Contrary to popular belief, electric guitars are an instrument that requires you to master two very different things. One is, of course, the playing technique, but the other is utilizing the hardware of that guitar and that of the amplifier in order to dial in a great tone. If you ask any experienced guitar players out there, they will tell you that accomplishing the latter is an art form. In most cases, they are right. However, you can still find a great tone on an electric guitar using some basic principles. This is exactly what we are going to be talking about today, so if you are new to electric guitars, stay with us as we cover some great tips that will get you. started.
Prepping The Stage
Before we get any further, it is absolutely imperative that your guitar is properly set up and tuned. This can't be emphasized enough. If your action is out of whack or if your strings are out of key, no amount of tone shaping will give you any decent results. If you know that your guitar needs some intonation adjustments and you are not sure how to do that, we strongly suggest that you either take it down to a shop or learn how to do it yourself. There are numerous tutorials online which will tell you everything you need to know.
On top of that, if you have an active electronics guitar, make sure that your battery is full. Moving on to the cables, check the health of the solders on each end and inspect the cable in general. This is something you should do occasionally anyway since cables are known to degrade over time. Now that we have got that covered, let's move to the good stuff.
Your choice of amplification is one of the major facts that will have an impact on your tone. Dialing in a tone on something like the Blackstar HT-1 is going to be a very different experience than attempting the same on the Line 6 Spider IV. Both are compact combo amps, but one is a tube unit and the other is a modeling amp. With former, you need to be aware of the power as tubes inside the amplifier behave differently at 10% power, 50% power and 100% power.
At 10% power, a tube amp's tone will lack in girth and color. That is simply because the tubes are working at a capacity far lower than their intended one. However, if you try to push a 100 Watt tube amp to its comfort zone, which is anywhere between 50% to 90%, you might end up being too loud. With modeling and solid state amps, you don't have this problem as they rely on transistors to do the job previously done by tubes. Why is all of this important?
Setting The Volume
The very first thing you will want to do is find a comfortable volume level. This is not to be mistaken with gain levels. Look for the master volume knob, or if that is not available, find the channel specific volume control. Set a tone that is loud enough but not too loud. We don't want you to get hearing damage. Once that is done, it is time to play with the gain. One of the best ways to get to know your amp is to take each knob, including the gain one, and take it through its entire range.
That means turning the knob from zero value to maximum value. This will give you an idea what that specific knob does and how to utilize it the best. Keep in mind that we haven't touched EQ controls up to this point and they should remain at the neutral, 12 o'clock position. Once you've set the volume and found a level of gain that works best with your guitar, it's time to move on to EQuing.
Most modern amps, even the compact ones, come with a standard three-band EQ. What this means is that you have three knobs, each controlling a specific portion of the frequency range. Lows will dictate the bass in your tone, Mids will take care of the middle frequencies, while trebles control the highs. Moderation is your best friend when trying to find the perfect EQ setup. However, it also depends on the type of music you are playing. For example, one of the simplest EQ configs is to go lows at 9 o'clock position, with mids and highs at 3 o'clock position. This will give you that thick, piercing tone that just gets that distortion or overdrive straight through the mix.
There is also the ever so popular 'mid scoop' configuration where you add bass and treble frequencies as you see fit, while completely eliminating the mids. Scooping the mids works in specific cases, but not so much in other. One thing you don't want to do is add too much bass. In a band environment, you have a bass player whose sole task is to fill out the lows so you don't have to worry about them. Emphasizing bass as a guitar player is redundant and makes the entire mix sound muddy.
The most important aspect of configuring tone is to know what your guitar likes and what it doesn't like. To find that out, just follow the steps we have described above. The moment you go too far with gain, specific portions of the EQ spectrum, or anything else, your guitar will let you know.
One thing every new guitar player needs to understand is that building a good tone takes time and more importantly, experience. It is not something you can master in a day, nor should you even try to. Have fun exploring the capabilities of your equipment, but always make adjustments in small increments. Doing research on this topic is a sure fire way of avoiding most of the rookie mistakes, and we definitely encourage you to do so. We hope this guide has helped you understand what tone shaping really is and how to get better at it.