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Improve Your Live Electric Guitar Tone


Val Halla Mack AmpsLast week we received an email from a guitarist that had read one of our articles - "Getting Great Guitar Sound On Stage" and had some questions about how to improve his own live sound.

He plays a Les Paul Studio and Epiphone Sheraton through a POD 500 multi-effects processor and Orange AD30 amp.

He was concerned about the live tone he was getting because a few venue sound engineers had advised that at times his tone was too "thin and bright".

He was using the POD to try and get chimey Vox tones by using an AC30 amp sim setting and then adding EQ to try to overcome what he perceives to be the dark tone of the Orange amp.

Here is what we suggested he try to get the range of tones he was looking for:

First, get to know your guitars and your amp without effects.  Spend some time to understand exactly what they sound like on their own and what kind of different tones they can produce by adjusting the amp controls.

Plug your LP straight into the amp.  Set the amp's gain for a clean tone on the clean channel.  Set the treble-middle-bass (TMB) controls all on 5 - what does that sound like?

Next, cut the bass and mid to zero and the treble full up.  What does that sound like?  Do that with each of the TMB controls.

Now, to start dialling in the basic tone you are after - brighter than what you have been getting, put the TMB controls back to 5 and roll off the bass to zero and boost the treble up to the point where the amp gives you the treble response you are looking for - leave the mids at 5.  If the amp is still too dark gradually lower the mids - and raise the treble if need be - to try and get a great tone that gives you the brightness you are looking for.

Keep in mind that there is no 'wrong' position for any of the TMB controls.  Don't be afraid to experiment with what might seem to be extreme or weird settings.  Here's an article about TMB controls that shows that they are not very precise and that what might be considered ' normal' settings do not necessarily alter the tone in a way that you might think:

The point is that you should be able to get the basic rhythm tone you are after from your guitar and amp without outboard EQ.  Spend enough time at it to learn what your amp is capable of and to get comfortable with how your guitar sounds without its tone being altered by your POD.

When you have achieved a clean tone that you are happy with move on to the drive channel and do the same thing looking for a crunch tone or tones that you like that meet your needs.

When I say spend some time doing this I mean, perhaps, a few hours of playing and experimenting not just a 15 minutes knob twiddling session.  As described above, you will learn what your amp and guitars are capable of producing on their own and you will tune your ears to what a guitar sounds like straight through an amp.

Next, introduce your effects back into the signal, but only very subtly.  Remember, when it comes to effects less is always more unless you are after extreme tones where the sound is the effects.

Follow the same path with the gain and volume controls.  What settings gives you the most clean headroom on the clean channel - the highest volume you can achieve while still maintaining a clean tone?  What setting produces the max overdrive/distortion?  Best crunch?  Can you find a setting where simply altering your pick attach can take you from clean to overdrive and in between?  etc.  Learn what your amp and guitar can do regarding overdriven and distorted tones without any effects in the way.

If you were able to get good tone from your amp and guitar you should not need the amp sim from the POD.  Reintroduce the POD without using the sim you are used to - with your new found settings how do the modulation and time-based effects sound? 

Regarding time-based effects, try bringing them in subtly - don't use as much as you used to - how does that sound?  Less reverb, delay and chorus almost always sound better particularly on stage.  The instant you start to use these effects in a live band setting you start to recede into the mix - the added ambience makes your tone less distinct and your guitar starts to fade into the wash of sound produced by the cymbals and whatever else is happening on stage.

At your next rehearsal try playing without any time-based effects with your new amp settings and see how your sound sits in the mix - try to stand in front of the band when you play to get a good sense of this.  Chances are that you can hear your guitar better than before.

I realize that to replicate the recorded tone of some songs, time-based effects may be critical because the tone is the effect.  Even in those cases experiment with more subtle settings than those that produce a tone just like the recording when standing in front of your amp and playing by yourself.  The natural ambience of the room add to time based effects and, again, lots of phaser/flanger/chorus/delay/reverb will cause your tone to recede into the mix and you will likely want to add treble to cut through.  Less is more!

Regarding lead tone, if your amp's drive channel doesn't quite get you to the distortion level that you want for some leads use a pedal for that.  But, keep in mind that the most common error of guitarists is to use too much distortion.  As before, try adding less distortion for leads than you might have used in the past, gradually increasing to where you get a good, 'flowing' lead tone.  Then stop!  My guess is that if you had lowered the distortion level that sound guy would have said "problem solved" and you would no longer have sounded thin and bright.

In conclusion, I bet that you will find that EQ is not the solution.  Less effects and different amp settings probably will be the answer.  Turning on effects and then looking to EQ to make it sound good is an exercise in chasing your tail.

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