A swordsman must know the blade he wields. It should seem obvious that a guitarist must also understand the intricacies of his instrument. So, why is it that the tone knob is left untouched for the most part when the initial tinkering phase after the first purchase is over? The volume knob is self-explanatory. The functions of the other parts like the pickups are all well discussed across multiple platforms for your learning. But the ever-elusive tone knob remains a mystery. Fear not, for I have gathered all you need to know in a single article.
The tone is the onboard control in an electric guitar that is too often ignored by players in favor of pedals and amps. But these players are severely underestimating the effect the simple tone knob can have on their sound. It is a cheap way to start experimenting with equalization. It can give you the warmth you need in your tone and help you cut out those shrill, ear-piercing frequencies that tend to overshadow your rhythm. In this article, we discuss all aspects of guitar tone knobs— starting from their function to its usage to the best possible setting you can put it to. Also included are tips to tinker with the knob and how to optimize the tonal qualities according to what you will be playing.
In short, the tone knob is basically an equalizer. The simplest form of it but in the olden days, this was one of the only ways to switch up the frequencies when most amplifiers only offered volume settings.
Before I can explain how it does that, we must answer the question of function in more detail to clear us up on any misunderstandings. The tone knob may sound and in some cases even seem to work as if it is actually switching up the ‘tone’. For example, you may have noticed reducing the level of the knob gives you a warmer sound. By a warmer sound, people often mean sounds in the upper-low and lower-mid ranges. This tonal change is in fact an aftereffect and not the main purpose of the tone knob.
To dig in further and get a little technical, the tone knob is what you would call a low pass filter. Many of you might have already gotten the gist of what that does but let me clarify. The tone knob is controlling a potentiometer. The potentiometer is just a fancy way of saying variable resistor. What variable resistors do is scale up or down the amount of resistance that is present within the circuit. In other words, the resistor is responsible for the amount of current in the electrical guitar circuit. It decides which currents will reach the signal and which ones will be absorbed. So, when we are turning the knob, we are essentially creating a threshold. Below this threshold, all sounds are allowed to pass. Anything above it is cut off and stopped by the resistor. The frequencies are higher than it sounds ‘rolled-off’. This is because it never gets to the guitar output signal. For example, if we set the threshold at a 7 kHz frequency, the lower frequencies can be heard but the guitar will chop off the higher frequencies.
Now, we can circle back to the matter of the effect the knob has on the tone. We have gathered that the tone knob does not directly change the tone but does so by creating a threshold for allowable frequencies. It can create warmth without ‘adding’ warmth. It is not adding any bass or treble to your sound either by removing high pitches but only focusing the output on that range of frequencies.
By turning the tone knob, you can scale the pitch of your sound by creating high or low thresholds. Generally, the electric guitar tone knob has a scale of one to ten. However, you do have more sophisticated guitar builds where things are a bit different. Some even have the power to alter the bass and treble of your sound signal. For simplicity’s sake, we will be discussing the standard version of the tone knob— the single knob.
As you may have already figured by now, the lower you put the settings to, the lower the frequency threshold will be. This means a larger range of frequencies will be cut off from your signal. The highest level at ten will give you an output of all the frequencies and sounds your electric guitar body is capable of producing. This is a full audio signal. And it will oftentimes result in output too shrill to the ear. The lowest level at one has the highest effect in resistance, so this is the most effect on the signal.
A lot of guitarists have a wrong idea about the tone knob and initially set it too high because of a desire to sound punchy and loud. This is counterproductive as people want to hear good technique and not who has the highest pitch. Using the tone knob is a cheap and easy way to start tweaking and experimenting early in your career. Nowadays, most guitarists heavily rely on their pedals or amp dials for altering their tone. But the in-home properties of the electric guitar should not be ignored if you want the full scope of your desired sound and effects. Also, it will make your job easier when using external modifications if you optimize the tonal settings of your guitar from the get-go.
The best setting for your electric tone knob is entirely dependent on you. Most people get off on the wrong foot with guitar tone settings simply because they pick one right at the beginning that sounds about right then just push it to the back of the mind. The reality is if you see this as a set and forget kind of deal, you are missing out. The only way to find the ideal setting is to experiment— not only with the levels on the knob but also in conjunction with the genre of music you are playing, the pickup settings, and of course, the external gear you use. Over time, you will find yourself beginning to develop preferences and a different one for different contexts as there really is no single best setting.
That said, there are definitely guidelines to get you started on what kind of setting might suit a certain situation so below they are outlined for you:
This setting ranging from eight to nine is the higher end of the spectrum. You are essentially allowing almost all frequencies to go through unabated. This is the setting that you will find most common in jazz bands. The tone is really crisp and shrill and the guitar has a lot of presence.
This is around seven to nine. If you play a lot of metal, you might find yourself going for these numbers. It is dialed back more than jazz but it is because the guitar here will employ many other effects and gears.
Anywhere around five, this is the setting preferred by southern rock players. This gives it that smoother and mellower quality specific to the genre.
Suitable for some pop genres. You will have to experiment to see if this one fits.
The rest is really just about artistic styling. If you want to crazy with a fuzz pedal and high setting with lots of distortion, then you can do so at your discretion. There is no end to the types of stuff you can come up with from a bit of mixing and matching.
Now you know the basics, so how to start incorporating them? First, you have to get all external gear off the table. Start by turning the knob all the way up to 10 and accordingly adjust your volume. Then fix your saturation and distortion settings. All frequencies are being sent to signal so you now have to tune the knob down until you cut the sharpness as much as possible. The volume will get affected a bit by this so remember to turn it up to adjust along instead of mistaking thinking you set the tone too low. It’s unlikely you will hit the sweet spot the first time so keep going back and forth on the tone knob until you reach a satisfactory balance. To keep track of your favorite setting for each playstyle, it is a good practice to write them down somewhere. This will help you avoid having to set it each time.
When you chop off the frequencies, some of the loudness of your guitar will also drop. This is nothing to be afraid of. Many players starting out with tone control will get preoccupied with this fact and stray away from experimenting but it is only because they are used to the high volume.
In truth going gung-ho all the time really reduces your versatility and maturity as a player. The goal of a guitarist is not to be the loudest in the room at all times. No, the goal of a guitarist is to provide the rhythm and groove to the overall harmony of the performance and when the lead solo comes on, that’s your time to shine. Think about it this way, if you hear a song that lacks in variation and has an unending hook, it will sound messy and harsh. But in a song with beautiful verses and engaging choruses, when that banging hook kicks in, it steals the show.
Yes, there are multiple tone knobs on certain guitars. This is in the case of having multiple pickups. The tone knob has an effect on the characteristics in the output you get from your pickups. So, there is more than one to control each pickup individually. You may have to use blade switches in conjunction with this as blade switches allow you to mix and match between pickups.
So, there you have it. Learning more about the tone knob will help you master the art of tonal quality. It will also get rid of the rookie mindset of whatever’s loudest is best. The best tonal setting is the one that serves you the best!