How to Sound Better Live

Live sound can be complex and unpredictable. Here are some ideas to improve your guitar sound in the mix of your live band.

How to Sound Better Live
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Live sound can be complex and unpredictable. Here are some ideas to improve your guitar sound in the mix of your live band.

The Six Rules (In Order of Importance)

There are a lot of big and small ways that you can improve your live sound. The truth is, you should always be looking for ways to sound better and perform better. I've made a list of 6 ideas for how to sound better live.
  • Make sure you can hear everyone, listen to them!
  • There is a difference between a great stand alone guitar tone and a great guitar tone in the mix of the band.
  • Find your volume sweet spot. Hint: it's not full volume.
  • Use the EQ knobs on your amp.
  • Know the proper order in which to place your effect pedals.
  • Befriend the sound technician. Don't be a d-ck.
So there's my list. Let's talk about each idea in detail.

1. Make sure you can hear everyone, listen to them!

Listening is and will always be the most important part of having a great sound. This idea is important for every other item in my list (except befriending the sound technician).

So to be clear, as a guitarist you will want to hear yourself loudest, then just underneath you should be the drummer, bass, other guitars and vocals. Basically everyone wants to hear the mix that is going out to the crowd, with the only difference being they can hear themselves just on top of the mix. If you play guitar and sing, you want to hear your guitar and vocals on top of the mix that goes out to the crowd.

One common problem is putting yourself too loud in your monitor mix. Also, having anyone in the band too low in the mix (meaning you can't really hear them) can cause problems. What kind of problems, you ask?

1. The worst problem you could run into is having your band get out of sync. Your hitting your chords at different times, you start to wonder if your bandmates are even playing the same song as you because you are at different parts in the same song. If this happens then the crowd starts feeling uncomfortable. People will be too busy noticing the terrible sounds coming from the stage to enjoy your face-melting guitar solo.

2. There are lots of little problems that can arise from not being able to hear anyone. One example would be bad or incorrect tones. Maybe someone is on the wrong channel, or they forgot to turn off their reverb when they switched to their gain channel. This can result in a really bad mix if it goes unfixed. Other problems that could go unnoticed are bad cables, EQ problems, bad batteries and a variety of other things.

The reason hearing and listening to your band is so vital is that your audience is listening to the band's final product, not just your individual performance. Even if you have the perfect gig, if your bandmates are having problems then the crowd won't be talking about you tomorrow.

2. There is a difference between a great stand alone guitar tone and a great guitar tone in the mix of the band.

This is something I see far too often in my local music scene. There is not enough space hear to go into detail about how you should choose your tones, but let's at least scratch the surface.

When plug your guitar in at home by yourself, you start flipping the channels, turning up the gain, turning up the bass on your EQ knob, searching for this super thick, bassy, full tone. You start hammering your power chords out and you've got the volume cranked up. You start thinking to yourself "I sound like a full band all by myself..."

Meanwhile your rhythm guitar player is doing the same thing. He finds a super thick, deep, rich tone that fills up his entire basement. Then you both come together for practice Friday night and you start playing your parts together and your mom is upstairs thinking, "My god, do they call this noise music?"

Guess what? Your mom has a point. One of the secrets of great live (and recorded) sound is giving every instrument its own space. What does that mean exactly?

When a sound engineer talks about space, he is referring to a variety of things, but the big one is the sound/pitch spectrum. Bass drums and bass guitars have most of their sound in the low end of the spectrum, guitars and vocals usually have most of their sound in the middle of the spectrum, and snare drums, cymbals and sometimes guitars and vocals can have sound in the high end. In live sound, these spaces are referred to as lows, mids and highs. We will talk a bit more about this in the EQ section.

The point I'm trying to make is that if you try to get this full, deep, thick guitar tone to use in your band, then you are going to be using up a lot of "space." You will be soaking up a lot of the "lows" where the bass drum and bass guitar belong, and you'll be using up all of the space in the "mids." There won't be any room for the vocals and rhythm guitar.

Ok we can finish this discussion in a minute.

3. Find your volume sweet spot. Hint: It's not full volume.

I know it's a bit cliche to be talking about turning your volume up too loud. I've been in bands where the other guitarist always wanted to be louder. But I want to talk about something that's not cliche.

A lot of guitarists don't realize that your guitar's tone is affected not only by their gain knob, but also by the volume knob.

