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Getting Great Guitar Tone on Guitar Gear

All about tone and what all the knobs do!

So many people are asking about tone I really want to get cracking into more info on getting your sound good!! I'll try and keep adding to this as I get time, but this should sort out the basics.

The idea here is to explain the different setting you are likely to find on amps and effects and what they do. I'll try and get some pictures on here soon too and hopefully videos about each thing, but that may be some time yet!!

I Recommend Exploring Your Gear On Your Own First!

Every time I get a new amp of effect of guitar of any new bit of gear the first thing I do is test it out! I'll try each knob and try them at the extremes in as many ways as I can and then start to explore the subtleties found in each setting and how often one setting effects another.

I really can't stress enough how important this is. Plug the new amp in and then spend at least a few hours experimenting with it and see what it can do... well that said, to tell the truth normally with a new amp I'd just be jamming with it a few hours and enjoying it before I start really testing it out with any kind of methodology.

You'll find generally any of the settings at the extremes will be useless, very rare do you want any of the settings on 1, the exception being some of the old (1969 or earlier) small amps (think Fender Blackface Champs) which seem to sound good with everything on 10!!

Usually I will start with everything at about half except the volume if it's a big amp, usually I switch on the volume with the volume set on 0 and then turn it up to whatever volume I fancy. Then I'll try each tone knob at 0 and then at 10 and then back to 5 - assuming the settings are 0 to 10 and 5 is the middle, some amps go to 11 ;)

Then I'll start to try and get a tone I like, I used to write down settings when I really like them, but these days I take a photo of the settings, with the name of description of the sound written on a bit of paper! I've recentlu started a "Pedal Diary" to wrte down sounds I like and notes on how to use each pedal, wish I'd started it years ago.

Tone Controls

Tone controls are found on most amps and on many effects. Learning how to shape your sound with these are REALLY important and something best learned by experimenting.

Treble - is the amount of high end in the sound. High settings of this will make the sound very sharp and crisp. It will make finger and string noise louder and make it scratchier. Usual set around 5-6, be careful with higher settings as it can make to sound too harsh or just unpleasant. Having too much tops in will also really screw up your hearing unless you are wearing protection!!

Middle - This is this most important control. Middle (mids) settings can change the whole character of the sound. Taking the mids out of a heavily distorted sound (a low setting of 2-3) might give a classic 80's "scooped rock" sound whereas a higher mid setting will make it more “honky”. Be careful with the mid, it's usually set around between 3-4, it is unusual to have it set higher than 5-6, but you have to listen... some amps might really work with a higher setting!

Bass - usually set around 6-7 or more, this will add low end or bass sound. On some amps you will need to set this higher or the sound will be thin. On very small amps it is hard to get a lot of bass in the sound because the speakers are too small to make them, so most times on small amps I just whack the bass up to 10 and turn it back if I need to!

Filter / Tone/ Contour - Adjusts all of the above settings in one knob. Usually these change the mid frequency and add bass, but they vary. Get to know each unit that uses these controls and experiment to find out what they do cos there is no proper rule, each manufacturer seems to do these things differently.

Parametric EQ - this is 3 knobs that control the EQ (equalizer) or Tone. One controls the frequency to be adjusted, one controls whether the frequency is increased or decreased in volume, the last (sometimes left out) control is called "Q" and controls how wide an area of frequency is changed (is just 90-100hz adjusted or is 70-120Hz adjusted). They take some work to use correctly but are the best form of eq. usually found on mixing consoles (y'know on studio shots you see rows and rows of knobs... well they are mostly parametric EQ).

Distortion and Overdrive Effects

These sounds originate from people turning old valve amps up a lot louder than they were designed to go, making the sound “break up”. This sound is created because of the way a guitar signal acts in a valve when there is too much signal going into it. There are also many overtones created, making the sound thicker. The sound can also become “compressed”, squashed with less difference between loud and quiet.
Valve products (both amps and pedals) usually sound better, warmer and clearer, but are more unreliable, heavier and more fragile. The valves get very, very hot, I've burnt myself a few times, and never move a hot valve amp or you might damage the valves. They are the business and most serious guitarist use valve amps.

Solid State or Digital Distortion tends to sound more metallic or synthetic and not as real. Some modern amps use new emulation technology to make a sound very close to a valve sound, but they have not got it quite right yet. Some people prefer this type of amp because of it reliability. I once had a Peavy that sounded terrible but survived a tour when it was dropped down stairs and even when it fell out of a moving van! The sound is more consistent (no waiting for your valves to warm up) and they are easier to control. Some amps have a mix of both like the Marshall Valve-state amps, some of which sound very good.

