Amplifiers and Tone

(Published in Rave magazine 19/09/2006)

Amplifiers and Tone

This is the first part of a two part article on amplifiers and tone. There's just too much going on here to fit it into one article, so here goes part one:

Pre-Amp Distortion

Always use as little distortion as possible. This will give you punch and clarity. Too much distortion makes your tone sound mushy, and sometimes scratchy and nasty. If you've got a screaming legato style lead solo to do, then of course you'll need a lot more gain than when you're playing a rhythm part.

Listen to recordings of your favourite artist and try to hear how little distortion they use. You'll often find that its a lot less than you thought at first. In a recording situation, the heavier guitar tones are often beefed up by doubling, or quadrupling etc. the guitar part in the recording.


Guitarists often set their amplifier EQ in what we call the 'smiley face' setting. Scooping all of the mid-range frequencies out and boosting the bass and the treble. This sounds good in the bedroom, or when you're playing by yourself. When you put this sort of EQ setting into a live or recording situation, the guitar will often sound mushy and will make the whole mix messy unclear. Players often try to combat this by pushing more high frequencies into the sound, unfortunately this just hurts your ears and doesn't do a great deal for clarity.

Getting rid of the mid-frequencies also gives us a false sense of security, in that it 'covers' our playing mistakes to some extent and allows us to not pay attention to the other factors that make up our tone (how we strike the string etc.).

Try setting your amp with all of the controls set flat (no boost or cut, this is usually around '12 o'clock' on most amps), and adjust the way that you strike the strings, the way your volume and tone controls are set on the guitar and play around with leads and effects units in between the guitar and the amp. Then subtly alter your EQ to change any problems that you hear.

Guitarists often forget that they're not bass players, and boost the bass frequencies to give them a 'fat' sound. What we hear on record is often the combination of a guitar and a bass guitar being played together. Don't try to replicate this sound by yourself (unless you have no bass player in your band / recording). Lose us much bass frequency as you can stand, and that way you won't interfere with the bass player's part of the frequency spectrum. You'll find that your bands sound is much clearer and has much more impact if you're all giving each other a clear slice of the frequency spectrum to operate in.

In the next edition, I'm going to cover Power Amp distortion, Power Soaks / Breaks, Output Ratings, Solid State vs. Valve amps and different amplifier classes. In the meantime, play with that amp!