Table of Contents
If you are new to the guitar and are trying to figure out how all the amplifier controls work, it can be overwhelming. Some amplifiers have a lot of controls that do many different things.
Others are more basic but have different terms used to describe what the guitar amp settings do. Switching from one amp to another will more than likely present a learning curve and require time to get used to the controls.
In this Killer Rig guide, we are going to look at the many amp controls you will come across on models that are available today. We will also look at what they do and how you can use them to get the right amp settings for your style.
Understanding the fundamental controls of a guitar amplifier is crucial for any guitarist, it doesn’t matter if you’re a professional player or a newbie just getting the hang of things.
Before diving into the intricate settings and EQs, let’s get a grip on the basic switches that power up your amp and set the stage for your sound.
The power switch, as the name suggests, turns your amplifier on and off. It’s the primary control that brings your amp to life, allowing the electrical current to flow through and produce sound.
This control is always well-marked and is normally found on the front, or top, of the amplifier.
Some manufacturers place them on the rear, but this is quite rare and is only done when they just simply cannot fit them on the front. There is always an indicator light that turns on to help you understand when the amplifier has been powered.
How to Use Safely:
- Always ensure your amp is using the correct power cable with sufficient grounding.
- Start with the volume turned down to prevent sudden loud noises or potential speaker damage.
- When turning off, reduce the volume and ensure any connected devices are safely disconnected.
The standby switch acts as a secondary power control, allowing the tubes in a tube amplifier to warm up without sending the full voltage through them. This helps prolong the life of the tubes and ensures they’re at optimal performance when you’re ready to play.
How to Use Safely:
- When powering up your amp, turn on the power switch first and let it sit for a minute. Then, flip the standby switch to activate the tubes.
- Before turning off the amp, put it back in standby mode for a minute, then turn off the power.
History Behind the Standby Switch
The standby switch has an interesting backstory. It’s often associated with Leo Fender, the legendary guitar and amp designer. While the exact origins of the switch are debated, it’s believed that Leo introduced it in the early designs of Fender amplifiers.
The idea was to allow musicians to take short breaks without turning off their amps completely, ensuring the tubes remained warm and ready for performance.
Over time, the standby switch became a standard feature in many tube amplifiers, not just for convenience but also for the health of the tubes.
Channel Selection on an Amplifier
Channel selection is a pivotal aspect of modern amplifiers, allowing guitarists to switch between different tones and gain structures at the flick of a switch.
Whether you’re aiming for a clean, jazzy tone or a high-gain metal roar, understanding channel selection can elevate your sound to new heights.
How Channel Selectors Work
At its core, a channel selector is a switch that allows you to transition between different pre-set tones on your amplifier.
Each channel has its own set of controls, such as volume, gain, and EQ, enabling you to customize and save multiple sounds. When you switch channels, you’re essentially moving from one set of controls to another, instantly changing your tone.
Number of Channels on Amplifiers
While many traditional amplifiers come with one or two channels (typically clean and overdrive), modern models have expanded this offering. Some high-end amplifiers, like the Revv Generator, boast up to four channels.
This provides a massive range of tones, from crystal-clear cleans to varying levels of crunch and high-gain distortion. Thy are designed to allow you to switch the channels on the front user panel, from a foot switch, and even with MIDI commands.
The Possibilities of Multiple Channels
Having multiple channels at your disposal opens up a world of possibilities:
- Versatility: Play multiple genres without needing to adjust your settings constantly. Switch from a bluesy crunch to a metal shred in an instant.
- Live Performance: For performing musicians, multi-channel amps are a godsend. Seamlessly transition between song sections, from mellow verses to roaring choruses, without fiddling with your controls.
- Recording: When laying down tracks, having a variety of tones readily available can expedite the recording process and offer more options during mixing.
- Experimentation: Dive deep into tone crafting. With more channels, you can experiment with different EQ settings, gain structures, and effects, discovering unique sounds that define your musical identity.
The 5 Main Amp Control Knobs
There are 5 common settings that you will find on most guitar amplifiers today, no matter how many knobs and functions they offer. They are:
Even the simplest of amps will normally have these 5 controls. This is to allow you to adjust your tone and volume produced by the preamp and power amp. Let’s explore the in more detail:
The gain knob is one of the most important guitar amp settings you will use. It adjusts the level of distortion in your sound. If you have the gain set too low, your tone will be cleaner with little to no distortion.
