15 Words to Describe Guitar Tone—And What They Really Mean

Last Updated on September 8th, 2022

The quest for perfect guitar tone is filled with obstacles—scales to learn, techniques to master, gear to acquire and so on. But nothing stops curious guitarists from learning their way around the instrument quite like the “tone talk” jargon that sometimes fills guitar forums, and even entire subreddits, with confusion.

While the qualities that make a good guitar tone are subjective, everyone can agree that it’s a lot easier to communicate with your fellow musicians—online or at rehearsal—when everyone has a shared understanding of what makes a guitar “twangy” instead of “woody” or the difference between “sparkle” and “chime.”

We assembled this glossary of fifteen common “tone words” to help you cut through the mix and be heard above the chatter when it’s your turn to talk tone.


peter green


“Bloom” is the tendency for the amplified sound of certain guitars, particularly Les Pauls, to increase in tonal complexity as a note or chord is sustained with distortion. Popular examples of “blooming” guitar tones include Peter Green’s work with John Mayall, and Carlos Santana’s ‘70s edge-of-feedback tone.

Alternatively, “bloom” is used to describe the softened, violin-like attack of a tube amp experiencing voltage sag in its power section, i.e. “power amp distortion.” Listen for the note’s transient sounds, followed by an immediate dip in volume and finally the sustained note or chord with additional harmonics generated by the amp’s power tubes.



When we say “boomy,” we’re referring to the unpleasant low-end buildup caused by speaker and/or cabinet resonances, old strings, improper microphone placement or extreme EQ settings. Typically, these are the tones in the 100—200Hz range.



While typically used to gauge the headbang quotient of metal riffs, “brutal” can also refer to a guitar tone’s potential for said gnarly riffs.

Examples of “brutal” guitar tones include the famous mid-scooped “California Smile” of Bay Area thrash legends Exodus and Metallica, Wes Borland’s down tuned nü-metal crunch with Limp Bizkit and the articulate high-gain 8-string tones of Periphery’s Mark Holcomb.



Not to be confused with “sparkle,” “chime” is the ear-tingling upper-midrange sensation that happens when low-gain pickups with Alnico magnets meet the harmonic crunch of British-voiced amplifiers, like the Vox AC-30 and non-master volume Marshalls. That goes double for 12-string guitars.


metal chug


Commonly associated with heavy metal and its numerous subgenres, “chug” is the aggressively saturated and percussive sound of a guitar’s low strings played with a palm-muting technique at high gain.



The mid-forward sound of a slightly-to-moderately overdriven bass guitar made popular by players like Green Day’s Mike Dirnt, David Wm. Sims of The Jesus Lizard, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Bob Weston of Shellac.

A bass sound with “grunt” is typically light on low-end below 100Hz and treble frequencies above 2kHz. Instead, “grunt” bass tones focus on fundamental harmonics in the 200—400Hz space and the growling upper-midrange pick attack between 800Hz—1.2kHz.

The resulting clanging and percussive timbre allows the bass guitar to sit in a dense mix overstuffed with fuzzy multi tracked guitars and powerhouse leadfoot drumming.



A nasally distorted guitar sound with an abundance of midrange frequencies between 800Hz—1kHz is what we like to call “honk.” Depending on the instrumentation and mix, “honk” may or may not be desirable. Speaker and cabinet resonances may also emphasize these frequencies. Varies with wah pedal usage.



“Jangle” is a compressed and treble-boosted clean (or edge-of-breakup) guitar sound typically employing a 12-string guitar and EL34-equipped amplifier as heard in the upbeat guitar pop groups of the ‘60s—’80s, including The Byrds, R.E.M. and The Beatles.



Also see: “edge-of-breakup.” Open is the opposite of compressed. An open guitar sound is one where with a light touch, the amplifier has clean headroom to spare but can be pushed into overdrive with little more than a heavy picking hand. With an “open” guitar sound, the player’s choice of strings, pickups and pedals can drastically alter the amplifier’s dynamic range.



A fuzz guitar characterized by odd-order harmonics and stiff top-end response might be described as “rude.” In some cases, “rude” guitar sounds may include the gated, “zippery” tone of a voltage-starved fuzz pedal running on a dying battery. Notable examples of “rude” guitar tones include Ron Asheton on The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and Mudhoney’s album Superfuzz Bigmuff.


honk tone



1. The sound of a Stratocaster when the pickup selector is set to position two or four.

2. Electric guitar sound produced when two parallel-wired single-coil pickups are used in conjunction with a clean amp tone.

3. Mark Knopfler on Dire Straits— “Sultans of Swing.”



In guitar-speak, “shimmer” is the harmonically rich sound of a clean guitar with a stereo time-based effect—typically reverb or chorus.

In a contemporary context, “shimmer” describes a reverb where harmonics are introduced to the wet signal via pitch-shifter or subtle distortion—such as the Dark Sun’s “Saturation” control— to produce a reverb effect with an unmistakable sparkling sustain.

In vintage terms, “shimmery” guitar sounds are the stuff of single-coil pickups and solid-state powerhouse amps like the Roland Jazz Chorus.



Unlike “chime,” which refers to the upper-midrange harmonics generated by a slightly overdriven British-voiced tube amplifier, “sparkle” is the crystalline treble sheen of a germanium fuzz pedal paired with a single-coil equipped guitar with the volume rolled back—typically in the 4-6kHz range.

Players like Jimi Hendrix and John Frusciante use this trick to great effect, manipulating the Stratocaster’s volume control to fade seamlessly from quacky rhythm tones into searing lead sounds without ever turning off the fuzz pedal.


brad paisley


Telecaster + Compressor + Twin Reverb = Twang

Twangy guitar is the sound of country music. To keep their tic-tac rhythms and chicken pickin’ licks spicier than a roadside hot chicken shack, many of Nashville’s best-known six-stringers stick with the original recipe of a Telecaster, compressor pedal and a 6L6-equipped tube combo amp like Fender’s Deluxe or Twin Reverb.

In the modern era, players like Brad Paisley introduced overdrive and distortion to the mix, giving country twang guitar a sharp cutting edge. To achieve his unmistakable tone, Paisley relies on his signature set of La Brea Tele Pickups and the natural overdrive of his Dr. Z amplifiers, which recreate the snappy bell-tones of his favorite Vox AC-30.

Some country (and country adjacent) styles like honky-tonk and rockabilly also use short analog delays to accentuate the hard-driving rhythms powering the outlaw attitudes of country’s brightest stars.


woody tone


The organic, mid-forward earth tones of a vintage-voiced pickup with Alnico magnets paired with a low-wattage amplifier and Greenback speakers. Woody guitar sounds have a powerful bassy thump on the low strings and a throaty, viscous midrange.


Let’s Talk Tone

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