Why Tone Knobs Matter

Les Paul Tone Knobs

Setting the tone knob to max and forgetting it is standard operating procedure for many guitarists. This behavior is more common among beginners, but even experienced musicians sometimes end up neglecting this useful feature. Here I will make a case for better utilization of the humble tone knob on electric guitars, with some practical tips on how to incorporate it to your playing style.

What are Tone Knobs?

Tone knobs are potentiometers that give you instant treble roll-off control right on your instrument. To better understand Tone knobs without getting too technical, think of them as basic treble EQ that filter out higher frequencies as you lower the setting. This means that at max setting, more frequencies are allowed to pass through, while lower settings tame some of the excessive highs. Rolling back further results in a rounder and warmer tone, which works great with jazz and similar musical styles.

The tone knob is integral to electric guitar design for the purpose of expanding tone options. Here we will discuss how tone knobs are used in conjunction with different guitar and pickup types, along with tips on how to make the most of this under-utilized tone shaping tool for some of the most common musical styles.

Guitar Pickups and Tone Knob Configurations

Guitar Tone Knobs

Different electric guitars come with different pickup and control configurations, hence they may require different approaches when it comes to tone knob use. Featured here some of the more popular guitar configurations, grouped by pickup type.

Single Coil pickups are known for their inherently bright and snappy tone, lowering the tone knob can help round off some of the sharp edges. Below are some of the more popular guitar configurations that come with single coil pickups.

  • Strat (SSS) style guitars with three singlecoil pickups generally come with two tone knobs, the most common configuration of which is one for the neck pickup, and a second one for the middle pickup. Note that tweaking the tone knob affects the resulting tone of in-between positions, from subtle to overt. For example, you can warm up the Strat's famous in-between tones (position 2 and 4) by lowering the middle pickup tone. With the Strat's three pickup configuration, there are a lot of modification options possible, some of the more popular ones include Eric Johnson's Tone Knob Mod which sets the 2nd tone knob to control the middle and bridge pickup. I personally use this mod on my '80 JV Strat and I'm happy with how it allows for warmer bridge pickup and in-between sounds.
  • Telecaster (SS) style guitars are among the brightest sounding electric guitars. The popularity of their bright voicing is the reason why many just keep the tone knob at max. Those who do lower the tone knob, do so at a minimum, so they can retain the familiar Tele tone while only subtly reducing treble harshness.

Humbucker pickups are known for their fuller sound that works great in rock and similar styles of music. These pickups are usually paired with independent tone knobs, which can be lowered for a warmer voicing.

  • Les Paul, SG and other solid body dual humbucker (HH) style guitars usually have independent tone knobs for each of the humbucking pickups. Because humbuckers are naturally full sounding, many just set the tone knobs to 10. Setting the tone lower results in a muddier tone, which some may not like, but it has been used to create distinct voicings like the iconic Cream-era tone of Eric Clapton. This darker tone is also popular in jazz and similar styles.
  • Semi-Hollow (HH) guitars tend to have a warmer sound off the bat, which means that lowering the tone knob can make it even warmer. Virtuosos like Larry Carlton is conscious of this, using it to his advantage by lowering the tone knob to 3 in his guitar solo for Steely Dan's “Kid Charlemagne”.
  • Gretsch Tone Knobs
  • Gretsch (FF) guitars with dual Filtertron pickups usually come with just a master tone knob, which you can tweak in conjunction with its independent bridge and neck pickup volume knobs to achieve your preferred roundness or harshness. Gretsch guitars are known for bright jangly cleans, hence the typical maxed tone setup. Lowering the tone knob slightly can be used to fatten the sound to taste. Note that some Gretsch guitars come with a "Mud" switch that lets you instantly switch between max, middle and low tone settings, and these tone settings can be changed by modding the circuit.
  • P90 pickups are essentially bigger sized single-coil pickups, which means they tend to sound brighter. Some P90s are made to fit into humbucker size slots, and are often paired with a simplistic master tone control. Lowering the tone knob can reduce some of the higher frequencies.
  • Mixed Configuration combines different types of pickups in one guitar, allowing for a wider spectrum of tones, the most popular of which are ​​​​​​Super Strat (HSS, HSH) guitars. These usually come with a master volume and master tone knob, but there are others with for more complex control setups. Setting the tone level will depend on which pickup it is paired with, and the intended voicing.

