If you have just begun playing the electric guitar or simply want more flexibility from your gear, it’s great to know what the controls do. If you simply turn the tone and volume knobs up to max and use your guitar this way, you are missing out on some amazing sound shaping that is right under your fingers.
There are a lot of different guitars on the market, some with unique controls and others with common layouts among most models.
In this article, we are going to explore different models and learn about how the electric guitar controls can help you get some great tones.
Why Put Controls On a Guitar?
Guitar controls are in place to help the player get different tones out of their gear without having to go to the amp to make adjustments. They can be used to create a wide range of sounds, from very clean and pristine to heavily distorted and everything in between.
Some people play with the settings on their guitar at max all the time, but this is generally not ideal, depending on what you are playing. For example, if you are trying to play a distorted and clean part in the same song, you can do this by using the volume control on your guitar.
Most Common Guitar Controls
The electric guitar generally has three main controls: tone, volume, and a pickup selector switch. Let’s explore each one of these important guitar parts in more detail.
The tone control on your guitar is a knob that affects the highs or treble in your sound. Turning to the right (max) will give you the brightest sound. As you turn it to the left, it will get darker.
The tone control can be very useful when you want to change up your sound without having to adjust the settings on your amp. For example, if you are playing a very bright and harsh amplifier, you can use the tone control to decrease the treble content.
The tone control is also an excellent way to go from a bright clean part in a song to a darker high-gain sound when distortion is applied.
Most guitarists will use this control at its maximum setting, including me, as amplifiers do a great job at tone shaping. But there are some instances where you may need to quickly find a better balance in your sound.
The volume knob on your guitar does exactly what you would expect. It controls the overall volume of your sound. When turned up to the highest setting, it will send the maximum pickup signal out to the amp. When turned all the way down, there will be zero signal.
The volume knob can be used to create a wide range of tones. For example, if you are playing with a lot of distortion and want to go from a very thick sound to a thinner clean tone, you can turn down the volume knob.
This depends on exactly how much gain you are using on your amplifier, but most gear will clean up quite well with a lower volume control setting. This is great for quick changes around different song parts.
It is also possible to use your volume control for solo boosts. Simply set your volume knob in the middle, configure your amplifier the way you like, and then whenever you need a solo boost, you can turn up the control.
Pickup Selector Switch
The selector switch is used to select which pickups are active at any given time. Most electric guitars will have two or three pickups.
The position of the switch will determine which pickups are active. For example, if you are using the neck pickup and want to add in the bridge for a brighter sound, you would need to switch the selector.
This is generally a three-way switch with positions for the neck, middle, and bridge pickups. However, some guitars will have a five-position switch that gives you access to all the different pickup combinations.
Because each pickup position produces a different tone, this switch is very powerful. Most guitar players use the bridge position for rhythm tones because it is brighter and clearer, but still produces a good amount of low end.
The bridge pickup on the other hand is used for leads because it is a much fuller-sounding tone. Being able to switch on the fly in the middle of a song is a technique that just can’t be beaten when it comes to versatility!
Additional Guitar Controls
While the three main controls are the most important, there are a few other features that you may find on your electric guitar.
- Coil Tap
- Kill Switch
Coil Tap Switch
One common feature is a coil-tap switch. This is generally found on guitars with humbucking pickups. It allows you to split the coils in the pickup, giving you a single-coil sound.
This can be a great way to go from a very full and thick sound to a thinner, twangier tone. This function is normally controlled by a push-pull potentiometer in the tone knob position.
Pulling the knob up engages the coil tap which turns off one side of the humbucker producing the single-coil tone. Pushing it back down returns the humbucker to its thick, full, and hum-free sound.
The phase switch is found on guitars with at minimum two pickups. It reverses the phase of one of the pickups. This can be used on both humbucker and single-coil pickups. It is preferred on humbuckers, however, as the sound becomes thinner when the pickups are out of phase.
This effect cancels out bass frequencies, creating a more twangy, thin tone that can be great for versatility, especially if you have a dark-sounding guitar. It’s not so good on a Stratocaster and some single-coil set-ups, as the sound becomes very thin and harsh.
This function can be found using regular short-handled toggle switches, but is sometimes built into the pickup selector switch configuration on some guitars.
The piezo switch is found on electric guitars that have a built-in piezo pickup. These are generally located under the bridge and can be used to provide an acoustic guitar-like tone.
The piezo switch will turn the piezo pickup on and off. This can be a great way to go from a regular electric guitar tone to an acoustic sound without having to carry around two instruments.
The PRS custom 24 piezo is a perfect example of this. The switch engages the piezo and a blend knob then allows you to add the signal to the regular pickup tone. This can add some great sounds and is pretty versatile.
It is not a very common switch as it is more of a rare feature on electric guitars, but they do exist!