Master Volume is another popular feature where the pre-amp (think amp 1) can be very distorted and then fed into another amp (think amp 2) which can be set more quietly. Setting both to a med level should give a good clean or crunchy sound, while running the first up high and the second low will give you the most distortion.

Overdrive, Distortion, Gain and Drive Pedals can also give a similar sound. There are many different types of distortion pedals, from the expensive Mesa Boogie V-Twin pedal (that contains real valves) to the standard Boss OD1 overdrive unit, my personal favorites are the Boss BD-1 Blues Driver and the Rat Pro Co pedal. Another classic is the Ibanez Tube Screamer, which can also sound great. A blues type of pedal will give you a good “dirty” blues sound (like Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix) and a Metal or Distortion pedal will give you a more heavy, distorted sound (like heavy metal bands like Metallica or Slipknot). I highly recommend the Boss brand, they are well made with strong metal bodies and heavy duty switches (mine get regularly jumped on and still survives (not that I recommend doing that). They typically have 3 knobs, Gain (or Distortion), Tone and Level.

Gain (also called Drive,  Overdrive or Distortion) - Sets the amount of distortion. Setting it on full will usually compress the sound and make it very distorted for metal while lower settings will give a better rhythm sound or for blues.

Tone - Controls the tone (surprise!). and acts like one on an amp (see Tone above)

Level - Controls how loud the sound is coming out of the pedal.

* Tip - Sometimes it is possible to use two (or more) distortion pedals to have a rhythm sound (medium volume and not a lot of distortion) and the other with a lead sound (high volume and lots of distortion). Press on just the rhythm pedal on, and then to change to your lead sound press on both pedals and you will turn the rhythm pedal off and the lead pedal on! Very cool trick. I use about 3 distortion pedals for a normal gig, an extra very loud very dirty sound for screaming solos.

Justin's Favorites
My current (2017) favourites are: AnalogMan King Of Tone, AnalogMan Sunface Fuzz, Nobels ODR-1 and the Hermida Audio Zen Drive. I have over 20 distortion pedals and they are all very different and I guess we all go through stages of what one we think is "best"

Reverb Effects

Reverb is the natural echo found in most rooms. If you clap your hands in a small room and then in a big church you will clearly hear the effect of natural reverb. The effect is often on amps but also in pedals and is probably the most common effect. Most sounds you hear on albums will have reverb on the guitars. They usually just have one knob (amount of reverb) but sometimes you can choose the type of room you would like the effect to emulate, like church, room, hall etc. It usually sounds pretty pants if you set this too high (above 8), it is better used with tasteful settings of around 2-4.

Reverb type - will set the type of reverb you use, commonly seems are Spring (the type you find built into old amplifiers), Plate (old type of analogue reverb used in studios) and types of space you might find reverb: Church, Hall, Room, bathroom or whatever. If you are after that classic Fender reverb, then you probably;y want to go for Spring... but in the studio I most often add an EMT Plate setting...

Decay - is how long the reverb will take to decay away... how long it lasts. On digital units you might find it's written in milliseconds, or it might just be a knob!

Level - how loud the reverb will be. You can get creative here and have a long very quiet reverb, or a loud short one... usually you just want to set it to loud enough to hear but not enough to "notice" unless you are a reverbaholic like say Jim Campilongo who uses lots of verb and sounds amazing!

Tone - some more high end units will also have some tone control so you can adjust the tone of the reverb, you will find the type setting effects the tone a lot too.

Justin's Favorites
The one I use most is the G-Lab Dual Reverb. It's pretty good but still looking for better. I must get onto trying the TC electronic one as that is said to be awesome, the verbs in the G System are excellent. What I'd really like is a Spring Reverb unit in a pedal...

Digital Delay, Analogue Delay and Echo

These are collectively called special effects and are usually found in pedals and rarely included on amps. They repeat the sound a few milliseconds (or more) after the unaffected sound and repeat it any number of times, slowly fading away. It is a very useful effect, that can be used with subtlety or with very long delay times (up to a few seconds). The coolest are the old Tape Echo effects (like the WEM copycat) but they are expensive and often unreliable. More popular are the modern digital delays (the Boss DD series are excellent) which can have many effects options and can include such features as reverse delay and multi-tap delays, some can even set the tempo of repeats by tapping on the pedal. The most common knobs are Time, Feedback and Mix.

Time - Controls how long the before the delayed sound will be heard. Can be anything up to 2 seconds but usually around 300 milliseconds. The long delays can be hard to use because when you change chords the effects don't follow the new chords straight away and can sound strange and out of tune. Long time settings can make very cool atmospheric sounds where you kinda play with yourself, try it out for yourself.

