Electric Guitar Rig Tone

We’ve come to the end. The tone series is over. There have been 2 effects articles, 6 amp articles, and 4 guitar articles. That’s 12 articles on tone. (Not sure why I had to add them up like that…maybe just in case the math was giving you trouble.) So if you can’t get good tone after all that, then the only thing left to do is to buy more gear. Better gear! Which, incidentally, happens to be very fun.

But if you just can’t bring yourself to buy more gear…if you just know that there’s good tone hiding somewhere in your rig…and you know that not even the purchase of a 3 Monkeys amp with a BJFe Honey Bee hitting the front end is going to give you tone that you dig any better (and I was almost going to say a Digitech Bad Monkey hitting the front end of a 3 Monkeys amp, so that then I could make fun of a movie with a lot of monkeys, like Congo…but then I realized that I don’t really like the Digitech Bad Monkey…which made me sad, because Congo is a horrible movie, and just begging to be made fun of…hey, if they weren’t begging to be made fun of, they wouldn’t have put Tim Curry in it…but then I also realized, ‘Hey! It’s my blog! I can make fun of Congo even without mentioning the Digitech Bad Monkey……and I’m so gonna………and all that was just in case you were curious as to the origins of some of these interminably bad movie references in my posts…which I realize you weren’t…but I really, really want to make fun of Congo!), then…well, first off, if you don’t want to buy any more gear, you’re in the state of mind that we ‘true’ musicians like to call…uh…’wrong.’ Tone comes from ebay, not from practice. But if you’re one of those ‘wrong’ and weird musicians who think that you can have good tone for less than a $50,000 Dumble ( 😉 ), that’s going to be where the following tips come in. These are the ones that didn’t really fit in any of the other 12 articles on rig tone. But they can really, really help you get some good tone without having to spend a ton more money.

(Yes, these are the special effects in Congo. And yes, that’s a guy in a suit. And no, it was actually made in 1995, not 1938. I know.)

Rig Tone Secret #1: Get your amp off of the ground.

Here’s the thing. We guitarists always seem to eq our amps while standing right above them. I know, that’s the path of least resistance from our hands to the knobs. However, treble frequencies focus, and bass frequencies roll. So, standing directly above your amp, things are going to sound much more bassy, middy, and muddy. So we guitarists are famous for then cranking our treble to where it sounds balanced from our vantage point of being right above our rig. And then we walk to our pedalboard about 2 feet away, and play the whole set with our ears about 4 feet above, and 2 feet away from our rig, sending out what to our ears is tumbling waves of aural lusciousness. The problem is, of course, that one, our audience is much farther away from the amp than we are; and two, we’re not mic’ing the amp where our ear is when we eq it. We’re mic’ing it right on the speaker cone. Ya. Not so much lusciousness. This is probably the main reason why, when we hear a recording of our guitar live, it sounds so thin and weak. Or why the audience or congregation says the electric guitar hurts their ears. Because it does! We’re off in our rolled off treble bliss high above the amp, while the mic and the audience is getting the true harmonic spectrum from the speaker…which amounts usually to getting punched in the eye socket with treble.

So one of the huge factors in getting a good live tone, is to actually bend over (I know…that means more work) and put your ear to the speaker as you’re eq’ing your amp. However, when you play, now in order for you tone to sound good to everyone else, it has to sound terrible and muddy to you, as you stand over it. There are two things you can do here. One, is to stand at least 8 feet from the amp. That’s the distance at which you start to get almost the full spectrum of the speaker’s harmonics. But sometimes on small stages that’s impossible. So you can also raise the amp us closer to your ears, or tilt it up towards your ears. Personally, I have a two foot high rack case that I bring with me everywhere I go to set my amp on top of. I cannot tell you how much of a difference this has made in my live sound.

