Tonal Efficiency

It hit me the other day; I played an outdoor gig with one amp at 30 watts un-mic’d and people 100 yards away said they could hear me with perfect clarity. (And I’ll leave it up to them as to whether ‘hearing me with perfect clarity’ was a good thing, or a very terrible thing. hehe) And 100 square yards of people sounds impressive, until you realize that there were very few people standing in between the stage and those sitting 100 yards away because that was the only place to sit. (What I mean is that there weren’t that many people there, even though it was a large area and I was wishing it were filled with Coldplay fans and that I was Coldplay.) But what hit me was that hearing yourself and being heard by others is not about loudness. I used to play with three amps, one at 100 watts, one at 30 watts, and one at 22 watts (never mind what in the world I was thinking), and I remember having trouble hearing myself. And I remember at the time thinking, ‘How in the world can I not hear 152 watts?’ And if you’re thinking, ‘Well, it’s probably just that the stupid sound guy had you turn your 152 watts down so much, they were probably only at 5 watts!’ Ya. No……that unfortunately wasn’t the case. They were all cranked. Because it’s a theological fact that people will not worship unless the guitar amp is cranked. (This is a joke……but if you not did read it as a joke, and were instead nodding your head in agreement, then……well, let’s just hope you weren’t.)

(Ya. As much as this makes me have to gasp a little for breath, and ‘The Hills were Alive with the Sound of Music’ just started playing within my heart, let’s not do this. And I’m not sure why Keith Urban is selling the two amps marked as ‘for sale’, but I am definitely buying them. He does have great tone…and he’s also one of the prettiest men I have ever seen. I mean that in an envious way, not a ‘longing for’ way. I’m really not sure why I say the things that I say.)

So let’s be absolutely honest here. It’s impossible not to hear 152 cranked guitar amp watts. You just can’t. So the only possible explanation if you can’t hear that, is that it must be psychological. See, the second most difficult thing in the world is to be objective about oneself. And the first most difficult thing in the world is to be objective about something one has created. Namely, in our case, our guitar sound. So whether you like it or not, there is an expectation of how our guitar will sound a split second before we hit each string. This expectation is in direct proportion to how much time, money, and effort has been spent on said guitar sound…as well as to how much we like ourselves. (So for me, that expectation is pretty high. No, not the effort thing; I like myself a lot.) In essence, our first impulse is to hear what we want to hear. Seriously, how hard is to admit that your new $3500 amp that you saved for four years for, sold your first guitar and 6 delay pedals to get, and drove 4 hours with petrol (you gotta forgive me…I have this perpetual desire to be British) you didn’t have, to go pick it up, actually sounds bad. Especially if you know you cannot resell it for the $3500 you’re into it for. We have an expectation of the sound that’s going to happen before we ever play it.

And it’s this expectation that causes us not to be able to hear ourselves. Why? Well, very simply, ‘hearing’ is your ear drums reacting to air moving at certain frequencies. And there are no frequencies an electric guitar puts out that the human ear cannot hear. So the only possible explanation for not being able to hear 152 watts is that we cannot psychologically bring our brains to realize that the distorted mush dying in the sound of the rest of the band, is in fact, our tone. See the point is not volume. It’s the volume of the frequencies that will both be pleasing to the ears and that will cut properly through a band mix, the strength and weight of those frequencies, and making sure that actual air is moving.


The guitar is a mids-heavy instrument. EQ it as such. You need to have a strong presence in both the high mids and the low mids, and not a ton of bass. And for the love of everything that’s good in this world, roll your treble back. That’s usually the first thing people do when they start to think about how they fit in the mix, is to think, ‘Okay, then I’ll be higher than everybody else.’ And yes, this is a sure-fire way to make sure you are heard. It’s also a sure-fire way to make people wish they couldn’t. Now, I’m not talking about rolling up your mids…that gets to be too much, as the guitar is mid heavy already. I’m talking about finding gear that is voiced well…with good presence in the mids. Then you can roll down on bass a bit, up on mids a bit, and slightly up on treble a bit. Usually this is the best homebase starting point towards keeping a presence in the mids on most guitar amps. Every piece of gear is different, so you’ll have to do a lot of on the spot eq’ing when you’re in a band situation. 