This isn't a very complicated idea, and it is often just a matter of taste. All I really want to say on the issue is that you should be aware that your volume knob on your dirty channel can affect the tone that comes out of your amp. So you may play live with your volume at 5 even if you practice with your volume at 6.

The sound technician can always turn you up louder on the PA system. Your band doesn't have to be at the same levels you practice with because you have a PA to set the levels for you.

If you didn't already know this, most amps sound best when they are very loud, usually between 5 and 8. But they will start to distort in a bad way if you turn them up too loud.

4. Use the EQ (Equalization) knobs on your amp.

There are two benefits from becoming familiar with the EQ knobs on your amp. The first is one that we discussed earlier when we talked about "space" in your live sound. The second is by changing the tone of your guitar so that it can take on new characteristics.

Without getting too technical, I want to briefly talk about how to EQ two guitars playing together. In a live setup, there are two places that a guitar is EQ'ed. The first is inside your amp, and the second is on the soundboard that the sound technician is using. Obviously the soundboard will have more control because it usually has 4 or more EQ knobs while a guitar amp never has more than 3.

So when you play live, you hope that your sound technician does a good job of creating space for every instrument in the mix, but you can also do a bit of that yourself. The easiest way is to dial one guitar back a bit on the lows and dial the other guitar back on the highs. This gives one guitar a strong presence in the lower mids and the other guitar will have presence in the high mids.

HOWEVER, this is not what your amp EQ's were created for!!! So you must understand that you should not take this practice to the extreme. A good sound technician would not require any help from an amps EQ knobs. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of good sound technicians in my local music scene, so sometimes my lead guitarist and I will create our own space.

The other use of the EQ knobs is to change the guitar's overall tone. Since again, I cannot relay this message accurately with text, I will refer you to another video. This video does a great job of addressing the effects of different amp settings on tone. It also addresses some extra things that I haven't written about here. It's worth a watch. And no, that's not me.

5. Know the proper order in which to place your effect pedals.

The order of your pedals can have a significant effect on your sound. It may not be obvious, but if you think about it, that makes sense.

An effect pedal takes the signal going into its input, changes it, and sends the new signal through its output. So think about it like this.

Let's say you have two pedals. And let's say your original signal can be represented by a number, we'll say 10. Pedal A changes the signal by dividing it by 2, and pedal B changes the signal by adding 10.

If pedal A comes before pedal B, then your final signal will be 15 (10 / 2 + 10 = 15). If pedal B comes before pedal A then you final signal will be 10 (10 + 10 / 2 = 10).

Guitar pedals work in the same way. So you should figure out what order gives you the best tones.

There is no universally accepted order of pedals, but here is one suggested configuration.
  • Tuner - It is best to tune to the raw unchanged signal.
  • Wah - wah effects are often influences by the attack of your pick, so its best to keep it early in the chain.
  • Compression - Compression should be early in the chain, because it can water down effects by attenuating the signal. Even if the compressor is making things louder it still attenuates the signal before it amplifies it.
  • Overdrive - Overdrive's main function is to cut the peaks and valleys of the signal. It is important to keep this after compression, but it can potentially move elsewhere in the chain.
  • Pitch - Pitch shifters change the signal's frequency, This could really go just about anywhere in the chain.
  • Flangers/Phasers/Modulation - Modulation effects change the signal a lot, so you want them near the end of the chain.
  • Reverb/Echo - Reverb and Echo can get out of hand if they are not at the end of the chain.
  • Volume/Tremolo - Volume effects can go at the end, because they only affect the amplitude of the signal, they don't change the sound at all.
This is just a suggested order. Just make sure you know that order matters and that its up to your own ears to decide what sounds best.

6. Befriend the sound technician. Don't be a d-ck.

This is a pretty self explanatory one. If you're good to the sound technician, he will probably be good to you.

If you treat him poorly then he won't care about your show. It's also just a good policy in general. Don't be a D-ck.

This lessonoid is courtesy of guitarlessomoid.com.

