What do the knobs on a guitar do? This is a simple question that begs a complex answer. Here will take a look a close look at the two main knobs that are found in guitars, the volume and tone knobs. We also touch on other knob functions that some manufacturers use.
Guitar Volume Knobs
Guitar volume knobs let you adjust the volume of a specific pickup or pickups. The most common use is for adjusting volume and muting.
When paired with overdrive type effects, lowering the volume knob can be used to clean up the tone. This is a great way to adjust gain levels without having to tweak your pedal.
This pseudo clean tone also sounds fuller and retains some of the grit of the overdrive effect. Experienced musicians can also use this knob for advanced techniques like volume swells, fades, and kill switch.
Jeff Beck is a master when it comes to the musical use of volume and tone controls. He uses volume swells creatively for adjusting gain levels and emphasizing phrases.
This is how he gets his violin-like tone and dynamics. And he does all this while playing complex chords and melodic lines. He often uses his pinky finger to make adjustments while playing with his fingers. This is probably one of the reasons why he no longer uses a guitar pick.
His mastery of the volume knob allows him to create his unique sound. And his style is one of the hardest - if not impossible - to imitate. To this day, he has the adoration and respect of guitarists worldwide, including many big-name guitarists and musicians.
Volume Knob Configurations
Most electric guitars have one main volume knob. This includes iconic guitar types like the Strat and Tele. Other guitar types have dedicated volume knobs for each pickup. This lets you dial in the volume of each pickup independently, and can be used as a blend control when using two pickups together.
Independent volume control also allow for "kill switch" type effect. This is achieved by muting one pickup, and quickly flipping the pickup selector switch, resulting in quick cut-offs of the sound.
Tone Knobs Guitar
Tone knobs are potentiometers that give you treble roll-off control right on your instrument. Think of tone controls as basic treble EQs that filter out high 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. If your guitar sounds too trebly, the easiest solution is to lower the tone knob to taste.
Guitar Pickups and Tone Knob Configurations
Electric guitars come with different pickup and control configurations. As such, tone knob controls can differ depending on the guitar. Here we will answer the question "what does tone do" in relation to the different guitar configurations.
Single Coil pickups are known for their inherently bright and snappy tone. Lowering the tone control 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, like the Fender Stratocaster, have three single coil pickups. They generally come with 2 tone knobs. Strat tone knobs usually have one assigned for the neck pickup and a second 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 Fender Strat's famous in-between tones (positions 2 and 4) by lowering the middle pickup tone.
With the Strat tone knobs' 3-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 Fender 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 its one 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. They work great in rock and similar styles of music. These pickups are usually paired with independent tone knobs. So you can have different tone settings for each pickup.
Solid body guitars (HH) mostly follow the format of Gibson Les Paul controls. This includes SG, Flying V, some Superstrats, and other dual humbucker style guitars. They usually have independent tone knobs for each of the humbucking pickups that let you tweak each pickup as you prefer. But 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 guitars (HH) tend to have a warmer sound off the bat. But lowering the tone knob can make them sound even warmer. Virtuoso Larry Carlton is conscious of this and uses it to his advantage.
A good example of this is his guitar solo for Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne". He lowered the tone knob to 3 for a distinct guitar sound.
Gretsch (FF) guitars with dual Filtertron pickups usually come with just a master tone knob. This tone knob works with the two volume knob controls 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 tame some of the harsh highs. Note that some Gretsch guitars come with a "Mud" switch. It lets you instantly switch between max, middle, and low tone settings. These tone settings can be changed by modding the circuit.
- P90 pickups are essentially bigger-sized single-coil pickups. They tend to sound brighter, than what you'd expect from a big pickup. 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. This allows 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 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 some voicings have become synonymous with specific musical genres. Here we talk about the impact of tone knobs on guitar styles. Also addressed is tone knob use on some of the more familiar musical styles.
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 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. These 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. Guitars in this genre put more emphasis on the mids and lows. The most common way to get the old-school jazz sound is to roll back the tone (and guitar volume knob) of an archtop guitar. And do further EQ tweaking on the amp.
This same strategy of lowering your electric guitar controls can be used on other guitar types, including bass guitar. The amount of roll-off will depend on how naturally bright your instrument is, and your preference. I often lower the tone knob on my electro acoustic pickup system to tame some of the excess highs.
Tone Knob Use
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. While this can be done through pedals and amps, the guitar tone knob can allow for subtle variations without totally changing your sound. The problem with setting everything to 10 is that you have nowhere else to go. Starting with a lower tone setting gives you more room for variety. And you can compensate via amp or pedal.
This way you have wiggle room for cutting or raising the treble in certain parts of the song you are playing.
Fixed Tone Setting 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 rollback, just lower it enough to where the results still sound good to your ears.
Volume and Tone control are interrelated. You have to be familiar with how these electric guitar knobs affect each other. Try playing with the tone knob as you dial down your guitar volume knobs, 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 highlighted the sonic versatility afforded by these knobs in this GuitarWorld lesson.
Other Guitar Knobs
While tone and guitar volume knobs are the most common, some manufacturers use knobs in other ways. Some humbucker-equipped guitars come with push-pull knobs for coil-splitting function. This allows for single-coil tones while using a humbucker pickup.
Since humbuckers are positioned differently, the single coil tones they produce won't be a perfect replica. But it sounds noticeably brighter and has some of the chime associated with single coils.
Other manufacturers add blend knobs to their guitars. It is used for blending the volumes of two different pickups.
Electric Guitar Knob Caps
Gibson Speed Knobs
Replacing the tone knob caps is one of the easiest ways to customize the look of an electric guitar. Most people go for bell knobs (also called "Top Hat knobs"), speed knobs, and dome knobs.
Note that you have to get the knob type that's compatible with the potentiometer (also called pots) on your guitar. It's easier to find replacement caps for older guitar designs like the ones from Fender and Gibson. Some modern guitars require unique guitar knobs that aren't as widely available. The two commonly used potentiometers include split shaft pots and solid shaft pots.
In addition to replacing the plastic knob, you can also replace the potentiometer itself. This is usually done in repairs, or when replacing pickups to get a different overall tone. Swapping out the pots is a common modification done on guitars.
Isn't it amazing how versatile the electric guitar is with just its volume and tone knobs? Don't let these built-in tools go to waste, try fiddling with them more and incorporate them into your guitar playing. See how they can open up your tone options. More importantly, utilizing electric guitar knobs better will result in a more challenging, yet fun and inspired playing.
About the Author
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.
Main/Top Image: Produced by Gearank.com.
The Gibson Speed Knob photo is from the manufacturer. All other photographs by Alexander Briones.
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