Guitar Amp Controls Explained: The 1st Step Towards AMAZING Tone!

By Christoper Horton •  Updated: 08/22/22 •  18 min read

Taking a look at guitar amp controls for the first time can be a little overwhelming at first. Today, we check out what all of the controls do, and how to use them.


Guitar Amp Controls: How Much Control Do You Need?

Guitar amps have only really been around for a short time compared to the timeline of guitars in general. Electric guitars only became popular in the last 70 years. So while guitar may have roots that go all the way back to medieval times, amplifiers are a relatively new addition to the pantheon.

If you are a more experienced guitarist, chances are you have came across plenty of guitar amp controls, as well as different types of guitar amps. Beginners on the other hand, usually have to fend for themselves when it comes to guitar amp controls. Your amp is at the frontline of your tone, so knowing how to operate it is invaluable.

My first guitar amp had 6 knobs on it, and those knobs were pretty self-explanatory. But when we look at amps these days, it can get confusing really fast. Take something like the BOSS Katana that we love here at EJ. The Katana is “easy” for experienced users, but the myriad of knobs can be daunting for beginners.

I see forum questions on reddit all the time about “What does X Knob do?”. Guitar amp controls can be really confusing for someone new to guitar and gear. Especially an amp that has built-in effects (Katana), or even amp sims that mimic different real-life guitar amp controls.

The market these days has everything from 20 knob beasts, to single-knob tube amps. It can be a little confusing when you look at the full spectrum of guitar amp controls. So today, we are going to look at the most common controls, and how to use them.

Your amplifier may only have a few of these controls, or maybe it has all of them! Guitar amplifiers come in all kinds of layouts. So today, we are going to look at the most important features, and why they may be important to YOU as a guitarist.

So let’s start at the very beginning, with some of the guitar amp controls that almost every amp will have! Then, we can dive deeper as we go along. Guitar amp controls may seem complicated at first, but most amps share a lot of the same features.

So let’s go ahead and dive into all of the basic controls do, and talk about how to use them, so you can start chasing tones! All guitar amps are different, so yours may not have all of these control options. Don’t panic if you can’t find one of the guitar amp controls mentioned. Different brands and styles may have alternative layouts.


Power/Standby Switch

guitar amp controls

This is one of the guitar amp controls that just about every amp on the planet will have. The really interesting part, is there is some controversy regarding the “standby” mode on some tube amps. But let’s tackle the obvious one first.

The Power Switch is pretty self explanatory, but the location can be just about anywhere on your amp. Some amp manufacturers put the power controls right on the top/front of the amp. Tube amps usually have a light also, that indicates when the amp is powered up.

However, I have had plenty of amplifiers that featured a switch on the back on the amp. You see this a lot with more expensive tube head units like Mesa/Boogie. I have also come across a few combo amps that had a power switch on the back the amp.

So no matter where your power control may be, it is good practice to leave it off when you are not playing. If you are just taking a short break, then some tube amps have a “standby” switch that will keep the tubes warm and ready to play, but cut the sound/power to the speaker. At least, that is how the “Standby” switch is usually explained… and this is WRONG.

This is where the controversial part comes in! The standby switch is not exactly meant for taking breaks, regardless of what someone has told you. Like many guitar myths, the standby switch has a long history of misinformation. Let’s try and clear this up.

The Standby Switch

In the 1950’s electric guitars became incredibly popular, and every electric guitar needs an amplifier to be heard. The Standby switch was a popular feature from the very beginning, and it is still one of the most misunderstood guitar amp controls. Thank Leo Fender for this confusion.

During the early days of electric guitar the only type of amps that you could find were powered by tubes. Solid state technology was right around the corner, but we were not quite there. Early guitar amps were all over the place when it came to design.

I have spoken with some big name, modern amp builders to gain a consensus on the “standby myth”. If you just want to know about you guitar amp controls at a basic level, you may be scratching your head right now. But this is important information if you own a tube amp.

