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.
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!