Live Guitar Tone

I get a lot of questions about live guitar tone, and I was lucky enough that someone grabbed a cell phone vid of a recent show, so I thought I’d post a couple videos.

Live Guitar Tone

The basics to live guitar tone are this: There have been an incredible amount of good live guitar tones over the years, from a huge variety of different rigs. One man’s trash is another man’s tone. So take everything I say with a grain of salt. This is how I do it, but is by no means the only way.

1) Listen with Your Ears, not Your Gear

I have the bad habit of finding the settings I like on my gear, and then keeping them that way because in my mind, that is their optimum tone. In a live mix though, there is no optimum tone. There is only the tone that works for that particular night. Listen to the mix, and eq your gear accordingly. If you sound bad, don’t be afraid to change the setting you’ve had for two years.

2) Lo Mids, Hi Mids

In a band context, the hi mids help you to be heard in the band without overpowering the band. All things are relative of course, but in general those are the frequencies that will allow you to cut in the mix. Don’t neglect the lo mids either though, as those allow your guitar to stay full while it’s cutting. Resist the urge to re-eq when you’re soundchecking alone. The urge sometimes is to turn the hi mids down because there’s no band balancing them out. Rather, when you play alone, just use finger and pick dynamics to round out your sound. It’s amazing the spectrum of sound that can come from your hand.

3) Make Friends with the Sound Tech

When you act like a rockstar and walk all over them, most of them will not get vindictive; but what they will do is have more of a tendency to leave you as the after-thought. You want to take the 30 seconds you have to talk with the tech as he’s mic’ing your amp to develop a small rapport with him so that he sees you and he as working together to make some decent music.

4) EQ with your Ear at the Speaker, Eight Feet Away, or Wherever the Mic(s) is Placed

And try to stand as far away from your amp as possible when playing, otherwise you won’t enjoy your tone as much because it’ll be eq’d for your ear right next to the speaker. Which is great for the house sound, but then it’ll sound bassy to you as you stand above it. So then you’ll either want to re-eq, or you won’t enjoy yourself.

5) Don’t Neglect the Little Things

A billion different things can go wrong over which you have no control. You want your tone to be so good, that nothing (save an EMP…yep, you’ve got your own generator too ;) ) can completely kill your tone. Always build your guitar rig as if the room, the sound tech, or the mix will try to destroy your tone, because most likely one of those will. And if they don’t, you can be pleasantly surprised.

6) Mic Placement

As a general rule, closer to the center of the cone is the most treble. As you move towards the outside, you’ll get progressively more bassy. Somewhere in the middle is usually good. The closer you put the mic to the grill cloth, the more punchy the sound will be, but also more harsh. The further away, the smoother it will be, but less powerful. There’s a happy medium there as well. I tend to like about an inch off the grill cloth. You can get some cool tones by angling the mic too. Some folks love one way or the other. I haven’t heard a ton of difference…seems like more of the difference comes from the distance away from the grill cloth. But try them out. If you have the luxury of running two mics, run one up close and the other a few feet away. Killer sound.

7) Turn Your Amp Up, and Your Playing Down

Turning the master volume up and giving yourself more headroom, but keeping the volume the same by playing with a softer attack, is absolutely huge in getting a good live tone.

8) Enjoy Yourself

There are so many paths to great tone. So once everything is set and there’s no more you can do, let go and enjoy yourself. It’s amazing how much of music is a mental thing. You will sound better when you’re having fun.

Rig

’96 G&L Strat (neck pickup)
Matchless HC30 (EF86 channel, Scumnico 30 mic’d)

My drive sound has my amp on the verge of preamp tube breakup, being pushed with a Creation Labs Holy Fire into a Fulltone Fatboost (v1). For the solo, I then hit an Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 that hits both of those. Before everything, there is a also a Fryette Valvulator buffer. For this song, there was a good mix of Blue Sky reverb, and a very low mix of untimed Timeline delay. Still a cell phone video, but you get the picture. This next one is a board recording.

Now this one is not live in front of an audience, but was live in the fact that it was recorded in one take, and that looping is great insight into eq’ing things for live performance. In this piece, the bass frequencies are laid first. Then some hi mids to balance them out. Then comes a very trebly sound that starts to allow the song to come into its own. The slide part then takes care of the lo mids and turns the whole lo mids and bass frequencies into more of a backdrop than audible sound. And just when you think the bass will overtake the song, the ear latches onto more treble and hi mids, with the reverse delay and sequenced notes grabbing the ear and bringing the piece to its whole. Well, hopefully. ;)

Rig

Prairiewood Hardtop (Wolfetone Dr. V pickups)
Matchless HC30 (EF86 channel, Scumino 30 mic’d)

Main pedals are a Strymon Brigadier for swells, Strymon Timeline for reverse delay, Danelectro Tuna Melt tremolo for well, trem, and Arion phasers and analog delays to wash it all around. Digitech Jamman for looping, and a Strymon Blue Sky reverb for finishing, placed after the looper. Drive pedals for the held feedback were the Holy Fire, Fatboost, and a ’79 Boss OD1. And I used a wine glass because I lost my slide again.

