You’ve scrimped and saved and now you finally have the rig of your dreams. Congratulations, you are ready to ascend into tonal nirvana. Just one problem — your guitar still sounds weird and that kid in the opening band that’s playing through a beat-up practice amp totally sounds better than you, doesn’t he? Even that ’70s Les Paul you found in your grandpa’s attic going into one of Hendrix’s old Fuzz Face pedals that you bought at Roger Waters’ yard sale pushed through the vintage Hiwatt that Pete Townshend traded you in exchange for dog sitting while he was at that 50th anniversary gig can still sound terrible if not set up and dialed in properly. Here are a few quick, easy and cheap tricks to get the most out of your gear.
1. Give Yourself a Boost
You’re in your bedroom jamming and your amp sounds amazing. Everything is dialed in just perfect and your tone is everything you’ve ever wanted. You’re gonna be the next Yngwie Malmsteen, and all you can think about is getting up on stage an unleashing the fury. A few days later though, you’re at band practice and as soon as the drummer counts everyone in your guitar disappears in the mix. Your pinch harmonics are perfect, but you just can’t hear them.
Throwing a good boost pedal in your signal chain can give you that little extra oomph that you need to stand out in the mix. Even if you already sound good on stage, hammering down on a boost pedal right as you rip into that lead riff or sweep-picking solo will give you the volume boost and gain saturation to stand out as you reach for the spotlight. There’s the fury.
If you’re running a tube amp, a boost pedal can push your tubes right into their saturation sweet spot. The combination of a tube amp and a boost pedal is the holy grail of tone purists, You can scour Ebay day and night for a vintage TS808 Tube Screamer and maybe finally nail down the perfect “Layla” tone, but despite what “SilverSurferGuitarGod1963” may say on that message board, any decent boost pedal will will get you there.
*Unfortunately, this little saturation trick doesn’t really work on a solid state amp.
Boost PEdals We recommend:
2. Replace Your Tubes
This one sounds like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised at how many players are running through old, worn-out tubes every night. Tubes are like the oil in your car, in that they need to be replaced every 3,000 miles or so. Running older, burnt-out tubes can zap the tonal clarity out of your amp, produce weird pops and hisses and kill your output level. Popping in a set of fresh tubes can sound like you are pulling an old went blanket off of your amp.
So when you should replace your tubes? That depends on a lot of factors, but in general an amp that is used fairly often should get new power tubes ever year or two. Your power amp tubes take a lot more of a beating then your preamp tubes do, so those should be replaced about twice as often as your preamp tubes.
The other way that retubing can help you get more from your amp, is by trying out different tube models. A classic example is going from the British crunch sound of an EL34 (think Marhsall and Hiwatt) to the loud, clean tone of a 6L6 (think Fender Bassman). Looking for more headroom and a warmer fatter tone? try out a KT88. Preamp tubes are the first in your signal chain to get hit, and really develop the character of your amp’s gain, so going from the common 12AX7 tube down to a 12AY7 will tame things and drop the input gain. What kind of tubes you can use depends on a lot of things, such as voltage, pins, etc. Consult the manual or manufacturer of your amp to get an idea of what tubes your amp can take.
Also, when swapping out different types of tubes, most amps need to be rebiased. This can be done at home if you know what you are doing, but your best bet is to take it to your local amp tech and have them do the job. It’s pretty quick and usually not very expensive.
*WARNING: Even when turned off, amplifiers can still hold deadly voltage levels, so don’t start poking around inside your amp if you don’t know exactly what you are doing.
Tubes WE RECOMMEND:
3. Try Some New Speakers
While tubes are the first step in your amp developing its tone, speakers are the last, physically turning what was an electric signal into actual sound. Before EVH took his Frankenstein guitar and modded 100-watt Marshall head to it, The Kinks really popularized the use of distortion with “You Really Got Me,” taking razor blades to their speakers and slashed them up to giving their amps the now-famous gritty, distorted tone.
Just like with tubes, different speakers can vastly affect your tone and also just like tubes, a worn-out speaker can kill your tone. Which speakers your amp can accept really boil down to its ohm and wattage ratings. If you are swapping out speakers in a combo amp, generally you want to stick with the same ratings, but with a cabinet, you have more room to experiment. Exploring the different ways to wire up a guitar or bass cabinet can get tricky, and merits its own guide. We have another post on our blog that’s dedicated to getting that job done.
Even if you aren’t replacing old speakers, putting in a different set can vary your tone. Maybe your amp’s stock speakers aren’t giving you all you want? Try loading up some Celestion Vintage 30s; there’s a reason they’re the most famous guitar speakers, and will impress any bar blues band. How about a set of Eminence Cannabis Rex, not only do they give you a smooth, “smokey” tone, your stoner rock friends will love them.
Speakers We Recommend:
4. Use an EQ Pedal
Every amp has built-in EQ controls of some sort, but you’re lucky if you get more than just treble, mid and bass knobs. Most guitarists get by with that level of tone control just fine, but even if your amp is dialed-in just right, an EQ pedal will let you boost or cut specific frequency ranges so you can fine-tune things and conjure your perfect tone.
The best way to do this is to set everything at zero (usually the middle position, as most guitar EQ pedals are parametric EQs) and then starting with the low end, slowly sweep each frequency and listen to how it effects your tone. You can scoop the treble to smooth off some of that trebly, high end hiss, boost the low-mids to add a little more girth to your sound or roll in a big arch in the mids to add presence to your tone. There are definitely some tried-and-true ideas on how to EQ a guitar, but really nothing you do is “wrong” as long as it sounds good to you.
EQ Pedals WE RECOMMEND:
5. Invest in Quality Cables
While they’re not part of your amp and don’t feature any tone controls, a good set of cables can make a world of difference. Sure, if you compare a brand-new $10 cable next to a new $90 cable, you aren’t going to hear all that much difference. This leads a lot of guitarist to think “then why bother?” and swear off higher-end cables. In the long run though, it’s definitely worth your while. I know as a young, mostly broke musician, I just didn’t have the money to shell out for a bunch of fancy high-end cables. I also spent plenty of gigs fiddling with the cable, trying to keep the half-broken soldered points from cutting out my signal, and fighting the gnarly hum and buzz. Once I finally upgraded my cables, things got a whole lot easier and I could hear my tone clearer.
On the other side of the cable argument are cables that boast all kinds of space-age sounding features, alloys, and technical ratings. I personally take all of that with a grain of salt. I want quality, but it is just an instrument cable after all. For example, I have had the same $40 Mogami instrument cable for about 6 years now, and have had no problems. Even if there is an issue, most high-end cables offer a lifetime warranty.
Cables WE RECOMMEND:
Top image credit: wll o’snd via Flickr