Leo Fender is famous for making Fender guitars, and inventing the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar with the Telecaster. Fender also made guitar amps, and the Standby switch starts with Leo Fender.

Leo Fender was not a guitar player. This is notoriously known, and people marvel at the idea of a guy that doesn’t play guitar, making such amazing instruments. But not knowing how to play means Fender made some mistakes along the way, and he may have mislabeled the “Standby” switch.

This is not a huge leap in logic, since he also mislabeled the famous Fender Vibrato Effect when it is actually a Tremolo circuit. Fender is probably the most copied brand in the world when it comes to designs, so you started seeing “Standby” switches on guitar amp controls with other brands.

People looked at this “Standby” switch as a “Mute” option for the guitar amp controls. It would make sense right? You want your amp’s tubes to stay warm and ready on stage, but not have any sound coming out of the amp during a break. But that is not at all what Leo Fender intended.

Customers asked Leo Fender for bigger and louder tube amps, and he started to design more high-powered models. But with more power, came more tubes. The thing is, it took a little while for the tubes to get fully powered up. The more tubes involved, the longer it took to warm up.

Leo Fender was faced with a choice, he could start adding capacitors to the amplifiers and raise the cost of the products, conflicting with his “affordable gear for everyone” motto, or he could change the design. Leo went with changing the design, and started adding the now-famous “Standby”.

The Standby switch is actually designed to cut the high voltage when turning on the amp. This is why it is located next to the Power switch! Set the guitar amp controls to “Standby” before turning on the amp, and then wait a few minutes for the tubes to warm up. This made the tubes ready to go, faster.

“While the tubes are warming up, the Fender standby switch removed the high voltage from the circuit until the tubes filaments were warmed up to operating temperature and the power supply voltage would be loaded down by the tubes to the nominal safe operating voltage for the capacitors.”

Greg Bowers: Tube Amp Expert

So in reality, the only time you should be using the Standby switch on your tube amp is when you are powering it up. But most modern day tube amps have capacitors built in to solve this dilemma. So really, the Standby switch isn’t necessary anymore. So why do we still see the Standby switch on modern amps?

Customers are the reason. People tend to freak out when they encounter a tube amp without a Standby switch. Some people think that without it, damage could be caused to the amp. But with solid state rectifiers, and all kinds of other tech in modern amps… the Standby switch is obsolete. It is only there because people complain if it isn’t.

If you have been using the Standby as a kind of “Mute” option, then you have probably heard pops and cracks come from your speaker. This is not a good thing! It makes those noises because you are essentially shutting off 120 volts instantly. Standby is not a “take a break switch”.

So only use the Standby switch when warming up your amp. Most modern amps don’t even need this, and they power up rather quickly. If your tube amp doesn’t have a Standby, then it doesn’t need one! It wasn’t just some oversight on the builder!

This is one of the most confusing topics when it comes to guitar amp controls. People in the guitar community STILL disagree on this subject, even after hearing the truth from master amp builders. I hope this clears it up!

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Channel Selection

guitar amp controls

One of the most important guitar amp controls is the Channel Selection. These may be a button on your amp, a sliding switch, or it may be controlled only with a footswitch (as shown above). Some digital amps like the Katana or Catalyst have several channels. While some tube amps may have only one single channel!

Guitar amp controls are something to pay attention to when purchasing an amp, and Channel Selection is an important factor. The “Channels” on your guitar amp are like channels on a television or radio. Each one will usually provide a different sound.

The most popular design in guitar amplifiers is the “Two-Channel Amp”. You will see this listed as a feature on a TON of amps. For some guitarists, this is the most critical feature when it comes to guitar amp controls. Myself included since I prefer a two, or sometimes three channel amp.

The most common two-channel options we see in amps is having a “clean” and “dirty” channel. The clean channel does exactly what it describes. However, the dirty channel may be a light overdrive or all-out heavy distortion, depending on the model of the amp.