If you have the gain set too high, your sound will be very distorted and saturated, which may not be good with some amps. Not every amp has the same potential to produce distortion, and so for some, this isn’t an issue.
On amplifiers that are lower in gain, this control might be referred to as “drive”. And so if you have an amplifier with this term, it will also alter the distortion level in the same manner.
The gain, or drive setting on an amplifier, will also affect certain frequencies. For example, the higher the setting, the more likely that you will also have an increase in bass or thickness.
And so it’s a good idea to take time and experiment with the gain setting. You need to find the right amount of distortion for your tone.
The treble control adjusts the high-frequency range of your guitar’s sound. By turning this knob, you can either amplify or reduce the bright tones of your instrument.
Why Adjust the Treble?
- Cutting Through the Mix: A guitar with more treble can be heard clearly in dense musical settings. It ensures your sound doesn’t get lost among other instruments.
- Brighter Sound: Increasing the treble gives your guitar a clearer, sharper character. This clarity is especially useful when playing intricate parts or solos.
- Articulation: Brighter tones can make each note more distinct, especially during fast runs or complex melodies.
Finding the Right Treble Setting
While a bright sound has its advantages, it’s essential to find a balance. Too much treble can make your sound harsh.
- Lead vs. Rhythm: Lead guitar parts, like solos, often benefit from more treble to stand out. In contrast, rhythm parts usually lean towards a warmer tone to blend with other instruments.
- Genre Matters: Different music styles have varied treble preferences. For example, jazz might favor a softer tone, while rock or metal might lean towards more treble for that sharp edge.
Remember, the treble control is just one tool to shape your sound. Experiment with it in conjunction with other controls to find your perfect tone.
The middle control, often labeled as “Mids” on some amplifiers, fine-tunes the midrange frequencies of your guitar’s sound. This range is crucial as it directly influences how your guitar blends with other instruments and how it feels in terms of fullness and depth.
Advantages of a Boosted Middle Setting
- Sitting Well in a Mix: A pronounced midrange can ensure your guitar holds its own, especially when played alongside bright instruments like cymbals or keyboards.
- Fuller Tone: The midrange frequencies are the heart of your guitar’s sound. Boosting them can make your tone richer and more robust, filling out the space.
The Scooped Sound in Heavy Music
In some heavier music genres, guitarists might dial down the middle setting to achieve a specific tone, often called a “scooped” sound. This creates a specific tone signature where the lows and highs are more prominent, while the mids take a backseat.
The bass control changes the perception of low frequencies from your amp. The benefit of having a higher bass setting is that it can help to fill out the low end of your guitar’s sound.
It can also make the amp sound larger or have more depth than it would with a lower setting. Be careful not to overdo it, too much bass can make the guitar tone muddy. This means the tone will lack clarity and can make a guitar sound dull and lifeless.
It’s important to use this control in conjunction with the amount of gain added. This is important to keep clarity and maintain a good tone.
The volume knob is just what it sounds like; it adjusts how loud your guitar will be through the amplifier. While some will say that you should adjust this last, that is not the best way to proceed.
It’s always best to adjust your EQ with the volume turned up to your preferred level. This way, the other frequencies can be heard and adjusted at this level. If you do it last, some frequencies might become overwhelming when volume is turned up. You may have to start over again.
It’s also worth noting that the volume knob does not affect your tone like the other controls.
Sometimes you will also see this control called “Master“. In the case of some amplifiers, you may even have 2 masters. They will allow you to switch between them for different volume levels. This can be great when a solo needs to be louder.
Adjusting The Controls: Finding Your Starting Point
Having covered the basic controls, it’s time to learn to set them up. Here’s a straightforward approach to get you started:
1. Begin with EQ Controls:
For most amplifiers, EQ controls typically range from zero to ten. A balanced starting point is to set them all at the halfway mark, often denoted as ‘5’ or referred to as the “noon” position.
Your Initial EQ Settings:
- Gain: 5
- Treble: 5
- Mids: 5
- Bass: 5
2. Handle Volume with Care:
The volume control can be deceptive. On some amps, even the halfway point can be quite loud. It’s best to start with the volume knob at zero. Gradually increase it until you reach a comfortable listening level.