The low mids thing is to make sure the guitar keeps its warmth, and its ability to sit in the mix. Another tendency of guitarists is to do so well at making their guitar stand out in the mix, that it 1) no longer blends with the band in the times when they’re not solo’ing and actually want it to blend, and 2) loses warmth when drive pedals are turned on. The low mids allow the guitar to once again be warm when you’re stacking drive pedals for solos, and to be able to sit back in the mix when necessary, but still be heard. No low mids and too many high mids are the reason sometimes for going, ‘I can’t hear the guitar until it solos.’ You want to hear the guitar blended with the rest of the band, and then you want it to maintain warmth, even when it’s searing in a solo. Your solo boosting pedals are to add gain and volume, not necessarily treble. 

Secondly, make sure your pedal chain and cables are not killing all your mids. Lots of pedals and cable length tend to add flabby bass. And too many buffers tend to add harsh treble. If you go the buffer route, make sure there’s either one at the beginning of your chain, or two…with one also at the end of your chain. I highly suggest going the bypass looper route, as to my ears it keeps the tone as natural (untouched) as possible. 

(This has absolutely nothing to do with anything. Except to keep the people happy that come here just for the pictures. This is for you guys! :) The coolest thing about this picture is that you know it wasn’t doctored, because anyone with the same computer skills that wrote the wording ‘Balcony Fail’ in this picture, quite obviously does not have the skills to have photoshop’d it. And no, it wasn’t me who wrote that. Although, to be fair, it definitely does look like something I would do…and then subsequently be very proud of.)

And thirdly, you want to get pedals that let your now wonderfully middy, cutting through the mix, blended tone, through. So many times I hear guitarists with this beautiful clean tone, and then one delay pedal or drive pedal or trem pedal gets turned on, and they’re gone in the mix. Make sure each pedal keeps your tone intact first, and then adds the effect as an aside, so to speak. Doesn’t mean the effect can’t be pronounced, but there’s nothing worse than spending countless time, money, and effort and getting the perfect tone, and then ruining it with one little pedal.


Your tone must have weight. Absolutely must. If you’ve got 15 different instruments in the band (I’m listing all the cymbals and drums as one intsrument each) all pushing for their place in the harmonic spectrum, the weaker sounds, although eq’d properly to their portion of the harmonic spectrum, are not going to be heard. And turning them up only makes a louder weak sound, if that makes any sense. Sound is moving air. And it needs to move it strongly. With weight. All I can describe it as is sounding ‘real.’ Put it this way. Play a note on a grand piano, fully open. Then play the same note, at the same volume, in the same octave, on a keyboard through an amp. When you listen to them separately, you can set them to the same volume. Maybe even turn the keyboard up louder than the piano. But play them at the same time, and you’re going to ‘hear’ the piano more. Its weight and presence in the harmonic spectrum, is going to make the keyboard fall flat. Same with guitar tone. You have to process the sound in a way that lets it maintain its weight, and then you have to actually move the air.

The best way to process your sound is to process it as little as possible. Meaning, first create the integrity of your guitar signal acoustically, and then maintain that integrity. So good wood, good picks, good strings. Get a good acoustic sound. Then get hot and open sounding pickups that have great dynamic range and responsiveness to pick up and reproduce that acoustic sound as accurately as possible. And then……this is important……more important to me than most people are (and that’s bad…but hopefully it conveys the gravity of the situation…man, I’m a tone jerk), then…tubes. You’ve got to use tubes to keep the integrity you just created. As it matters to the weight of the sound, it can all be explained in a simple experiment. Bring a 100 watt solid state amp and a 5 watt tube amp to your next rehearsal. Run them both out of an ab box and switch between the two. I guarantee that the tube amp will be ‘heard’ more. It might not be louder, but in the band mix, it will fill the room more. More weight. I used to pull my hair out because the other guitarist at my church would always cut me completely out of the mix with his 40 watt Fender Bandmaster at 3, even though I had my 120 watt Crate at 8. Technically, mine was louder. But through this incredibly loud guitar noise, came this beautiful, weighty, real air moving at real frequencies, that just made my noise pale. 