The kill switch is generally found on the body of the guitar near the strings. It is used to mute the pickups so that you can create a chopped-up effect. This staccato effect can be great and has been used by players like Eddie Van Halen and Tom Morello.
The switch is normally in the form of a button that, when pressed, silences the guitar. Once you let it go, the signal returns so that you can time the effect well.
Some come in a latching toggle switch, which also works well as a mute when you want the guitar to remain in the off state.
Common Electric Guitar Control Layouts
Now that we’ve explained all the different electric guitar controls, let’s take a look at some of the most common layouts.
The Fender Stratocaster
The Stratocaster is one of the most popular guitars in the world and has been used by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
- 3-Single Coil Pickups
- A 5-way selector switch
- 2-Tone knobs
- 1-Volume knob
The Stratocaster design provides a tone control for the neck and middle pickups, but not the bridge. As a result, the bridge position is very bright and cannot be adjusted.
This is a common design for Stratocaster guitar types. The volume control is global and sets the output of the entire guitar.
Some players modify the design to add a tone control for the bridge pickup. This can reduce the brightness, which is desirable for some guitarists.
Then, when using the 5-way switch, you can change between many pickup configurations:
- Bridge Pickup
- Bridge and Middle
- Middle Pickup
- Neck and Middle
- Neck Pickup
The Gibson Les Paul
The Gibson Les Paul is another iconic electric guitar that has been used by everyone from Slash to Tony Iommi.
- 2-Humbucker Pickups
- A 3-way selector switch
- 2-Volume controls
- 2-Tone controls
The Les Paul design provides independent volume and tone control for each pickup. This allows for a great deal of versatility in terms of tone.
The 3-way selector switch is standard on all Gibson electric guitars. It allows you to choose between the neck, bridge, or both pickups.
With this kind of control, you can set the tone and volume of each pickup independent of the other. This is great if you want one sound to be louder than the other. Some players use this control for solo boosts by having a louder neck pickup signal.
Ibanez, PRS, and Other Designs
There are many other electric guitar designs out there that don’t necessarily fit into one of these categories. Ibanez and PRS are two examples of companies that make great guitars with their unique designs.
With these designs, you will find:
- 2-Humbucker Pickups
- 1-Tone Control
- 1-Volume Control
- 3-way Selector Switch
These designs are far more simple, you can still switch between the two pickups, but the tone control adjusts both of them. The volume knob is much the same and controls the output over the entire guitar.
More players prefer these controls because they are very simple and don’t clutter up the guitar body. Many people like the Les Paul guitar, but get confused with the controls.
It’s also worth mentioning that this basic control layout is typically where you will find push-pull switches for coil tapping and phase inverting. It depends on the brand, of course, but it’s the simple layouts that can offer the biggest gains.
Unique Control Layouts
Some guitars are unique when it comes to the control scheme. The Fender Jaguar is one such guitar that features a series of slide switches. The guitar itself is similar to the Stratocaster but only has 2 pickups.
Then it gets interesting as there are slide switches for:
- Lead and Rhythm
- Rhythm Tone
- Rhythm Volume
- Mid-Tone Cut
- Lead Pickup On/Off
- Rhythm Pickup On/Off
It’s a very busy guitar loaded with these switches that determine which pickups are active at any given time, plus some tone shaping. Once you become familiar with the controls, it’s a pretty cool guitar!
When To Use Each Control
The best way to understand how each control works is to experiment with them. You can use the volume control to clean up your sound or make it dirtier. The tone knobs can be used to shape your sound and make it brighter or darker.
Some people like to use the 5-way switch on their Stratocaster to get different tones. For example, the bridge and middle position are great for blues. The neck position is great for jazz.
When it comes to humbuckers, most people prefer to use the bridge pickup for rhythm and the neck for leads, then use the controls to fine-tune the sounds.
It comes down to experimentation to see what sounds good to you. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to electric guitar tone. It’s all about what you like!
Electric guitar controls can be confusing at first, but they are quite simple once you understand what each one does. It is best to spend some time getting familiar with the controls and then practice using them.
After some time, you will memorize them and incorporate new sounds into your music.
Don’t be afraid to try different things and see what works best for you.
Why are there 2 tone knobs on a Strat?
There are 2 tone knobs on a Stratocaster to allow you to adjust the neck and middle pickup sound. When turned to max, the tone will be bright, as the treble frequencies are allowed to pass.
When turned down, however, the treble frequencies are removed or shelved, to provide a warmer tone and reduce the brightness.
How do I set the tone on my electric guitar?
First, start with the tone control set to its maximum setting. This will be the brightest the tone will be. Then try different settings and see what you prefer.
The tone control is designed to lower the treble, which can be great if you prefer a warmer sounds. It also works very well when you have a harsh-sounding amplifier or guitar combination.