5 Tips to Get a Better Live Guitar Tone

Tips for performing guitarists to help maximize their live guitar sound.

Ultimate Guitar
Have you ever wondered what the pros are doing that you aren't in terms of getting their tone? In this article I'm going to reveal some of the best kept secrets in the industry to help you improve your live guitar sound. If I had known some of these tips when I started playing guitar, it would have made my life a lot easier!

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need expensive and sophisticated gear in order to achieve a great live sound. You also don't need a wall of amps behind you. Good tone has more to do with knowing how to use your equipment, and less to do with what you're using.

1. Fretboard Cleaning & Conditioning

If you play live regularly, you may find that you get a lot of dirt and sweat on your fretboard. What many people don't know is that this is one of the biggest tone killers! Have you noticed that professional guitar players always have shiny and sleek frets? This is because fretboard cleaning and conditioning is very important for maintaining optimal tone and playability.

If you restring your guitar with a fresh pair of strings, you will find that they will have an extremely short lifespan if you don't clean your fretboard properly beforehand. Maintaining the brightness of new strings is vital if you want to achieve the best possible tone. Strings can also be pricey, so this is also a great tip to save you some money.

Before every string change, it's necessary to clean and condition your fretboard. In order to get a good indication of when it's necessary to change your strings, lightly rub your finger underneath your high E string. Dirt tends to accumulate mostly underneath strings, so this will give you a good idea of how much wear your strings have received.

When it comes to methods of cleaning, there are many options in terms of products you can use. The best solution I've found is a product called Gorgomyte. It's a chemically treated cloth that both cleans and conditions your fretboard in one go. It also makes your frets ultra-shiny.

2. Amplifier Settings

This has to be one of the most discussed topics in terms of guitar tutorials. Most people over-complicate this aspect, and in many cases end up completely missing the point on how to dial in a good tone on your amplifier.

I'm going to show you a really simple way to make the tone of your amp really come to life. What's even better is that it will take you about 30 seconds to dial in your tone using this method.

But first, I want to discuss what type of amplification you're going to need. Solid-state amplifiers produce odd sounding harmonics at high volume, making them unsuitable for gigging scenarios. In order to get the best possible tone, you're going to require a good tube amp of your choice. Good tone has a lot more to do with the type of amplification you're using, so if you're going to be spending money then it should be in this area.

So here's how it's done.

Every control on a tube amp has a sweet spot. This is where the control goes from doing virtually nothing to making a big impact to the sound. Many people only think of their master volume control this way, but it actually applies to all other controls (treble, bass, mids) except reverb.

Start by setting each knob to 0. Then slowly turn it up until you hear the obvious cusp point. That's where it needs to be set. This needs to be done individually for every control. I like to do this while having my neck pickup selected. As a side note, make sure that you don't pay any attention to how the knobs on your amp look but rather to how it sounds. Use your ears!

3. Cabinet Simulation

When you're playing live it's usually necessary to mic your guitar amp in order to run your sound to the front of house PA system. In reality, there are a few issues with this concept:
  • You need to be clued up on mic placement and where to find the "sweet spot" of your amp;
  • The room you're in will affect the sound of your amp. You may find that you end up with a completely different sound at the gig in comparison to the rehearsal venue;
  • Normally there are feedback issues associated with a miking a guitar amp;
  • During a gig it's very easy to knock the mic out of position, resulting in the audience not being able to hear you.
In order to overcome these issues it's possible to use a high quality speaker cabinet simulator. This is a device that can emulate the sound of your cabinet, giving you the ability to send a direct sound to the mixer. You can still use your amp as a stage monitor as it won't affect the sound coming out of your amp in any way.

One of the most common speaker cabinet simulators is the Palmer PDI 09. Many professionals and amateurs alike use it because of its simplicity and great sound. It simply connects between your speaker out and speaker of your amplifier. The through out allows you to still keep your speaker connected to your amp. You can then plug a standard XLR microphone cable into the device to connect your amp to the mixer.

4. Using Delay

A great way to add fatness to your sound is to use a small amount of delay. Reverb can work too, although reverb has a tendency to make your sound washy when playing live.

For this to work as we need it, it's necessary to utilize a very clean sounding delay. This is not the type of delay that comes from a pedal plugged into the front of an amplifier. What we're looking for is delay that's present between the power amp and pre-amp sections of an amp. Amp manufacturers have included an effects loop to allow just that.

There are two different types of effects loops, namely series and parallel. Time based effects work best with parallel effects loops. If you have a series loop, it's possible to have it modified by an amp technician.

In order to use your effects loop correctly, you're going to require an effects processor that can run at +4dB as opposed to -10dB (which is the volume guitar pedals run at). Any time based effects processor will work; however guitar players are generally in favour of the TC Electronic G-Major. Make sure the unit is set to 100% wet to avoid any dry signal being added to your tone.