And of course, again, don’t let your pedals take away that weight and presence in your tone. Don’t get ones that digitize our dry signal too much, or ones where the effect takes over and thins out your overall sound. I see so many guitarists with spectacular rigs and pedals that kill them. 

Moving Air

And after your guitar and tubes…you have got to push those speakers. The speakers are what’s bringing your signal back to the real acoustic realm of moving air. I think I mentioned in my last post (I tend to confess way too much on this blog…honesty bordering on stupidity) that I once ran 30 watts into 6, 75-watt speakers. And the tone was so incredibly weak. The speakers are what’s pushing the air; if they’re not working hard enough, air is not getting pushed properly. You have to make those speakers work for you! Get speakers that are as close to your amp’s wattage rating as possible. They have to push the air; and to do that, they need to be pushed. Also, get ones that when pushed, give off a full tonal spectrum, and get good wood in the cab so it will resonate those speakers well. I can’t tell how many soundguys have mentioned how tripped out they are that they can get such a range from my guitar and get it to fill the room, since I put in a Celestion Blue, and got a well-designed cab with good wood. And I guess that can sound prideful…but in reality, I’d like for the soundguys to be telling me that the riff I just played was the most dream-like and melodic one they’d ever heard and they were brought to instant girl-tears. But all they are saying is, ‘Hey, good job on buying that cab.’ Yep. Humbling. But good tone is very important.

(I didn’t mean this to be funny. I was searching for pictures of rigs with ‘fat tone’ and this came up–‘Fat Tone’ professing that he is, in fact, the streets. And I think…that this is really an album cover. It’s sad enough that we even have to wonder whether something like this is real…but then to find out that it actually is…seriously, what is ‘Rapbay’?)

That is tonal efficiency. Being able to be heard more, be heard better, sound fuller, sit in the mix better, punch through the mix at those certain spots with more warmth, all done better with 10 watts than most players can do with 50. Or, in my case, with 15 or 30 watts than 152. Oh, those were dark days. Remember, next time you can’t hear yourself in the band mix, to seriously listen for that gross wall of mush that you think is just the soundguy’s poor mixing skills, and see if it’s actually your guitar sound. We hear what we want to hear. I’m not sure that can be fixed. (Especially for people like me who like themselves so very much. And I liked myself a lot at 152 watts. I thought my three amps at 152 flabby watts were so unique and original, and that if only Edge could hear me, he’d immediately sell his Vox’s and buy any number of amps that would add up to the magic of 152. I was wrong.) So let’s make our guitar tone, in reality, what we want to hear.


24 thoughts on “Tonal Efficiency

  1. Great post. It’s also important when setting your EQ’s for the low-mid’s and lows to look around the stage. If you see a bass player on the stage, they pwn the bass frequencies. If there is no bass player, you can boost your bass a bit if you wish. The sound guy SHOULD take care of much of this for you but you should be aware that by knowing about frequencies and sitting in a mix, you can do a lot through your pedals and amp settings.

    Too many bass frequencies are like aurally walking through mud….um…you know what I mean, right?

  2. Kenrick–lol I have no idea!! Do you know what they are? I joke about them only because I hear about them so much…but are they a real thing? hehe

    Chris–Thanks, bro. Great comment! And ya, the sound guy should totally be eq’ing for the mix. But there’s only so much he can fix, ya know? haha A muddy, bassy guitar tone is going to stay muddy, no matter how good your sound tech is or how much he cranks the treble. The musicians need to be giving the sound guy the best possible sound from the stage, so that he can do his job of setting them into the mix. :)

    I know I’ve had my share of running sound, trying to mic up a trebly guitar going, ‘Ok. I can’t do anything with this.’ haha And I’m sure you have, too. Probably more times than we care to count. hehe 😉 As well as the walking through the mud, as you pointed out. I’m not sure which is worse.

  3. yeah nice nice nice.

