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!
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