Feedback - Controls how many repeats there are. The lowest setting will give just one repeat, high settings and the repeats seem to go on for ever. Usually start with it settings around 3-4 but of course you should experiment.

Mix - Controls how much of the effected signal is mixed with the normal guitar signal. Settings of 5-6 are normal, but again, just experiment yourself.

Tap Tempo - lots of the great delay units offer the option of tap tempo which means you tap along on the pedal with the song and it sets the day in time with the song you are playing. Very cool. You need this kinda thing is you are going to play riffs that have a prominent delay part (like say U2).

At the moment I am personally into the Robben Ford stylee thing of having a very very low mix so that you can only just hear it, it adds depth to the sound but without getting in the way. When the mix is high the notes can get all muddies together.

If you set the feedback low (to one repeat) the time between say 50 and 150 milliseconds you get a "Slap Back" effect which is very common in country and rockabilly styles. The Scotty Moore stuff is about 130 milliseconds and there are some guys who use a lot longer and louder slap back to great effect.

Very short settings, say between 10-50 milliseconds) are most often called Doubling.

Justin's Favorites
The one on my practice pedalboard that I use most days in the MXR Carbon Copy. Really like the sound of it. There are many more versatile pedals around, but this one does the trick and just sounds good. 

Volume Effects

Volume is volume right, not an effect... but you can get it in a pedal, and this allows one very cool effect which is a "violin" style playing where you play the note with the pedal on 0 (silent) and push it up to 10 after you played the notes and turn it back to 0 before playing the next one. Kinda sounds like a violin bowing because you don't get the pick attack! Some people do this trick using the volume on the guitar and swelling it up with the little finger (on Strat style guitars!).

Compression Effects

Compressors "compress" the sound. Now there is a surprise... but what the hell does that mean? Well basically it makes the loud bits quieter and the quiet bits louder to give a more even volume over the notes. It kinda sounds squashed but in a good way if used in the right place!

Squash - this is the amount the sound is squashed up, how much it is compressed.

Level - how loud the new sound is.

Playing with a low Squash setting and a high Level setting means you can use the compressor as a volume boost, though there are better pedals for doing that if that is what you want.

Some compressors like the Keeley Compressor just often make the sound better. I have mine in line with the Squash on 0 and the level so it matches when the pedal is off... and somehow it just sounds better!!

Justin's Favorites
There are two obvious winners here. The Keeley Compressor which is what I use and what most of my mates use, and the MXR Dyna Comp (original script logo one) which I'd love but haven't found a good one at a reasonable price, I'll get one eventually... meanwhile the Keeley is excellent!

Chorus Effect

Chorus effects are usually found on effects pedals but is sometimes found on amps (like the Roland Jazz Chorus). They split the signal into more than one part and then adjust the pitch of one (or more) moving it up and then down in pitch. It can make it sound like there is more than one guitar playing and is a very popular and common effect, you will recognise the sound quickly when you hear it. They typically have 3 knobs, Rate, Depth and Mix.

Rate / Speed -  Controls how quickly the pitch is changed. This is usually set around 5-6 but you should experiment with this. Slow setting with a high Rate setting can be very effective, as can high Rate setting with a small depth.

Depth / Width - Controls how wide the pitch is changed, how “out of tune” the additional voices are made. You can get very cool sounds with higher settings (like the clean sound in Smells Like A Teen Spirit by Nirvana) but lower settings are more common.

Mix - Controls how much of the effected signal is mixed in with the normal guitar sound. For extreme settings set it to full or for a more subtle effect set it to 3-4.

The Chorus effect was commonly used by Nirvana with great results. The contrast between the clean chorused sound and distorted non chorus sound really helped the song arrangements. I believe Curt used an EH Small Clone with the one know set about 11 o'clock... On other pedals you want to experiment but start with both rate and depth at half way and you should be pretty close.

Justin's Favorites
The one I'm using most is the Analog Man Bi-Chorus. Probably the least used on my pedalboard, but has a great sound. I don't like that it does something funny to the tone so I always end up adjusting the tone on the amp if I switch this on for recording or something... I'm on the hunt for the old Boss CE-1 which I foolishly swapped many years ago... I thin the best I ever had was a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus Flanger which sounded amazing until some twat poured a drink into it at a pub many years ago. I should really get another of those cos they are awesome... did have to run on mains power which is a bit of a pain...

Flanger / Phaser Effects

The Flange effect is similar to the chorus effect in that it also splits the signal and effects one part of it. With the Flange effect, one signal has an accented (louder) frequency that slowly goes up and down within it's band. It is a very distinctive effect, usually used for parts of a song (like a verse) rather than the whole song. Extreme settings tend to sound quite weird and are hard to use, but good for special effects intros and things like that.

