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I’ve got a question for you: How often would you say you use your Tone control on your guitar? How about the volume? Pickup selector? With all the goodies we’ve got for tone-shaping at our disposal, I’ve found a very drastic split between people who always tweak the controls on their guitars, and those who set and forget. Admittedly, I fell into the second category of diming the controls for the first 2/3rds of my guitar playing life. The source of this approach came from my early years of starting out playing punk rock, where the idea was that everything needed to be on 10, as loud and as fast as it possibly can go. It was bad enough that I would plug in and it would sound like a blanket was over my amp, immediately making me think that something was wrong with my setup. Nope, just the tone knob had been rolled back some and made my heart skip a beat for absolutely no reason. Sounds kind of wonky or careless, but I’m betting I’m not the only one who has done that (more on that later). It wasn’t until I started digging into songs and learning the nuances of verses and choruses and solos that I realized how much of a difference the controls on my guitar can make in association with how my amp is EQ'd and how I have my pedals set. It took a long time to adopt the differing process, but once I did it opened a boatload of tonal opportunities I had been missing out on utilizing all that time.
Years ago, my normal process for setting up my base tone revolved around amp first (where all of the EQ controls used to be on ten like I mentioned above), then using my pedals to add whatever flavor I was looking to add, usually with the gain set excessively too high. My resulting tone was always completely overbearing, a bit harsh and sometimes flubby on the low end, or overly mid-honky. Again, at the time it wasn't about tone, but being loud and obnoxious. The problem that occurred is that I had no idea how the frequencies needed to sit in the mix, or how it would mesh with other instruments in the band. But alas, it was punk rock, and it was fun. That process of cranking the amp controls doesn't always lead to awful tone, quite the contrary on some amps. I suppose you could say that there's a time and a place for everything, and my combination of Strat into Danelectro pedals, into a Fender Stage 160 combo amp was NOT the place for it. On a nice vintage amp, I could completely see turning everything up and basking in that glorious tube amp tone. Again, I was in my late teens and had no clue of the bigger picture.
A few years later, my musical tastes started to develop and refine a bit more, and I started digging into what made some of my favorite artists sound just so doggone good. Through trial and error, I finally developed my ear to learn to approach things from another angle. At this point, I still use the amp as my first act of tone-shaping, but I approach it a bit differently. The amp and speaker(s) are the last things my signal sees before the tone is released into the wild, so that will play a huge role in the overall character of your chase for amazing tone. My initial settings on a 3-band EQ amp consists of Bass on 6, Mids on 4, and treble on 7. That's my starting point, but depending on the amp and where I'm playing I'll tweak from there. The reasoning behind these particular settings is because I've found that I prefer to use my pedals as my method to alter the mids in my tone, and I'm partial to a neutral but still "full" sounding clean tone. Next, I focus on my guitar a bit which might be a bit odd, but I'll explain. I've gotten to the point now where I instinctively roll off a bit of tone on my guitar. Crazy, right? I'll roll it back to seven or 7.5, along with my guitar's volume. My theory behind this is that I've always got a bit of extra volume and tone left in reserve in case I need it in a given situation. Sometimes you don't want to bend down and mess with your controls, so just adjust the tone knob a bit and get that added bit of extra clarity or high-end roll off that you're needing. Same goes for volume, where rolling back the guitar's volume will lessen the input on many gain pedals (especially fuzzes), and it gives you that extra bit of grit when you kick into a solo.
A couple of years ago I adopted a volume pedal into my rig, mainly for ambient swells and all that fun stuff, but after awhile I noticed a practical side to it. I put mine after my drives, before my modulation and delays and reverbs. Placing it there allowed it to act as a "master volume" of sorts that let me set my gain and output for multiple stages of volume, all controlled by my handy-dandy foot. I'm in turn left with my guitar to add a bit of grit and oomph or clarity with the controls on me no matter where I'm standing in relation to my board. I then have several gain stages with my pedals, and the ability to set the overall output as unity or a boost with the volume pedal. *(Handy tip - you can also put a volume pedal in your FX loop to act as a master volume as well). Having those options leaves me constantly tweaking the knobs on my guitar when I'm playing, so much so that if I'm playing unplugged I still habitually twist the knobs. Once you get it down pact and you find your sweet spots, it opens up a load of tonal control right at your finger-tips.
While we're on the subject of guitar controls, it would be worth delving more into the heart of your guitar's control scheme. Beyond the typical 5-way or 3-way pickup selections, possibly modifying or upgrading can make a significant difference in your overall tone and the amount of control you have over it. To start off, upgrading your pots can make a big difference in the sound and feel of your guitar. Upgrading from 250k pots to 500k pots can give you an extra bit of oomph if you feel like your pickups just aren't coming alive. Along with upgrading pickups, it may be worth looking into various wiring options for your pickup configuration, such as a 4-way telecaster pickup selector, that allows you to run your pickups in series along with the standard ways. A Les Paul with 50's-style wiring can greatly improve the responsiveness of your tone controls. Upgrading inductors and capacitors in your guitars can also drastically change what tones you have on tap, from major frequency changes to slight treble roll-off. There's an enormous variety of simple upgrades and modifications you can make to your instrument to improve the response and playability. There are push/pull pots for allowing the player to split the coils in humbuckers, or blender pots that allow the player to blend various pickup configurations on the fly, as much or as little of each as desired.
Last but not least, let's talk about pickups. Sometimes, no matter how much we want to love everything about our instrument, it's always possible to fall out of love with the tone of it. There's nothing wrong with the way that it plays, but the tone just isn't there anymore. Luckily there are so many options out there for different pickups that it's almost dizzying. Depending on what guitar you have and how the body was routed, a pickup swap is a quick and easy way to drastically change the overall character of the voice of your guitar. Humbuckers, P90's, Single-Coils, Mini Humbuckers...the list is quite long of the various pickups that can be mixed and matched to find what you're looking for. Pick swaps are a relatively easy thing to do, but it requires a basic knowledge of soldering. If you're not comfortable with soldering, there are companies out there that offer pre-wired pickguards and control plates and switches that you can easily have a tech put in fairly quickly. Taking the time to understand and experiment with just your guitar can open a broad spectrum of control and tones that aren't available if everything is set wide open.
How do you set your guitar's controls? Have you done any upgrades to your guitar to allow added flexibility and tweakability to shape your tonal voice?