Gigging Week: Top Tone Tips for Gigging Guitarists

Published on 08 August 2019

Live guitar tone is a particularly mercurial subject. From newbies to seasoned warriors, the whole notion of translating our guitar tones from home to public venue is problematic. We’ve all faced that disillusioning experience when our carefully dialled in & tweaked tones mysteriously transform at the venue to become ratty, muddy, shapeless non-tones.

What happened?

Physics, mainly. Sound waves travelling, frequencies clashing and equipment behaving and reacting to entirely different context’s than we’ve had them in.

Getting a good live guitar sound can be tricky, but there are lots of ways to navigate these choppy and shark-infested sonic waters! From the physical placement of your gear to how to work with EQ, there are a variety of tools available in the kit to improve your sound and make a lasting, satisfying performance for both you and your audience.

Let’s look at some of these ways, bearing in mind that your eyes will be your best guide for progress!

Your Amp

Ok, you’re playing with a medium-sized valve combo and the venue is a typical 200 or thereabouts capacity room. That’s our imaginary setting and set up. Already, there are things you can do to maximise the potential of your amp’s performance. These are some tips we’ve picked up over the years...

Raise the amp

Get your amp up off the floor! Lots of wooden stages are somewhat hollow underneath. Wood + hollow = tons of resonance. Sadly, that also means that your bottom end will go crazy. You will lose control of that part of your sound entirely! Sticking your combo on an amp stand, crate, chair or anything else will give you a much more level playing field. Even a rug, like you see posh retro rock bands using, is effective in cancelling out the floor’s interference.

Careful on corners

This tip is good for your home, too. Keep your amp away from any corners in the room. The 45-degree walls that meet in the room’s corners will bounce your sound back out in a pretty ugly, garbled way. Clarity is always key with live sound, and this is the opposite. Again, lower frequencies in particular act up in this situation. Turning your amp’s bass knob down will not sort things: moving your amp away from the corner will!

Once it’s away from the room’s corners, there is still work to be done! Amp or cab placement is important because it’s location on stage can affect brightness. Try walking around where the audience will be as a bandmate strums your guitar. Try the cab in different positions until you get to where you feel like you’re getting the best aggregate results.

Mids

Midrange is everything. Your guitar is a midrange instrument, occupying similar sonic space to vocals and the snare drum. It needs to have mids in its tone or it’ll simply get swamped by the dominating frequencies of other instruments.

The biggest mistake most guitarists make is in working on their gig tones at home. Home volume, no other players...it’s far from the context of a live performance. What sounds good in your bedroom or study has zero bearing on what cuts it live. Keep your midrange in there, even if it doesn’t sound quite as good when played in isolation. You’ll find that the context of the band performance will readily enhance and feed your guitar sound, whilst the tone that was maybe a little ugly on its own is now gorgeous and perfect in the mix.

Volume

You know what we’re going to say, right? To turn your amp down a bit? It is almost always a good idea, for the benefit of the whole band’s sound. Volume accentuates high end and can make your previously incredible tones sound harsh and nasty, so turning down can work for you too!

The sound engineer needs to consider other factors like mic bleed: they don’t want your amp sound coming through the drum mics, for example. Turning down a smidge will make their job easier, and if there is one person you want on your side, it’s the sound engineer!

If you have a sound that requires tons of volume, like a large high gain sound that needs to push a ton of power to get going, maybe consider downsizing the rig to help achieve this sound at lower power levels.

 It is generally true that valve amps sound at their best when the tubes get glowing and the power is at least half way. Doing this in a small, 200 capacity room is asking for it. A 50-watt amp instead of a 100-watt amp may really help improve your live sound, even though it may feel like a compromise if you’re used to things as they are. Try it! You’ll be pushing the amp into its volume ‘sweet spot’ and it’s altogether less loud than the 100-watt behemoth you were insisting on before. Please trust us when we say that your audience couldn’t care less about your massive amp: they are listening to the song, and the singer, long before they are listening to you. Harsh facts!

Amp EQ Trick

Here’s a useful tone trick to try if you have time at the venue. In fact, make time for it: it’s necessary! If you are playing through a valve amp, this is likely to be a quick and effective way of ‘tuning’ the amp to the room you’re playing in.

First, turn your amp to near-gigging volume (full gigging volume if you can). As we’ve said, this may be less volume than you expect: just go along with what the sound engineer says, as co-operation with them is essential. Why wouldn’t you anyway?

