros prefer an analog sound (one that is not converted to digital and then reconverted back to analog) over a digital sound- claiming that it produces a more authentic and purer tone. I don’t disagree. However, obtaining this tone is costly. A tube amp is easily in the $1000 range, and each effects pedal on average is between $100 and $200 dollars. A middle position is to use a good solid state amp with effects pedals.

Besides the purity of sound, there is another advantage to this system. Each effect can be turned on and off independently. Therefore, you are not confined to presets and can shape your tone as you play. For example, instead of switching to your lead preset on a modeling amp or effects processor, you just step on your distortion pedal for the lead and then click it off when your lead is finished. In this way, you are only adding or subtracting effects while maintaining the constant amplifier tone. One of the dangers of a modeling amp or effects processor is that it has too many options.

It can be a temptation to create great lead tones that use a different amp. and speaker cabinet model than your rhythm guitar preset. During a performance, this can sound like two absolutely different guitars and can be hard for the soundman to track properly. If you are playing live, or are planning to play live, working towards your effects pedal rig is a good long term goal. You can place your effects on a pedalboard and show up to a gig and either uses your amp or plug into a “house” amp with a good clean channel. This set-up will provide you with a consistent and reliable platform for your performances.


The two main ingredients for a good lead tone are distortion and equalization. Also, minimal delay and reverb can be applied in certain situations. Work out your tones at home, but be ready to adjust in the rehearsal. If you are having difficulty hearing your lead in the mix, cut the delay and reverb and try boosting your mid-frequencies- this will help to push your sound through the mix.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.