One of the things that sets a great guitarist apart from a good one is their seeming second-nature ability use the volume and tone controls on their guitar to impart more dynamics and subtlety into their playing. and in a band context, contribute to the overall band vibe and dynamic. It’s not always the best thing to have everything set to “10”… all the time. Some of the greatest players, like Jeff Beck and Eric Johnson, for example – constantly manipulate their guitar’s volume and tone controls throughout a song, adding light and shadow, taking their playing from quiet to insistent, understated to obvious. It’s an integral part of what they do as players: The way they present the notes they play is the almost as important as the notes themselves. Have you ever seen a band where the guitarist, no matter how great his chops, was completely monotone all evening? One sound, one tone, same volume, on and off – plodding along the same way, all night long? It’s boring, sometimes painfully so! The rule of thumb is, the more interesting you keep it for the listener, the longer they’ll stay interested. It’s easy to tune out a monotonous drone, but if there’s dynamic peaks and valleys in the sonic landscape you can’t help but listen.
The most obvious thing you can do with your instrument, and one that definitely helps your band sound more polished overall, is to even slightly reduce your volume during verses, and increase (dare I say, crank it) during the chorus. This will create a ‘false sense of security’ – a slightly calming sense during the verses, and then more of a sense of urgency during the choruses. This will allow the vocals to breathe better in the mix, and your vocalist to strain less. Your singer will love you – though they may not be sure why – and the music will pump more, which your audience will appreciate, and respond to. Your volume control, like the Liberator or the YJM High-speed volume pot, for example, when used in conjunction with an amp that reacts to it – can be used to clean up an overdriven signal for subtlety’s sake, or to tame feedback. With some tube amps, backing down on the volume control produces a near-clean “mild breakup” tone that’s quiet useful and sometimes distinct from what you can get with on/off overdrive boosts and channel switching. You’ll often notice players whose stage guitars don’t have tone controls, like Eddie Van Halen, employing this technique.
On the guitars that have them, however, tone controls are overlooked secret weapons. They allow you to better govern where your guitar sits in the band mix (or even how a specific part or section ‘pops’) even more precisely once you’ve got your basic amp tone dialed in. Set your amp up for the room you’re playing in, and then as the band plays listen to how using your tone controls can increase your range and where you want your guitar to be in the overall scheme of what you’re hearing. You can take the edge of a jangly bridge pickup when you want it darker for a section, or even keep it dialed slightly back in general, so it’s more noticeable when you do bump it up. You can darken a neck pickup sound to give it a more smoky, complex vibe for rhythm comping. They’re also useful in creating a distinct character to your tones, particularly when combining pickups for cleans, or for crafting unique lead tones. Sweeping the tone control from near zero to 10 on individual notes can create a ‘vowel’ or wah-like sound that can be interesting, often used by Jeff Beck.
If you’re playing in a cover band context, the versatility provided by your volume and tone controls can be used like a sonic swiss army knife of sorts to get you closer to the recorded tone you’re trying to emulate (assuming you’re using the right amp tone, and the right effects, etc). If you play with your guitar’s tone controls you’ll notice there’s such a variety between 0 and 10 for each pickup and their combinations you’ve got to be able to find more than one useable tone with a little experimentation. Use your ears, find your tone!