3. Fine-Tuning Your Sound:
With your baseline settings in place, you can now tweak individual controls to find your desired tone. A good place to start is the gain control. Adjust it to find the distortion level that suits your style.
Remember, these settings are just a starting point. As always, it’s best to experiment and find what sounds good for you and your guitar. Just remember, some amps can become noisy when the controls and turned up high.
Want to learn how gain and volume are different? Read my article about this here!
Other Common Preamp Controls
Beyond the foundational knobs, many amplifiers come equipped with additional preamp controls. These knobs and switches offer further customization, allowing you to fine-tune your sound with precision.
However, it’s worth noting that some of these controls might be channel-specific. In multi-channel amplifiers, certain controls might be present on one channel but absent on another, adding to the versatility of the amp.
Here are some of the additional controls you might encounter:
Further Learning: Electric Guitar Controls Explained.
The bright switch is a very common control on amplifiers. It can usually be found on many channels of an amp. The purpose of this switch is to add brightness or treble to your tone apart from the other controls.
This is good when using a guitar that has a darker sound. It’s also a good way to brighten things up during a solo or lead section.
The fat switch is usually found on high-gain channels. Its purpose is to add fullness or depth to your sound by increasing bass content.
Perfect for giving your tone more body. It can also help to fill out the sound of a guitar that is on the thinner side. An example is a Fender Stratocaster with single-coil pickups.
The wattage switch is a relatively new feature on amplifiers. It allows you to select the wattage that the amplifier will be running at. For example, an amplifier that is rated at 120 watts can be brought down to 10 and produce less volume.
This can be great for getting different power levels from your amp, but can also offer more sound versatility. You can usually find this switch on the back of the amplifier.
The contour knob on an amplifier plays a unique role in shaping your sound, specifically targeting the mid-range frequencies. Unlike the middle knob, which adjusts the overall level of midrange, the contour knob shifts which mid-frequencies are emphasized.
For instance, when the contour knob is set to a lower value, it might attenuate frequencies in the 800 to 1000 Hz range.
Conversely, a higher setting will boost these frequencies. This adjustment allows you to either darken or brighten the guitar’s presence in the mix.
The contour control offers a nuanced way to mold your sound. It’s especially useful for achieving that scooped tone favored in heavier music genres, or for adding depth and fullness in other styles. In essence, it’s a tool that enhances the versatility of your amplifier’s tone.
The boost switch is primarily found on lead channels of amplifiers. It’s a way of altering the circuit to produce more distortion or overdrive.
This can be great for giving your solos more punch or making them stand out more in a mix. It can also help to tighten up the tone of an amplifier that might be sounding too loose in some circumstances.
Tone controls are usually found on lower gain amplifiers. They typically take the place of the treble, mid, and bass controls. This allows you to dial in your desired tone with one knob.
These are pretty basic amplifiers, only having 3 -4 controls. But are easy to adjust and don’t need much to make them sound good!
Power Amp Controls
The power amp is what takes the signal from the preamp and amplifies it to drive the speakers. This is where a lot of the magic happens in terms of getting your tone. The power amp also has some control over your final sound.
The power section usually has 2 to 4 controls at max, depending on the size and type of amplifier. The most common are:
- Resonance or Depth
These controls will be different based on the type of amplifier that you have. Solid-state amplifiers might have different controls when compared to others.
Especially when compared to tube amps. But this also depends on the brand and model. But they both serve the same purpose, which is to shape the sound of your amplifier.
The presence control on an amplifier offers a nuanced way to adjust the high frequencies of your sound. Unlike a simple treble knob, the presence control operates through a process involving negative feedback.
Here’s how it works: Signals, which are of the opposite polarity (hence, “negative feedback”), are taken from the speaker output and fed back into a specific circuit within the amplifier. This circuit is designed to modify the sound based on the setting of the presence control.
By adjusting the presence, you’re essentially influencing how much of this negative feedback is applied. This can either boost or attenuate the high frequencies, allowing for a more tailored sound.
Typically, the presence control is located in the power section of the amplifier’s circuit, making it a valuable tool for those looking to achieve a precise tonal balance.
Resonance (Depth) Control
The resonance control, also known as the depth control, is the counterpart to the presence control, focusing on the low frequencies of your sound. By adjusting this knob, you can add richness and depth to your amplifier’s tone, giving it a more robust and full-bodied feel.
