As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m what’s known as a ‘part time’ gigger, or a semi professional musician, or the type of person who sinks every spare penny into a hobby without any monies coming back in… pretty certain many of you can relate! I’ve been gigging now for about 30 years – including some time as a FOH sound engineer - within a variety of different styles of music. So, I thought I would take this moment to pass on some of the hard-earned knowledge I’ve picked up over the years and present it to you in a three-point checklist to make you sound better when you are playing live. I say hard-earned, because all of this was learned the hard way: by sounding pretty crappy before I sounded good (well, I hope I sound good, that’s what I tell myself anyway).
- Understand your EQ and how it changes with the room and the people in it
When we are sat at home, making our tones, or programming our tones, (or however we do it) we have to understand that the room we are in will sound and react differently to the one we end up playing in. It’s massively likely that this room is smaller, with a lower ceiling, with carpets and curtains, or softer chairs… basically, things that soak the sound up. When you go out into a gig situation, the room may well be different – in fact, I’d go out on a limb here and say that 99.9% of the time it will be the complete opposite. It’s likely to be MUCH bigger, with a higher ceiling and fairly sparse in terms of softer material to soak the sound up. You get what are known as ‘hard reflections’ coming back at you, from the hard floor, the back wall, windows, absolutely everywhere. Remember, sound waves are not transverse waves like the pictures we see of a nice sine pattern, but a longitudinal wave (think of a worm squeezing itself together and stretching out to move forward, rather than a sidewinder snake wiggling it’s way), so the pressure from the speakers is pushing the air in front of it in a certain direction. As the bass wave is longer, it will push further and as bass is omnidirectional, it will go everywhere.
This will result in three things happening. The low end of your tone will travel much further than the highs (this is why when you are outside somewhere with loud music, you hear the bass through the walls – those long waves are almost unstoppable) and the high end could sound very shrill, or sharp. This leaves you in a dichotomy, as it appears you won’t be able to win. You can win, definitely, but you have to play wisely.
A lot of players set their amp EQ to be a nice smiley face, because at home, that’s what sounds best when you are jamming along with a record (do we still say record? Maybe track?) and there will be nowhere else for your sound to go. As soon as you take that tone into a live situation, you will notice that without a suitable amount of mid-range, your tone will mush in with the bass guitar and the top end will pierce the ears of all those who stand before you. If that big ol’ room you are playing in isn’t full to the rafters straight off with people standing/dancing right in front of you, your tone will be lost.
When you do your soundcheck, or line check, or level check (which ever you do), try to remember the space you are occupying with your tone. The low end is not necessary, so you need to drop it somewhat from what you had at home. The mid-range needs to be there as that’s what people hear - the human ear is trained to hear the frequencies of the human voice, so balance it at the point where it sounds full, but not woolly. Be very careful with your high end, it needs to sit right there on the top of the mid-range, but not attack the people at the back of the room like a drunken ninja looking to test their new Katana blade. As the room fills up, you may well be able to add a little more top end to your tone, but it’s unlikely you will need to if you balance it properly in the first instance.
Note – in a larger room, turn your reverb and delay levels down, they will just swamp your tone.
- Watch your ‘gain’ levels – consider stacking rather than using a full-on dirt pedal
When playing at home, it’s kinda hard to get that high-volume response from a gain pedal, or even a gainy amp, at lower sound levels. I fully expect there to be a mathematical or physics-based reasoning for that, but quite frankly there’s no need to go into it (translation – I don’t know). In order to make your guitar respond at lower volumes, you need to increase the ‘gain’ to replicate the feel. As you get louder (if you have even a slightly responsive amp), you will find that you can literally put your gain knob at almost halfway back to where you have it at home to get the same response… the same level of ‘alive’ under your fingers.
