Of all of the guitar pedals out there, the humble EQ pedal is perhaps the most misunderstood, and also the least appealing. This is a point that I think was best summed up by Josh Scott of JHS Pedals when he stated:
EQ is not exactly fun. It’s not flashy. And if it goes to a party, it’s probably stood in the corner being ignored…Josh Smith, JHS Pedals
I think this is partly because EQ pedals function quite differently to most other guitar pedals. Unlike the majority of guitar pedals on the market, EQ pedals require a little more work and direction. You can’t just step on an EQ pedal and transform your tone. In fact, as I will explain in more detail below, if you just step on an EQ pedal, nothing will happen at all.
Similarly, EQ pedals don’t actually bring anything new to your rig. If you buy a new overdrive pedal, you introduce a different circuit into your set-up. This circuit adds new tonal flavours into the mix. It introduces an ‘ingredient’ that was not present in your sound before that point. And this is a very appealing idea for most guitarists.
However, as I will explain in more detail throughout, this is not true of EQ.
Lastly, EQ pedals are not typically very intuitive. They usually have anywhere between 5 and 10 dials. Each of these dials is typically represented by a ‘Hz’ value. And altering the settings on any of these dials can have a profound on your effect on your tone.
Some of these changes can be favourable. Yet others are likely to change your tone for the worse. Unlike like using a boost or overdrive pedal, you can’t just turn a gain and volume knob to reach your desired tone.
As such, compared with using some of the many other types of guitar pedal out there, using an EQ pedal can at first seem complicated and overwhelming. But don’t let this put you off. For it is these same features which make EQ pedals amongst the most useful and versatile guitar pedals out there. And this is particularly true for blues guitarists.
Here then I will be covering everything you need to know about EQ pedals, as well as the 5 key ways an EQ pedal can help to improve your blues guitar tones.
I appreciate that it is tempting to jump ahead and just look at how to use an EQ pedal. However if you are new to the world of EQ pedals then I would recommend first reading the background information included here. This will help you to properly understand how to use an EQ pedal. And in turn this will result in better blues guitar tones.
What is EQ?
Every sound that you have ever heard has a particular audio frequency. This is measured in Hertz (Hz). As humans, the spectrum of sounds that we are able to hear is quite broad. In technical terms, the average human can hear noises from as low as 20 Hz, right the way up to 16,000 Hz or even higher.
Put in a simpler way, we can hear sounds that are really quite low in pitch, all the way up to sounds that are really quite high in pitch. And our ears pick up all of the frequencies across this spectrum.
These frequencies exist in music. And so they are present every time you play your guitar too. If you play your low E string for example, you are playing a note that is low in pitch and has a low Hz. If you jump up to the high E string and play the 22nd fret, then you are playing a note that is higher in pitch and has a higher Hz. All of the frets in between these two points will appear at different points on the spectrum of audio frequency. And within any given note, there exists a blend of different frequencies.
In other words, the note that you play on your 22nd fret on the high E isn’t solely made up of high frequencies. It is a mix of frequencies (the majority of which are at the higher end of the spectrum).
It is useful to appreciate this point, because this is where EQ comes in. EQ stands for equalisation. And even if this term is new for you, the concept of using EQ to shape your guitar tone is likely to be one with which you are familiar.
This is because the vast majority of guitar amps have ‘EQ’ shaping controls. Typically these are the ‘bass’, ‘middle’ and ‘treble’ controls. Some amps also have a ‘presence’ control. If you alter any of these controls, you will increase or decrease the volume of that frequency in your sound, which in turn will change your guitar tone.
You can easily test this on your amp. If you crank the treble control, your tone will become sharper and brighter sounding. Do the same with the bass and your tone will become warmer and more wooly sounding. And so on.
As I will explain in more detail below, EQ pedals work in much the same way.
EQ & frequency bands
Before we look at EQ pedals, the key point to understand is that turning up the EQ dials on your amp does not add extra treble, middle or bass to your signal.
All these EQ shaping controls do is increase the volume of that frequency. This makes it sound as though more of the effect is being added into the mix. But in fact nothing is being added to your tone. The controls simply increase the volume of the frequencies that your guitar is already producing.