Remember, there are so many ways to good tone. And there are even ways to good music without tone. And even ways to emotion without music. Precious few, but they’re there. ;) These are some of the things that have helped me get closer and closer to the tone and the music that reaches me personally. Yours may be close to the same, or it may be far different. Use your ears, and not your eyes. I’ve heard amazing tones from guitarists with cheap gear and wacky settings. I’ve also heard amazing tone from guitarists with the most expensive and pretentious rigs you can imagine. Use your ears, and cheeseball but it’s true…use your soul.

Disclaimer: all this is to be taken into account with what this blog has said for years now: tubes and a healthy dose of delay. And by ‘healthy dose’, I mean all…the delay.

Splendid.
Karl.

26 thoughts on “Live Guitar Tone

  1. “3) Make Friends with the Sound Tech” — easier said than done, for sure.

    one thing to add, maybe contradicts a little bit with your “2″. mids might collide with the vocals, keep it in check while comping. let it rip when the time is right! ;)

    oh btw, some tasteful solo that’s kind of an anti-solo but not quite … whatever it is, it worked! hehe

  2. Playing out is fun. And the ambience, my kind of music. I was waiting for some to walk in through the door or at least stick their head in.
    Keep the tone cards and letters coming.
    Bret

  3. Board recordings have been pretty useful to me to get a sense of where I am in the mix.
    I agree with you on upper mids.
    I keep wanting to replace the Vintage 30′s in my cab but they really cut live.
    You know you are serious about your delay in church when you post a poll on TGP asking total strangers to recommend a delay pedal for you. :)

  4. Eric–thanks man!!

    Rhoy–good point! I think that’s where tastefulness in note choice comes in. It took me a long time to learn that chords are your friend.

    And I was trying to think Larry Carlton…still a blues solo, but note choice, note choice, not choice! haha

    Bret–haha Apartment living man. Someday I’ll sell enough delayed notes to buy a house. Or more delay pedals. ;)

    Dan–haha Yay Gear Page!! And V30′s are the weirdest thing. I always think I don’t like them anymore because of what I read, and then I hear people with them and go, ‘Nope. Still good!’ :)

  5. Sometimes I will have someone play my guitar for me while I go to different parts of the sancuary and listen…at times, it is amazing how different it sounds compared to my in ears. We have house mics now (so thankful for them) so I turn them all the way up in my mix….it’s really nice to heard the congregation singing too.

  6. Great idea! I’ll do the same with a looped phrase. I do wish we had congregation mics, too. I do one in-ear in, one in-ear out in order to hear them and the room mix.

    • Same here. If we get a channel free, first thing I’m doing is bringing in a big condenser for the room.

      Best reason to leave an ear out? To tame the drummer :p

  7. …Is it just me or can you totally make out the sound of the poly on Karl’s fretboard in that first vid? So much less soul than nitro, Karl. :D

    • haha Oh, totally. You can also hear that I accidentally switched the directionality of my cables, and that there was a tear in the grill cloth. ;)

  8. Just curious, what’s the settings you have on the Holy Fire?
    This Holy Fire keeps impressing me. Though I don’t care much for the high gain settings, it has a nice grind and just gives a “more” switch to my amp’s natural tone. I love this thing.

    I tend to run G: just a bit louder than amps volume alone, O: Around 2 o’clock, D: around 10 o’clock.
    Great sound, overdrive, that cleans up easily. (oh, and totally sounds better than my Klone)

  9. An entire post can probably be done on just mic placement alone, but one thing that needs to be mentioned is proximity effect and how that affects the mix. Proximity effect, for those who haven’t heard of it before, is the increased bass response when you move a mic to within a few inches of the source. Any mic placement further than just a few inches will have a fairly linear response, so it only takes affect when you’re micing very closely, like right on a guitar speaker.

    It can be desirable on a lot of sources, especially for giving weight to things like vocals, but I’d advise to be careful with using it on guitar, since you’d be increasing many of the frequencies primarily reserved for the bass guitar and bass drum. It might sound nice with the guitar by itself, but you’ll probably be stepping on a lot of frequency toes when the whole band starts up.

    To resolve this, try micing the guitar cab in your favorite position, but backing the mic straight out to 6 inches or more. It might take some getting used to the sound if you’ve always close-miced, but your sound guy will thank you for making his job easier.

    A couple side notes: Bleed shouldn’t be a problem until the mic is more than a foot away, so there is plenty of room to work with. Also, moving the mic back a few inches would also give you a better picture of what your speaker/amp actually sounds like since the mic’s pattern will be able to pick up more of the speaker and cabinet as opposed to being intensely focused on just one area of the speaker. In other words, it will add more dimension to your sound.

  10. Larry–it’s usually: gain between 11 and 12, overdrive at 10, tone at almost 3. For low drive settings, I leave the distortion off. I bump it up to 10 for a more crunchy sound, and then up to about 3 or 4 for the super compressed Mesa sound. :) And those are all o’clocks.

    Matt–hahahaha Best comment ever.

