Let’s Talk Tone: A Novice Guitarist’s Guide
Photo by CharlesThompson
For most, tone is a pressing issue. For the rest, it should be. Part of what makes you as a guitarist unique is getting that sound that is unmistakably you. Having a working knowledge of tone controls and the various tools of tonal expression is certainly important. With that in mind, let’s check out some simple explanations and tips for dialing in the sound you want.
First thing is first: the instrument. Each guitar has it’s own unique character that comes from the combination of wood, electronics and other parts used. Also keep in mind that wood is a natural substance, so two guitars made of identical woods can feel, play, and yes even sound slightly different! Nevertheless you can generalize how different types of guitars sound. I could go on about this for a while. In fact, I think I will…. in a different article. For now let’s talk about shaping your sound with the other equipment you already have.
Though the instrument is vital to creating the sound you want (duh), the tone controls on your amplifier can help sculpt and shape that sound. The different tone dials – treble, mid, bass, etc – make up the equalizer (or EQ) portion of the amp. An equalizer allows you to boost or cut certain frequencies to shape your sound. An equalizer allows you to boost or cut certain frequencies to shape your sound. In other words, it is a volume control for each frequency range – that is to say you can control how much bass you hear in your guitar sound, for example. Different amps may have different varieties of knobs and controls, but here is a rundown of some of the basics:
Treble : the high-end frequencies, often described as the “sparkle” or “glassy sound” in the clean tone and the frequency that adds clarity to the gain channels. Too little may leave you with little definition in your sound, and too much may create a sound so shrill it can irritate the ears.
Bass : The opposite of treble! The bass frequencies fill out the bottom end of your sound, giving it fullness and warmth. Too much can muddy the sound and too little will leave your axe sounding paper-thin.
Mid-Range : As the name suggests, this knob let’s you fiddle with the frequencies in between bass and treble. For this reason the mids are often referred to as the “body” of the sound. Turning this knob up will give you a richer sound, but going too far can quickly muddy up your sound.
While the majority of amps give you at least those few controls to play with, here are just a few other things you might find on your Neighbor-Mover-Awayer, i.e. your amplifier:
Presence : Adds a bit of a boost to the higher end frequencies for clarity and punch. You could try it on your lead sound to cut through the mix, or try to blend enough into your rhythm sound to give you a little more attack and definition.
Scoop : A button that literally scoops – or removes – the midrange sound even further that is possible with the knob. This is popular on amps designed for rock and metal, as turning up the bass and treble and scooping out the mid-ranges derive the most popular rock sounds. This is because in rock, you are dealing with thick and often heavy distortion sounds that have enough body on their own without needing much mid-range manipulation.
If you are playing more of a blues or jazz style however, you might want a little warmer mid-rangey kind of sound. Another rule of thumb (and I’m generalizing here): …if you want a classic rock sound then turn down the bass and up the mids a little if you want a classic rock sound then turn down the bass and up the mids a little, and if you want more of a heavier or punchier modern sound, do the opposite.
You may also see this listed differently on different amps. Along the same vein you might also see knobs that boost or cut other frequencies too. Experiment with these along with the knobs to customize your sound.
Gain/Distortion/Overdrive : Makes it sound awesome. For best results, turn to 11. In all seriousness though, play with this until you figure out how much juice you need. For example, even if you play in a hardcore death metal band, you might find that rolling off the gain a little might add some clarity to your sound.
Reverb : Ok, now I’m cheating a little bit. Reverberation and other effects that may be built into your amp may not shape your tone as much, but you need to be aware of how they affect your sound. Reverb in particular can come in handy. My personal preference is to have just a little on all the time, just enough to give the amp a little “space” (play with the reverb control and you’ll see what I mean). Be subtle with it though, unless you are trying to create the effect of playing guitar in space. Solid-state amps in particular tend to have reverb controls that go from 0 to ridiculous in a quarter turn.
Graphic Equalizers : Mmmmm, my favorite! You may see these on some amps (this is rare), or as standalone units to incorporate into your guitar rig in either rack-mount or pedal form. Check out the article that Matt Decker wrote about his rig, he uses a rack-mount EQ.
If I ruled the world, everything would have a graphic EQ: cell phones, headphones, toasters, and your face…yes, they are that great.
Photo by B Rosen
Does this look familiar to you? You may have seen an EQ like this on a home stereo, a car stereo, and on various pieces of pro audio gear.
Graphic equalizers give you a separate slider for each frequency in question. This gives you the opportunity not only to adjust “bass” in general as the knob on your amp would, but to adjust the very specific bass frequencies that you want to boost or cut. The more bands a graphic EQ has, the more control you have over your sound. Most simple EQ’s have 5 or 7 bands, allowing you plenty of variety. Control freaks and audio engineers rely on equalizers that give them dozens of bands, giving them total control. Be cautious though – it can get a little complicated, and for most purposes a 5 or 7 band EQ is plenty.
When you start at the left of the graphic EQ, you are tinkering with the bass frequencies, moving to the mid-range towards the middle and the treble to the right. With this degree of control, you can really tailor your sound to your tastes. Here are just a few other useful purposes of this handy device:
- Eliminates frequencies that are causing feedback while on stage
- Can be adjusted differently in different venues to tailor sound to the room
- EQ Pedals let you leave the equalizer on all the time, or to tap it on and off with your foot. This way you can have another sound at your command. For examples leave all of the lows all the way down so when you click the pedal on you get that “lo-fi” sound, etc.
Solid-State vs. Tube Amplifiers
You can’t really have a discussion about tone without talking about solid-state and tube amps. In general, solid-state amps are cheap, no-fuss amps that can sound pretty darn good. Nothing sounds quite like a tube amp though, with their clear, bell-like clean tones and warm, singing distortion channels.
In general, tube amps are “professional” quality whereas solid-state amps are generally regarded as great for hobbyists and anyone who wants an inexpensive practice amp. However, in recent years amp-modeling technology has gotten to the point where even amps without vacuum tubes can sound surprisingly convincing.
Here is a quick overview of the two general types of amps. Take this with a grain of salt since these are generalizations. Take a peek, then go to a music store and let your ears do the work:
|Cost||Relatively Lower; built-in effects are common and can drive up the price; practice amps at $120 or less, stage amps for $400-$600+||Generally more expensive for the size; can start in the $350 range for a practice amp and up to $3000+ for a professional stage rig|
|Maintenance||Almost none||Tubes will need to be replaced once in a great while. This can be somewhat costly and inconvenient when it happens.|
|Tone||Some are awful, but many can sound good and even provide fairly decent replications of tube amp sounds||Increased clarity and warmth make tube amps the choice among professionals|
|Primary Uses||Practice amps, great for hobbyists, many have settings that are ideal for home recording, many offer great effects selections, mid to high-end models are great reliable backup amps to bring to gigs||
Professional recordings and concerts
Note: larger tube amps can be unruly and almost unusable as practice amps
In combination with the tone controls on your guitar, you may find that you have myriad options for creating and sculpting your sound. Next time I’ll talk a little bit more about different guitars and some commonly found knobs and switches and how they work.
Ultimately getting the right tone is a constant and evolving thing and is going to come down to experimentation, trial and error and your own judgment and taste.