It is important to understand this point when it comes to EQ. The EQ dials on your amp are not adding any new sounds to the mix; they are simply sculpting your existing tone. And as I will explain in more detail shortly, the same is true of EQ pedals.
On most guitar amps, the whole audio frequency spectrum is represented by 3 or maybe 4 controls. Yet outside of guitar amps (for example when music producers are working with EQ on a track) that frequency spectrum is split up into smaller frequency bands.
There is some variation between the Hz levels that people use to define these different bands, but broadly speaking, the frequency bands and their names are as follows:
|Frequency band||Sub bass||Bass||Low mids||Upper mids||Presence||Brilliance / Noise|
It is worth noting that amongst guitarists, the term ‘treble’ is more commonly used to describe the frequencies beyond the upper mids. And it is for this reason that on most guitar amps the EQ shaping controls are bass, middle and treble. Presence is used to describe frequencies higher than those found in treble.
As you can see then, the EQ shaping controls on most amps are fairly broad. You have just 1 control for bass, mids and treble. And between them, those controls account for an EQ range of almost 4kHz.
This is why guitarists use EQ pedals. EQ pedals take the broad categories of bass, middle and treble that you find on most amps, and slice them up into much smaller frequency bands.
Not only this, but they focus on the frequency bands most relevant to guitar players. These are the mid frequencies. Your guitar doesn’t produce very low pitches like a bass guitar. Likewise, the pitch you hit when you play on the upper frets of your guitar isn’t that high compared with many other instruments.
As such, EQ pedals focus in on those mid-range frequencies and break them up into small frequency bands that you can adjust. Although the specifics vary between different brands and pedals, most EQ pedals have either 7 or 10 different frequency bands.
Arguably the most famous EQ pedal of all time is the Boss GE-7 Equalizer. This has 7 frequency bands, which split up the frequencies from 100 Hz, up to 6.4kHz. On the Boss GE-7 you have the option to increase or decrease the volume by 12dB for each of these frequency bands. Finally, there is a level dial, which gives you the option to increase or decrease the overall volume from the pedal by 12dB each way.
The Boss GE-7 is just one example of an EQ pedal that could work for you. However there are a whole range of different pedals out there. Some options I would recommend are as follows:
Although these pedals are all priced differently and have some different features, they are essentially based on the same design.
Each of these pedals has a variety of frequency bands and the option to increase or decrease the volume of any given frequency, as well as to increase or decrease the overall volume of the pedal. Each of these pedals also displays the level of each frequency using visual sliders. And for this reason, these EQ pedals (and those similar to them) are typically referred to as graphic EQ pedals.
As such, any of these pedals would work well as part of your set-up. Some of them – like the Behringer EQ700 – are simpler and more budget friendly options. Conversely, an EQ pedal like the Boss EQ-200 Graphic Equalizer Pedal has options to save presets, as well as a screen to display the curve of your EQ.
Unlike when it comes to overdrive, fuzz and wah-wah pedals, you don’t need to sweat too much over the pros and cons of each of these pedals. After all, they are doing nothing more than shaping your existing tone. Instead I would recommend that you set a budget, decide the extent to which you want to be able to tweak each of the frequency bands, and then go out and get one!
How to use your EQ pedal
Up to this point we have covered how EQ pedals function, and the basic features on these pedals. However this isn’t particularly helpful with regards to actually improving your guitar tone.
Now then, we will turn our attention to how you can actually use an EQ pedal to craft better blues guitar tones.
There are a wide range of different ways to use an EQ pedal. Many of these are not particularly relevant for blues guitarists. And so here I am just going to focus on 5 key ways an EQ pedal can help to improve your blues guitar tone. These are as follows:
1. Tweak your core tone
We have all had that frustrating experience of almost dialling in a killer guitar tone, but just not quite getting the balance right. Maybe you like your tone, but it is just a bit too bass heavy. Or maybe it is a little too sharp and biting. So you try and make a change on your amp or by altering the controls on your guitar. And yet for whatever reason you just can’t seem to find the sweet spot.
This is where an EQ pedal can make a big difference to your tone. As noted above, EQ pedals break the audio frequency spectrum up into much smaller bands. And in this way you can make finer adjustments to your tone.
