Guitar players: Do you ever adjust you tone controls?

Simple enough question – On your electric guitars, do you ever set the tone controls to anything other than 10? If so, why? To me it just sounds lifeless and muddy. There’s one exception. If I set my Strat’s bridge pickup to 10 and the middle pickup to 0, running though some heavy distortion and delay, I get an awesome silvery sound. But that’s with a lot of high-end boost on the board.

So, do you ever adjust your tone controls?

Constantly - it is a topic I have discussed a bit here on the Dope. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Eddie Van Halen championed the whole “I don’t even ***have ***a tone knob on my guitar” mindset, which gave everyone permission to just kind of ignore that knob - heck, Eddie didn’t need it, right? Also, the move to solid state and other amp circuits that gave you distortion in a “manufactured” way - i.e., that didn’t rely on the natural overdriving of the tubes in the circuit - made the Tone control less of a big deal.

But with a new Golden Age of guitar manufacturing, tone controls are being rediscovered. The build quality is excellent on factory and small-batch guitars, folks have rediscovered old P-90/Soapbar pickups and the old “bumblebee” capacitors that sound great. So there has been a return to the old approach to “constructing” your sound and yes, Tone controls are central to that.

I gotta go but can expound on this more later - but in a nutshell - with good tube amp, your on-board Volume control is you main Tone control and your Tone control allows you to further fine-tune your tone.

However if you are playing on a digital modeling amp or some other amp that doesn’t rely on tubes, it is likely you would notice as much of a benefit.

When I am playing electric, I dial up the Volume to get the right amount of crunch, and then hit a few notes and play with my Tone Control. As I dial it through, I can hear a bit of a slow “wah” type sound like I am working a wah wah pedal. I can dial up the tone to ear using that and get to where I need to go.

Final note: Many stock Strat circuits that Fender uses do NOT include a tone control for the Bridge pickup. So lots of Strat players think they don’t need a tone control because the bridge pickup doesn’t even come with one. Frankly, that’s crap and one of the best mods you should consider would be to wire the bridge pickup to one of the Tone controls. An ice-picky bridge pickup can be dialled in so much better when you can roll off the tone.

Okay, 1 more note: Folks like EVH didn’t need Tone controls because they played with SO MUCH volume that the distortion clipped some of the highs coming out of the amp. If we could all play Marshall stacks on 10 (and higher, since EVH modded his amps with a Variac to drive the tubes even harder), we wouldn’t need tone controls either.

I am always amazed at the music gear we mostly-civilian players buy because our heroes use them, not really thinking through the fact that our heroes are playing under completely different conditions…I will get off my soapbox now…

Sure. A bitey, full-treble sound is simply not appropriate on every part of every song.

One last note: tdn, there’s a very good chance, depending on which Strat you have, that you simply have some only-okay-at-best electronic components - pots, caps, resistors - and coupled with your amp (can’t recall what type you have) that you simply can’t hear what a good Tone control can do. I play through very simple amps of high quality and have upgraded my components - it’s a very guitar geeky thing to do and leads to much discussion on guitar boards…and in that situation, you CAN really hear a difference…

FWIT, especially since I’m a (average-on-a-very-good-day) bass player (and even less of a guitar player) and my “gigs” are playing in church.
My tone controls are usually half-way, but depending on the acoustics of the church I’d go “bassier” if i couldn’t go up on the volume to give it more punch.

OK, I can hear the difference when I make subtle changes. It just takes the bite off a little and gives a slighty rounder sound. It seems like the trick is to play around in the 5-7 range.

My amp is not really equipped to for that crunchy tube sound, as it’s solid state and has artificial distortion – and not very good distortion at that. It’s a tiny little Marshall, about the right size for a tiny little apartment.

Sure - there ya go. Unfortunately, not a rig designed to exploit a knob-twiddling approach to Tone. Not a bad thing at all if you are getting tones you want - but if you ever get the urge to truly explore that approach, you’d need to modify your rig.

**squeegee **will have something to say here - he had been using a digitally-based rig for a while and has just dipped back into simple-tube-amp + fuzzbox combo. What say you about knob twiddling, **squeegee ** - doing more of it with your retro rig?

Oh, hell yes.

I can’t say I didn’t use the tone control before, but I didn’t use it all that much because I’d dial up my tone in the amp software, so the guitar tone really didn’t matter all that much.