If your guitar’s sound ever feels lacking in warmth or seems too thin, turning up the resonance can make a significant difference. It’s designed to provide that extra punch and thump, ensuring your tone always has a solid foundation.
When it comes to the bias setting of a tube amp, this should be done by a qualified technician. We mention it here because some amps use this term for certain settings within DSP or modeling.
In this regard, it’s fine and can be adjusted as it’s a way to change your sound. But in a tube amplifier, leave this control to the pros.
Guitar Amp Effects Explained
Sometimes guitar amplifiers will come equipped with effects built into them. These are usually things like:
In some cases, there are others, but these are the most common effects and the ones we will look at setting up on your amp.
Reverb is an essential effect that replicates the natural echo you’d hear in various spaces. Depending on its type and settings, reverb can be a subtle ambiance enhancer or a pronounced, transformative effect. Here’s a breakdown of the common reverb types found in amplifiers:
- Spring Reverb: Predominantly found in tube amps, spring reverb utilizes a physical spring tank. The guitar signal is channeled through these springs, resulting in the characteristic “wobble” sound. It’s a classic effect that’s been a staple in many iconic recordings.
- Plate Reverb: This type offers a denser, smoother reverberation. It simulates the sound produced when vibrations are sent through a large metal plate. The resulting sound waves are closely packed, giving a brighter, more consistent echo.
- Hall Reverb: As the name suggests, hall reverb replicates the expansive echoes of a large hall or auditorium. It provides a broad, natural-sounding reverb that can add depth and dimension to your sound.
- Room Reverb: This type emulates the more contained reverberations of a smaller space. It’s subtler than hall reverb but can add a touch of warmth and realism to your tone.
When adjusting reverb, it’s often best to start with modest settings. A little reverb can go a long way in shaping your sound. From there, tweak and experiment until you find the ambiance that resonates with your musical vision.
Delay also creates an echo-like effect. Unlike reverb, it can be very pronounced and last for long periods. This can be a great effect on solos and lead playing.
It can be used to create different textures and sounds in your guitar playing. Different types of delays come with amplifiers such as:
- Digital delays are the most common and are very versatile. They can be set for long or short delay times and have a very clear sound.
- Analog delays are not as common but still offer a great tone. They can sometimes be a bit noisier than digital delays.
Again, it all comes down to what you are going for with your sound. Try different settings and see what you like best.
Chorus is an effect that takes your signal and splits it into two. These signals are then slightly out of phase with each other, which gives the chorus its unique sound. This effect can add depth to your tone. It uses two signals of similar intensity to overlap at certain intervals.
Tremolo is an effect that modulates the amplitude of your signal. This gives the impression that the sound is repeating itself. It’s like a tremolo system being used on a guitar. Tremolo can be very effective when used sparingly.
A phaser works by splitting the guitar’s signal into two. One signal remains unchanged, while the other is modulated or shifted in phase. When these signals are combined, they interfere with each other, producing the characteristic “swooshing” or “swirling” effect.
Types of Phaser Effects
Phasers can vary in complexity, from simple two-stage circuits to multi-stage phasers that offer more pronounced and intricate effects.
- Stages: The term “stage” in a phaser refers to the number of all-pass filters used. More stages result in a more pronounced phasing effect. Common phasers might have 4, 8, or even 12 stages.
Using a Phaser
- Rate/Speed: This control adjusts how fast the phase shifting occurs. A slower rate gives a more gradual wave-like effect, while a faster rate produces a more rapid, tremolo-like sound.
- Depth: This determines the intensity of the phase effect. A higher depth means a more pronounced phasing, while a lower setting offers subtlety.
- Feedback/Resonance: Some phasers come with a feedback control, which feeds part of the output signal back into the phaser, intensifying the effect.
Suggested Settings For Different Sounds
Having explored the standard controls of an amplifier, let’s check out some initial settings. While these are solid starting points, remember that the ideal setup often hinges on your musical genre.
Consider these amplifier settings as foundational suggestions. I strongly recommend dedicating time to tweak and personalize them to your liking.
For a pristine clean tone, start by selecting the amp’s lowest gain channel. Consider the following initial settings:
- Gain: 3-4
- Treble: 6
- Mid: 6
- Bass: 5
- Reverb: 2-4
These settings lay the groundwork for a clear, crisp tone. From here, feel free to tweak the EQ to suit your preferences.
