5 Ways To Get Better Tones From Your Guitar Amp

Dialling in a beautiful blues tone is no easy task. You can have all of the key elements in place – a great guitar, the right pedals and a brilliant guitar amp. Yet for some reason, you just can’t get the tones you want.

The great news, is that a lot of the time this has nothing to do with the gear you’re using, but rather the way you set it up. So it is a problem that is easy to solve. There are a number of opportunity areas here, and setting your guitar amp up properly is a great place to start.

In my belief, guitarists don’t pay enough attention to how they set their amps up. I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past. I’ve totally under-utilised some brilliant amps by just plugging in and playing, and then wondering why my tone sounds thin or harsh.

Crafting a beautiful guitar tone is both a science and an art, and this is particularly so in the blues. The blues is all about nuance, and you’ll be amazed at the difference that small tweaks can make to your set up. Keep this in mind when reading the advice laid out here. At first glance some of it might seem quite obvious, but small changes add up and they will make a big difference to your tone and to the ‘feel’ of your rig.

So without further ado, here are my tips for getting the best out of your guitar amp:

1. Adapt to your environment

Before you even touch your guitar amp, you need to first establish not only the tone that you want to create, but also the environment in which you are going to be playing. What sounds good in your house or in a small studio will not sound the same on stage. As soon as you start playing with other musicians, you need to alter your amp set up. You have to think not just about the tone you want, but also about how you are going to ‘cut through’ the mix. And this can be a challenge.

When playing by yourself, chances are you favour a slightly darker tone. Very few guitarists want a sharp, biting tone when playing without accompaniment. They lower the treble and presence on their amps and crank the bass. This can sound amazing when you are playing alone. But in a band setting you’ll be drowned out by the bassist and drummer. In this situation you need to adjust your guitar amp to increase the treble, mids and presence, and roll the bass back. This might sound harsh on the ear when you’re playing unaccompanied, but it will ensure that you are heard properly when you are playing with other musicians.

Long story short – you need to constantly adjust your guitar amp depending on the environment in which you are playing. You can’t establish one tone and expect it to serve you in all circumstances. Instead, learn to love the process of constantly tweaking and adjusting your amp to get the right tone in the right moment.

2. Live on the edge

Having said that, there are still some guidelines you can follow to get great tones, regardless of circumstance. One of the most important of these, is to set your amp up so that your base tone is on the edge of break up. You want a slightly overdriven tone, but one that is warm and preserves the clarity and punctuation of every note. This is nice and easy, and can be done in one of 2 ways, depending on what kind of amp you are using:

First things first, roll the volume on your guitar down to 7 or 8.

If your guitar amp has a master volume control, turn it up to the volume at which you want to play at. Next, slowly turn the gain up until you get a slightly overdriven tone.

If your guitar amp doesn’t have a master control, then you have to drive the volume. Turn the volume control up until the amp starts to overdrive and break up.

Now you have your base tone and are good to go. If you want to play lead, you can crank the volume on your guitar to get an extra boost and a more overdriven tone. If you want to back off, you can soften your sound by applying less pressure with your picking hand. Setting your guitar amp up in this sweet spot gives you versatility and control. It also ensures that you are never straying too far from the softly overdriven tones that sound so great in the blues.

3. Don’t forget your guitar

The tone you create always starts with your guitar. Your amp plays a huge part in helping you craft a beautiful blues tone. But the role that it plays is purely reactive. It is reacting to how you play your guitar, and crucially, to how you set the volume and tone controls on your guitar. This might sound blindingly obvious, but it is a simple fact that so many guitarists overlook. Players change the settings on their amp, and build unnecessarily large pedalboards to shape their sound. They do this, all the while ignoring the tone shaping controls on their guitar.

These tone shaping controls should not be underestimated. As Joe Bonamassa illustrates so well in this video, you can totally alter your sound by adjusting your tone and volume controls. Get to grips with this more nuanced element of your set up, and your tone will improve drastically.

4. Dial in

This next tip comes from British blues guitarist Matt Schofield, who has a tried and tested method of getting the best out of any guitar amp. Schofield states that on every amp – regardless of brand – there is a point on each pot where it goes from doing very little, to suddenly kicking in. As an example, you might find that you get very little added treble to your sound by moving the dial on your amp from 1-5. But when you roll the dial up to 6, your sound suddenly becomes much brighter. The same goes for bass and presence etc.

This is the level at which you want to set each dial (apart from reverb, or any other effects like tremolo that are included in your amp). 

Not only will your amp be well balanced, but it will respond amazingly to the nuances of your playing. If you want to get extra bite and aggression, just dig in with your picking hand. If you want more warmth, just back off a bit. 

Give this a go with your amp and you will find it becomes much more responsive. Your tone will instantly improve as a result and you will also feel much more in control of your sound and how you shape it.

5. Get granular

Every guitar amp is different. And amps react very differently when paired with different instruments. Again, it might sound like obvious stuff – but I am always saddened when I see guitarists buying new pedals and gear without having properly tested that gear within the context of their own rig. Inevitably it doesn’t sound the way they imagine and they are disappointed.

Let’s take the Ibanez Tube Screamer as an example. Thanks to the beautiful tones of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Tube Screamer is one of the best selling guitar pedals of all time. Guitarists buy that pedal because they know that Stevie Ray Vaughan used it, and they want to replicate his tones. The reality though, is that you will only sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan if you replicate the rest of his rig. The Tube Screamer sounded so good when SRV used it, because it worked perfectly in conjunction with his Fender Stratocaster and Fender amps. Had he played a Gibson Es-335 and used a Marshall amp, the pedal would have sounded totally different.

