Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Those little knobs on the guitar

Every guitar has those knobs down there, but do you ever use them? A month ago I would have said no, but a lots changed since then. I used to always set my volume at 10 and the tone knobs wherever they sounded good, then leave em' and forget about em'. Sometimes I played with the volume to see why the knob is there, but it always sounded bad at anything lower than 10.

Then earlier this summer I watched a video of a good guitarist (I forget his name) and he was always tinkering with the volume. It made his playing really dynamic and he could basically dial in the amount of gain he used based on the volume. It got me thinking so I started asking good guitar players I know how much they use their volumes. Some said, "not at all," but the majority said ,"lots." I asked more questions and played with the knobs myself and here's what I learned:

1) The reason people use the volume knob is to adjust how much signal the overdive pedals or amp is getting. The stronger (more volume) the signal the more overdriven it will get. The opposite is true for weaker signals. If you roll the volume knob way down you can basically get a clean sound even with OD's turned on.

2) The reason it never sounded good below "10" was because I had set up my amp to sound best with my guitar at "10" so I had no where to go but down. If you set your volume to 7ish and set the gain/volume on your amp and pedal there you have more options. You can roll your volume up for a volume boost and a more OD for solos or parts you want to stand out, or roll the volume down for less OD.

3) There are a lot more sound pallets when you use the volume. I basically had different set levels of OD on my pedals - clean, low OD, hi gain, and boost. With the volume knob and pedals working together I can get every range in between. I always noticed a problem with low OD before, for single note stuff I wanted more OD but when I switched to strumming chords it was too much. The answer is to roll the volume up for single notes and down for chords.

4) The volume knob doesn't make a huge difference in total output volume from the amp. I was worried that turning the volume down would make the amp way quieter but that's not the case. It still gets louder and softer but not as much as you'd think.

5) Once you get used to it, you stop thinking about it. This hasn't happened to me yet, but people I talked to said changing the volume is second nature now. They're always listening to their tone and making small adjustments based on what they want it to sound like.

6) More people play with the volume than tone, but that doesn't mean the tone knob isn't important. It won't change the amount of OD but you can use the tone knobs to change the overall tone of your guitar. Ideally you would set your tone knobs at 10 and adjust the amp so it sounds as bright as you'd ever want it to sound, then roll the tone knobs back until they sound nice. Now if you want to really cut through you can turn the tone knobs higher and set them back when you don't. You can also lower the tone if you're playing something really mellow.

Hope that's helpful!


Karl said...

Nice. I'm also just delving into knob control. Thanks for the in depth review...really helpful.

Ben said...

I used to play on a little solid-state practice amp, and there wasn't much depth to what I could do to affect my tone with any of my knobs; most of my tone sculpting came from pedals. Then, I went out and got a low-wattage tube amp (Epiphone Valve Jr.), and suddenly I find that I need almost no pedals at all! Lots of different kinds of overdrive all by just turning the volume knob! I think that this is the best way to start playing guitar, because once you've got a good, solid understanding of the simple things, you can add in pedals and find infinite tonal possibilities.

Granted, I've only had my new amp for about a month now, but I'm blown away.

electric community said...

So true. My housemate who's into home theater stuff couldn't figure out why I used a tube amp instead of solid state since solid state for sound quality. It's not about the quality, it's about the expressiveness... you can't make a solid state amp scream or cry or poke it's head out pensively. The more I learn about gear the more amazed I am by how everything interacts.

electric community said...

p.s. valve jr's are good little amps!

Peter said...

Thanks. I've really been trying to figure out this very issue. Your comments are so helpful. Blessings.