If you like higher gain tones for your solos, it would definitely be worth considering two (or if you are silly like me, three – three is heavenly!) lower gain overdrives stacked up together to give you that tone, rather than a separate gain pedal for solos. This is a personal favourite of mine, the reasoning behind it is that your solo tones should ALWAYS be different from your rhythm tones (even the most foot stomping rock has surprisingly low gain in rhythm work) but at the same time, not too different unless the song calls for it, this is YOUR tone after all! The best way to achieve tonal stability in your sound is to take what you already have and add to it with an inherent EQ curve rather than a completely different tone. This is why TS pedals are so popular, as well as K style pedals. The midrange hump that they both provide don’t necessarily add a higher-level of gain to your signal, but boy does it feel like it. The power and response is increased beautifully… if you have a favourite pedal (for example, my current squeeze is the Plexi Drive Standard) and add a K style pedal with unity level, low gain and a higher level of treble/tone, your tone will fatten up and cut through. It’s like putting your amp on 6 instead of 4. If you put a TS with a similar setting between the two, your amp will sound and react like it is now on 8. Very little gain is being applied to the front end, but enough to make your end pedal, the one that creates your tone, ‘dirt up’ hugely… you’ll find that the harmonics and response within your playing will jump out at you as well.
- Play into the spaces, don’t fill every gap you can find
In other words, learn when to shut up! This is the one that comes naturally to me as the first band I was in had two lead/rhythm guitar players, so everything was split pretty well 50/50 and we quickly became aware it sounded boring if we played the same thing. So, we used basic chord inversions to fill out the sound rather than duplicating. We also learned pretty quickly that, in order for the band to sound bigger, one of us had to stop playing at certain times. Because when the one who stopped came back in, the sound became huge. These days, the band I am in only has me on electric guitar, we do have an acoustic strummer type, but also quite often a keys or steel player sits in - and they exist in the same sonic space I do.
When it’s just me, I often will play something to compliment the acoustic player as he just strums on regardless. So, I will use a different inversion of the chord, or an arpeggiated strum line thing at the start of the bar, or maybe a complimentary line with the bass player. When the song hits the chorus, I come in properly and the band sounds bigger. When playing alongside a keys or steel player, I tend to sit back even further, giving them the room to fill those spaces and they do the same so, when we are all in there, the sound (the ‘width’ of the band) increases dramatically.
That phrase is the key to this – “leave the spaces clear”. Consider your band sound to be like taking a road trip in a car. If you have four people in the car it’s comfy and you all have the room to do what you want to do, if you put a fifth person in the car with you, space is limited so you all adjust to the situation. It’s the same with the band, as soon as someone is in there and occupying the same space as you are, you HAVE to adjust what you are doing, or it will feel very crowded very quickly.
So, there are three small hints for you to take to your next gig, rehearsal, get together etc. Just remember, you don’t need all that gain, you probably don’t need all that low end and don’t be afraid to shut up now and then to increase the dynamics of the band you are in!!
Some sneaky geeky tips:
- When setting up your PA and the room is boxy, or you are on the stage, consider putting the PA speakers on the floor rather than the stage. Or if they are on the stage, try to get the top cabs slightly pointing downwards. If they are too far above the heads of the people who are in the audience, the sound will fly straight to the back wall and back towards you, and so your nightmare begins!
- Try to never put your PA speaker against a wall. If it is flush with a wall, the bass end from that speaker could be increased by up to 6db.
- If you put your amp on the floor and you not on a stage, your amp is playing to your legs and you’ll have to have it much louder for you to be heard. If the room is emptier than you’d prefer, by the time your sound hits the back of the room, you are likely to be considerably louder than the band.
- If you are using a 2x12” cab for your guitar, also consider bringing your cab up off the floor. The bass response from the floor makes a difference as per above, and if you have the cab up off the floor, you can lift your sound up away from people’s legs. Dependent on the room and whether or not I’m mic’d up, I sometimes have my 2x12” running horizontally as it fills my part of the stage up perfectly. If I am not mic’d up, I will run it vertically (with the best sounding speaker at the top) so the sound flies around the head height of people, as rumour has it that is the place where you hear stuff best!!
- Here’s something that may well blow your mind a little, where you place your P.A. bass bins and your top boxes could mean they are out of synch. If your top box is on a pole that sits in the bass bin, your sound will hit the audience at the same time. If your top box is on a tripod and the bass bin is sitting in front of it (so about a yard in front) your bass frequencies will hit your audience about 3ms before your top end. If your top box is on a tripod on the stage and the bass bins are on the floor in front of the stage (about 2 yards in front), the bass will hit the audience about 6ms before. It may not seem like much, but once you know this, you KNOW it!