Justin's Favorites
Easily my fave here is the MXR Phase 90 script logo (they make a re-issue of it nowadays!). Pretty hard to find the original ones at a reasonable price these days, these are THE classic phaser as used by Van Halen in Ain't Talking About Love. The most desirable are the "bud box" from the early production days, but they are real expensive if you can find one!

Wah-Wah Effects

The wah-wah sound has been immortalized by Jimi Hendrix who used it often and was one of the first people to use it. It sounds a little like you are talking, and most people have amusing facial expressions when they use them. They consist of a small pot (potentiometer) like the tone knob on your guitar which is turned up and down by moving the pedal with your foot. They are usually clicked on and off by pressing down hard in the forward position. They can take some time to get sounding right, don't just tap your foot in time with the song all the time, try making the guitar talk!

Justin's Favorites
The winner in my Wah-off was the Budda Bud-Wah which was superb. I don't have one though... I have quite a few and the one I use most is the Keeley Modified Vox Wah

Talk Box Effects

Talk Box effects are the trick heard on the Bon Jovi tune Livin On A Prayer. The pedal contains a small speaker which plays the guitar signal loudly up a small plastic tube that you put in your mouth! It is then heard in the vocal mic but some modern pedals (like the Dan Electro Free Speech talk box) have a microphone built in too so the sound can come out of your amp. They can really rattle you filling too, so be careful. Quite a specific sound and not one that can be used for a long time.

Justin's Favorites
I only have one and it's a very rare old Electro Harmonix Golden Throat. Sounds amazing, but real expensive and only find them every now and then. However the Dan Electro Free Speech is also excellent and pretty reasonably priced too! 

Tremolo Effects

Tremolo is built into a lot of old amps, and is basically a volume control being turned up and down fast!! I love it. The effect on my 1967 Vibro Champ is the best I've ever heard, Fender got it so right in that amp, I don't understand why other still don't get it as good now...

Depth - how much you want the volume to chance. Lower settings will be more subtle, higher setting are generally unusable.

Speed - how fast you want to volume to change, generally you want this set to about 5 and experiment from there, though slower will generally be more usable... Too fast makes you guitar sounds like a space gun!

Justin's Favorites
I either use my '67 Vibro Champ, or the excellent leslie cabinet effect Hughes and Kettner Rotosphere which I really like too, different effect but the same kinda bag and lots of fun!

The sound like the record

The recording process is a very complex one and can really shape a guitar sound a HUGE amount. It's quite incredible what good pre-amps, EQ, compressors and mix can do, not to mention tracking. So don't expect that you will be able to get the same sound as a record, with the right gear and a good ear you should be able to get pretty close...

Tracking is playing the same part multiple times, often using different guitars of amps, and once they are all mixed together they sound MASSIVE. You have to play them exactly the same every time or it sounds messy and and horrible, but often things are fixed up in ProTools...


So the guys at Line6 have been working hard for a long time to get great guitar sounds using modeling, and they are getting better all the time. I'm not really a fan, but only because I'm in the fortunate position to have a load of great amps, a great guitar collection and a recording studio where I can turn them up!! Why would I use something that "sounds like" a Fender Twin when I have one?

But for someone with limited space, funds and volume levels, they are a great option. You can get a lot of good sounds quickly and easily, and I know lots of serious professionals that use them for recording and stuff - they are very versatile and for a sound coming gout of a television for a cornflakes commercial nobody will ever know or care if you use a vintage amp or a pod!!

There are lots of people on the modeling bandwagon now and many amps with modeling effects built right in. Some better than others and getting better all the time, but it's just not really my thing.

Ear Protection

If you gonna play loud, get yourself some ear plugs. Just ask Paul Gilbert who now wears huge industrial ear muff things when he plays loud!! I know quite a few guys that developed Tinnitus, and it's not worth it, it really sucks. I have used foam ear plugs for quite a few years, but last year I bought some fancy molded plugs from ACS - they were very expensive but are a LOT better than the little foam things, the foam ones distort the EQ quite a lot and so it's hard to get a good listen to your tone, but these molded things are great. I do find they cancel out some of the reverb so I tend to put a little too much on, but it means I can wind up a big Marshall, be in the same room, and not have real bad ringing ears at the end of the session!

If you wanna play loud, protect your ears. Please.

The truth be telled ;) more often these days I like smaller amps that I can run hard but that are not loud enough to hurt my ears and so I don't need to wear the plugs at all! But if it gets loud or I'm playing a long time, the plugs go in.


More to come on this when I get a chance...


Lesson ID: GG-010