The tone knob often gets looked over on guitars, especially when playing metal music. But it may be more beneficial than you think! Today we take a look at how to use it, and the different types.
The Tone Knob: Quit Ignoring It!
There are so many myths when it comes to guitar playing. These myths were already pretty bad in the 80’s and 90’s and yet with the advent of the internet they got even worse. Some arguments hold a little bit of truth, while others are flat out lies. I can get into the whole controversy of tone wood for instance, but that is a conversation for another time. Then there are so many amp debates, when the most important part of your amp is definitely the speaker. Guitarists will believe just about anything, in my experience.
Some people have a lot of fun with this, like Eddie Van Halen. He was arguably the first guy to ever “troll” the guitar community, by telling people his equipment was “special” and secretive. When the real secret was Eddie was just a great guitar player! Of course this is hilarious in retrospect, but all kind of myths still get spread every day on the internet. I’ve seen guitarists put their guitar in the freezer because someone told them to do it on a forum post.
Some of them are actually really funny, like the idea that modeling technology can’t compete with a tube amp. When in reality, if you were blindfolded, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. I know I would have a hard time telling the difference on a recording. Meshuggah have used this tech for years, and no one is complaining. I have heard stuff like Eric Johnson can hear the difference in his pedal’s batteries. These tall tales are everywhere, and the biggest takeaway is the audience doesn’t care what you use. The audience only cares if you sound good.
But one that I see often, is that you should just remove the tone knob from your guitar if you plan on using high gain, or playing metal. The tone knob is apparently superfluous, and as a metal player it will only cause your signal to be less bright. Your muddy tone is all apparently the fault of tone knob. It couldn’t possibly be your pickups right? Or your amp? Your settings?
So today we are going to take a look at how the tone knob works on your guitar, and how to properly use it. We are also going to put some myths to bed about it potentially disrupting your signal chain. Using the volume knob/tone knob on your guitar to shape your overall sound is not discussed much these days. But don’t worry, we will go over how to use them to great effect. So let’s dive in, and take a look at one of the easiest effects you can get without a pedal!
What Is The Tone Knob?
The tone knob is a potentiometer like your volume control that dials in frequency, or removes it from the sound spectrum. The tone knob usually dials in/out treble frequencies on an electric guitar. The lower you set the tone knob, the more the high frequencies are cut out from your guitar signal to your amp.
That’s probably the easiest way to describe what a tone knob does for your electric guitar. If you want to dig deep into the science, and where the idea came from, check out the wiki on electric guitars. But essentially, it does exactly what the name suggests. It changes the tone of your guitar and it can be set to brighten, or a darken your overall tone. There are several different variations of the tone knob, and depending on the guitar it can be vastly different designs. But what does the tone knob actually do?
It acts as a passive low pass filter for your guitar. It is a lot like having a built in EQ system in your guitar! A low pass filter is very easy to understand when it comes to basic equalization. When you are turning your tone knob, you are changing the frequency of your guitar’s signal to the amplifier. A low pass filter changes the frequencies by taking out the treble, and letting only the lower frequencies pass through.
Some people will say that the tone knob is adding a “warm” tone to your guitar, but in reality it isn’t adding anything. The “warm tone” is achieved by removing the higher frequencies. Your tone knob is just taking away some of the higher frequencies of the pickup output. This is exactly how a low pass filter works when you are setting EQ for mastering an album as well. You have a lot of power in the tone knob of your guitar!
The image above is an EQ program I use to mix and master albums in the studio. This is a great example of just how much treble a low pass filter can dial out. Your guitar’s tone knob does exactly what the picture above demonstrates to the frequency spectrum. It is pulling out the treble, or the “highs” in the mix. This leaves the bass, and low midrange still present in the spectrum. The tone knob does this with your guitar signal by dialing out the frequencies of the pickups. Active pickups work the same way as passive ones when it comes to tone knob control.
Different Types Of Tone Knobs
Not all tone pots are created equal! Potentiometers have different resistance values. Most humbucker guitars for example have a 500k volume/tone knob resistance since they are not as bright as single coils. Most Fender guitars and other single coil designs use a 250k resistance for the potentiometers. So using different resistance values is one way to make a tone knob or volume knob more/less responsive. But you also have other ways to shape your guitar’s EQ even further.
Capacitors can be added to the tone pot, and these can drastically change the way your tone knob responds. A capacitor can change the value of the resistance, and if this sounds confusing don’t worry. It is actually really easy to understand. If you open the control panel of your guitar, you will probably see a capacitor soldered to the tone/volume pot. The most common values are:
- 0.047 μF
- 0.033 μF
- 0.022 μF
- 0.01 μF
All a capacitor is doing, in layman’s terms is changing the EQ curve that your tone knob controls. So while a tone knob with no capacitor will dial out the high frequencies, it may make the sound more muddy. You will usually see cheaper guitars and budget guitars not using a capacitor on the tone pot. It is extra work, and most budget guitars have the bare bones when it comes to wiring features. But a good capacitor can make a huge difference in the way your tone knob responds when you turn it up/down.
The capacitor changes the EQ curve that we saw above in the low pass filter picture. It gives you more freedom to dial out the treble without your guitar sounding muddy. A good capacitor on your tone knob will make dialing in your guitar sound a lot easier, without muddying up the signal to your amplifier. Capacitors can be found on active and passive pickup wiring. If you are wondering what they look like, and if your guitar has one, check the control cavity of your guitar and look for one! They look like this:
What Is a “No Load” Tone Knob?
So the big myths that we talked about at the beginning of the article, is that if you play metal, a tone knob will only muddy up your signal so you might as well disconnect it. Even if you never turn it down, just having one installed takes out some high frequencies from your pickups to the amp. This is not entirely a myth, since it is technically true. This is why so many “hot rod” metal guitars don’t have a tone knob at all. The more components you add to the circuit, the more distance the signal has to travel, so this is true to an extent.