36 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Gakbez
    One of my friends, who also happens to be a sound technichian, has a rule, that you only get three things in your monitor. Singers and drummers espescially, has a tendency to ask for everything in their monitor, but really, it no use, as it all just muddies together and becomes useless. You want the singer, at least the lead guitar and maybe the keyboard or the bass. Chances are you are standing right next to the drummer, and on smaller stages, you can feel the bass in the floor, or hear it directly from the bass amp itself. Many scruff at his 3-things-in-your-monitor principle, but I trust him, as he has been the monitorman for several internationally big bands, and hey, it makes sense I think.
    dark.abada
    I agree too with you and your friend. It does not only makes sense its better to have 1, 2 instrument (preferably lead instruments/voices) to go along with the other instruments/song. As you will be able to hear the drums loud and clear (regardless the scenario size) and in a Physics point of view, you actually have to "feel" your body "being hit" by the sound of the bass-guitar, since the sound of this instruments moves in a very low frequency wave (if you "cant feel the bass on your body" its more likely that you wont hear it, or wont be available to tell what is it playing).
    BlueJayWater
    Being a sound guy and a musician, I figured this out quick. But I'm glad you've wrote this, cos a lot of guitarists I know don't have a clue.
    BigHeadClan
    Mostly all suggestions, if you can buy the sound guy a drink before the show he will always look out for you. I've seen my budy play the same venu with a good set up and a bad one it can make or break a show.
    leebob97
    When referencing pedal chains, the starter of the chain (in this article the Tuner) is what? The pedal where amp goes to lead or pedal where lead goes to guitar?
    liette.6
    Your guitar is the source, so the starter is the pedal the guitar plugs into.
    noilly
    That's actually a fantastic way to remember it, didn't think of that. Imagine every starts with your hands and goes towards the ears
    Himynameisben95
    "turning up the bass on your EQ knob, searching for this super thick, bassy, full tone." Eww, I never do this, my bass knob doesn't go past 5 in most situations
    nathan:-)
    Depends on your amp man. Not all EQs settings have the same effect on each and every amp. Hell they need to be changed depending on the room! (please excuse the double post)
    mjones1992
    Neither does mine :-/ As good as it sounds at home, I recommend anyone who plays in a band with a bass player and another guitar player to try rolling back the bass on your amp. It allows more room for the bass player, making the overall mix a lot clearer. Your sound guy should be taking care of this in a live situation, but in the garage, give it a shot. The best part of it that I found was that it gets rid of phase issues. Since the bass guitar is only one octave below a guitar, there are often times where the bass and guitar are playing essentially the same note. If you have your bass cranked on your amp, all of sudden both notes disappear. It's VERY noticeable when you do a live recording at practice.
    mjones1992
    Also, try rolling back your reverb in a band situation and seeing how that sounds. Thick reverb is another thing that sounds great at home but not in the garage
    Intersting
    Excellent point. I'll occasionally jam with a friend on drums and since it's just me and him, I'll typically add more bass to my sound to make it more full. In a band setting, that's what the bass guitar is for so I'll dial it back.
    Kasperow
    I usually turn down the Bass and turn up the Treble and Gain to get a nice, crispy tone, because that's what sounds good in my opinion, and I don't care what others say. If I wanted to practice (and play) with a Bassy tone, I'd be playing the Bass Guitar, not a regular Electric Guitar.
    fieryfenderz
    Bass guitar and bass frequencies are two separate things, and a guitar can use a little bass frequency.
    Wolffgang
    O...K... 'Cause the bass knobs are in no way centred in the low frequencies that is solely the bass player's territory? Sure, at home, crank the bass, do what you like. In a mix, stay the hell out of my frequency range. I have NEVER been in a situation where I wish the guitar had more bass in it.
    Kasperow
    I never said that I turn the Bass all the way down. I only said I turn down the Bass and turn up the Treble and Gain. That way, when I practice along to a Backing Track, my Guitar doesn't merge with the Bassline. I still have a bit of Bass depending on the situation, though, but it's not much, even when I practice without a Backing Track. It's the exact same thing when I jam with others. But hey, it's nice to see that people interpret "turn down the Bass and turn up the Treble and Gain" as "kill the Bass and crank the Treble and Gain".
    5t0rM
    About the EQ... When practicing use the bassy tone, it fills the room as you said it yourself, for live performances and band practices just turn up treble a bit, nothing fancy, but it just gives it the tone you need. Of course, this is just my opinion, you should generally equalize according to your own taste. If somebody else does it for you, your individuality is utterly lost in mashup of sounds.
    S.petty
