Stop Ignoring Those Knobs

Posted on by Richard Irons

Volume and tone knobs are pointless, right? Let’s say you’ve got all your knobs at ten on the guitar, and on the amp, your perfect “workhorse” tone is dialled in. Just the on the edge of overdrive; a little bite in the treble, but not too much; everything sounds great. Okay, let’s try out those knobs. Volume first: hmm, that’s not much use. Sure it’s cleaned up a little, but it’s sucked some of the treble out and it sounds a bit weak. Put that back up to ten. Okay, let’s try rolling off the tone control instead. Oh dear, that’s even worse. That bite has completely gone and it’s starting to sound muddy before we’re halfway down! Okay, seems like we’d better just keep the controls at ten.

The above scenario isn’t just common – it’s so common that it’s pretty much considered the standard way guitarists approach the controls on their guitar. It’s no wonder people build guitars with fewer controls, or even none at all. If you ask someone with just a volume control on their guitar, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to hear them say that they only use it as a killswitch between songs.

How the tone control affects frequency response

When you think about it, though, it’s quite weird. We turn all the controls to maximum and then use the amp to selectively remove parts of the signal that are too much for normal playing. And then when it’s time for a solo, or to stand out a little more in the mix, we need to use a volume boost pedal, or an EQ. Isn’t there another way we can achieve this?

There is something you can try. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll love it, but it might give you a little insight into what’s possible with the controls on your guitar. So when you’ve got half an hour to experiment, give this a go.

First, set all your controls to ten as you would normally, and get a sound that you’re comfortable with on your amp. Play with it for a while so that you’ve got the sound in your head.

Now the interesting part: turn all the volume controls to around 7, and all the tone controls to around 5 or 6. And now go back to the amp and bring the level of drive, and the EQ, as close to your original sound as you possibly can. This will involve adding some gain and treble, and possibly an adjustment to the mids.

What you have now is controls that can boost as well as cut. Turning the controls down will still have the effect it had before – although of course the tone controls won’t remove quite as much treble any more. But turning the controls up from where you have them now will have a real effect on sound, and it might be way more useful.

For example, let’s say you want to clean up the sound by turning down the volume. That’s fine, it’ll still work. But about that lost treble? No problem – simply roll up the tone a little if you need to, and your treble is back.

Turning the volume control up from the original position will increase the guitar’s output. This is similar to having a clean boost in the chain and will drive the amp harder. If you’re hearing some good crunch at 7, then at 10 you will be into a nice overdrive.

Turning the tone control up from the original position while at normal volume will brighten up the sound and help it cut. This could be used in conjunction with a volume boost for a solo, or on its own to lend a different feel to a rhythm part.

Playing like this takes some getting used to – especially if you have developed a habit of dropping your hand to the controls and rolling them all up as a reflex during pauses in playing. But once you’re used to it, the controls on your guitar could become an invaluable tool for expression as well as a handy way to make quick tone fixes on the fly. No bending over to tweak a pedal, no wandering over to the amp, just move your hand slightly and there’s your tone-altering toolkit.

Give it a try!

Written on January 7, 2013, by Richard Irons

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  • Works pretty well with my Les Paul…

  • Peter Davis

    So 7 is the new 11….

    • eviltobz

      surely 7 is the new 10 whilst 10 is the new 11. so you can be on 7 here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up,
      you’re on 7 on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? Put it up to 10 😉

  • So true. For guys like me with multi-fx and limited effect slots, one can save some headache by not using a boost or EQ and just use your stinkin’ guitar instead.

  • It is true, I’ve been doing this for a while :0) , helps a lot when you have the less is more approach

  • Johann

    This article is not unlike the volume and tone control: Pointless. We guitar players (at least me personally) prefer to tweak the amp and pedal to achieve the desired sound cause messing with the controls on the guitar cuts the ‘real’ meaty power of the pickups. Let it flow all the way to the amp, then tweak it there.

    Another, logical reason is, there is no indicator on the guitar controls that tell you where exactly the right position is, so how are you gonna figure it next time?

    Furthermore it is not uncommon to touch the controls accidentally when playing, so it is definitely more sensible to rely on the controls on the amp that is farther away from the player.

    Also, how much can you really do with a single tone control to adjust the balance of treble and bass. There is a reason why amp controls have ‘low’, ‘mid’ and ‘high’ controls, and why Boss DS-1 becomes the subject of criticism cause it only has one single ‘tone’ control to adjust the bass and the treble.

    No thanks, I am not gonna mess with my volume and tone controls.

    • Richard Irons

      I’m sorry the article doesn’t help you. This article is aimed at people who are willing to experiment with all the tools at their disposal. Hopefully those people won’t find it “pointless”.

      • eviltobz

        i’d argue from the other direction that writing such an article seems pointless because it’s so obvious that surely everyone does this sort of thing anyway. except in 20 years of playing i’ve barely touched my pots /facepalms

        recently i’ve started rolling my volume down a bit to clean things up, but not quite got to the point of thinking about giving myself room to roll it up too, so i think it’s a great article. it does require you to have good pots with an appropriate taper to them though. a lot of volume pots have very little effect over most of the sweep, then a huge change in a tiny space. i’m less sure about tapers on tone pots since they have seen a tiny fraction of the tiny usage my volumes have had 😉

      • doy

        it´s not pointless, actually i been starting to do this lately, a year or so… because i hardly use pedals anymore, since i go to rehearse with as little gear as i can, i don´t like to carry around lots of stuff… so it´s just the guitar and a cable, and it has really improved my playing, the best FX is the rigth NOTE! i say now XD, and of course i don´t like to change channel on the amp, so i use the volume on the guitar, and for a few solos i roll back the tone and i get what i call a ´santana´ solo, that i love. So i never really read this article because i guess i knew this… but i just read it and it was helpfull even for me that i already use this technique, ´cause that ´start on 7´ rule, i didn´t do that… but i will try it, is a cool idea.
        So, anything you read is good, it´s never pointless, never. So, thank u richard irons 🙂

    • doy

      you sir, are an idiot XD lol

  • axe_ace

    I learned I had to do this for when you’re trying to get everybodies levels right in the band- you do that at 6-7 -but leave 10 for when you really gotta be heard. Does that make sense?

  • Been doing this for years.

  • Great advice!

  • Although I’m one of those guys who leaves his knobs on ten, one of the guys I work for has been doing this for the last couple years, and it works really well. You may have to investigate the capacitor/resistor “network” for the volume control to tweak the amount of high end lost if you don’t want to have to roll the tone knobs up or down too whenever you adjust your volume, or go for a solo. But that’s a subject for another blog!

  • It makes me wonder if the commonality of not using the volume and tone knobs has anything to do with “some” music’s lack of dynamics. Not a slam, just a comment arrived at from observation. I guess if the guitarist is of the mindset that the other musicians in the band are there to merely support his wanking then it’s all a moot point. Use the knobs or don’t, I really don’t care. I just couldn’t play a gig without twisting the buggers. Without taking advantage of the nuances they provide I’d become bored with my tone and that would suck the enjoyment out of playing. Who wants that?