    Thanks for the mids comments. To many people seem anti-mid because of the classic TS type sounds that seem to ONLY have mids. But the midrange on a guitar is hear the most (easiest) in a dense mix. Good lead pedals (like barber stuff or hermida stuff with the voice knob about 3) highlight compression and high mids. So you can stomp them without having them completely cranked and your mids shift ever so slightly and you are rocking some leads.

    Chris— exactly. In our first service our Bass player doesn’t attend. I deepen my bass on the amp and try to be a bit more rhythmic. 2nd service, bass player is there and I crank it back. He lays the bass line, I own the mids on top. Even if i play low notes, they drown in his wake.

  4. hey karl, just to create a little bit of stir. i find that guitar tone should always serve the song as a whole. as an example, during phrases where the vocals has to be absolutely clear, it’s a must for the guitar player (or any instrument for that matter) to try to stay away from the mids as much as possible as the voice is on that frequency. but there are times, in the same song, where the guitar should bump up the mids to really cut thru. i guess what i am saying is that the song should be priority and we as guitarists should tweak our tones to help make the song shine.

    oh and btw, different genres also demands for specific tones that might not work with another style of music. and that of course is a totally different conversation on its own :)

  5. 15,900 square yards of people. (Assuming you don’t count anyone standing behind the amp. Which is fine since the sound won’t project as far backward as it will forward.)

  6. If you ever make it up to the Bay Area, I have to show you the Pearce G2r solid state head. Tonewise, it holds its own with the tube stuff but it is too loud to use in church. A few mentions on TGP and it looks like the prices are going up on ebay.

  7. Larry–exactly. Your tone has got to have a strong mids presence. And is the Hermida stuff compressed? I dig his stuff, but for the decidedly uncompressed and open sound they have in my rig. But maybe it’s just my rig. :) (Which could be good or bad. hehe)

    Rhoy–hehe Great stuff! And thanks for stirring the pot a bit. 😉 I totally agree with you that we need to be constantly changing where we’re playing in the mix. But this post was on where our tone should be, rather than on where we play. If your tone sits well in the mix to begin with, then you have the freedom to drop down to bassier octaves or to jump up to higher octaves without getting muddy or thin. So in essence, starting with the proper tone then allows you the freedom to find your part of the mix with your playing. But that’s a totally different post, to deal with sitting properly in the mix with your playing. This one was just to deal with your base tone.

    And yes, different styles do call for different things. hehe For instance, as much as I talk about how you want pedals to blend in with your natural tone, I do have a couple that just take over, because sometimes the song or the style needs that sound. It may not fit in with all the tone theories, but it sounds good. :)

    Keith–haha In reality, there were very few people there. I tried to convey that in the post, but I might have failed. It was a huge area……just an extremely few amount of people there. haha

    Dan–awesome! Ya, there have been some individual advances made in transistor technology with a few of the amp builders. It’s just that an the average, any old tube amp will sound better than any old solid state amp. It’s much easier to give that type of advice than to tell everyone to be on the lookout for like, an Evans combo or something. But you are right…there’s some good circuitry going on, that’s causing tube guys to take notice! Great comment!

  8. I’ll let you know when I find the haunting mids, though my suspicion is that they are around the same frequencies my ears ring at after listening to 152 watts :) lol

    I find that just having a bigger cabinet keeps you from needing to turn up any bass. The soundwave length at those low frequencies is so huge, most of the muddiness probably just comes from the 1 10 or 12 inch speaker trying to push out these huge waves – have you seen those subwoofers made just for guitar?

    when I first started playing I always wondered how someone like billy corgan got such a fat tone, it took me a while to figure out that it was the bass and guitar working together to lay the foundation for corgan to kill (ever here him live ugh) a song. by making space for the other instruments you can actually fatten up your song quite a bit, especially when you are playing the same lines.

    thats a good comment about the singer, I’ve noticed alot of bands who just continue to play right over the singer, sometimes justifiably, instead of giving them a little space to sing in. Tool has an amazingly heavy sound, yet the vocals come through so nicely, maybe they are onto something there.