This is also why some guitar amp controls are extended to a footswitch. The footswitch allows you to instantly switch between channels on your amp. This is useful if you are playing on stage, and a necessity for most live rigs. Being able to change the channel mid-song is crucial to many guitarists.

The famous EVH 5150 Amplifier was known for having three distinct channels! This gives the user a clean channel, dirty, and full-on distortion. Each channel on the 5150 also had its own EQ and this gave you three totally distinct tones.

So when shopping for an amp, you need to take into account what kind of sound you need your amp to produce. Some guitarists only need a clean channel, and use pedals to create “dirty” or distorted tones. Other guitarists may want more than one channel to be able to expand their tonal options.

Take the time to experiment with the different channels, and learn how to dial in each channel on your amp. For me, having different channels is the most important part of my guitar amp controls, and it is usually the first thing I check for on an amplifier.

If you are still looking to buy your first amp, think about what kind of music you intend to play. If you want to play Blues, maybe you just need a single channel amp. On the other hand, if you want to play Metal, you will need a clean channel as well as a distortion channel.

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Volume And Gain

Guitar amp controls

This is an interesting part of your guitar amp controls, and can often be misunderstood. So we are going to explain this the easiest way possible. Some guitarists may think that volume and gain are the same thing, but they are not.

You may have more than one volume/gain knob on your guitar amp controls. This is because sometimes individual channels have their own set of volume/gain controls. This is so you can contour each channel to have a different tone. For a common example: Channel one is clean/crunch, but channel two has the gain boosted for solos.

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Volume and Gain: What’s The Difference?

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Volume and Gain are going to differ between all kinds of guitar models. Some guitar amp controls can be really confusing and elaborate. Depending on the amp, you might have a Volume and Gain control for each channel, or just one “Master” control. Some amps have individual volume/gain channel controls, and then a MASTER Amp Volume control.

Again, this is all preference and will vary depending on your needs. But knowing the difference between volume and gain is the most important thing to note. Gain will make your amp louder, but it will also “push” the amp harder, and make it distort.


EQ Controls

guitar amp controls

Technically, Volume and gain are part of your amp’s EQ. But we just covered this in the above section, and the only component between the two that affects tone, is the level of gain. This section is more about traditional guitar amp controls for EQ.

The EQ section of your guitar amp controls stands for “Equalization” and this can be a very deep topic. The EQ controls are where you really fine-tune your amp’s sound. Most people are familiar with EQ from your car stereo, and your guitar amp controls work the same way.

The EQ knobs on your guitar amp controls have an affect on your overall tone. EQ is also important when playing in a band, since you want the guitar to be sitting in its own frequency spectrum. Experimenting with your EQ is one of the best ways to dial in a unique tone from your amp.

Not every guitar amp has a full EQ section. Likewise, some guitar amps have a massive amount of EQ options, sometimes offering EQ for each channel. Every guitarist is different, so there are a lot of amp styles to cater to your EQ needs. The most popular and basic EQ controls you will see are:

For most guitarists, dialing in the EQ is going to be a matter of taste. If you listen to Pantera, you will hear a great example of a guitar with the mid knob turned almost all the way down. Modern bands like Mastodon on the other hand, dial in a lot of midrange on their amps. 7 string players often use a lot of midrange as well, to compensate for the low tuning.

How you dial in your EQ will have a huge impact on your tone. I always tell new guitarists to experiment, and see what sounds good to them. Things do change in a band situation, and everyone needs to dial in their EQ properly so the band doesn’t sound washed out.


Effects Controls (Digital Amps) And FX Loop

guitar amp controls

I decided to throw this in for beginners, since so many amps these days have built-in effects. Something like the BOSS Katana or Fender Mustang are both great examples of digital amps with effects. This is one of the biggest appeals of these types of amps. They are an “all in one” solution.