    Steve–I absolutely agree on adding dimension to your sound by backing the mic off. Often times, guitar even sound great with room mics. :)

  11. Proximity effect is your friend. So is a good ribbon mic. You know, for the truly dedicated… (I can hear you all going to eBay looking for a ribbon mic.)

  12. Along the lines of #7, I tell the young guys (’cause I’m an old guy): however much gain you THINK you need (sounds good), cut it in half. Too often (live) their signal turns to mush due to excessive gain.

  13. Great tone and feel for the song! Not so much on the actual solo though. :(

    Sorry man, but I would rather give up a little bit of tone for better chops. I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and this is my first post. I learn something new from every post!

    • Glad you’re enjoying the blog! :)

      And I can always do with some improvement to my tone and chops. But, I have to say, I rather liked my solo.

  14. Andrew–do you bring your own mic when you play? I used to do that, but it just got too crazy trying to get the places not to ‘resorb’ my mics. hehe

    JRush–great point! Too much gain at the source can be a really bad thing. Or…too high of a gain/volume ratio.

  15. I am a sound tech and guitarist and in regards to 2-4, guitarists shouldn’t really be EQing their rigs to the house on stage. That is the FoH’s job, not the guitarists. FoH has the advantages of thinking in a band setting, and has probably mixed that room before, AND is hearing the room and not the stage. Plus, there are 20 other different variables (read:problems) if you have to resort to EQing your amp to hear yourself onstage. That in itself is a monitor issue. I’m not saying that the guitarist shouldn’t be thinking “Oh, I need some more punch in the 1.5kHz range”, because that is great. It’s just that I’ve yet to see a guitarist be able to run an EQ as well as me, the FoH, can. FoH is better suited to that then the guitarist.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ll get a guitarist complaining about their EQ though a monitor or how they sound bad from where they’re sitting and I think a lot of people forget that:

    1. Monitors aren’t there to sound good, they’re there so that you can hear what you are doing and nothing else.

    2. The whole point of a soundtech is to make everyone sound good, no matter what you think the guy is doing to your tone. Plus, if you’re mic’d with a 57 or similar (i5 maybe), nobody is going to notice the 10% extra modulation on your brand-new delay because its going through a 57, a soundboard and EQ, probably some other EQ, and then to the mains through 100ft of wire.

    3. If you sound bad, any FoH worth their salt is going to tell you that, or relay to you somehow. I ask my guitarists regularly to change settings to make their sound better, because again I have the benefit of hearing everything. If I have their signal EQ’d and they still aren’t cutting, I’ll ask for them to adjust something.

    Cheers!

  16. Peter, great comment! I agree with you that everything ultimately ends with the front of house, and a lot of times a ‘worse’ tone is needed from the guitar, in order to make the overall mix sound better. :) Two slight pushbacks however:

    1) I’m of the mind, that source sound is always the bets way to go, if possible. For instance, on 9 out of 10 places, I know that the eq section on my amp is better than the front of house eq section. So I appreciate it so much when the sound tech asks if I can give him a little more treble or a different eq from my amp, rather than just ‘fixing’ me on the board.

    2) A wide majority of church guitarists don’t have sound techs who are as experienced as you. ;) Many, many churches have well-meaning and big-hearted volunteers running sound, and often times a guitarist putting some more high mids in his amp can make all the difference. Granted, it would be better to invest in some training and relationships with your sound techs; but in the meantime, turning a knob can be a big help.
    :)

  17. Peter, I’m a guitarist/sound engineer as well, but I’d have to disagree with your #1 about monitors. True, monitors are there so the musician can hear what they’re doing, but that does not have to be their only function.

    The absolute priority of musicianship is performance, and the performance of a musician is affected by many things, including tone. A good monitor mix can really make the difference between an inspired performance and a not so good one. I’m not just talking about levels, but the musician actually being able to hear what they want to hear from their instrument/voice, and being able to react to those nuances. If those nuances aren’t there, there’s simply nothing to react to.

    For example, as a performer there is a world of difference when I’m hearing myself play and sing through a decent floor monitor compared to a hotspot on a mic stand. Through the hotspot, I can certainly hear every note that I play, but it has no body, character, or dynamic. It feels like I’m being woken up by my clock radio every time I hit a note……very uninspiring to say the least. This makes me play differently, because I’m not getting the tone I need from my monitor. It’s essentially the same difference as plugging into a Crate Powerblock and then into a JTM45. Anyone would play differently through those two amps because of how they will react to what they’re hearing.

    So I’d go as far as to say that not only is the purpose of a monitor to hear what you are doing, but also to inspire the best performance it can out of the musician, because ultimately that is what will inspire the listener, not the perfect FOH mix.

    In other words, the next time a guitarist complains about the EQ of their monitor or how it sounds where they are sitting, I’d listen to them and help them hear what they need to hear to play well.

    • Steve, you eloquently bring up a great point. I think there needs to be a balance between a great front of house mix, but an on stage sound that inspires a great performance from a musician. In fact, I’m not sure one can go without the other. I think the issue lies with the fact that most musicians are jaded by less than friendly sound techs, and most sound techs are jaded by rockstar wanna-be musicians. I love what you said, and hope for many people to get to that place! Props.

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