Tips for Getting the Best Sound from Your Guitar Amp
By Chris Loeffler |
Tips for Getting the Best Sound from Your Guitar Amp
... just turn it up to Eleven!
by Chris Loeffler
So You’ve Plugged in to a New Amp…
With so many different genres of guitar music and amplifier styles out there, plugging in to a new amp can be intimidating to players who are more focused on honing their chops than tweaking knobs. Wanting to bust out a Stevie Ray Wannabe solo on a 120 watt Bogner Uberschall on the high-gain channel or wanting to nail Avenged Sevenfold’s tight riffing on a 50’s Magnatone Troubadour? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but you’ve put quite a hill between yourself and what you want! That said, as guitar players we have a responsibility to the audience to at least learn the basics of gear and chops… no one wants to hear a ripping jazz solo played through a farty, wimp amp any more than they want to hear someone limp through basic chords through a $50k Dumble.
Here are a few tips to help inexperienced players tackle a new amp and get what they want as quickly as possible.
Before You Get Started
While different amplifier and tone stack circuits yield wildly different results, you have to start somewhere when turning on am amplifier you’ve never played before! If you have a familiarity with the expected tone of the amp (i.e. “I’ve heard enough Beatles to have some idea what a Vox AC-30 should sound like”) you’ll be better equipped to dive in to what it likely does best, but that’s not always an option. In those cases, I recommend turning the Master and Gain controls (also known as “Output”, “Volume”, “Preamp”, “Distortion”, etc.) all the way down. Some amps only have a single Volume knob, which is fine. The goal is to not blow your ears out the first time you turn the amp on!
Next, you’re got to start somewhere with the tone section. Tone sections vary from a single control like “Tone” or “EQ” to the standard three-knob “Bass, Mid, Treble” format, with some modern amplifiers getting even more specific, adding graphic EQs, parametric EQs, and more. Some amps are known for their mid-focus, lack of bass, or even full-frequency sonic production, which will greatly impact where you settle on dialing in tone settings, but it’s always easiest to start with all the tone controls at noon.
Many amps, new and vintage, feature onboard effects like Reverb, Tremolo, or built-in digital multieffects. While it’s fun to immediately throw their awesome-sauce into the mix, it’s hard to get a great base tone with these, and the final amp tone you settle on will likely change the specific effect settings you will use anyway.
Have a bypass or standby switch? Use it! These allow tube amps to power up and reach optimal operating conditions after being turned on without unhealthy spikes to the input from your guitar. Typically, 30 seconds is sufficient to wait before switching the amp fully on.
Plug Your Guitar In
What sort of guitar are you playing through? Is it an old strat with vintage, low-output AlNiCo single coil pickups? Is it a ESP shredder with EMG active pickups and a built in 20dB boost circuit? The output of your guitar will have a very significant impact of how it shows up to the preamp section of your amp, so it is recommended to at least be aware of what you’re feeding your amp. The higher the output, the earlier and more aggressively the amplifier will break up. Do you tend to stick to only your Bridge or Neck pickup? The EQ range you’re living in will vary drastically depending on which you choose, with warmer, deeper tones near the neck and brighter, more immediate tones at the bridge.
There are few (if any) “rights” or “wrongs” in creating your tone, but the more awareness you have of what your guitar is bringing to the table, the more empowered and informed you are when it comes to making adjustments.
Set the Volume
If the amp you are playing through has a master volume, see what happens when you start it a 3/4 up with the gain (preamp) turned fairly low (maybe 1/4), especially in tube amps. The power section does a lot of the finessing and shaping of tone, including compressions and bloom, so keeping it working is important. While people associate perceivable distortion with the preamp section being overdriven, the power amp section too reacts to load and output and imparts a smoothness and harmonic complexity that preamp section cannot. If the output volume is too loud, roll it down to where you would like to hear it for practice/performance purposes. Both the nature of power amp sections and the way we perceive sound will result in variations of “slightly less good sounding” as you lower the volume from your ideal setting, but knowing where you want to be for performance purposes will ensure you aren’t fine-tuning to play at a “2” when you’ll be playing at a “7” every Thursday and practice!
Set the Gain
Pro tip I’ve observed and experienced over twenty years of playing- you will ALWAYS think you need more gain than you do. Think of any song you’ve heard on the radio and a distorted rhythm or lead part you enjoy and try to recreate it with your setup from memory. I’d be willing to bet the majority of the time you’re overshooting the gain by anywhere from 30-50% of what it actually is on the album. There are dozens of interviews with artists surprised by how much extra distortion is applied by people trying to emulate their tones. Even fuzz-friendly stoner rockers like Troy Van Leeuwen consistently experience their tone-a-likes missing the mark.
Explore how much gain you actually need/want from the preamp section. With the Master volume already set, edge up the gain to where you’ll want it at the lowest setting, adjust the Master volume to maintain the volume you want, and then drop the gain a half-a-notch. Why? I still think you’ve probably dialed in more gain than you need! Now you have a base-line volume output and minimum preamp setting.
Set the EQ
While there are infinite philosophies on EQ depending on genre and the sonic space occupied by the rest of the band, the guitar tends to be a mid-focused instrument. Bass and Drums cover the low end, and cymbals and vocals cover the high-end. Notable exceptions like the V-curve of metal players or sub-saturated fuzz of Guitar/Drum duos abound, but most players are focused on staying in the middle lane.
Start by exploring the range of each EQ knob; listen to whether the control is adding, removing, or shifting frequencies it is designed to control. I prefer starting with the Mid control, slowly bumping it up from noon to max, and then dialing it back until it sounds natural. From there, adjust the Treble for final sculpting.
A Presence control can be found in many amps, which can seem similar to but is different than a Treble control. It tends to be less frequency focused than the Treble control and adjusts
Consider the Loop
Does the amplifier you are playing have an FX Loop? If so, the loop may be an important part to getting (or preserving) the tone you are looking for. Said differently, everything you send into your amp is going to pass through several gain stages, both in the preamp, the phase inverter, the power amp, and the transformers. Time-based effects like delay, reverb, and modulation, which are often used to help defined space and distance in tone, tend to be homogenized and pulled back in when run through a preamplifier with any significant gain, resulting in a two dimensional, closed sound. By running certain effects in an FX loop, which typically sits after the preamplifier distortion but before the power amplifier section in the signal chain, they retain their “acoustic space” defining characteristics and manipulate and undulate the distorted signal in a more pronounced, produced way.
While I don’t want to discourage experimentation with tone, I doubt many people will find use for gain devices, such as treble boosters, fuzzes, or distortion in the FX loop… those effects tend to benefit from varying levels of gain refinement.
Your amplifier is the final part of your live signal chain (OK, speakers… but those tend to be considered part-and-parcel of the amp… and then there are live mikes to run it through a PA, and then there’s PA mixing, and then… never mind, you get the idea), but there are infinite variables that come into play in crafting your sound, from the wood and engineering of your guitar design to the pickup output to the cable you use to connect the guitar to the cable to the acoustic space the amplifier is filling on the output. That said, the amplifier is the engine through which your tonal foundation is crafted and laid, so it is a great place to start when determining how you show up sonically in the mix.
Remember, guitar amplifiers began as rudimentary ways to try to amplify an instrument to be heard by larger crowds and keep up with instruments of various acoustic output, and the coloring aspects of the devices were considered a flaw. As late as the early 60’s, the desired guitar amplifier introduced as little gain and EQ shift as possible, so the concept of the amplifier as an integral and desired part of defining the electric guitar is less than 60 years old!
How do you approach dialing in a new amp? - HC -
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.