  9. You know Karl,

    If you would have told me this 30 years ago, I could have:

    a.) Saved a bunch of money.

    b.) Saved a bunch of time.

    c.) Not been evicted from two apartment buildings due to excessive noise (It wasn’t noise dude. It was tone.).

    d.) Saved a bunch of money.

    and e.) Saved a bunch of money. :)

  10. Kenrick–lol on the haunting mids thing.

    And good call on the cabinet size! I totally used to have an oversized cab that would just give me the mushiest bass…no matter what I did! It took me forever to realize it was the cab.

    And on the Billy Corgan thing, I did the same thing for a while with U2. I was trying to emulate their whole ‘thick’ sound with just my guitar. The result was bassy mush. You’re right, if you force your ears to just pick out the certain instruments, you’ll find that the mix is responsible for a lot of the ‘fatness.’

    And yes, you definitely need to find places to play that will separate out nicely in the mix. Although this particular post was more about your base tone, not what register to play in when playing with a band. But you’re totally right.

    Wow, overall, you made like 4 sweet points in one comment. Bravo, brother! :)


    I’m thinking the exact same thing, brother! If only I had told myself this earlier…hehe I’d have money for more guitars! 😉

  11. hey karl, thanks for your reply. i wasn’t talking about where in the neck you are playing but also about the tone to use on parts of the song. but you are right, your post is more of the “base” tone to start with. i’m sure that we all differ in our thought process ’cause with me, my base tone is always the dry/clean sound that’s close to break-up. the reason i have 3 different sounding OD on my board is to change that base tone to fit the song. my ODs setting is constantly changing, not because i prefer one over the other, but more so one tone fits the song better. i hope this made sense … well, if not, shoot me up an email. either that, or just totally ignore this post :)

  12. Karl– Yeah, hermida stuff is very open and natural, but “in my rig” (lol) I feel that with the voice knob about 2 o’clock or greater it adds compression and bite to the notes along with high mids. If I’m using them as lead boost etc….. I cranked the voice for some compression. If I use the Zen drive for more rhythm, then I leave the voice about 12-1 and use the dynamics for what I want.

    Rhoy– yeah, voice is only for compression and affecting one side of mids. Does not scoop or hump like I thought. Only one section :) You were right!

  13. Chad–thanks, brother!

    Rhoy–way cool. Very, very interesting idea. You know, I’ve thought about that before with using eq pedals. Like having a few of them to change your eq on the fly depending on the song; but for me personally, it always just sounded better to have my rig set where it sounded best, and then to make the necessary changes to where my guitar sat in the mix with my hands. But if that’s working for you, then props! :) Just curious…what’s the reasoning behind making the eq changes with overdrives? Couldn’t you use eq pedals instead, and then you could change where your tone sat in the mix even when you wanted just clean sounds? Then you could add overdrive later to the already changed eq. I’m curious on your reasoning behind that; I’m sure it makes total sense, my brain just hasn’t made the jump yet. haha Good times, brother, and great conversation!

    Larry–huh. Very interesting stuff. I guess I can see it adding some compression in the high mid/treble side of things at more extreme settings, because I do remember bumping my voice knob one time to all the way up (accidentally, on my way to hit another pedal with my foot), and thinking, ‘Wow, don’t remember that sound. Guess I gotta sell my Mosferatu.’ hehe Then I looked down and was like, ‘Oh.’ (I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes. hehe) But I think I remember it sounding compressed up there. :) Good times.

  14. great post Karl thanks , im so glad you didnt confuse me with the dreaded EQ jargin , sound guys love to send me into head scratching what did he just say ????? with the 4K TALK HE HE . i know i should be up on the full spectrum of eq but i trust my ear and just never did get behind the board . im envious of you guys who do have knowledge of both the big mix and your amp . thanks again Karl for him craig

  15. hey karl very good question(s) :)

    it’s quite a bit to answer these so i decided that i will write a post about it and link back here. but i will answer one of your question: “Couldn’t you use eq pedals instead”?

    My quick response is: I can’t afford to have a lot of EQ pedals to vary my sounds. And this is where pedal versatility comes into play for me. Besides the gain structure, I need to know how the EQ stack of the pedal is built.