This can help you to smooth off the rough edges of your sound and make small tweaks to your tone. You can add in just a tiny amount of bass. Or slightly reduce the treble. In turn this gives you a lot more control over your tone and allows you to tweak it at a granular level.
2. Get more from your pedals
You don’t have to limit this tweaking to just the tone from your amp; it works just as well with your overdrive pedals.
Every overdrive pedal functions differently and has a different tonal characteristic. Some guitar pedals – like the Ibanez Tube Screamer – have a distinctive mid-hump. This means that they disproportionately boost the middle frequencies of your signal. Conversely, others – like the famous Klon Centaur – are ‘transparent’ and so don’t alter your signal in the same way.
There will be times when you want a particular kind of tone from your pedals. You might be looking to create a ‘mid-hump’ in your sound that helps you to cut through the mix for a solo. Or you might be looking to do the opposite. You might want to balance out the EQ of an overdrive pedal that you feel accentuates certain frequencies too much. Finally, you might just have an overdrive pedal that produces a tone that you like, but which doesn’t quite hit the tonal sweet spot that you have in mind.
Faced with these scenarios, a lot of guitar players go out and buy more overdrive pedals. This ensures that they have the right pedal for any given moment. But as you can imagine, this approach is potentially expensive, and can also lead to an impractically large pedalboard.
It is also one that might not work. You might for example buy a range of overdrive pedals that all produce a different tone. And yet each of those tones might just slightly miss the mark.
This is where an EQ pedal can make all the difference. If you put it in front of your overdrive pedal, you can use it to alter the frequencies that are boosted when you engage your overdrive. In this way you can totally alter the sound of your overdrive pedal(s). So by just adding a single EQ pedal to your set-up, you can get a lot more from a small number of guitar pedals.
3. Give yourself a boost
As noted above, EQ pedals have a volume or level dial. This allows you to control the overall volume of the pedal. When used correctly, it also gives you the option to make your EQ pedal function like a boost pedal.
There are two main ways I would recommend using your EQ pedal as a boost. And these are as follows:
Firstly, if you are looking to add drive and gain to your tone, then all you need to do is place your EQ pedal in front of the overdrive pedal(s) in your signal chain. When you increase the level on your EQ pedal and engage it, it will increase the gain and compression in your overdrive pedal.
This happens because the volume level on your EQ pedal amplifies your signal. This amplified signal goes into your overdrive pedal – which, unlike an amp – has very little headroom to allow for an increase in volume. So it causes more clipping and overdrive. This will beef your sound up and make your guitar sound thicker and bigger.
This can work very well if you are playing at home and want to dial in a warm and thick overdrive sound at a lower volume.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you place your EQ pedal after an overdrive pedal in your signal chain, you can use the EQ pedal to give yourself a clean boost of volume. Dialling up the level on your EQ pedal will cause your volume to increase. It won’t cause any additional gain or compression in your overdrive pedal. It will just make your overdrive pedal sound louder.
This works very well if you are playing in a band or in a live setting. You will be able to adjust your volume for those moments where you are playing lead and you want to cut through the mix.
As a final point, it is worth noting that you can use an EQ pedal in this way, whilst also tweaking your tone. So if you are looking for either a boost in gain or volume, and you also want to shape the sound of your overdrive tone, then an EQ pedal works very well here.
4. Strike the balance
The option to adjust your volume – combined with the ability to tweak your EQ – can help you to maintain a balanced and consistent tone, even if you change other elements of your set-up.
This is particularly useful if you have a number of different guitars that you play on rotation. You might find that you dial in a killer tone on your Fender Strat. But then you switch to a Gibson Les Paul, and suddenly your tone becomes unrecognisable.
Now of course, if you are changing guitars, it might be because you want to dial in a different tone. But even if that is the case, it is quite likely that you will want to preserve some of the core elements of your sound.
Again, an EQ pedal can work very well here. It allows you to adjust the EQ between different instruments. And in this way you can even out significant differences in tone that might occur when you change guitars. This in turn means that you can feel confident in recreating your core tone, even if you change other elements of your rig.
This function also works well if you are playing live and are switching between different guitars. If you switch from a guitar with humbucker pickups to one with single coils, you will lose volume. To counter this, all you need to do is increase the volume on your EQ pedal. When you step on the pedal. your volume will increase to humbucker level, and you’ll be able to maintain consistency of volume, whilst dialling in a slightly different one.
