Amp Tone Part 4: Getting Good Tone Out of Your Amp
The almost finale of the Amp Tone posts……and another boring and technical post. Remember, for every boring and technical post, I’ll have a light-hearted, tra-la-la (in the best possible way) post up above. But some people dig this stuff……tone is like candy for us. No, really. We can literally taste tone. So we’ve had both parts of the effects tone posts, now we’ve got the fourth of five parts of the amp tone posts, and it’s just about time to move into what I feel to be the most important part of tone–the guitar. That’s debatable, of course, but that’s for a later post. So we’ll finish up the amp stuff right now in this post and in another soon……or until I think of something else that I just can’t live with unless I spit it out on this blog. Which is where most of these posts come from anyway. Me spitting.
So by this point, if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re agreeing with (or at least patronizing with) the views on getting a tube amp, deciding on the style of tube you want, and changing out the tubes. So now it’s time to set the amp. And this depends absolutely and unarguably upon your personal setup. Which begins with your hands. If we had the exact same amp and even the same guitar, we would still want to set our amps differently because of the way we play. You want the tone journey to be an organic, liquid experience, rather than a staunch, mathematical experience. Remember, there is no magic setting for any particular amp. For instance, a hollowbody guitar will cause you to roll off some bass on the amp. But if you’re playing jazz, you may want to emphasize the bass on your amp to accentuate the bassiness of the hollowbody. It all just depends. And please remember, these are my views……they could be wrong. They’re not, but for the sake of argument, they could be. (Come on! I’m just kidding!! Don’t hate…appreciate.)
So the first rule is unequivocably this: use your ears. And the second goes right along with it: keep your tone as pure as possible. Every piece of gear has a way it ‘wants’ to sound. A strat has a thinner feel. Trying to eq up the bass and mids on your amp will not give you the thicker Les Paul tone. It will sound muddy. Same way in trying to boost treble with a Les Paul to sound like a strat. That’s why some of us wackos are such gearheads……we’re looking for gear that doesn’t have to be tweaked like crazy to get the sound we’re looking for. The more you tweak, the more fake it will sound. And that doesn’t mean spending a ton of money……it just means doing some research and playing a lot of stuff in order to find the sound you want, and not just buying whatever is most popular or convenient.
(The purest tone possible……guitar directly into amp. Directly. Ah, this is probably one of the best satire photos on us tone junkies that I’ve ever seen.)
So after using your ears and trying to keep your tone pure, try setting your eq knobs straight up and down. Again, as a general rule, if you have to tweak the living daylights out of your amp’s eq to get a decent tone, you’d be better of getting a new amp. The eq section is for minor changes to set the amp to react best to the guitar, and pedals if that’s your deal (and if you’re here at this blog, I’m guessing, on the average, that it is. ) Now, make minor changes on the eq to set the amp to your guitar, hands, and taste. In general, you’ll want treble up a bit, mids up a very small bit, and bass down a bit. And just for the record, on my main amp, I break this eq rule quite a bit. It’s a sacrifice I make because of an amp with tone I can’t find elsewhere. This stuff happens. If you try to set your amp according to this post, and the sound sucks, disregard this post immediately. The rules are here to help tone; if they don’t work, throw ‘em out.
Next, and this is something I wish I could say until the end of the world (hehe, that’s a U2 song), use the gain knob as your master tone knob. What I mean is, the gain is not your volume, and it’s not your distortion. It’s your ‘tone.’ Set the gain where you think it sounds best with your guitar and for your style. If you’re looking to play something really, really clean, set it low. If you’re looking for a really overdriven, distorted, gainy sound, set it higher. For me personally, I like my amps set just on the verge of breakup. Where it sounds clean, but with just a little bit of edge (hehe…more accidental U2 references……no, with me and U2, there are very few accidents). Then, I use overdrive pedals to ‘push’ the amp into it’s own natural breakup. The amp’s overdrive will always sound better than a pedal. So set your amp to where the pedals can push it into its own overdrive. But when you go back to clean, the sound is clean with a bit of bite. If you lower your picking dynamics, you’ll get clean. If you dig in, you’ll get a hint of overdrive. You can also do this without pedals by setting your amp to be clean with your guitar’s volume knob at about 6 or 7, and then overdriven with your guitar’s volume knob up at 10. And lastly, remember that if you don’t like your amp’s natural overdrive, no pedal will ever fully rectify that. Just try it……try using pedals not for their own sound per se, but to push your amp into it’s overdrive sound. You just might like the results.
(Ya, I know. Another U2 clip. But this is a great example of an amp just barely pushed into a sweet, edgy overdrive. Edge’s hollowbody is doing a great job with that. Not to mention, this is one of the musicaly tightest and most passionate songs ever written. Again, just my U2-loving opinion, hehe, but this is also a great song for those who have ever only heard Joshua Tree-era U2. And, uh…don’t pay attention to what they’re wearing. The PopMart tour had amazing music and not so amazing wardrobes.)
