Guitar sounding thin, and nasally? Wondering how to get more bass response from your acoustic guitar?
Try changing your strings to Phosphor Bronze and using a heavier gauge. You can also use a heavier guitar pick and position your picking hand nearer the sound hole. As a last resort, try a larger body guitar and if all else fails experiment with different tunings.
In the following post, we’ll discuss why you might want to enhance bass response, some of the more common reasons acoustic guitars lack bass, and provide some simple and cost-effective suggestions you can try to improve the bass response of your acoustic guitar, without having to go out and buy a new guitar.
Why would you want more bass?
Firstly, why would you actually want more bass from your guitar in the first place?
Increasing bass response, while offering a fuller sound can, in some cases also means sacrificing a degree of responsiveness, clarity, and sustain.
On the other hand, a thin-sounding acoustic guitar tends to sound small, lacks warmth, and rather than offering a pleasing tone to the ear can sound abrasive, especially in a more intimate setting or when recording. A guitar that lacks bass may also compete with vocals (or other instruments) within the same frequency range, resulting in a lack of balance overall.
A guitar that lacks bass response becomes more noticeable with fewer instruments. e.g. if the acoustic guitar is the only instrument it should take up much of the frequency space. An acoustic guitar lacking in bass response can often sound poor in a mix when recording additional instruments, offering less separation.
While all guitars offer slightly different tonal characteristics (sometimes even when off the same materials, make, and model), balance is key to the tonality of a guitar, and all music in general.
A scooped guitar tone e.g. dominant highs and lows, leaving plenty of mid-range for the vocals is ideal in certain settings e.g. singer/songwriter. But this is just one example.
Terms associated with a lack of bass response
Tone is difficult to describe. The art of putting into words what we hear is challenging.
As a result, a number of terms are used to describe tone, some of the most common that overlap or are used interchangeably with bass response are:
- Warmth: Lacking harshness. Mid to low frequencies are emphasized.
- Woody: Deep. Lacking metallic overtones.
- Boomy: Punchy bass response.
- Scooped: Dominant in the lower and higher frequency ranges, but lacking in the mid-range.
What affects bass response?
The (not so) simple answer is, a combination of:
- Body style and size
- Construction methods
- Guitar strings
- Pick size and material
- Playing technique
- The room
And how each of the points above interacts with one another.
The fact is there are many things that can affect how much bass your acoustic guitar produces. We’ll cover most of these below including physical properties of the guitar (tonewoods, size, and body shape, construction methods) but I also understand most people reading this article are looking for simple ways to enhance the bass response of the acoustic guitar they currently own rather than go out and buy a new guitar.
So, after listing some of the more common physical properties responsible for poor bass response we’ll take a closer look at some of the simpler, less expensive options that can often produce results.
Physical properties that affect bass response in acoustic guitars
Body style and size
It’s much the same with speakers used in guitar amplifiers e.g. smaller practice amps typically use 6” – 8” speakers and, especially when played loud tend to sound tinny and lacking in power and projection.
Bass is the term used to describe low frequency, between 20 and 250-300Hz. The lower the frequency, the longer the wavelength produced. As result bass frequencies displace more air particles and this requires greater energy or movement from the soundboard of the guitar. Smaller guitars tend to move less air than a larger surface e.g. the soundboard of a Jumbo or Dreadnought acoustic guitar.
Different soundboard timbers have different tonal characteristics. For example, Sitka Spruce is light, yet strong and is known for offering a scooped frequency range e.g. dominant in the low and high frequencies but scooped in the mid-range.
Cedar, on the other hand, offers greater warmth as a result of being a softer timber. Alternatively, Mahogany, being a hardwood, but softer than Spruce, emphasizes mid-range frequencies.
Different combinations of timbers also affect the tonal response of the guitar. For example, a common pairing for acoustic guitar is Rosewood back and sides paired with a Sitka Spruce top. Rosewood is well known for articulating lower end frequencies, but paired with Mahogany for example won’t produce quite the same result, all other things being equal.
Bass response is also influenced by the weight and thickness of materials.
Thickness of Materials
For example a lighter, more resonant material can offer greater bass response as it provides more movement, displacing more air particles. Hence why Spruce (being a very strong, yet lightweight timber) offers greater bass response than Mahogany.
Other aspects of construction including bracing height can also play a role as this influences how much movement, or how much energy from the strings can be imparted on the soundboard of the guitar.
This also has an influence on sustain, and the length of sustain plays a role in the overtones created which contribute to bass response and warmth.
We see all types of soundhole designs nowadays, from different sizes (try finding a soundhole cover that fits these days 🙂 to different shapes, to even offering multiple sound holes compared to just one. While it may be subtle and often difficult to compare apples to apples, in general, the smaller the soundhole the greater the bass response.
What about changing the nut and saddle?