But there are other options beyond just removing the tone knob all together. A No Load Tone Pot is a great option for guitarists that want the most control possible. Especially in the next section when we discuss how to use your tone knob effectively! The tone control is actually a big part of a lot of famous guitarist’s sound, myself included! But we want to avoid getting muddy right? So what does a No Load Tone Pot do?
A “no load” tone pot removes itself entirely from the signal chain when the knob is turned all the way up. This means there is no chance of the tone knob drawing any frequencies away from the guitar’s signal output. You still have control over the low pass filter once you turn the tone down, however. This effectively means that you still have control when you want it, but you also can have a direct signal when needed. This is especially helpful for high gain metal players.
Reverend Guitars are famous for having a special tone control on all of the models the company makes. Fender also has a version of this on some of its models. But having special wiring is more of a luxury feature, even though we do see some budget models using filters and No Load pots on guitars. The Ibanez AZ Essentials has a version of this. Having a No Load Pot, high pass filter, or low pass filter is not a new idea. But you can have a No Load pot installed on any guitar, and it is a popular “mod” for lots of players.
Set the knob on a No Load to 10 and it will have zero effect on the signal, making it nonexistent in the chain. But even turned down just a tiny bit, say to the 9 position… it acts just like a regular tone knob. This doesn’t mean that a No Load tone pot is better, since sound is so subjective. But it is a great option for players that feel like their pickups are not giving the full sound spectrum they are designed to produce. Tone is totally subjective, and No Load is the same idea as a “true bypass” pedal in its function.
I have personally always been a fan of No Load Pots for my guitars with passive pickups. It definitely changes the sound of your guitar, and gives you a larger tonal palate. But as we see in the next section, plenty of guitarists get by without any mods at all. Just a “regular” tone knob can have a huge effect on your sound.
How Do I Use My Tone Knob?
This function is going to vary wildly from player to player. But I can tell you how some famous guitarists and people like myself use the tone knob. Every guitar is different though, and you may even have more than one tone knob! A Les Paul style guitar generally has two volume/two tone controls as a standard setup making a total of four knobs. This means that you have a volume and tone control for each pickup.
Other guitars may just have two knobs or three total, with one being the master volume for both pickups and the other knob is the master tone control. A Fender Stratocaster has three pickups, and the different models have different control layouts. But every Fender has at least one tone control that is either wired to the bridge pickup, or as a master tone control for two of the pickups.
The best way to find out how your tone control works, is to plug up to your amp and play around with it! Experiment with the different pickup positions, and see how the tone control interacts with the sound of each position. Once you have a good grasp on what control does what, you can start dialing in different sounds. Like I said, many famous guitarists use the tone knob to dial in their signature tone. Slash is probably most famous for his use of the tone controls.
“November Rain” has several guitar solos in it where Slash uses the tone control to dial back the treble on his guitar. Add a little distortion and reverb, and you get that smooth “singing” tone. Notice that even when he hits the higher notes, they aren’t piercing. The sound still cuts through the mix, it just sounds much smoother with the tone knob dialed back. The last solo in particular is the best example, since those notes are up high.
If you have ever wondered how to get that smooth, warm lead tone out of your guitar…then Slash is a great example. His solos always have a “singing” quality to them, and part of that is his note choice and phrasing. But the most important part is how he uses the tone knob to his advantage. Slash likes to use the neck pickup for his guitar solos, and he will usually use the bridge pickup for rhythm playing. This is the most common setup for a rock/metal guitarist since the bridge pickup has less bass and will blend into the mix.
Set your guitar on the neck pickup, and use the tone knob to dial out some of the high end. You can use the bridge pickup as well if you like the sound better. Notice how the tone knob makes the sound more smooth and warm? This is how famous guitarists get that “creamy” lead tone! Eric Clapton called it the “Woman Tone” when he did this sound with his band, Cream. Slash, Carlos Santana, and Eric Clapton are all famous for using this smooth tone with distortion on the neck pickup.
Jazz players use the tone knob to smooth out the sound of BOTH pickups usually. This is an essential part of jazz guitar tone, and most players love to turn the tone down a little bit to get a fatter, warmer sound. Country players famously like to play Telecasters, and use the tone knob to dial down the “twang” for rhythm playing, and they dial it back in for twangy, biting solos. Newer players like Tim Henson dial back the tone knob for tapping, solos, and harmonic licks.
Experimenting with the tone knob on your guitar can open up all kinds of sound possibilities. No matter what kind of music you play, it can be a huge benefit to learn how your guitar’s controls work. Guitar players are always chasing tone, and sometimes it may be as easy as tweaking the controls on your guitar to get a unique sound.
The Tone Knob: An Unsung Hero
For years I played metal and hard rock music, and I always kept my guitar set to 10 on all of the knobs. I never touched the volume unless it was to turn it all the way down, and I definitely never messed with the tone knob. Later on in my career, my tech installed a No Load tone pot in my main guitar. This encouraged me to experiment, and I was really surprised with the results. The smooth lead tone that I could never get was suddenly right there. I have used my guitar’s controls to the fullest since then, and that was maybe 19 years ago.
Back in the day, the volume and tone controls were much more important for guitarists. Amplifiers didn’t have as many features, and there were not a ton of pedals to choose from. To get a unique tone, you had to be creative with your setup. I hope that this doesn’t become a lost art, since I see so many modern guitarists neglect the controls that are right there on the guitar in favor of a new amp or pedal. Be creative guys!
Try out new sounds with your guitar’s control system, and you might find out that the tone you are looking for is the knob that literally says “tone” on it!