5. Sound like a King
Both B.B. King and Freddie King played guitars with a Varitone switch. The Varitone is a 6 way rotary knob that helps guitarists shape their tone. This knob is connected to a notch filter, which is linked to 6 separate capacitors. The first position on the Varitone switch is true bypass. Then in positions 2-6, the Varitone removes certain frequencies from your sound. The amount that the circuit slices away in each position is preset. And so in this way, the Varitone switch offers up 6 preset ‘EQ maps’.
It is quite rare to find guitars fitted with Varitone switches. Historically, the circuit was fitted to Gibson ES-355 and ES-345 type guitars. But for a variety of reasons the vast majority of Gibson and Epiphone ES style guitars made today do not feature the circuit.
Luckily though, you can get close to recreating the sound of a Varitone circuit using an EQ pedal. Like a Varitone, an EQ also slices away certain frequencies in each position. The key difference between a Varitone and an EQ pedal is that the settings of the Varitone switch are hard wired.
There is some discussion around the exact frequencies that are removed by the Varitone in each position. There are also those that believe that the Varitone switches that were produced in the 1970s sound notably different. But below is a rough guide to the changes in EQ that happen at each position of the circuit:
1.) Bypass (no changes in EQ)
2.) -8.5dB at 1875Hz
3.) -12dB at 1090 Hz
4.) -15dB at 650 Hz
5.) -16dB at 350 Hz
6) -20dB at 130 Hz
Now not all EQ pedals have dials at these levels. However I hope that you can use the Hz levels noted above as a guide. In this way, you can loosely replicate the different positions of the Varitone switch and get closer to the killer tones of B.B. and Freddie King.
How to get more from your EQ pedal
Broadly speaking, guitarists use pedals to add effects to their tone. When you use an overdrive, boost or fuzz pedal you are adding an effect that alters your sound. As a result of this, I think most players have a tendency to treat their EQ pedals in the same way. In other words, they think about boosting the frequencies that they want to hear.
Yet when you use an EQ pedal, it is important to note that you also have the option to decrease the level of any given frequency. In other words, you don’t always have to think about boosting your frequencies. In fact, I would argue that when you boost all of the dials on your EQ pedal, you risk creating quite a dirty and muddy tone.
Let’s say for example, that you want to add a bit more treble to your sound. You have two options. On the one hand, you can crank the upper mids on your EQ pedal. This would increase the treble in your sound, achieving your desired results.
Yet you can achieve the same thing by cutting out some of the bass frequencies. This would also make the upper mids sound more prominent in your tone.
The difference, is that in the second approach the different frequencies are not fighting one another. You have simply removed one of them. This helps to give you your desired tone, without adding to the sonic clutter.
As such, when you are thinking about adjusting your EQ, I would always advise trying to add to your sound through subtraction. Don’t think about which frequencies you can boost. Instead think about which frequencies you can cut out to create the same (or better) tone.
Is an EQ pedal right for you?
At this stage I hope I have convinced you of the potential benefits of adding an EQ pedal to your set-up. Yet before you run out to buy one, as a closing point I think it is worth reiterating one of the points mentioned at the very beginning of this article:
An EQ pedal does not introduce new sounds or circuits into your rig. It simply provides you with a mechanism to tweak and adjust the tones that you are already producing.
As such, your success with an EQ pedal is somewhat determined by your current satisfaction with your tone. Adjusting your EQ is about smoothing out the edges of your tone, and refining your sound. It is about fine tweaking and altering elements of your sound that you can’t alter so easily on your amp or guitar.
If then you are basically happy with your tone, and you just want to fine tune it, an EQ pedal will make an amazing addition to your pedalboard.
Conversely, if you are either fundamentally dissatisfied with your tone, or if you are still discovering what type of tone you really like, then it might be worth looking at other areas of your rig first. In this way you can get close to the tone you have in mind, before polishing and refining it with an EQ pedal in the future.
Good luck picking out and using your own EQ pedal! Let me know how you get on in the comments, and if you have any questions, just pop them below or send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. I am always around and happy to help! 😁
Images & References
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