Tonal changes resulting from changing the nut or saddle e.g. from plastic to bone can be difficult to perceive. As bone (or Tusq (man-made Ivory)) is denser than plastic it stands to reason that less energy is absorbed by the nut and saddle and more energy is ultimately imparted on the strings. But, we are really talking about difficult to perceive levels and in the majority of cases, the most obvious change is an increase in overall clarity. Tusq is credited with a brighter tone than bone for example, but it pays to experiment where possible.
Simple Changes that can enhance Bass Response
Changing Guitar Strings
Changing your guitar strings is one of the simplest (aside from changing your guitar pick) changes you can make. The right guitar strings promote second-order harmonics, resulting in overtones that give the impression of warmth due to accentuating the mid and low-end frequencies.
You can read our complete article here that goes into far more detail, but if you are interested in experimenting with strings that provide greater bass response consider:
- String gauge
- Winding materials
- Strings coating
Heavier gauge strings will contribute more to bass response, due to transferring more energy from the strings but this must also be considered in relation to playability. e.g. If the guitar projects more bass as a result of using heavier gauge strings but is harder to play you may want to compromise and use medium gauge strings.
Your wound strings (E, A, D, and G) are of a lower frequency than your unwound B and E strings. As a result, the winding materials used are important with regard to bass response.
If looking for a recommendation, try using Phosphor Bronze strings. In the majority of cases, they are credited with accentuating the mid and low-end frequencies. They are also more resistant to corrosion.
Coated strings (polymer resin) are designed to offer a protective barrier between the oil and sweat from our hands and the guitar’s strings, resulting in less corrosion.
Coated strings don’t promote bass response per se, but they can reduce brightness which in turn may emphasize the bass response of an acoustic guitar.
As previously discussed in another article brightness is not the opposite of bass response or warmth (mid and low-end frequencies) so coated strings won’t necessarily allow you to hear more bass being projected from your guitar, but they are worth experimenting with all the same and offer the added benefit of lasting longer and may also minimize finger noise, although they are more expensive as a result.
Changing your Guitar Pick
Perhaps the simplest and least expensive change you can make to increase bass response is to change the pick you are using (if you use one at all).
Light picks don’t impart as much energy on the strings as heavier picks and tend to promote more of the high-end frequencies. However a heavier, less flexible pick provides more energy which in turn is transferred to the soundboard resulting in greater bass response, volume and sustain.
Another important, and often overlooked consideration when it comes to bass response is the room you are playing in.
Unless you have had your room acoustically treated it will have a large impact on what you are hearing, just as when you choose to sit, or the position of your speakers (if recording) can have a huge impact on what you are hearing.
Untreated rooms tend to suffer from uneven frequency response, adding treatment such as well-placed acoustic tiles, and bass traps in the corners of the room allow you to hear a more accurate representation of the guitar. Despite what you think, bass traps often result in greater audible bass response.
If you are favoring the treble strings when strumming e.g. the mechanics of your playing is such that the treble strings are dominant, consider changing the angle you hold the pick or adjust your strumming to provide a more balanced attack on the strings.
Picking hand position
Your picking hand position is also important. If you consider the vibrational length of the strings, it stands to reason that there is greater tension on the strings near the two end points e.g. the saddle and the nut.
If your picking hand is closer to the bridge for example you are hitting the strings at the area of greatest tension, and this will normally accentuate brightness and clarity.
This is why neck pickups on electric guitars tend to sound warmer/darker than bridge pickups.
Most acoustic guitarists understand that the higher the action the fuller the sound of the guitar.
Consider when you strum the guitar. Having greater clearance between the strings and soundboard increases resonance which as we now know emphasises bass response as the longer bass frequencies require more energy to displace air particles.
But it’s really not that simple. It’s often a trade-off e.g. most guitarists prefer their action as low as possible as long as the guitar won’t buzz (the strings buzzing against the fret wires).
In general, aim for a good balance between tone and playability.
Lastly, if you are disappointed with the bass response of your acoustic guitar, try playing in a lower tuning e.g. tune down a half-step.
Many artists and bands have done this over the years, mostly to aid the vocalist, allowing them to sing in a lower range but this obviously also increases bass response in your acoustic guitar, as the strings are tuned to a lower frequency.
Wood, being an organic product means guitar tone varies from guitar to guitar, and as a result even guitars of the same make and model can sound different from one another. It’s arguably one of the most interesting, and occasionally frustrating aspects of the acoustic guitar.
Keep in mind, while bass response is clearly influenced by the physical properties of the guitar, in particular tonewoods, body size and shape there are many ways you can increase the bass response of an acoustic guitar.
Try some of the options listed above including changing your strings, guitar pick’s thickness and material, adjusting your playing technique and assessing the room you are playing in. Simple things such as changing your guitar pick, or strings in particular can have an outsized effect on bass response and happen to be amongst the simplest changes you can make.