Honestly, this is huge. Next time you play, eq your amp while standing over it. Then bend down and put your ear to the amp. You’ll be amazed how different it sounds. Another fun experiment is to walk around while you’re playing. Totally different sounds depending on where you’re standing. So, it might sound kind of stupid, but stacking your amp on something, making sure you stand a few feet away from it, and making sure you stand close to the ‘beam’ of the speaker’s path, is crucial in eq’ing your sound for what the audience and mic will hear.

(Yep. More special effects. Yes, the good guys have lasers. No, this is not set in the future. Sadness. Obviously, they tried to fill a lack of plot with searing the flesh off of monkeys…with lasers. You’ll never guess what they came up with to fill the lack of special effects budget, though.)

(Yep. Heart. When the movie’s not grilling guys in monkey suits with lasers that have yet to be invented, it’s tugging on your heart strings with another guy in a monkey suit…who maybe…just maybe, is filling the hole in this guy’s broken life that his failing marriage can’t. This is the same movie as the other pictures. I’m not even kidding.)

Rig Tone Secret #2: Power.

As I mentioned in the last post, electric guitars tend to sound better with…ya, electricity. I know, I know. Don’t skip this one yet, there’s more. I’m not expecting anyone to go, ‘Oh! That’s why my tone’s been sucking. I gotta plug the amp in!’ But that’s the concept. These pieces of electronic equipment need electricity…and they need enough electricity. You ever have those times when it’s like, your rig sounded great yesterday, but not today? Of course that can be strings getting older, or ear fatigue, or what have you; but a good portion of the time, that can be from your rig not getting enough power. So you’ve set your whole rig to sound great in your house where it’s drawing a steady 120 volts. But then you go to a gig, ad the place is only supplying you with 105 volts. Now your sound is browner and saggier. So you re-eq everything. But then the club owner turns on the cappuccino machine. Now you’ve got 102 volts. All that to say that in order for your rig to sound consistent, you’ve got to supply it with consistent power. Getting a power conditioner in your rig is crucial. This was one of the biggest changes I heard in my day to day live sound. Plus, it also gives you cleaner power, for less noise.

Also, make sure that your power supplies are rated properly. I used to constantly have this huge sag in my tone. No punch. So then to fix it, I’d buy another amp or a louder amp. But the problem was, I was running everything off of a 3 dollar 99 Cent Store power strip rated for like, 5.3 amps. So adding amps or getting higher powered stuff, was just causing everything to get even less power. So check your extension cords, power supplies, surge protectors, all that stuff. Read the amps they’re rated for, and add them up. A new Two Rock isn’t gonna do you much good if it wants 3 amps, and your power supply can only spare it 1.5.

(This is Tim Curry’s plotting face.)

Rig Tone Secret #3: Don’t freak out if there’s another guitarist.

I definitely didn’t write that correctly. But here’s the thing. A ton of times I’ve freaked out because my tone sounds horrible. And I’ve gone through and changed everything. But if there’s another guitarist playing live with you, make sure you listen to your tone when he’s not playing, before you freak out and change everything. So many times it’s the mix of the two electrics that doesn’t sound the way you want it…not your tone. And 9 times out of 10, that is best fixed with figuring out what his base tone sounds like, whether or not you like it, and figuring out what tones, frequencies, and octaves compliment what he is playing. A Tele through an Orange and a 335 through a Marshall can sound great together. But not in the same register. Sweet mercy, please not in the same register.

Rig Tone Secret #4: Tubes and delay. And that is all you ever need know.

So that just about wraps up this 13 part series on rig tone. And in the spirit of consolidation (wow, that phrase just sounds boring!), here are the links to each part of this series:

But this is not the end. The moment we stop experiencing life and learning new things about it (and remember, the most correct definition of life is ‘music’), is the moment that I’d probably care to stop living. So I’m hoping to learn more things about tone that’ll add on to this series. And more than likely, those ‘learnings’ will come from mistakes. And for some reason, in my case, they always seem to be huge mistakes. Like when I tried to run an amp as auxiliary power from the speaker jack of another amp. And now I know.


