Let’s face it. Most guitarists never touch the tone knob. It is one of those superfluous things like ‘input 2’ on the amp and position 4 on the Gain knob, right? It isn’t so, Joe (or Jane)! This article will help to explain the tone knob and the use of it (and non-use) throughout the history of our great instrument. So take the duct tape off of that knob, and let’s change the sound!
Before the 80s…
Back when stripped down rock & roll ruled the airwaves, guitarists approached their instrument of choice differently than we do today. By that I mean they generally had one instrument. I’m not talking about rock stars, although many of them stuck to one or two instruments at the time. Most guitarists had one guitar, and one amp. Pedals, like wah and fuzz were a luxury, and we didn’t have glossy-paged magazines and internet forums making us feel inferior if we don’t pay $300 for a hand-painted overdrive. No, it was a simple time, and the artists used what they had. A guitar, a cable, an amp. Nothing more beautiful. How can we get a lot of sounds out of that? Can we make my Tele sound like a Super 400, or a Strat sound like a Les Paul? Nowadays with outright dismissals of such preposterous ideas, we forget that the last generation were an inventive bunch. And if they got the notes right to play, say, convincing jazz on their Tele, then they would use what they had at their disposal to make that happen. Did it sound just like an ES-175 or a D’Angelico? Well no, it didn’t. But rock or country cats who dabbled in all things swing didn’t have to give up the comfort and price of their solidbody. The secret is in the knob most people never touch: the tone knob.
What is this? It makes it sound like there is a blanket in front of the amp!
Yeah, I know, bro. It is ok, relax, and breathe. A tone knob can just as easily be turned up as down. You can get all the clarity back in a flash. Being that it isn’t a switch, it is not on or off. Well, it can be, but you have all of these beautiful flavors in between. That is where the magic happens.
The tone knob is connected to a potentiometer and a capacitor, which filters out high frequencies. It is called a low-pass filter because it lets low frequencies pass through while diminishing high end. It doesn’t boost bass (you would need an active system for that) – it only lowers treble. Getting rid of a big portion of clarity also diminishes volume a little, so the ear is really thinking it is ‘less’ of a sound than when it’s full up. But the ear is sensitive to what it is used to- if you played for a year with your tone control on 5, suddenly putting it on 10 would have you reaching to turn down the amp’s treble control, or contemplating new Seymour Duncan pickups. Sort of like being used to the sound of a Marshall JCM800 and then hearing a Marshal Plexi. It is all connected to what the brain and ear is used to.
What many guitarists forget is that in days gone by, guitarists changed the sound of their guitar from the guitar itself. They didn’t generally own many instruments, or many amps to swap at will. They used those knobs to get whatever sound they could. The tone knob is no different.
OK, I’ll try my stupid tone knob…there, are ya happy?
Well, not if you put it that way. But don’t turn it all the way down just yet. Maybe just down to 7 or so. Notice how the peaks are slightly softened, and the guitar signal seems to get ‘rounder’? In this example, we hear the tone on 10, and the same thing played with the tone on 7 or so.
Now turn it down a little more. This example is played over a Cm7 to F7 to Bbmaj7 chord progression. It doesn’t sound exactly like a hollowbody, but it is pretty close for coming from a solid chunk of wood.
Once again, turn it all the way up. This is my bridge pickup, a ‘59/Custom Hybrid split, with the tone control full up.
Pretty bright, right? See, it is all in what your ears get accustomed to. But the cool thing is that it comes from the same guitar from a knob that has been there all along.
A Bonus Sound?!
I learned this trick from watching Steve Morse play. Know how you do those volume swells with your pinky wrapped around the volume knob? You can do it with the tone knob too! But instead of volume, you control the sweep of the low pass filter. Instant onboard Crybaby! I use YJM High Speed Volume Pots for the tone pots on my guitar. They’re perfect for getting a steady, non-gritty sweep.
Yeah, but what if I don’t like the way my tone pot sounds?
You can change it! The higher value of the pot, the brighter it will be on 10. The higher value of the capacitor, the more highs lost as you lower the pot. While every curious guitarist experiments to find the right values for themselves, I must refer you to this excellent Tone Fiend article by Joe Gore which has great sound clips, and explains the sonic differences between caps of differing values.
By the way, I agree with Joe. I can’t hear differences in the kinds of capacitors. Bigger price tags on bumblebee, vitamin Q, and military spec caps are just that: bigger prices. If you can hear a difference, awesome, but I can’t, so the cheap disc ones work fine for me.
I do, however, hear and feel a difference in pots. Some pots are stiff and gritty and don’t last long if you’re like me and constantly use them.
So, don’t be afraid of that knob anymore. Who cares if none of your friends use it! Be the first! Set the trends! Change that guitar sound from the guitar itself!
Do you use a tone knob? If you have more than one pickup, do you like a tone knob for each, or a master tone knob for both?