    "So you may play live with your volume at 5 even if you practice with your volume at 6." Obviously this depends on the amp, you'll want to turn it up if you're using a tube driven amp. Also if you're setting up a recording and the cabs have been mic'ed up then you'll want to find the perfect zone within the excursion point.... this can vary depending on the speakers being used. "The order of your pedals can have a significant effect on your sound. It may not be obvious, but if you think about it, that makes sense." I think when talking about the order of guitar pedals it's imperative to mention the importance of 'True Bypass' and 'Buffered Bypass'. This will be the make and break of having a shit sound or a great sound.
    Xpl0r
    I will add in that no matter how good you make your guitar tone, if your sound engineer is s**t then your screwed
    stereosmiles
    Regarding the last point - what happens if the sound engineer is a dick? I speak as a left-handed drummer with the simple expectation that people do the job they need to do, especially if they're being paid and the band isn't...
    thejester
    I think this is the most and encompasses some of your other rules: 2. There is a difference between a great stand alone guitar tone and a great guitar tone in the mix of the band. Having the volume and full spectrum is big key element. Let the band do what it is supposed to do and have everyone playing their part in their own spectrum. My biggest pet peeve is when a band is too loud, it literally pushes people away from the dance floor
    derpdragon
    Thank you so much for pointing out a good order of pedal types. The scene around here just doesn't get that it DOES matter what order your pedals are in. I always see distortion pedals being the first in the order, and it makes such a shrieking ugly feed back when they go to switch on anything else while they're not playing. The worst part is, it happens so often that a lot of sound techs get blamed for it and I've seen a lot of great sound techs get fired because of it.
    PoloSG68
    Regarding EQ, I think there's a lot to be said for the presence control. I've found that using the same EQ in most situations works, provided I use the presence control to match the room.When I'm in my room I have it quite high, which is good for going through the quite dead, dull acoustic. When I practiced in a large dry shrill room recently, my guitar sounded very tinny! So instead of adding bass and cutting treble, I found that actually the presence control gave the best results of suiting to the room, and it sat a lot nicer in the mix. This was in a 3 piece situation, btw.
    Racaycah
    Great topic choice. Today I started a band with my friends and I really had no idea what to do if we ever ended up playing live. Lots of stuff to get into consideration. Amazing lesson here, thank you.
    TheLiberation
    Generally, very nice article, thanks. But also wanted to ask - you mostly refer to bands with two guitars, what about a band with just one guitar, especially in e.g. metal? I can imagine overkill is bad, but I think a thicker, fatter tone is necessary if you're the sole guitarist in the band?
    dark.abada
    For practical means it applies the same rules as either you are in band with 2 guitars (most bands) or a band with 1 guitar (Motorhead e.g.) or even a band that may use up to 3 or 4 guitars (not at the same time) like Opeth or Therion (which uses multiple instruments at the same time). Each instrument it is meant to fill a space on the sound spectrum; For lower tones you must use bass-guitar and base drums, chellos and deep voices (not very common), on mid tomes this is your home guitar player (lonely or not) and for some singers too, and high pitched tones usually are reserved for brass instruments, keyboards, cymbals and voices (depending on the singers of course). Based on this then you can use the tunning and EQ tips as a solo instrument, and after that use the whole tips to make the EQ for the bands a a whole, so everybody has their "space" on the sound spectrum and their appropriate volume.
    latinromans
    The Doors, animals as leaders, those are the only two I can think of off the top of my head. It's more useful to think of Bass as role to be filled than an instrument. Not bagging on bass players, if there where more of you delightfully groovy beasts around I wouldn't spend as much time thinking about how to fill the bass role with other instruments. I just react a bit when the word "must" is used inappropriately.
    turkeyjerky214
    I personally like my volume pedal right after my wah at the beginning of my chain. That way I can do swells when the delay is on to get some cool sounds.
    sideslick
    "Listening is and will always be the most important part of having a great sound. This idea is important for every other item in my list (except befriending the sound technician)." Sometimes listening will make the most friends. Listen to the sound tech.
    waddys2
    concerning effects, is there someone who can give me advise about which pedals are best used in the loop (between amp and pre-amp, and which ones are better between guitar and pre-amp?
    Coolvortex
    The mids. Don't scoop mids and you will be heard. You're not playing on your own, nor in the studio, if you want to be heard live, crank up the damn mid dial.
    Roran109
    Most of the places I gig at are bars. Befriending the sound guy is as easy buying him a pint, sharing your pitcher, or asking what his favorite band is.