34 thoughts on “Electric Guitar Rig Tone

  1. Nice post, I have been playing in a church where we mic the amps back stage now. I used to mix to my amp, now I mic to my in-ears. That is the sound the mic is picking up. I think that’s improved my tone greatly. Just something to consider doing if you have in-ears.

    • I agree with this, just remember depending on the type of ear buds you have or headphones depending, the frequencies are different. So I have made it a point to walk out to the middle of the room where the speakers are best set at, and use that as my judge, or I get someone, like the worship leader to do that for me, and tweak that way.

      We are using pretty descent ear buds, but there is alot more mids and high end, so it tends to mask the low end you may have in your tone, so check the house speakers and how they sound and try to get the other guys to play while your checking your sound to see how your tone mixes.

      Definitely agree with listening to the other guitarist’s sound.

      • dual driver in ears have much better bass response than single drivers but they aren’t cheap. Of course, they won’t be as good as standing in front of your amp (on a stand of course, Karl) but if you are using a second mixing desk for your onstage sound you can usually eq them to sound pretty reasonable.

  2. I have thought about using a power conditioner before, they are just so expensive and heavy to carry around all the time, I wish there was an easier solution.

  3. Oh Michael Crichton, what a frustrating book to movie career. Sometimes I think the script writers didn’t even read the original book, they just read the back cover and though to themselves, “Yeah, I get the gist, I can crap out something like that.” And then Congo, Andromeda Strain (movie and tv series), Sphere, Timeline, and the Lost World came to be.

    Interesting note on the power conditioner. I used one for a while but didn’t notice a big difference :( I guess it would totally depend on the venue’s power though. I say if a venue can’t provide good power it doesn’t deserve good tone. haha.

  4. Michael–good point! Depending on the quality of your in-ears, sometimes you can get a better idea for what the mic and audience is hearing through them. At my church, the in-ears tend to sound tinny. So I know that if they sound perfect to me, I’ve got too much bass in my sound! lol

    Shane–totally agree. Like I just commented back to Michael, I know that if my in-ears sound perfect, I’ve got too much bass in my sound…because the in-ears sound very trebly! But we’ve got some not so nice ones.

    And totally. Listening to the other guitarist is key. I’ve gone searching for new amps before, only to realize it was the other guy’s tone I didn’t like. hehehe 😉

    Gtr1ab–lol Hope for more tone or for more gear? 😉 I’m pushing for both, myself! hehe

    Kenrick–totally. I finally bit the bullet and just put a rackmount Furman Power Factor Pro on my pedalboard. But then again, my board is freakishly large enough that anything more I put on it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes there are advantages to being a psycho. :)

    Jon Phillips–Furman does make a version of their Power Factor Pro that looks like a pedal. It’s fairly small, and does everything the rackmount one does, except that is puts out less amps and only has 4 outlets instead of 9. But it’s the exact same thing, just smaller and cheaper!

    Mike–wow, truer words were never spoken. I’m so with you. I adore Crichton’s books. And then the movies…ya, not so much. I read Timeline like 3 times, and was so stoked for the movie. Then I saw the trailers. Paul Walker. Nope.com. Did you like Sphere, though? That was the only one where I liked both the book and the movie, because they were almost like two different stories. I read, but never saw Andromeda Strain. Pretty bad? hehehe

    And what power conditioner did you get? You’re right, though. If the building literally can’t supply enough power, or clean enough power, using a power conditioner to try to suck up more power than the building can produce, won’t do you much good. “If a venue can’t provide good power, it doesn’t deserve good tone.” –Classic.

  5. Good comment on the ‘other’ guitarist.
    We had one show where the other guy was last minute with a Boss Sd1 into a 40W Crate amp. He hated his tone compared to mine…. but couldn’t believe it sounded so good when played with me. The rest of our band loved the full tone, said it sounded so layered.
    I was amazed at how my leads soared.
    Together we nailed it in the tone department.

