How to adjust amplifiers to get the best electric guitar tone

Written by amanda morin
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Getting different tones on an electric guitar amplifier can be obtained by adjusting four basic settings: the volume, the gain, the equalisation (EQ), and the reverberation. Your settings will depend on the style of music being played, and the type of tone that is desired. Modern guitar amplifiers often have two channels, one for clean tones (tones without distortion, often called the clean channel), and one for overdriven or distorted tones (often called the dirty channel). The channels can be switched between using a switch or button the control panel of the amplifier, or with a footswitch.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • single or two-channel amplifier
  • electric guitar
  • guitar cable

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    Get Clean Tones

  1. 1

    Use the clean channel for your clean tones on a two-channel amplifier or set the gain control to the minimum setting on a single-channel amp.

  2. 2

    Adjust the volume control of the channel to the desired volume level. Then set the equaliser controls to obtain the correct character of the sound.

  3. 3

    Turn the bass knob up for a sound with more low end, which will produce a "boomier" sound that can be felt as well as heard. Be careful not to set this knob too high--it can make the sound so boomy that it interferes with or drowns out other players.

  4. 4

    Adjust the treble or presence knob to give the sound the desired amount of high frequencies. Lower treble settings give the sound a darker flavour, which is often used in jazz, moody rock or blues playing. Higher treble settings give the sound more "sparkle" or "bite", which allows the guitar to more easily cut through the mix of instruments.

  5. 5

    Adjust the midrange frequencies last. Higher midrange settings give body to the sound. Setting the midrange to the maximum will give a "nasal" quality to the tone, which is useful in giving the guitar a distinctive sound in the mix. If the nasal sound is not for you, avoid high midrange settings--less midrange will result in less body and set the guitar back in the mix.

    Get Distorted Tones

  1. 1

    Use the distortion or "dirty" channel on a two-channel amplifier or, on a single-channel amp, start with a low volume setting and a high gain setting. The gain knob on either type of amp controls the amount of distortion in the sound. The amount of gain will determine the type of distortion obtained.

  2. 2

    Set the gain control very high to produce a very distorted tone with lots of sustain. This is suitable for rock guitar solos and heavy rock or metal playing.

  3. 3

    Use a lower gain setting for a more subtle distortion, useful for blues or rhythm playing. Lower gain settings also create a more dynamic distortion. At these levels, the harder a note or chord is played, the more distorted it will become, especially on a tube guitar amp. Notes played very gently will hardly sound distorted at all.

  4. 4

    Affect the type of distortion generated with the equalisation settings. Start with all of the equaliser controls at about halfway. For lead guitar solos, add more midrange and high frequencies to the sound, as this will give character and bite to the tone. For heavy metal playing, especially metal rhythm playing, add lots of bass and treble and set the midrange frequencies to almost minimum. This produces a heavy, scooped, tight sound that is great for metal.

Tips and warnings

  • Use caution not to set the treble or presence knob too high, or the tone might be too sharp and cut through the mix too much, calling too much attention to the guitar and taking away from the other instruments.
  • Dialing in the correct amount of reverb is relatively easy. Setting the knob higher produces more reverberation and echo, while lower settings produce less reverb. Use your ear and set the reverb to taste and according to the style being played.
  • Little or no reverb is needed for rhythm playing, especially heavy metal, as it will muddy up the sound and make it harder to get the band sounding tight and cohesive.
  • Be cautious with reverb, as the more reverb you use, the less "tight" the sound will be. This is fine, however, for lead playing, where the effect can sound very good.

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