This past weekend was a bit of an anomaly for me. My wife was working two 12-hour shifts at the hospital, and my mother-in-law was keeping our two kids on Saturday, so I had a day pretty much to myself. Of course, there’s always something to do around the house like laundry, dishes, vacuuming, etc. but I decided to take the day and have a bit of fun. I loaded my Strat, Pantheon and vintage Twin head up and hit the road, off to visit a great friend of mine who lives two hours away. I had to get stuff done that day and couldn’t shuck everything I was doing, so I left the house at 6:30am and drove in the cold, wet rain up to the coast and proceeded to have a great time. Roxy and I have been Facebook friends for several years, and we’ve also traded and sold gear to the point it’s almost comical. I swear he’s got half of the stuff I’ve ever sold, and some of the gear I’ve even bought back from him and inevitably sold back. We jammed for about two hours and had an awesome time just hanging out and talking gear. He got to try my original ’68 Twin, and I got to try some of the amps he’d mentioned in our conversations (including a hand-built 20w from Bruce Egnater, his home-built amp, and one of the coolest little amps I’ve ever played in my life (more on that in a second). We messed with some pedals (including our Black Friday release) and just had a blast. It was great catching up, and it made me realize several things about myself and my gear choices.
First things first, I’ll discuss that amp I was talking about above. This was a 1-watt Marshall head and cab with a .25 watt switch on the back called the Offset. To be completely honest I’ve always sort of written off sub-20 watt amps as not being something that would ever tickle my fancy. I play into a clean platform almost exclusively, so the idea of such a low headroom amp seemed like a waste of time. I will be the first to admit that it was a stupid idea and that they are incredible. I plugged straight in and for only 1 watt and a single 10” speaker, it sounded MASSIVE. I was a bit shaken to my core because of it and I’ve pretty much been thinking about that amp constantly since then. I’m trying to work out a deal, as it’s a limited-edition amp and I WANT IT SO BAD. GAS hasn’t been quite this furious in a long time. It’s got extremely simple controls: Volume (Labeled Loudness) and Tone, then the Hi and Lo setting for the power scaling. That’s it. No frills. No FX loop, no drastic EQ changes. Simple and to the point. I REALLY liked it.
Enough about that epic little amp, onto more self-reflection and epiphanies (lol). Normally I’m one to pack up a big board and maybe bring a couple of guitars to a jam. Variety is the spice of life and all. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb and leaving my comfort zone by just taking a single pedal and a Strat that I’d only recently just modified with upgraded pickups and hadn’t taken it out for a jam yet. There was no real reason to worry, as it’s an American Pro strat that I had a guard wired-up from David Maue from Tonal Concept Pickups, where he had an original set of John Mayer Big Dippers that were wired in the neck and middle, and one of his custom PAF’s in the bridge. He put a push/pull pot in the bridge tone control to split the coil in the humbucker, and the other tone control allows me to use all 3 pickups together. As I said before, the only pedal I took was a Pantheon with a fresh 9v battery, and a TC Electronic headstock tuner for good measure. The greatest feeling was plugging into each amp and feeling confident in what I was doing. Admittedly my playing wasn’t perfect as I rarely get to practice much anymore (life, you know how it is), but overall there wasn’t a tone I felt I couldn’t achieve with that setup. Being totally honest it would have to be the fingers and the mind behind it to make that combo sound bad, but it was nice not having to hide behind a board like I’ve used as a safety net for so long. It did, however, dawn on me that with my lack of practice came the lack of remembering how to play most of the songs I used to know how to play. I’ve spent so much time noodling and learning riffs and just messing around that it was a bit disconcerting. Good thing is I know exactly what to work on, as I do want to get back to being able to play some covers like I used to. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was abundantly clear.
I guess the biggest thing I can take from all of this is that I’m thankful to have close friends who can talk gear, inspire GAS, and allow me to just be myself and play. It was nice having the guitar I had schemed over for so long and mess with to be just right turned out exactly how I wanted. That’s the first guitar where I sat down at the end of the day and had absolutely nothing to find wrong with it or a desire for it to do more. In the end, I will say that a lot of the tone comes from the hands, but having the right tools to translate what you’re putting out helps quite a bit and inspires confidence as well.