Also, when dealing with gains, remember that there are some low settings on gain knobs at which the amp will just not be driving the power tubes hard enough to sound good. Most amps have two ‘click points.’ You’ll turn the gain up and hear the amp kick in. And it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s my tone.’ And then as you keep turning it up, there will be another, more subtle one, where it feels like you just had a jump in tone.
So now we have a problem. Most likely, with this method, you’ve got a tone that you’re just digging. But, dpending upon the wattage of your amp, this tone may be really, really, really loud. Which is why a lot of people dig the lower wattage amps. The tone they’re after happens to be high on the gain knob……so in order to not kill people (sometimes literally……ever hear those trebly Marshalls that literally make the room swim?), they’ll get lower wattage amps. I used to have a 100 watt amp that just didn’t sound good until it was almost all the way up. Sounded great the one time I played in a huge outdoor venue (and by ‘huge outdoor venue’, I mean a big picnic at a park)……but for all the other clubs and small churches? Ya……good tone ceases to matter if people can’t hear it because they’re covering their ears.
(Micheal J. Fox of ‘Teen Wolf’ fame. Playing, for most of us, the dream amp. I still think this is one of the greatest scenes in movie history. But I might be biased.)
So now this is where the master volume comes in. A good master volume will preserve the gain tone that you set, at any volume. Now, there’s not any amp I’ve ever played where that is entirely true. Even the power scaling master volume amps or the post phase-inverter master volume amps. Your tone will always sound just slightly better with your amp running at full throttle…i.e., with the master volume all the way up. (Again, the reason for lower wattage amps.) But some amp builders have done very well with their master volume circuitry, and you can turn them down to lower volumes, and still preserve almost all of the tone of the gain knob. Now, some will argue that you should set your amps by having the master volume and gain knobs work together as two volume knobs. I’m not a huge fan of this…I’ve gotten way better results by using the gain knob to get my main ‘sound’ or ‘tone’, and the master volume as just that……a master volume.
And if you’ve got an amp with just a gain knob, and no volume, I really hope you happen to like a lower gain setting. hehe Or get a smaller amp, or take your amp to a tech to have a master volume installed. The other thing you can do is to get a half power switch. I run my main amp with a half power switch. So, if I’m in a small venue, I flip the switch down to 15 watts, which disables 2 power tubes. Then I can maintain my tone by keeping the master volume all the way up. If I’m in a bigger venue, or playing with a drummer who’s beating his drums like they told him he couldn’t play on tempo, I flip back up to 30 watts and use all 4 power tubes.
(My amps. And as is my custom, this picture was taken not even a month ago, and the pedalboard is changed, and I’ve gone through speakers for the Holland Brentwood on the left. And sorry for my mad skills, ’80′s new wave, motion sickness camera shot.)
And lastly, some amps have a couple random knobs. The presence knob and the reverb knob. And both can be daunting when trying to dial in your tone. But presence is just what it sounds like…presence. It is how ‘or ‘small’ your amp sounds in the mix. Too little and your amp will sound far away. Too much and your amp will sound mushy. So set it moderately. Play your strings open as you turn the presence knob back and forth to get a feel for it. It will be different for every rig and in every room. And for the reverb knob, my advice is, if you’re looking for a surf sound, a cool ’60′s sound for a solo, or a drowning in the ocean tone for a certain song where you plan to have the guitar just sitting behind the band, go ahead and turn it up. Other than that, set it very, very low to just sweeten things. Too much reverb can make the guitar sound just washy and stand out in the mix for all the wrong reasons.
That’s it. Remember, try to find out how your rig ‘wants’ to sound, and where it is ‘happiest.’ If you’re making drastic changes, you’ll get bad results 9 times out of 10. And again, I’m no one to talk because I do break that rule a bit, because I try to use the first rule almost exclusively: use your ears. Take this stuff as a basics course that is a good starting point. Then let your ears do the rest of the setting for you. And not just your ears. If you’re playing only for yourself, then fine. But if you’re also trying to reach people with your music, try to find out what they’re hearing in your rig, and what they would like to hear as well.
Hopefully the boredom wasn’t too bad. Soothe yourself with tone.
- Live Ambient Looping, Studio Recording Tips, & Tone Walkthrough (Wexford Carol)
- The Tone You Learn the Hard Way
- Tone Tips that Have Nothing to Do with Tone
- Tone Tips (Real Ones This Time)
- Ambient Pads Preview, Rhythmic Addition to the Fulldrive/Tim/Liquid Blues Shootout, & The Pedal I've Always Wanted
- Guitar Tone Part 4: Pickups
- Amp Tone Part 5: Speakers and Cabs
- Amp Tone Part 3: Change Your Tubes
- Amp Tone Part 2: Styles of Power Tubes