    Anyway, great commenting there! :)

  6. Mark Colvin–nice. I have heard the same, but my church doesn’t have the money to buy all new dual driver in-ears. Ah, well. Guess I’ll just have to crank my amp more. (Just kidding! :) )

    Sal–lol Good times. You’re right. Tone is never over.

    Larry–so you’re saying that the Crate sounded really good with the tube rig you’ve got? That could be the new tonal breakthrough! That all of us playing tube amps need to also run an sd-1 and Crate in stereo! You never know. lol 😉

    But seriously, if two guitarists are able to be humble enough not to step on each other, it can create a fullness sometimes across the harmonic spectrum. Good times!

  7. My favorite of the tone series was the one on power tubes. I was in the process of purchasing another amp at the time and went with an Orange Tiny Terror for that el84 raging sound. So….as I’m sure your proud to know…the blog caused a gear purchase.

    Our church uses Avions with in-ear monitors. I use a pair of dual driver Westones. They weren’t cheap but generally nothing that’s good is. Some of the guitar players fight using them but I don’t really understand that. As long as my front of house tone is rockin’, what does it really matter. I get a better monitor mix with the Avions and it’s the mix that I want instead of the mix that the sound man wants to give me.

    Oh…and the day you write your last word on tone….ain’t here yet. So….

  8. There might be more important things than tone — HERESY! Actually real men dig tone.

    Check this out “In order for the church to reach men we’ve got to have music on Sundays that has the lyrical depth of John Newton, the musical kick of Guns N’ Roses and led by a man that looks like Ted Nugent. ”


    Or this:

    Or the roundtable discussion on Manly versus Feminine worship here:

  9. Just out of curiousity, for those folks using IEM, how many of your IEM systems provide a feed from 1 or 2 ambient mics to give you some sense of ‘room presence’? Most of the events I’ve played in the past few years where IEM’s were the basis of the monitor system have been incorporating ambient feeds feed the headset mix, which is really nice, since you can dial in the band mix that you want, plus enough of the room to feel like you’re experiencing what the congregation is experiencing.

  10. a thought with in ears …guitar players most likely will never be satisfied with avioms as it will always sound sterile. however generally speaking, you are getting a post eq’d signal sent to your aviom. generally your foh guy is gonna add some highs to your signal, which means in your avioms you are getting an added high end to an already sterile sound. result = extremely bright sterile sound.
    if its possible i like to have the foh guy send me a seperate flat eq back to the avioms or even have him take highs out for the aviom signal only. at least i have a “sterile” accurate representation of my sound.
    anyone like futuresonics? for their price they sound great and have killer bass response.

  11. Another trick to using IEM is to get the custom molded earpieces. There’s a big difference between using the one-size-fits-all and the custom molded earpieces. The custom “seals” out the outside ambient noise and you can hear the “sterile sound” better. 😛

    ryanj – Thanks for the FOH tip. I’ll ask about flat eq or rolling off the highs. I’ve never used the FutureSonics, but have heard great things about them.

  12. Hmmm. Spend over $500 for quality IEMs with custom earpieces so I can hear sterile sound better? I know many have to use IEMs and I’m aware of the advantages of reducing stage volume. I’ve even heard many who spent the big bucks are actually happy with the IEMs after an adjustment period.

    For many reasons, not just the cost, I’ll avoid this as long as possible. I still say it’s more feasible in a larger church with bigger budget, a place to isolate guitar amps, reasonably qualified sound staff/volunteers and enough worship team members so you can pretty much enforce their use ( by that I mean, if 20% quit the team because they can’t or won’t adapt professionally to the IEMs, your team can still function ).

    I don’t mean to always come off negative, just trying to be realistic.

  13. Mark–haha Ya, I’m sure I’ll have more things to say on tone. And of course, always good to know that the blog was responsible for buying more gear. There’s not much better. 😉 Wish I could get some dual drivers. hehe

    Mike Oliver–we don’t use ambient mics, but I do one ear in and ear out, for a mix of ambient sound and clarity. 😉 And yes, I know you can hurt your ears that way…but I figure, I used to play 100 watt half stacks cranked in concrete garages…my hearing’s toast anyway… 😉 hehehe

    RyanJ–awesome point! We do the same thing…we come out of a pre-eq out on the board to the avioms. So everything is flat…actually, it’s pre board gain, too. Really helps. Great point!

