Guitar Amplifier 103: Toning Up

Welcome to the third and final instalment of our beginner’s guide to guitar amplifiers! We've travelled through explaining the basics of different amps and what they do in “Guitar Amplifier 101”, and covered the essential things you need to know about all the buttons, knobs, plugs and other features on your rig in “Guitar Amplifier 102”. You have achieved the basic holy trinity of electric guitar, amp and guitar cable ownership, without either breaking your bank account buying the stuff, or breaking your back trying to carry it all.  

So by now you've hopefully already tuned up, plugged in, cranked the volume and jammed out! Maybe you've even tested how loud your rig will go in a rehearsal, at a gig, or simply at home. Although if you tried this at home then we're gonna guess that relations with your housemates, your neighbours, and even your pets may have been slightly strained. So you'll probably have also tested out your amplifiers headphone socket... 

What we're going to take you on now is a simple journey of discovery, exploring the multitude of sounds and tones that your equipment can produce even before you start thinking about adding mountains of effects into the whole mix. And notice that we said 'equipment', rather than 'amplifier' just then. Because it's not just about the amp... 

Pickup power 

Always remember that the quality of tone electric guitarists produce is a combined function of settings on the instrument AND the amplifier. This means that your journey of sonic discovery should absolutely begin with your guitar - you'd be amazed at the range of different sounds that can be produced from even minor adjustments to the controls. 

So to begin our experiments;  

  1. Plug your guitar in and turn your amp on, making sure ALL controls on your guitar are set to max 
  2. Select a clean tone - keep the gain low and turn the volume up to a comfortable level (use the clean channel if your amp has one) 
  3. Set ALL EQ controls (Low, Mid, High) to dead-centre, or flat  

You've now got a completely neutral sound ready for testing. 

Now unless you own a blunt rock mallet such as a Les Paul Junior, or a bubbly little indie axe like a Fender Musicmaster, we're going to assume that your guitar has two or more pickups fitted to it. This means it's almost certainly fitted with a switch that allows to you select different pickups - give that a try right now and have a listen to the differences between them. 

Bridge pickup: Twang! This is where you find the brighter, thinner, more 'trebly' sounds, perfect for country picking or intense metal shredding. 

Neck pickup: Much darker and more full-bodied - ideal for rhythm playing, a spot of heavy blues soloing, and basically anything to do with jazz. 

Middle pickup (if you have one): A nice centre position, still with body and warmth but edging toward the slightly sharper end of the tone spectrum. 

Things don't stop there. All two-pickup guitars will allow you to activate both simultaneously, giving you a glorious all-round tone suitable for various music styles. And the five-way switch on Strats allows you to combine either the bridge/centre pickups (think Mark Knopfler at his most iconic) or the legendary centre/neck cocktail that became known as 'out-of-phase' (think Nile Rodgers at the clean end of this spectrum, right opposite Hendrix driving the hell out of that tone). 

You'll also find the ability to powerfully colour the sound with even minor adjustments to the tone control on your guitar (meaning even single-pickup instruments can have some fun here). Roll it back slightly for a more relaxed rhythm feel, or turn it right down to sound like a true jazz cat. 

Keeping it clean 

Even without venturing near the gain control, you can create a wealth of different clean sounds just by playing with those all-important tone knobs on the amplifier. 

Bass or Low: This controls the amount of low frequencies in the overall tone, and is probably the dial that needs the lightest touch to make a difference. Turn it down to lighten the overall sound, and up for increased warmth. But beware; there’s a fine line between ‘thick’ and ‘swampy’. 

Mid: This controls the amount of mid-range frequencies in the overall tone, making it the most powerful of the EQ knobs, since these are the main sonic areas that your guitar calls home. Roll it up to stand out more clearly in just about any situation. Roll it back to varying degrees to hear a wealth of contrast between different bass/treble settings. Seriously, this could keep you entertained for hours… 

Treble or High: This controls the amount of high-range frequencies in the overall tone. Crank upwards to achieve anything ranging from ‘sparkling’ to ‘piercing’ (but please do have SOME respect for your eardrums!) And experiment with rolling it back to varying degrees to hear completely different kinds of warmth than those you got from playing with the bass control. 

Our advice here is don’t rush! Spend some time slowly adjusting the dials and really listening to the effect that even minor adjustments can make to the overall feel of your playing. And then try switching between the pickups again to expand this sonic journey even further. 

Getting dirty 

That’s the clean sounds thoroughly investigated. Now it’s time to add some overdrive/distortion/crunch/snot (yes, all of these terms are used regularly to describe the dirty sounds!) 

An overdriven sound is basically the result of providing the amplifier with more input level than it can cleanly handle – literally ‘gaining’ too much signal, which ‘over-drives’ the circuitry, resulting in a distorted output. You might think of this as irresponsible if it wasn’t so much fun. 

So let’s give it a go;  

  1. Set ALL EQ controls (LowMid, High) to dead-centre, or flat 
  2. Turn the volume down to a comfortable level 
  3. Switch your amp to the gain/overdrive channel (if it has one) 
  4. Now start rolling that gain knob up, bit by bit…   

Keep playing your guitar as you increase the gain, both with a gentle and heavy touch – you’ll actually ‘feel’ the point at which the strength of your input starts to distort the sound. And as the gain increases, the chance of you being able to play gently enough to NOT distort the sound gets slimmer and slimmer. Don’t forget to try switching pickups during this experiment, as the different sonic flavours will also affect the level of pure dirt coming through the speaker. 

The gain control, without question, exerts the greatest single difference to overall tonal colour. But don’t forget the EQ – this is the point at which a variety of heavy style sounds can be dialled straight in. The two most popular are probably; 

Classic Rock: This relies heavily on mid-range frequencies, so set the Mid control well above the halfway mark. Keep the Low and High controls around the centre, playing with both until you find the sweet spot for your guitar. Pickup choice will also massively affect things here – weirdly it’s actually the neck pickup that might give the best solo tone. 

Insane Metal: It’s all about the ‘scooped’ sound here! Crank the gain up as far as you dare, give it plenty of Low and High frequency, but ‘scoop’ out the Mid-range well below the 50% mark. 

Wrapping it up 

And there you have it. Probably days (maybe even weeks) worth of fun experimenting with your sound, without even touching the reverb or other effect controls on your amp. Or even without touching the amp if you’re REALLY working through the pickup tones. 

We can’t begin to pretend that this advice covers every possible sonic recipe that your guitar and amplifier can serve up – how could we, since we’ve no idea what you’re playing or plugging into. That’s a journey you need to take. But take your time and (most importantly) trust your ears. There’s any number of perfect sounds hiding away, and with patience you’ll discover them all. So bon voyage! And until next time… 

Peace out! 

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