Turn It Up: Plugging Into The Perfect Guitar And Amp Settings

Yowza! Did you hear that hideous noise? It sounded like a combination of nails on a chalkboard, a cat in a dryer, and a baby wailing at the top of his lungs. Do you have any idea of what made that awful sound? As a long-time musician, I think I may have the answer for you. It's a guitarist fiddling for the first time with his new amp.

Before I bought my first amp, I wouldn't have thought that a human could produce such a horribly wretched sound. But, now I know better. In the process of finding the perfect settings for your guitar and amp, you are sure to discover all kinds of disagreeable screeches and squeals, shrieks and screams. And, believe it or not, these unpleasant and often other-worldly sounds are all part of the learning experience.

I've often been asked to give beginners online advice on how to dial in their amps and guitar settings. For a number of reasons, this is no easy task. As you know, the experience of sound is totally subjective. What I may like, you may not. This said, it's hard to give definitive advice about guitar and amp settings.

So much is involved in getting the sound just right for your tastes-including the room you're playing in, the gauge of your strings, the guitar you're jamming on, and the type of amp itself. All of these come together to create a playground for experimentation: a place where you can twist this knob here and turn that knob there and, before you know it, you're a musical stylist, an expert in designing the perfect sound.

I can, however, offer a few general tips that might help out as you begin playing with your amp.

  • Always start with your dials pointing to 12 o'clock and twist and turn from there. 12 o'clock will give you the baseline to work from and you can let your ears tell you what does and doesn't work from there.
  • No matter how many other bells and whistles your amp has, you're almost always looking at a four basic areas you'll be most interested in learning how to manipulate:
    • Treble Adjusting this setting will affect the amount of high end in your sound. If you go big with treble, you'll end up with a very sharp and crisp sound. However, if you go too big, you'll likely end up with a harsh sound.
    • Middle The mids can be the most important setting to your overall sound. Adjusting these settings can really impact the overall character of your sound. Low settings can give you the classic rock-n-roll sound, while higher mids will take you down the honky-tonk, bluesy path. Play around with the mids to really see how much change you can create in your sound with the simple twist of a knob!
    • Bass If you like that deep, booming sound, you'll definitely want to go fat on your bass. On smaller amps, however, you might not be able to get the full effect of the bass simply because of their size. But, no matter how you like it, be sure to see how the bass and treble can work with one another to create your ideal sound.
    • EQ / Filter / Tone/ Contour They're called by different names on various amps, but they all do the basically the same thing: adjust all of your basic settings (e.g., treble, mids, and bass) with one knob. If you want to find out what the maker of your amp considers "correct" settings, play with these knobs to hear how your treble, mids, and bass all can work together for radically differing results.

  • If you've got a valve (tube) amp, be sure to:
    • always replace the whole set when even just one tube blows
    • never move your amp while it's still hot
    • be extra careful that you line up he pins in each tube perfectly with their corresponding holes on the amp

  • To make sure you keep your amp in top condition, be sure to:
    • keep your amp in a dry location
    • always use the best quality leads (guitar, speaker, microphone, and effects)
    • always have your amp serviced by a capable technician

    In the end, you have to know this one rule of amps: there is no right or wrong way to set it up. If you like what you hear, you've done a great job. If you don't like what you hear, remember the settings and the sound and don't dial those in again. Experiment, experiment, experiment and have fun!

    Jon Butt is the publisher of Musical Instruments Guide , a free resource dedicated to all things musical. From electric guitars to drum sets, tubas to bagpipes, and every musical accessory in-between, the Musical Instruments Guide is packed full of informative articles, find top-rated musical instruments and online merchants

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