    As you know, there’s more to it than just the pedals. Tone knobs on the guitar also makes a lot of difference and not to mention the hands that play. But for me, the surest thing to great tone is: Guitar -> Amp. Anything that comes in between is just for coloring.

    Hope to post my more detailed rationale and thought-process soon :)

  16. Craig–no worries, brother! I hear ya on the technical talk. Music is such a feeling, and I think it can be described using colorful and feeling type words, rather than nuts and bolts. I don’t know if that’s making any sense…but music is art, and sometimes ‘4K’ just doesn’t do it. hehe You’re totally right.

    Have a great evening!

    Rhoy–cool, bro. :) I’d be interested to hear your views on that.


    That’s what rapbay is. A website, just like it explains in the picture. And why is it sad that you have to “wonder whether something like this is real?” Because it’s not Chrsitian worship music? And I don’t know what it says in your religious text about defacing the work of people who have passed away, but something tells me it’s frowned upon. He died in 2005. So just because you think you are speaking to an audience with a pre-conceived notion of what that picture stands for doesn’t mean that it won’t find it’s way into the many corners of the world wide web. And from skimming the rest of you posts, you seem pretty damn pretentious when you aren’t talking about worshiping God musically. Who cares if Beyonce makes a shit movie every now and then. She is a very talented singer and pursues many causes that attempt to better the world around us. And then there are people who sit there and talk trash about subjects they hardly know anything about like Rapbay, Fat Tone and Beyonce Knowles. I pity the close-minded and those who use religion as a defensive shield to block subjects that may make them uncomfortable. And Bono is the corniest of them all!

    Salam Alaikum,

    A Concerned Reader

  18. Anthony, thanks for the comment! I apologize for coming off as making fun of things I know little about. A good deal of this site is tongue-in-cheek, and I ask my readers as well as myself to take things a little less seriously. And that includes myself. You’ll find there are more posts here poking fun at U2 than rap. And more posts poking fun at myself than at U2 and rap combined. However, sometimes my writing style and probably just general intelligence leave something to be desired, and that tongue-in-cheek style doesn’t come off very well. I do have respect for Beyonce, and some of her songs are better than any I could ever write. However, at the same time, I hope that were she ever to for some odd reason stumble across this site, that she would have enough of a sense of humor about herself to chuckle at some of the films she’s chosen to be in.

    I write this blog to try to communicate certain ideas and feelings to people, and obviously if all you were able to take away from it was that I am jerkishly making fun of random things, than obviously I’ve got a ways to go in my communication. I’ll for sure try to work on that.

    And we’re agreed on these points:

    –Beyonce has talent, and I think her song ‘Halo’ is fantastic.
    –Beyonce also puts out some less-than-stellar movies. :)
    –Modern rap does tend to make me uncomfortable, but I’m working on it. Been listening to some Jay-Z lately trying to broaden my horizons. Can’t say I like it yet, but I’m trying! hehe
    –I can tend to be pretty pretentious.
    –Bono can tend to be very corny at times, and more and more lately.

    😀 Again, thanks for the comment; it really is appreciated and taken to heart.

    • I was just re-reading this post and saw these comments. Priceless!

      Nothing like being misunderstood and being called for something you aren’t doing. You handled that with more grace that I would have.

      I think ever style of music has its cheesy moments. That album cover is definitely one of worst for the rap community. No disrespect to Fat Tone. Much distaste for the graphical artist who created the cover…

      Jay-Z is a guilty pleasure of mine. Especially when he joins forces with Coldplay. Epic…

  19. Thanks. :) The critical comments are the ones you can learn from and improve upon the most, so I kinda like them. I do wish the people leaving them would return, as the conversation would probably be pretty valuable, too. But…what can you do. I totally get that if you only read one island post on this site, and it happens to be one like this, you’re not going to get the (what I like to think of as, hehe) satire, short of me putting winking smilies after every sentence, which gets old. haha

    I haven’t quite gotten into Jay-Z, try as I might. I have, however, in the process rediscovered some love for early 90’s rap, back when it came from a place of oppression, rather than the current, ‘I get what you get in a year, in two days…look at me, I’m gettin’ paper’ awesomeness. lol

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