Next, turn all of your EQ controls to zero. Select your guitar’s neck pickup and then play a note. It doesn’t matter much which note, but one near the middle of the guitar’s range would make sense. As you play, incrementally turn the knob of each EQ control until you hear an identifiable change, a ‘sweet spot’. This is where that amp is doing most of the work in that particular frequency range. It’s the jackpot! Listen out for it and leave the control set there once you find it. Small tweaks are allowed, but leave it there for now.

Do the same for each of the EQ controls and you’ll have the amp set to its most effective and efficient settings. Salt ‘n’ pepper to taste, remembering to garnish with enough mids to cut through the entire band’s spectrum. Little tweaks will often make big differences! Use your ears over your eyes always: who cares if it looks like you’re adding too much or too little of something? The resulting sound is all that matters.

Gain

In almost every context, your guitar probably does not require the levels of gain you are so determinedly chucking at it. At bedroom levels, monster helpings of distortion can be an impressive and satisfying thing to encounter: at a gig, it ranks you as a rookie. Even heavier styles require less gain that lots of players heap on.

Gain/overdrive/distortion/whatever you want to call it is a means of flattening out your sound. You’ll compress your sound, which can be very helpful, to a degree. At higher volumes, though, gain is a problematic factor that can lead to your guitar sounding obnoxiously harsh and over-egged. Neither of these are meant in a positive context!

‘High Gain’ sounds are eminently achievable with slightly less input gain. This in turn tightens your sound and actually makes you sound even heavier! Turn up as high as your sound engineer will let you by all means, but back that gain control off a little and let tone and dynamics through. Both you and the whole band will sound significantly better.

Special, attention-grabbing fuzz moments are obviously exempt from this advice! Just don’t over-do it or your audience will get sore ears and, worse, bored!

Pay special attention again to your top end and low end with your gain tones. We know you want a huge, fat sound, but cutting all frequencies under 100hz will help give your bassist more space. 100hz is your ‘Djent’, ‘chug’ sound, so it’s an important one for those styles. Cutting below it will not rob your tone of anything it needs.

Again, scooping out your mids entirely may make you sound like Dimebag Darrell in your bedroom, but on stage you’ll disappear in to the background. Dime would not approve! Make sure your tone at 600hz is there along with the 2-3khz range. It’s a large range of frequencies so there is still scope for individuality without sacrificing your instrument’s impact.

What You Hear is Not What You Get

Some guitarists have issues with understanding that what they hear on stage is nothing like what the audience is hearing. The crowd won’t be hearing monitor mixes, and hopefully they won’t be hearing your backline either, since you’ve successfully cooperated with your sound tech and have turned your amp back a bit!

If you’re not loving your on-stage sound but your crowd is loving it, have no fear: your job is being done correctly! Thank your sound tech!

Quick tips

We now have some simple and effective tips to help smooth out your experience. Some of these may be super obvious but they often bear repeating, so here they are anyway!

  • Tune up often. And keep an eye on your tuning. Stage lights will mess with your tuning. If somebody sounds out of tune, make sure it’s not you! Also, try to make sure nobody hears you tuning: it’s the very worst thing you can so on stage. The very worst.
  • Don’t mess with levels after your soundcheck: it’ll immediately get your sound tech’s teeth grinding. If you can’t hear yourself properly, signal to the tech that you need to hear more: they may decide that it’s better to cut someone else rather than boost you, so leave it up to them.
  • Consider the implications of changing guitars. Les Pauls are generally louder than Strats, for example, so look into finding ways of bridging that difference. An EQ pedal can work wonders.
  • If your singer wants you to turn down, do oblige him. Like it or not, he is risking the most, injury wise. Your hurt pride does not trump his inflamed vocal chords.
  • Consider other applications for the (most useful pedal ever) EQ pedal. It’s a great solo boost, a way to even out different guitar output levels, a way to further fine tune your tone, and others. One favourite method we’ve found is to dial up your most heavy amp tone, and then put an EQ pedal, set to cut every frequency a little, in front of it. This means you keep your EQ pedal activated for most of your set as your rhythm sound. You then turn it OFF for your solos, unleashing the full roar of your sound! It’s backwards to standard practice but it’s really effective. Get your guitar’s volume knob involved for even more dynamic options. 

Last Thoughts

This article could really be boiled down to the following: Be courteous to your bandmates, make friends with the Sound Tech, sculpt your tone by subtracting rather than adding, and accept that ‘good’ is more acceptable than ‘perfect’ at the expense of everybody’s experience.

These tips don’t take into account digital FRFR setups, since they are a whole other kettle of cyber fish.

We hope these tips are useful to you, and that they can contribute to making your next public performance a vibey, communicative event with great sounds aplenty.

We’ll see you on the road.

 

Ray McClelland