Most tube amps will NOT have any kind of built-in effects, and if they do-it is usually just a digital or spring reverb. This will usually be controlled with a single knob, after the EQ section. Most tube amp owners use pedals to create the effects they need for recording, or playing on stage.

Every amp that has built-in effects is going to work differently, so consult your owner’s manual on how to control them. Something like the BOSS Katana can be plugged up to your computer, and you decide which effects it has for each channel. Other digital amps may have the controls right on the amp.

Digital amps and tube amps can both sometimes have an FX Loop on the back of the amp. This is to place effects pedals in the amp’s “loop” before or after the preamp section of your guitar amp. Some amps will have a knob for the FX Loop to control the volume of the pedals you plug into the loop.

If you FX Loop doesn’t have any controls, then you need to dial in the volume on your pedals. This is something you will have to play with to get “right”, and is pretty advanced.

Most guitarists that use pedals prefer to run distortion and fuzz through the “front” of the amp, or the input jack. But effects like reverb, delay, chorus, and loopers all sound better through the FX Loop. It is really up to you how you utilize effects, and sometimes experimentation is the only way to find your sound.


Attenuators

guitar amp controls

Attenuators have been around for quite a while, but being a built-in part of guitar amp controls is a relatively new idea. Usually, and attenuator would be used on a loud tube amp in the studio, and it was a separate piece of gear. So having it as part of your guitar amp controls these days is a really cool luxury.

So what does the attenuator do, exactly? Let’s look at the actual science explanation first, and then we can go over it in more basic detail. At its core, an attenuator is:

An attenuator used on a guitar amp diverts and lowers a marked portion of the amplifier’s power (wattage) to enable hearing the amplifiers high-volume characteristics at lower volume.

But why does it matter if your amp is quiet or loud? It makes the same sound no matter what volume it is at, right? Does the actual volume really matter that much?

Actually, the volume does make a big difference, especially with high-gain sounds.

This is most effective on high-wattage tube amps. With most tube amps, the louder you crank them up, the better they sound. Not only do you have a higher volume, but more harmonic overtones are present. Distortion also sounds better, and more saturated when you have the amp turned up LOUD.

Cranking up a tube amp is no problem in a sound-treated studio, but it can be a big problem if you record at home and have neighbors. Guitar amps sound great when cranked, but operating at 100+ decibels in your apartment isn’t exactly feasible. Unless you have some really cool neighbors and roommates.

That’s where an attenuator comes in handy. Picture it as “changing the wattage” of your amp. Most will allow you to operate at a lower wattage, such as 1 single watt. This way, you get the TONE of a cranked up amplifier without the overwhelming volume.

Attenuators also come in handy when you are not recording. Personally, I like the sound of a cranked up amplifier when I am practicing and dialing in my sound for the stage. Having an attenuator built-in to your guitar amp controls makes it possible to have great tone at a low volume, any time you need it!


Guitar Amp Controls Explained: Wrapping Up…

guitar amp controls

Understanding all of the different guitar amp controls and how they work is an essential part of being a guitarist. It’s important to get familiar with these knobs, and learn how you like to “dial in an amp”. Every amp is going to respond differently to things like EQ, but knowing what they do is valuable knowledge.

Every guitarist has a different idea of which tones sound good. Tone is totally a subjective topic, and what I think sounds amazing may sound awful to you. Knowing how guitar amp controls work will help you on your journey to find YOUR tone.

Because every amp might be different, but things like EQ will always function the same way. Knowing guitar amp controls also helps when deciding on what amp you want to buy. You might need more than one channel, or more than one EQ section. Having a list of “needs” will narrow down your search for the perfect amp.

If you already have a great amplifier that you love, then knowing how the controls work can help you dial in your sound quickly. Maybe you have more than one way to dial in your amp, and that’s cool too. But the first step to great tone for any guitarist is knowing your guitar amp controls.

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Christoper Horton

Christopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.

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