Tone sculpting has become a bit of an art, and many players pay so much attention to all facets of their board and guitar. Every link in the chain adds up to the overall tone you’re going to have coming from your amp, and small adjustments in your chain can make a big difference e in the long run.
Picks – There are thousands upon thousands of options for picks, ranging from extremely cheap budget picks all the way to expensive boutique picks that are worth almost as much as some pedals are. If you’re ever looking for a quick adjustment in your tone for something different, try a different pick shape or material. Different material will have a different tonal result on your pick attack, the harmonics and even feel of your playing. Metallic picks (using coins, etc) will have a brighter, chimey-er tone, where using some wood picks will yield a much darker tone. There are a plethora of options in terms of the material used to create them, so do your research and find which material yields the tone you’re looking for. Different thicknesses will make a large difference as well. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to for you to approach your tone differently. Also, if you don’t normally use your fingers, try it! Your fingers and fingernails have their own unique tone, and can resonate differently than a pick can. Switching up your right hand technique can really help you break out of the box tonally and technically.
Cables and Buffers – These are a foundation part of your tone, so great cables can make a huge difference. Again, there are a plethora of options out there for soldered and solderless cables, along with varying ends and methods of creating those cables, along with shielding options and types of outer casings for enhanced durability. The key to finding a great cable is finding a set that creates minimal signal degradation. The cheapo $5 patch cables can suck some tone and cut your high end, which after going through several of those cables will yield a more muffled, dull bypassed tone. Buffers also play a huge part in keeping your tone pristine. Buffers alter the impedence of your guitar signal, which helps it travel through your board easier. Just remember that some pedals (fuzzes and wah’s) aren’t fans of buffers, so place them before it. The best judge of whether you need a buffer or not is to take a short guitar cable (10’) and plug directly into your amp and play. Now plug into your board and see if the tone sounds muffled or like a blanket is lying over your amp. This would be due to signal loss from not having a buffer or needing better cables.
Speakers and Speaker Cabs - Of all of your tonal puzzle pieces, these are literally the devices that project your sound into the world, so choosing the right speaker for the application can play a huge role in turning great tone into STELLAR tone. There are more options than I can possibly put into a single blog, but there are hundreds of speakers from various companies that can accentuate the amp it’s paired with, and subsequently the pedals and guitar that are running into it.
The key to finding the perfect voicing for the sound you have in your head is realizing what you’re intentions are for the amp you’re using. If you want clean headroom, your speaker choices can differ greatly from an amp that you’re intending to use as your dirt tones. Choices can be affected by what configurations you have as well, so a single 1x12” cab will sound different from a 2x12” and a 4x12” (or 4x10”, or countless other options). Having a cab that holds more than one speaker is beneficial because it allows you to mix speakers to fit the perfect application. One speaker may be designed for more aggressive lows and highs with less emphasis on mids, where you could pair that with a more mid-focused speaker to fill out your sound tonally.
When choosing your speaker, you need to pay attention to the outputs on your amps and what ohms they can put out, as well as the speaker and make sure they match up. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, the easiest method is to email the company and let them know what amp you’re using and they can recommend the right product and ohm rating for you. Your amp can sound completely different based on whether you’re running at 4ohm, 8ohm and 16ohm and doing the research between the various options and what works best for your amp will yield some really fun and great sounding results.
Along with proper speaker choices, deciding on the right cab (as mentioned above) will play a part in your overall tone. Horizontal cables vs. vertical cabs can make a big difference on the tone you and the audience are hearing, along with which way the cab is facing and whether it’s tilted, off the floor, or even facing a different direction. The last thing the front row of a gig wants is to have your speakers blaring directly in their faces. Tilting the cab back (on combos) or getting the cab off of the floor will help diffuse some of the sound and disperse it into the air instead of directly at the audience’s faces.
Mix it up a bit – Do you normally run your delay into the FX loop? Try placing it before your dirt pedals for a completely different set of tones. There are typical “guides” and thought processes that come to mind when laying out a pedalboard, but when it comes down to it there are no rules, and what’s right is whatever sounds best to you. Experiment with signal chain order, especially stacking different pedals into each other to see what sonic tones you can coax out of something that would seem so unorthodox.
