No Tone? Know Tone! Brushing the Dust Off

tone knob

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…

The tone knob on this guitar is designed to be used.
The tone knob on this guitar is designed to be used.

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.

Jazz Masters would play a Jazzmaster with Duncan Designed pickups, but they would have to use the tone knob.
Jazz Masters would play a Jazzmaster with Duncan Designed pickups, but they would have to use the tone knob.

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?!

YJM Pot
Developed for use as volume pots, I use them for tone pots too.

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.

What type to use? Honestly, I don't hear a difference.
What type to use? Honestly, I don’t hear a difference.

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?

Join the Conversation

21 Comments

  1. I’ve been playing with my tone knob for years, and learned the tone-swell trick from an article about Roy Buchanan. One reason I’ve learned to love the Gibson-style control layout is that it gives you so many tonal options, and you can do so much in the middle position. But on the other hand, there’s also a lot you can do with the simple layout on the Tele.

  2. I’ve definitely started using my tone control recently, and I’m actually contemplating getting on INSTALLED (crazy, I know) on any guitars I get in the future that don’t have them, especially guitars with only a bridge pickup – cleans on the bridge with the volume and tone rolled down a teeny bit can be quite nice sounding.
    Most commonly I use it to take some of the harsh top end off single coil cleans, but I actually should experiment with using it with high gain.

  3. I’ve been thinking about getting a Gretsch White Falcon with Filtertrons, then I discovered it didn’t have a tone knob! After years of using Gibson style guitars, the tone knob has become of somewhat importance to me, and actually turned me off a little on my dream guitar. So now instead of getting the White Falcon with Filtertrons, I’m thinking of getting the one with Dynasonics and installing TVJ Filtertron style pickups in them.

    1. Chris, I have a gretsch white falcon and the tone knob is really the tone switch
      at the upper bout. middle, up, and down selections. The first switch is pick-up
      selector, the other the tone. Chet had this done for tonal recording adjustments.

      1. I have a Brooklyn Gretsch with the same switching system..: Advantage, crystal clear sound bypasses switches – and there is no tone control, directly to the amp. Disadvantage, both positions introduce too much treble cut and are almost entirely useless. Maybe swapping for lower value caps would fix this – but which values?

      2. Thanks! After 40 years of picking, I’m suddenly drawn to the sound of gretsch pickups. I can’t understand the inability to control tone from a design standpoint. Fender’s Cabronita has NO way to adjust tone at all yet the original comes from their custom shop. Is there something about gretsch/tv jones pickups that bypasses the need? I’m confused.

  4. I used to be one of those who leave it at 10 and never touch it. Only recently did I start to look into it, and I’m glad I did!

  5. I am constantly hunting down tonal colours and moderating eq for differing amp levels… only an idiot wouldn’t…

  6. I definitely use the tone knobs on my single coil guitars. Less so with humbuckers. I rarely have the tone knob of my strat or tele all the way to “10”. I like having the highs a bit muted. I can always bust up to ten briefly for swells and extra bite.

  7. Two simple ideas: Try a smaller cap, to keep it from getting too muddy at lower settings (experiment with smaller than .020) and try using a linear pot for the tone control.
    Ernie Knight

  8. Most of my guitars have a two way switch to choose between two different caps to the tone pot, one is always a .015 the other one is either a .22 or a .47 or what ever cap works best for a different tone in the particular guitar, depending on style pickups or combination of pickups. I always put the tone control in front of the volume control – as I “tweak” the tone more than the volume.

  9. My Strats are wired w/ one tone knob for the bridge pickup only & the other knob for the remaining pickups. I can roll back the bridge pickup’s knob to about 4.5 to approximate a humbucker sound. Or try this… Roll the other knob all the way down, Now your toggle switch is a stealth wah-wah. Do this on someone else’s Strat for a guaranteed double-take.

  10. On my strat I use the first tone pot as a tone, and the second as a roll off coil split for my jb jnrs.

  11. I was playing my Guild Starfire IV yesterday. I ran the gamut of styles: acoustic and electric blues, rock, jazz and folk. All I used were the tone knobs and a combination of the two pickups to get the sound I was looking for. Admittedly three guitars would have worked better but I only want to bring one guitar and amp to my gigs.

  12. My first “real” guitar, a ’79 Epiphone Genesis (that I still own) has a master tone that I noodle with an almost impulsive frequency…in about ’87 or ’88 a friend replaced all of the tiny little stock pots with these HUGE 1 inchers that were all audio taper (the original weren’t…imagine that)…the amount of control this gave me was astounding! I can’t imagine ever owning an electric axe that didn’t have at least a master tone knob, or preferablly one for each pickup…guess it’s time to rewire my Riviera Custom P-93 to sport three of each control, like the old mighty Switchmasters!

  13. I have a Tele Modern Player Plus, so it has a Split-Humbucker in Bridge, Strat middle pickup, and lipstick neck. I LOOOOOVE playing with the tone on this beauty!! It’s a master tone, true telle-style, and it works great. Very interesting how the sound differs from pickup – to – pickup with the same tone setting

  14. The only capacitor, I have ever heard a “difference” in is a Russian Oil in Paper or Russian Teflon cap, they are huge, hard to install but WELL worth the effort and I have them on all the guitars I have modified, tucked under the tone knob (and the install is not easy so if it wasn’t well worth it I wouldn’t be doing it, nor mentioning it). Anyone that doesn’t believe me try it. Capacitors are cheap and the only thing is you will have to solder and have three hands. People doubt and hate but that isn’t important to me. Tone is king, anything else is secondary. And I already know all the arguments on the subject I am discussing so anyone wanting to argue about it can hit the bricks.

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