If you really want to get the most out of your guitar amp, become a student of tone. Find out how your amp is constructed and how it responds to different pedals and effects as a result. This will empower you to always make informed decisions when it comes to your sound. You will always buy pedals and guitars that compliment your rig, and your tone will be so much better as a result.

Well there we have it, 5 of my top tips for getting better tones from your guitar amp. How do you get the best tones from your amp? Let me know in the comments!


Images

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References

Youtube, Learning Guitar NowYoutube, Best Blues Guitar Lessons Online, Premier Guitar, Youtube, Blues City Music, Guitar World, Reverb

Links

Many of the links embedded in this article are affiliate links. As such, if you buy one of the pieces of gear I recommend, or an item from the same store after clicking one of these links, I will earn a small commission. I never recommend pieces of gear that I wouldn’t use myself, and I include these affiliate links to ensure that I can keep this content free. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on [email protected].

Comments

  • I just now discovered your site. Some really great articles here. I’ve been playing (amateur but most of my life in gigging bands, just not my main source of income) since the seventies. As a young man playing in bands, not knowing much, I got some amazing sounds with my ES335 and Ampeg VT-40. Back then we could crank, and it was like riding a tiger (the 335 because semi hollow would feedback are the drop of a hat) and I for some weird unknown reason set my guitar vol to 7-8 thinking that must be the right way to go.
    Never had such good tone, or ears for that matter so who knows, since,

    A few years back I heard of the technique you describe, slowly turning up the EQ controls slowly until they “did something”. It’s a good technique, I have wondered about interaction and experimented too with turning each up, noting where it was, then down again and go on to the next. But since they are interactive I felt like the original method is more reliable.

    At least as a starting point, But even after all these years, sometimes I don’t know exactly WHAT I want as far as tone. When I was young I got (I’ve heard it from recordings we did back then) great tone, but didn’t know what I was doing. After learning a lot, I struggle a lot more getting it right.

    Also as you say, bedroom tones don’t cut enough in bands. I gave up on multi effect pedals after dialing in “perfect sounds” at home and finding they were all over the place volume and tone wise in the bands and didn’t cut.

    Also for many years have been using the Zendrive, and figured out (very much like the amp settings thing, turn up the gain until I hear it do something, then adjust other such as tone, etc.) and the sound when it sounded great with the band at a gig, when I tried at home was NOTHING like any sound I would purposely dial in. Sounded harsh at home after.
    But one thing I have never been able to figure out. When I have it set right with the band, and it WOULD sound bad at home, even when I play say a solo intro to a song, at the gig is still sounds great! I mean, I’m still playing the guitar “not in any mix” yet it fills the room and sounds huge and right. At home at the exact same setting would sound harsh. Is it the room also that takes the harshness away or is it my state of mind?

    Anyway, your articles are very well written and have many gems of information. I’ve read how to sound like Greg Allman, and Derek Trucks and both were excellent with points about style, how to get close to their sound, I play about 5 or 6 slide songs (a couple ABB sings in there) and since the states often aren’t exactly roomy, I can’t have a dedicated slide guitar with high action, but it gave me encouragement that my trying to set up a compromise can work, just have to work more on technique with slide. When we play bigger states can take a guitar set up for slide too. But the challenges you mention help me.

    Also it is a good trick to use the “increase EQ until you hear it jump” trick to set up the amo initially, but also be aware that you should be listening during the first few songs and maybe would also want to adjust from there. Of course, often as the night wears on, one tends to increase volume?

    • Thanks so much for the kind words man, they made my day! 😁 I’m so glad that you’ve found some of the information helpful. And I’m very interested to hear that you think your tone was better when you were just starting out and didn’t really know what you were doing. I have had the same feeling with my own tone at times. And whilst I am under no illusion that many of the tones I produced when I was gigging as a teenager were absolute trash 😅, I do think I stumbled across a couple of really beautiful tones at times as well.

      I suspect what is probably happening is that the more you know, the more you are likely to experiment and also increase the complexity of your setup. It was partly for this reason that I was so interested by Derek Trucks’ set-up. He really believes that as soon as he puts a pedal between his guitar and his amp, he loses some of the tone that he wants. And this (partly through necessity, because the gear options were more limited) is what all of the early great bluesmen did as well. They just plugged their guitar straight into their amp and got all of their tone from their fingers, and getting their amps firing. Obviously that isn’t an option for those of us who are doing a lot of playing at home – which is a big part of the challenge. But it is interesting to think about how you can keep things as simple as possible whilst recreating the sound of a cranked amp at a more sensible volume. Because like Trucks, I do also believe that the more stages you add into your signal chain, the greater the likelihood that you will lose some tone.

      As for your observation on the room – that absolutely makes a difference! Your tone will sound really quite different in a room full of people compared with when you are playing at home. It’s just another part of the challenge which means you can never just dial one tone in and then be done; you have to keep tweaking and adjusting it!

  • Another well written and instructive article Aidan. I too use the Matt Schofield technique for dialing-in tone, using it for my amp, pedals and guitar – works every time! 😊

    • Thanks so much for the kind words John, and glad to hear you enjoyed the article. Glad to hear that you also know the old Matt Schofield trick – he’s such an awesome player and as you say, it works every time! I hope that things are great with you, and that your playing is going well 🙂

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