Guitar Tone Tutorial

This tutorial will help you get the maximum tonal depth and dynamics for your guitar or bass, just by identifying the optimal output volumes.

This article assumes that you are competent in your playing skills at a moderate level.  If not, the following tutorial might not work for you.

Setup

  1. Hookup your guitar to your amp and power up.
  2. Set all knobs in your guitar to its central position.
  3. If you have a pickup switch, set it to the central position (which utilizes all pickups).  If you don’t have that, set it to a position, where you have reasonable amounts of mids, bass and trebles.
  4. Set all your knobs to the central position on your amp.  Yes, that includes, gain, tone controls and volume.
  5. Disable any fancy sounding effects on your amplifier, including distortion, over-drives, reverbs, delays, etc.

Tone Hunting

  1. Play a note on the open string on a steady rhythm, let’s say at about 100 bpm.
  2. While continuously playing the note, use your left hand to gradually increase the volume from 50% to 100%.  Hear the difference in tone due to the volume setting?
  3. Roll back the volume to 50%.
  4. Now, gradually increase the volume knob (yes, while playing) and listen to a point where your tone suddenly starts to gets fuller.  Trust your ears and use your ears alone to identify this position.   Do this very gradually.
  5. If you fail to notice this point in this Step (Step 4), keep trying.  It might take a while to get the hang of it. A NOTE ON CHEAP GUITARS:  This particular point will be very illusive on cheap guitars where the volume knob does not react smoothly, but rather jumps to loud after a certain point.
  6. Once you’ve identified that position for the volume setting, make a mental mark of that position.
  7. Next, set the volume knob all the way up to 100% to try the reverse approach.  This time, slowly decrease the volume (while playing an open string) and listen to your tone change from a non-dynamic, harsh, flat tone to a full and dynamic one, until a certain point.
  8. The optimal volume settings will be somewhere in the middle of both the positions attained in Step 4 and Step 7.
  9. Practice both approaches until you’ve got the hang of it.
  10. If you’ve got it, CONGRATULATIONS!  You’ve found the optimal output volume for maximum tone-depth and dynamics of your guitar.  It will inadvertently improve your playing skills because, you have just added a whole new range to achievable tones and dynamics to your guitar or bass.

The Test

  • With your volume knob set at the optimal point, play a dynamic passage, starting from very soft to very loud and back to very soft.  Listen to how your guitar responds.  It should respond nicely to whatever you are playing and you should feel that the strings optimally sensitive.  The control will be in your hands.
  • Now just to test if you’ve got it, set your volume back to the undesired 100% and play the same passage from very soft to very loud and back to very soft.  Your guitar will not respond beautifully to what you are playing.  The very soft will not be very soft and the very loud will not be very loud.  It will sound flat and lack dynamics. The tone will be pre-saturated.

Yet A Better Tone

With your volume set at the optimal point, it’s time to make your tone even better.  Always start the fix at the source and not at the end.  So in this case, it will be your guitar or bass.  While leaving your volume at the optimal output, try the following:

  1. Now turn the Tone knob to extremes and everywhere in between to give a good listen.  Find out which position yields the best results.
  2. Experiment with different switch positions.  For each switch position, try which tonal settings yields the best results, based on your tonal preferences.
  3. If your guitar or bass has active pickups, it’s the same thing overall but, try boosting a little bit starting with the mids, then the highs and lows to balance off with the mids.  Aim for a full tone with reasonable amounts of energy in all the critical ranges.
  4. After you’re done with the tone controls on your guitar, head to the amp.
  5. Experiment with boosting the gain, until you hear  a bit of a drive when struck hard on the strings.  Notice the slight increase in the sensitivity even when playing at normal levels?  This will further add some excitation to your playing.
  6. Next, boost the tonal controls for clarity, while notching tonal ranges that makes the tone cloudy.
  7. Lastly, increase the volume for the optimal output for your amp.

Best of luck with your new tone.  I hope this tutorial was useful.  Do let me know if it worked (or didn’t) work for you by commenting.  If you would like me to write a tutorial on a subject that I am aware of, contact me and let me know.  I shall try to oblige – time and knowledge permitting.

  • great blog..im suprised i did not find your blog before. It would be great to know what equipment you use for your mastering set-up. Do you mostly stick to pluggins through out or use a few analog stuff as well? I know the details on the production process can be a bore to musicians :D…but I too sit behind the board. And also I think it will be great to hear things about live-sound reinforcement. Maldives really lacks proper sound set-ups on live gigs.

  • artisound

    yes would like more tutorials. this is good stuff.

  • Faya

    Great tutorial!

    I would also like to note that the tone of an amp set with one guitar would not necessarily be the same with another guitar. This is especially true for guitars with different pickups such as single coil and humbuckers.

    For me this is a good thing, with the same amp settings I can play a ‘fragile’ glassy tone with a strat (with single coil pickups) or a fat ’round’ tone with an epiphone les paul (with humbucking pickups).

    On another note, I think you should do a tutorial on dynamics 🙂

  • egypt

    And another tutorial for all FOH sound crew on making live gigs sound better. Never been to a gig in Male’ and enjoyed the sound.

  • Thanks for all your comments.

    @ Mr. Karma … At the moment, I’m not using analog outboards to keep things very minimal and highly portable. However, have been considering adding some for a while. I tend to use different approaches and techniques for different materials.

    @ Faya … For me, I do find the need to change the settings if I switch basses. But, I am comfortably aware what would need to be changed based on my reference tone.

    @ artisound @egypt… thanks for your feedback.