    TimH–nice. I have heard that, but have yet to do it. Thanks! How much did they cost?

    Randy–I’m totally with you on the budget thing. In-ears are cool, but they’re a luxury. Can you get incredible front of house sound while still using floor monitors? Absolutely!! We actually use a mix of both. And some of my guys just can’t stand the avioms! lol

  14. Karl/Randy –

    It was not as expensive as it might seem. A lady in the congregation works for an audiologist so we got the molds at cost. The church supplied Shure E3’s. Combined total was less than 200 per person.

    You have to be on the team for a while before the custom’s are offered.

    I’m old, I mean old-school, and as such I prefer the monitor wedges. But I’ve gotten use to the Avioms and their twists/turns. Plus using the IEM allows us to have the guitar amps onstage since the stage volume is lower without the wedges.


  15. Many of the electric guitarists I’ve talked to spent upwards of $600 for a set of IEMs with multiple drivers and custom ear-molds. Keyboardists and vocalists probably aren’t that picky. Then you really need something like the Aviom system to make best use of them.

    Then there’s the need for an extra mike or two to feed ambient sound in so you can hear the congregation. Also need sound staff good enough to not blow your ears out and/or limiting device. Let’s not forget worship team members willing to show up a minute or two early who won’t complain about inserting the IEMS far enough to work properly.

    Well I could go on, but if your church sound/worship teams are approaching semi-professional and has the budget to do it right, IEMs should be a great choice. If I had to guess I would say the majority of churches in the U.S. don’t meet those requirements.

  16. TimH–nice! That’s a great point–trying to keep church costs down by using the skills of people in your congregation. Very cool.

    And hey…whatever allows the guitar amps to be on stage, I’m cool with! lol :)

    Randy–very true…you’ve gotta have musicians who believe in it, and I suppose enough musicians to choose from that you can tell those being jerks about it that there are plenty of musicians here who’ll be more accommodating. I am still in the middle of trying to have my whole team catch on to why in ears are so important. And mine has much littler to do with stage volume. It’s that I want click in everyone’s ears! lol I’m a rhythm fiend. hehe

  17. On the IEM note: at my last church, it was a large room, and we had Avioms. I had Shure E2s for my IEM, and there was a mixture of various wedges and powered speakers for the rest of the team. The drummer, bassist, aux keyboard and I all had IEMs, and we were always together. Super solid. Tone-wise, it was not the same as being near my amp. It wasn’t even the same as hearing the house. But, I knew my tone was good, because I’ve listened to it at my amp (that and all the singers were asking me to turn down, even though my 30 watt was in a soundproof cave backstage. That means I really was getting some power out. Every time they asked, I just smiled like they were speaking some alien language and I didn’t want to be rude). But, I trusted my FOH guy. I knew he could make me sound great, and it took away a lot of the distraction I face with tone; being obsessed with it instead of worshiping. I got to concentrate on WHAT I was playing (a novel concept). So, it took some adjustment, but I ended up loving it. Now I’m at a smaller church, with my amp in the room, where I can hear it. In theory I should be happier with that, but I’m not. Weird how that works.

  18. That’s a very interesting point; I just had to play last week in the same situation, and it did allow me to focus more on what I played. However, not being able to hear the tone from my amp also influenced how I played, and I could tell there was a bit too much muscle memory and not enough feel.

    However, you’re right…I was able to crank my amp. haha Which is nice. :)

  19. So what should I be looking for as far as power conditioners/good power? I have good power from my pedals’ power supply (Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2+) but as far as something I can plug my whole rig, amp and pedal board into, what should I look for? I honestly know NOTHING about power conditioners.

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