I’m a gear and pedal addict, and I’m always scouring the internet for whatever is catching my eye at the moment (Gibson SG’s right now in fact). I find it interesting when I see magazine articles or YouTube videos about someone’s rig rundown (or when you see some big name artist like Prince or countless others) and their pedal board was comprised of almost all Boss pedals.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it led me to thinking; do we obsess too much over gear? Why do some obsess over “boutique” gear while others are just fine with Boss or some other more budget-friendly brand pedals? Is our pursuit of tone out of necessity to achieve “the sound”? Personal enjoyment? Acquiring the latest and greatest gear? Is it a culmination of all of the above?
I tried to narrow it down to three types of players, in a very broad sense. This is a generalization, so in many scenarios it isn’t quite that static but more of a general observation than anything.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it” – These are players that love their tone just the way it is and has always been since they found “their sound” years ago. They have no desire to change it at all. Many times the players that fit this idea have great amps that they’re accustomed to and know every nuance about them, and every tone they can produce. There are likely a few base effects, maybe a boost or OD, delay, chorus, wah, or fuzz (among other things). In many cases it’s not a massive pedalboard, but in many cases the player has learned to coax the tones out of a smaller board of older pedals, and they don’t need any more than that. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, because it allows the player to focus solely on playing the instrument instead of twisting knobs and they know their tone and utilize every piece of gear with precision that fits the moment and what sound they need.
G.A.S. Hounds – (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) – These are the players that love to buy gear and search for new tones. There hasn’t been any official proof of why GAS sets in, but millions of players are stricken with the insatiable lust for “new” gear (new can consist of new-to-you, which is why the used market is massive right now). It could be the newest DSP delay that has been released with MIDI input, or a Distortion with active EQ controls and multiple gain stages, or a new Fuzz that’s supposed to be identical to one of the classic fuzzes Hendrix or Gilmour used. In many cases, it’s solely curiosity that drives players to want to try out the new gear.
New gear also can greatly inspire a player to try new tones and thus new ways of playing, which can be advantageous in growing their skill and finding their own sound. This works really well when a player is stuck in a rut with their playing, feeling like they aren’t progressing no matter how hard they try. There are many factors that could be discussed at a later date, but in general the GAS hounds are consistently on the chase for a new sound.
This leads to “flipping”, where a player purchases something (new or used) and in turn after playing it, “flips” it by reselling it in order to replenish the funds to put towards more gear. This is a major advantage to buyers and sellers in the used market, which is why it’s thriving so well. There are a lot worse things to do with your time and your money. Some people like to go bowling or play golf; G.A.S. hounds like to try new gear.
They just don’t care – There are a lot of players out there that don’t care what brand of pedal they playing, or whether it’s true bypass or buffered or if a pedal has the extra fancy functions. To them it is just a tool that they use to create music. It is like a carpenter who goes out and buys a hammer. He doesn’t necessarily need a certain brand name, just a good hammer that gets the job done. A lot of artists fall into this category. They know they need a certain sound, but they really don’t have the time, or care to compare delay pedal A to delay pedal B. They just need a solid functioning pedal that will get the job done and let them get their music out to the world.
So where do you fit in? Have you achieved your sound and are happy with what you have? Or are you the player that just likes to check out the newest offerings from the gear world out of curiosity? Or do you view pedals as just another tool in the toolbox, and it doesn’t matter what brand it is as long as it makes the sound you were hearing in your head?
The funny thing is, like most things in the guitar world, there is no right or wrong way to be. It really is about what makes you happiest, and what makes you want to pick up your axe and head to the woodshed.
I was checking out the wonderful "The Guitar Hour" last week (hosted in part by signature artist Tom Quayle) where the guys went to a luthier and filmed and dissected a full set up on guitar. It's compelling viewing and fascinating to see what happens when a professional does the job perfectly! If, like me (having worked in guitar shops for years and having set up thousands of guitars in my time) you thought you know it all, then this will be a real eye opener for you.
Part 1 - The Fret Dress - The thing that always made me really nervous! 37 minutes.
Part 2 - Taking you through the first part of a standard set up. 35 minutes!
Part 3 - The rest of the standard set up. 36 minutes.
Thank you to Tom, Dave, Dan and David for letting us publish on our blog, it's much apprecaited! You can check out The Guitar Hour here.