You also want to set your delay to a relatively transparent feel. Not too much feedback. You don't want to clutter your sound in any way as its not being applied as a prominent effect, but rather to add some flavor and dimension. Whether you set the delay time to a short or long setting is really down to personal preference. Personally I like a slightly longer delay time.

5. Live EQ

What many people don't know is that the PA system also has an effect on the way your guitar sounds and plays. First you want to make sure you're sending the best possible signal to the mixer by using the methods highlighted above.

Secondly, you want to make sure that you apply the appropriate equalization to your guitar signal on the mixing desk. A knowledgeable sound engineer can be a huge help in this regard. It means you can obtain a professional sound without requiring any sound knowledge yourself. This, however, isn't always the case as for many musicians it's simply not practical to hire a sound engineer.

Here are some guidelines to EQ your guitar on your own:
  • Warmth - Between 250Hz and 300Hz;
  • Clarity - Found at 3kHz;
  • Distortion/Fuzz - Between 5kHz and 8kHz;
  • Air - Found at 12kHz.
You want the sound that's coming out the front of house PA system to match the sound of your amp as closely as possible. You can use the EQ tips above in order to achieve this. Remember to always rely on what sounds best to your ears!

About the Author:
Dean Hailstone is a professional guitar player, recording artist and touring musician. You can view more of his insights on his blog at playguitarlive.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I can't agree entirely with a several points on this: 1) "If you play live regularly, you may find that you get a lot of dirt and sweat on your fretboard. What many people don't know is that this is one of the biggest tone killers!" - while it will have a little impact, that impact is tiny compared to the amp itself, the guitar's main materials, any active pedals in the chain etc. The difference is more noticeable unamplified than amplified, and is mainly a bit of brightness and small amount of extra sustain. 2) Sounds like you're suggesting people play with each dial until they hit the only 'sweet spot' instead of setting the amp based on the tone they're after. Also, solid-state amplifiers only introduce these harmonics with increased gain beyond a saturation point, where they begin to clip, and not with high volume (this depends on headroom, and the countless popular solid state clean amps prove this, e.g. Roland JC120). 3) For most people, and with most sound engineers, this is unlikely to apply though it's a valid option at the more pro-level gigs/tours. 4) Depends on genre, and density of the mix - two guitar metal band with loads of distortion washing about and excess low end from muddy cabs on palm muting, is gonna lead to tons of problems with definition and clarity, if you start introducing extra delays for the rhythm channels etc. Especially if the room isn't well-treated/decent sized, and has a ton of its own reflections and standing waves/lull nodes. 5) I wouldn't advise most guitarists/musicians to start playing with the sound on a desk - almost all venues provide their own engineer unless the band states they have their own, at least in the UK anyway, and I don't think most typical musicians have the technical knowledge of signal flow on a large desk to set up their own channel(s) without making less-obvious errors. I appreciate the intentions of the article, and this is just nit-picking, but it seems a bit far-fetched in claims sometimes (including 'best kept secrets in the industry'). No offence intended by this, just (hopefully) constructive criticism.
    I can't agree with your criticism of 5 enough. I used to run desks at a couple of different venues, there is nothing worse than someone coming over and insisting they know better, usually they just end up turning themselves up - if you want to be louder, tell me and I'll adjust it in the monitors; your sloppy string noise shouldn't be louder than the vocalist...
    5 Tips to Get a Better Live Guitar Tone 1. consider lowering your gain 2. Consider using more midrange 3. consider a low watt tube amp 4. consider DI amp alternatives 5. play out more thank you
    Hey hoondog Thanks for the comment. For me different amps have a certain sound, regardless of the settings. If it's midrange that you're after, you may want to consider using an amp that produces a midrange sound. For example Soldano SL0-100 or pedals such as the Ibanez TubeScreamer or Radial Tonebone. If you want a scooped mid type of sound, Fender amps are commonly associated with this.
    About the mixer, most of them just have High Middle and Bass setings, there are no HZ there. I just set the all at 12 clock and shape the sound from my gear.
    With time, you should get used to what frequencies are in the H/M/B ranges.
    Some good tips here but personally solid-state has come a long way from the old days and perform just as well as tube amps. And to get real good tones during lives ultimately come down to the sound tech when he mics everyone up. Know your settings and volume levels and be ready to go, most sound guys are less than stellar and every minute is precious during sound check and it makes a world of difference when they do it right.