The tube rig is much, much more responsive to both the volume and tone on a guitar, where the digital rig had close to one tone at a time, and sounded pretty awful if you tried backing off the tone and especially the volume too much. The tube rig makes it possible to get a wide range of tone just from your guitar by fiddling with the guitar knobs. You can go from crunch to warm/clean by backing off the volume and lightening your attack, then go crunchtastic by goosing the volume. You can’t do that (or can’t do it as well) using a solid-state setup.

But, yeah, I almost never play with the tone on 10 unless it’s some ridiculously overdriven tone, then you need the extra treble to cut the muddiness. The other time I might play with tone = 10 is if I’m playing without a pick (e.g., I’m learning how fun Travis picking is the last couple of days), so there’s much less sharp attack and I need to pop the tone a bit.

If ALL you play is heavily overdriven tone then you probably won’t need the guitar controls much because there’s not a lot of leeway in the tones you can use, and you need to cut through the digital distortion as much as possible.

I play a Strat through a Fender tube amp. I wired the bridge pickup to have tone control so I can back off the bite a little. That said I find it sounds better to back off the treble on the amp and or turn off the bright switch and leave the guitar tone open.
I rarely play with heavy distortion but when I do, I can get a really creamy, “molten” sound by turning the tone all the way off.

Video: Clapton (Cream era) demonstrates how he uses his guitar tone controls.

For my current project I’m going to need a lot of tones, from mello to brane damage. And I’m planning on plugging directly into my board for all of it. I suppose one thing I could do is get a small tube amp, put it in my bathroom, and mic it. But there’s a ton of logistical problems with that. In my ideal world I’d have a Fender Twin and a soundproof room.

I need to bring one of my Guitars to Guitar Center for a minor repair. Do you think I could get them to rewire it so that the second tone knob works on two pickups? Would you trust them to do the work right? FWIW I had them make a nut for it, and they did a beautiful job.

That’s awesome! I sure don’t sound like that.

To be clear: when you are using a guitar’s Tone control in the way that I and other Dopers have discussed in the thread, you are basically playing the amp more than the the guitar, i.e., the amp and how it affected by your tweaking the on-board Tone is as critical to the overall sound as the guitar if not more. You may be able to go direct, tweak your on-board control and hear differences, but that is different from what we are discussing here.

Making a nut is harder than re-soldering a circuit to get the bridge pickup to have adjustable tone. If you liked the job they did on the Strat’s nut, you should be fine with the minor soldering…

I used to never touch tone knobs back when I did full metal all the time. These days I use them quite a bit.

When I am using fairly heavy gain and want a mellower kind of tone I switch my pick ups to the middle position (half bridge/half neck) and dial the tone back about half. The neck pick up is too muddy by itself with the gain settings. This way I get the nice fat sound of a neck pickup but more clarity.

If I m going clean then I use the things all the time.

I’ve play direct in with various modelers and they just don’t do very well for dirty tones. I’ve gotten some wonderful clean tones but if you want dirty you gotta get the speaker involved.


Yeah, I get that. It’s just not relevant to me, unfortunately.
Making a nut is harder than re-soldering a circuit to get the bridge pickup to have adjustable tone. If you liked the job they did on the Strat’s nut, you should be fine with the minor soldering…

OK, I think I might ask for that. It would make sense to wire the bridge and neck pickups to the same pot, since I can never select both anyway.

My board has some pretty awesome on-board effects, but I agree there’s nothing better than a good tube amp. I’m not sure how I can make that happen though.

tdn, in spite of having a tube amp, I still use modeling software quite a bit because it’s so convenient compared to mic-ing an actual amp. You may want to consider a USB/Fireware computer input, plus software such as Guitar Rig or Amplitube or Pod Farm. I also still use my POD 2.0 sometimes, because I like several of the tones that it offers. I disagree with sleestak that you can’t get a good distorted tone out of a modeler; you can certainly get a better and more versatile drive tone from a real tube amp, but there are some serviceable drive tones to be had from modelers, especially if you have limited high-volume mic’d recording options.

Quick update, I had this done. Not quite as dramatic as I’d hoped, but it’s opened up a bunch of new sounds to me. I highly recommend it.

Cool - and yeah, if you aren’t working through a full rig like I described above, the Tone control will provide less impact, but still noticeable, per your experience…

There’s a particular kind of tone you may recognize, which you get from turning the gain on your amp up and the tone pot on your guitar all the way down.