Take Control of Your Tone (control)!
By PGS Fitz
“Tone knobs are useless. You can quote me on that.”
– this dude Jason I used to be in a band with…
Sometimes I think in these blog posts that I’m really just confessing all the things I’m guilty of as a guitar player—hopefully in the lofty goal of getting better as a guitarist. This week’s confession?! I never use the tone controls on my guitars.
I crank everything to treble and adjust the resulting tone with my amps’ EQ. Maybe it’s because my first guitar was a cheap Kramer that only had one tilted humbucker pickup and one volume control. Maybe I’m lazy and unadventurous. Maybe I’m scared of how awesome the tone control is going to be for my sound. I recognize I’m limiting myself—after all, there’s wouldn’t BE a tone control available if it wasn’t useful, right? That it exists at all implies its usefulness. I’ve got the mechanical skills—I use my volume knob for swells all the time, so why not skip on over to the next control knob? You, too, might be skipping out on one of the best (and easiest!) tone manipulators available to you--unless you’re still rocking that Tom DeLonge strat or Nikki Sixx Thunderbird, in which case the tone control was dispatched completely, rendering this entire subject somewhat moot!
Many guitars feature a single tone control that will usually affect all pickups on the instrument-- whether it’s a single pickup or multiple pickups. In this scenario, that one knob controls the tone cut on everything across the board. If you’re holding a Telecaster, you’re in this scenario.
However, many guitars have much more complicated electronics that let you dig a little deeper into controlling your tone directly from your guitar. On a typical Strat, there are two tone knobs, which I always thought was weird, mathematically, because Strats typically have three pickups. On your typical strat, the top tone knob controls the neck pickup and the bottom tone knob controls the middle; the bridge pickup is not typically wired up to a tone parameter—but you can bet your Gilmour signature Strat that a zillion tinkerers have rewired their Strats for any of a number of different tonal options.
Most Gibson guitars (and their contemporaries) have opted to include a volume and tone control for each pickup, typically in a two pickup scenario. This really opens up the breadth of what you can do with your tonality—allowing you to set one pickup really bright and the other pickup much darker; flipping between the two via a pickup selector yields instantly diverse tones straight from the instrument—with no need to fiddle with your effects board to initiate a radically different tone.
Of course there are a ton of instruments with unique wiring options—the Fender Jaguar comes to mind with its separate controls for rhythm and lead tones—and it goes without saying that there’s an endless number of ways that one can tweak their existing tone circuits in their instruments, whether it’s by re-wiring what control knob is wired to a particular pickup OR whether it’s changing the values of components in the circuit OR adding a push-pull knob, for example, to take the tone control out of the circuit entirely (a nice mod for that Esquire style sound!).
Step one is to investigate the tone control you have, if you’re not already doing it. Just as manipulating your volume control can take you from dirty to clean, your tone control can really take you all over the map in a song and save you from doing some fancy footwork with your effects pedals. Once you’ve given the tone control a good once over, you might find that you want to experiment a little more with what you have going on under the hood, changing some of the values in the caps and pots to give you any extra flexibility you might not have known you wanted. Your tech will probably love to have a field day tweaking your instrument—or, if you’re nerd enough, you’ll love doing it yourself, too.
Let’s hear what the hive mind has to say about tone controls. Do you guys use the tone controls on your instrument regularly? What kind of results are you looking for and what kind of results do you get?! Anyone have any experience to share regarding circuitry upgrades/tweaks?! Sound off in the comments (again, maybe this is mostly for my personal benefit!) and let’s talk TONE. See you next time in Andy’s Corner!