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.