    I like the "sweet spot" notion for dialing in amp tone. I kind of do this for gain myself. Like, I'll play with bass, mid, treble to get them set in a way that I like which differs based on the guitar and based on the pickup selection. Then I'll move to the gain and raise it (while lowering master volume as needed to avoid getting too loud) and the tone is obviously getting dirtier / rougher, and at a certain point I feel like it is "too" dirty, starts becoming that wall of white noise and fuzzy static that I personally loathe (though many metal fans seem to like it), and I dial it back and it's on that "fringe" just between too dirty and not dirty enough that I find the tone I want, makes me think of a liquid metallic tone that can be pure or gritty based on how the notes are articulated. Anyway, I spend this time on the gain, but for the bass/mid/treble, I'm pretty random and fast, don't spend much time on it, but this article has inspired me to spend some more time dialing in all knobs while using my ears. I should note that I use the same basic technique on my Mesa Boogie tube amp and on my Yamaha THR10 solid state, and I think the same technique works for both. I do not care at all for the very dirty "metal" preset type settings on amps, I think that's such a waste, I prefer to dial in my dirt organically. If I rely on some special "switch" setting, what do I do if I'm jamming somewhere on a different amp? Much better to learn how much gain, bass, mid, treble, delay, gives you the tone you like so you can dial in quickly and easily on a variety of amps (well, subject to the unique tonal variations each amp / cab provides).
    You suggest dialing every knob on the amp until finding the sweet spot for every one of them, but would there be some particular order in which I should mess with the knobs? I could imagine dialing presence after treble could be different than doing the other way round, for example.
    Hey Niamorg, There is no order. Maybe start with your bass control because it's the easiest to hear. Turn it up slowly and you'll evidently hear when it goes from doing almost nothing to kicking in. Also make sure you're doing this on a tube amp. I love this tip because it allows you to set your amp completely evenly and makes your guitar really responsive.
    That is not how amps work. Some amps absolutely do have an order in which you must set the knobs. Some Mesa amps have knobs that do absolutely jack shit unless you dial in the treble first. And you're implying that there is one "perfect sound" for each amp, but that's bollocks. What you need to do first is to set your volume to match the size of the venue, and then play around with the tone knobs, and no matter how sweet the spot is you shouldn't turn the bass too high or the mids too low since this will kill your live sound. Your guitar might sound good like that when you play at home but good tone does not equal good live or band tone. You need to be considerate of other band members as well, and you need to EQ your amp accordingly.
    Hey guitar/bass95 This tip was aimed at people more on a professional level. I know many players that also use this technique to really give their amp a space in the mix. I'm aware it doesn't work for some people. You should be doing whatever sounds best to your ears.
    Honestly, in my experience, turning up the mids and maybe dialing down the treble will go a long way. I realize that you want your guitar to sound as brootalz as possible, but your guitar will vanish among the bass and cymbals (or it will just icepic the poor audience ears). Dialing down your gain and upping your mids is almost always an improvement.
    Rebel Scum
    You forgot 'don't have the volume too high' So many bands in small venues ruin their sound because they play too damn loud and often turn off punters from hanging around.
    To all you metal guys who insist on scooping out all the midrange and using as much gain as possible, don't. If you do, live you will sound flat and you will begin taking up frequencies that your bass takes up as well. Because your amp isn't able to truly compete ith the bass amp for those frequencies, you're gonna lose and be lost in the mix. If you max out the gain, you will distort your signal past musicality and you will not be able to make out individual notes. so boost your mids a bit so that you can be heard, and dial back the gain. If you need to be louder, use a clean boost in the form of a Tubescreamer or another boost pedal and boost your signal a bit more. You will add a bit of tightness to your sound as well as a little more gain and volume.
    For most guitarist's knowledge, 1 and 2 are the only things that really apply to them... The sound engineer should be in charge of and have extensive knowledge to cover decisions from the front-of-house or monitor position. Honestly, the gigs big enough for 3, 4 and 5 are gigs wherein there should be a person available who is knowledgeable enough to deal with sound reinforcement decisions... Most of whom will decide to use microphones...
    this article is rather misinformative. First off, wtf is the "cusp point"? I'm sure whatever it is will be highly subjective from person to person. Secondly, solid state amps are growing increasingly more popular in liver scenarios. They offer things that tube amps simply fall flat on (reliability, consistency, clean headroom). Just look at the Line 6 POD, or the AxeFX, which are two immensely popular effects processors and amp simulators that I've heard people get great tones from. In fact, Rivers Cuomo almost exclusively used a POD unit for quite a while on tour. And lastly, but most importantly, one cannot simply find the sweet spot on their amp. They have to mix it with all the other instruments and take venue acoustics into account. Often times, I've had to dial in tones in order to fit into a mix that sounded good while playing the gig, but by itself sounded pretty aweful.
    Hey slayer1979, Thanks for your contribution. I'm not disregarding solid state amps, but keep in mind that processors such as the Axe-Fx are simply providing simulation for well known tube amps. Also, stage monitoring is still an issue with amp simulation. Yes you can use a FRFR output scenario, but it's not the same as a tube amp blasting into your back.