For a touch of overdrive without losing clarity, nudge the gain to 4-5 and slightly reduce the treble. This adjustment offers a warm overdrive while retaining a clean essence.
Should your amp come with additional effects, you might opt to swap them out for the reverb. If there’s a bright switch, activating it and dialing the treble down to 3 can enhance the upper mids, enriching the top end of your sound.
For more suggestions, take a look at our clean settings guide here.
Before we explore highly saturated tones, several crunch variations exist. They are sounds that you should consider. Some amplifiers have crunch channels and so if you have one, these are the settings we would suggest you try:
- Gain: 6
- Treble: 6
- Mid: 5-6
- Bass: 5
- Reverb: 2-4
If there are any boosts, leave them turned off for now. Some amps can get nice crunch sounds in their lowest setting. It’s a bit of grit that can make all the difference.
For any higher gain versions or super crunch settings, you can start with:
- Gain: 5-6
- Treble: 6
- Mid: 6
- Bass: 7
- Reverb: 2-4
Depending on how many levels of boost your amp offers, activate one and adjust this sound to taste. Some of these settings can get some old-school tones. They are great for different rock variations.
Experiment with any bright switches and different effects if you have them. It’s not a bad idea to get used to distortion with mid-gain tones before going any heavier.
For more rock amp settings, check out our guide here.
When you’re looking for highly saturated tones, you want to make sure you have the amp for it. If you are fairly confident of that, select the right channel and adjust it with these settings:
- Gain: 7-8
- Treble: 6
- Mid: 4
- Bass: 6
- Reverb: 2
If you have any boosts, leave them off to get started. Bright, fat, and contour knobs and switches can also be left in the off position. These can be experimented with later.
You do want to take advantage of any depth and presence controls, these will make large changes to your tone. Begin with the settings at halfway and then experiment.
Things can then get heavier as you become used to the sound of your amp and the settings. Some have a huge range and so it will take some time to get right. Too much gain could make things a bit muddy with a loss of clarity.
If you find this to be true, back it off a bit and then adjust the EQ to compensate. This all depends on what you are trying to achieve.
For more metal amp settings, check out our guide here.
7 Tips For The Best Settings
Getting a great tone can be difficult, especially if you know what you want. We all have a sound in our heads that we like, but reproducing it is not easy. If you have tried some of our suggested settings, here are some tips that can also help.
- Make sure to use the right pickups. If you are seeking a high-gain sound, single-coil pickups won’t do the job. You also want to make sure you are using the right position. The neck pickup is a warmer, fat tone. This can be a problem if your sound is boomy. Try the Bridge pickup instead.
- Your guitar also has a tone control that can affect your sound. If you are having issues with a bright, harsh sound, try turning down the tone control on your guitar. This setting can play a huge role with the guitar and amplifier. Remember, your guitar is where it all starts, it has to be set right as well.
- If your tone is too thin, try thicker strings. Sometimes this can give you a bigger, fuller sound. Just keep in mind that the thicker they are, the harder they will be to bend.
- Effects will play a big role in how your amplifier settings sound. Sometimes they can add too much fullness or produce funny artifacts. If you are struggling to get a good tone, turn all the effects off and see if it solves the issue. From there, turn each setting down one at a time and see how it responds.
- Give yourself more time and be patient. Sometimes it can take time before you get a great sound. Many guitarists spend hours dialing in their tone before they find what they want. This is normal and can’t be helped with some guitar and amplifier combos.
- If your high-gain tone is just not doing it for you, try a distortion or overdrive pedal. There are some great products on the market that sound just like tube amps. This can and has been the fix for many guitar players.
- When you find your tone, don’t keep tweaking. Leave it and jam on it for a few days. Our ears can get tired and need a break after all the tweaking. If it’s good, then write it down and make sure not to lose your hard work.
If you are not sure what sound you are going for, that’s ok! We have some guides on bands and their settings that can help. Listen to some songs and try and get the same sound.
We all want the perfect sound, but it can be tough to get. With these settings, you can get close and find a great sound that works for you. Just remember that each guitar and amplifier are different.
Some don’t play well together and others are super easy to tweak. These settings are meant to be a guide and not an exact science. Have fun with them and see what works best for you.