Musical Genres and Tone Knobs

First things first, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to guitar tone, but there are voicings that have become synonymous with specific musical genres. Here we talk about tone knob use in some of the more familiar musical styles.

Les Paul Tone Knobs

Blues and Rock benefit greatly from good stylistic dynamics. The tone knob can be especially useful here since it can be raised or lowered to emphasize certain musical parts. You can do this by starting at with tone at around 5 so you have room to increase or decrease as needed by the song. Joe Bonamassa commented on the importance of tone control saying: "A guitar is like a human voice; you need for it to speak in a way that suits the situation. The guitar’s tone control gives you control over its voice."

Modern Rock and Metal are more about aggressive riffs and searing solos, as such many would just set their tone knobs to 10. But you can set the tone knob lower and compensate by setting the amp brighter. This way you get the same starting tone, while giving you more room to add more highs for certain song parts. Check out this Reddit discussion regarding the use of tone knobs in metal music.

Pop, Country and Rockabilly are styles that thrive on percussive, clean and twangy tones, which almost always require max tone settings. You can still use lower tone knob settings by compensating via upping the treble setting of your amp. This way you can still vary your tone right on your guitar as you perform.

Jazz and other Mellow Styles usually employ darker sounding tones, with more emphasis on the mids and lows. And the most common way to get the old school jazz sound is to roll back the tone (and volume) of an archtop guitar, and do further EQ tweaking on the amp. This same strategy can be used on other guitar types, the amount of roll off will depend on how naturally bright your guitar is, and your preference.

Tone Knob Use

Strat Tone Knobs

Tone Shaping is the main use of this knob, even if you set it to 10, you are actually using the knob, albeit not by much. Try lowering it bit by bit and listen to how it affects your tone. Find a setting that sounds good to your ears, and play on that lower tone setting longer. The longer you play on lower tone settings, the more aware you are of the sonic differences. These differences can be good or bad, depending on your preferred style and sound.

Tone Variation results in a more dynamic performance, and while this can be done through pedals and amps, the tone knob can allow for subtle variations without totally changing your sound. The problem with setting everything to 10 is that you have no where else to go, hence the recommendation of lowering the tone knob and compensating via amp or pedal. This way you have wiggle room for cutting or raising treble in certain parts of the song you are playing.

Tone Fixing is another use for the humble tone knob. You can lower the tone setting to reduce some of the harsh highs. You can also roll it back by a bit to reduce pick attack and fret noise, because these are in the higher frequencies. Some also use the tone knob to help their guitar cut-through a mix, while others roll it back to mimic specific tones. The key here is not to overdo the roll back, just lower it enough to where the results still sounds good to your ears.

Volume and Tone are inter-related, both of them affect the sound of your guitar. Try playing with the tone knob as you dial down the volume knob, and you will notice some interesting sound changes. The impact of lowering the volume knob is more obvious when overdrive is on, it cleans up the sound while retaining some of the grit. This can be used in conjunction with subtle tone knob adjustments for a warmer gritty sound. And don't forget about the pickup selector, which opens up your sonic palette even more. Joe Bonamassa showcased the sonic versatility afforded by playing with just the built-in electronics of an electric guitar in this GuitarWorld lesson.

Summary

Isn't it amazing how versatile the electric guitar is with just its volume and tone knobs? Don't let these built-in tone shaping tools go to waste, try fiddling with your tone knob and let it open up your tone options. More importantly, utilizing your tone knob better will result in a more challenging, yet fun and inspired playing.

About the Author

Alexander BrionesAlexander Briones

I've written about and researched music gear for many years, while also serving as a music director at my local church, in addition to teaching guitar, bass and mentoring young musicians.

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