In addition to well executed articulation, phrasing, bends and vibrato, guitar amp tone is essential in being a professional guitar player. The tonality of your guitar amp has nothing to do with the technique behind your playing, rather it is a factor in other people's perception of your overall sound. I have been playing guitar professionally since the age of 16. It wasn’t until I was 25 years old that I was educated in tone. I don't think my tone was terrible before, but looking back, my tone has undergone major improvement over time. Like many guitar players starting out, I had to learn to discern between "good" and "bad" sound. Please note that I'm not referring to the quality difference between brands or manufacturers. In fact, a majority of manufacturers that produce higher quality products between mid to upper price ranges all create excellent products. Specific manufacturer tonal characteristics is subjective to the guitar player. In this regard, you should purchase what you desire. On the other hand, it does not matter how long you have been playing the guitar, you can always improve your tone. In this article, I'm going to cover how to you use guitar amplifiers' EQ controls (bass, mids, treble, presence, etc.).
Typically, the number one culprit for poor guitar tone is excessive levels of treble and bass; or a lack of mids. The reason for this is that even a high end amp it is susceptible to frequency cancellation from other surrounding instruments. And then there are drums, bass, and vocals that typically compete for space. Each has its own place in the audio spectrum and need to "sit separate" in their own place within their designated frequencies. Sure, your amp may sound great at home with the bass and treble levels cranked to fill what is perceived to be a good sound, but in a live or recording environment there are other instruments that need to fill the same audio space. Two instruments occupying the same audio space often mutes one another. This is not just reflective on your professionalism as a guitar player, but for everyone. Musicians need to allow other instruments their place in the sonic spectrum. Excessive treble levels will cause your guitar to get washed out by the drum’s cymbals. Too much bass will cause the sound to be swallowed up by the bass player. Why work hard to become a great player if no one can hear you. These cancellations will make the whole band sound bad. People will walk out of your band's gig and say “that band was not very good” even though the band may be great. What they are really referring to is bad tone.
As I had stated earlier, my education in tone started at the age of 25 when I was working with a band who happened to have a great engineer in the studio. He let me dial in my tone, tweak the amp EQ, and personally added some additional EQ work on the mixing console. From there, we began recording. It wasn't until I listened to my recorded guitar track channel that I realized there was less treble than I usually use. It still sounded great with the other instruments in the band, but it was still not the same. I asked him to increase the treble on my guitar track and instantly I noticed the sound became washed out by the cymbals and was less defined. I immediately applied this lesson to my tone in live situations. Since then, I have continued learning about my tone through audio engineers that I have worked with.
A majority of guitar players will say that their tone is too dull when they turn down the treble. However, these guitar players typically don't have their amp directed at their ears, but rather at the back of their legs. The last time I checked, my ears are not located behind my knees. It is crucial that you elevate your amp with a tilt back amp stand. If you have an angled cab, stand farther away so you can hear the true sound you are producing from your amp. After making this adjustment, you may realize you are not happy with your overall tone. Seek out the opinions of others. For example, ask a trusted engineer their opinion about your tone, or seek out other guitar players that have a tone you like. Keep adjusting your levels to find a sound that you like the most. I can honestly say that I have performed for 10 years and, still to this day, I learn something new and the light bulb goes off. It is crucial to keep an open mind. Every time I do, my tone improves.
About the author: Mark Turko is a staff writer for Fretmonkey Records, and has over twenty five years experience playing and teaching guitar. Contact Mark If you are interested in electric or acoustic guitar lessons in North Haven CT.
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