Guitar Amp Settings Explained | Control Guide

If you are new to the guitar and are trying to figure out how all the amplifier controls work, it can be very overwhelming. Some amplifiers have a lot of controls that do many things.

Others are more basic but have different terms used to describe what the guitar amp settings do. Even moving from one amp to another will require an explanation or a period to get used to them.

In this guide, we are going to look at the many amp controls you will come across on models 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.

Guitar amp settings and controls

The 5 Main Amp Settings

Even though some amplifiers are loaded with knobs, there are 5 common settings that you will find on most today.

  • Gain
  • Treble
  • Middle
  • Bass
  • Volume

Even the simplest of amps will normally have these 5 controls to allow you to adjust your preamp and the sound it can make.

Gain

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 to find the right amount of distortion for your tone.

Treble

The treble control is used to fine-tune the high frequencies. The benefit of having a higher treble setting is the way it can cut through a mix. This means that the sound is brighter or sharper and will be less dark.

It’s paramount to have the right treble setting that is not overly bright or harsh. Generally, higher treble settings are used for lead guitar parts that involve soloing, whereas the rhythm will be darker.

Guitar amp settings and controls

Middle

The middle knob adjusts the midrange frequencies in your sound. The benefit of having a higher middle setting is that it can help the guitar to sit better in a mix with other instruments.

It can also make the guitar tone fuller and richer, as these are the primary frequencies produced by this instrument. They provide the perceived depth or thickness one would want to fill out their sound.

Some forms of heavier music will turn this setting down low to get their desired tone. This is sometimes referred to as a scooped tone.

You will also find that this control is simply labeled as “mids” on some amplifiers.

Bass

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 over do it, as too much bass can make the guitar tone muddy. This lacks clarity and can make a guitar sound dull and lifeless.

It’s important to use this control in conjunction with the amount of gain used to keep clarity and maintain a good tone.

Volume

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, and you will 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 that will allow you to switch between them for different levels. This can be great when a solo needs a higher volume level.

Adjusting The Primary Controls

Now that we have gone over all the basic controls, let’s talk about how to set them.

As a general rule of thumb, you will want to start by setting all of your EQ controls to the halfway point. This will give you a good starting point from which to work. Most of these controls have a range from zero to ten, and so halfway is 5. Sometimes also referred to as “noon”.

The volume control on some amps when set to the halfway point might be too loud. So keep this knob at zero and turn it up slowly until you find the right volume level that you are comfortable with.

Your amp settings to start should be:

  • Gain: 5
  • Treble: 5
  • Mids: 5
  • Bass: 5
  • Volume: 0

From there, you can begin to fine-tune the individual frequencies to get the tone that you want. Consider starting with the gain control and finding the distortion level that you prefer.

As always, it’s best to experiment and find what sounds good for you and your guitar.

Additional Preamp Controls

Now that we have covered the basic controls, there are a few more things to touch on before we move on.

There are some other preamp controls that you will find on amplifiers. These can be very helpful in getting the exact tone that you want from your guitar. But some of them are channel-specific in some cases.

This means that if your amplifier has more than one channel, you will find certain controls on some and not others.

Some of these controls might be labeled as:

  • Bright
  • Fat
  • Wattage
  • Contour
  • Boost
  • Tone

Bright Switch

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.

Fat Switch

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, like a Stratocaster with single-coil pickups.

Wattage Switch

The wattage switch is a relatively new feature on amplifiers. It allows you to select the wattage that the amplifier will be running at.

This can be great for getting different power levels from your amp. You can usually find this switch on the back of the amplifier.

Contour Switch

The contour switch is normally used to shift the mid-range frequencies from low to high. This can make the presence of the guitar seem either darker or brighter, depending on how it’s set.

This is a perfect way to scoop the sound for heavier music or add more fullness for others. It’s a very handy switch that adds versatility to your amp.

Boost Switch

The boost switch is primarily found on lead channels of amplifiers. What it does is increase the amount of distortion or gain that you have available.

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 Control

Tone controls are usually found on lower gain amplifiers. They typically take the place of the treble, mid, and bass controls, allowing you to dial in your desired tone with the 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 Settings

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 – 4 controls, depending on the size and type of amplifier. The most common are:

  • Presence
  • Resonance or Depth
  • Bias

These controls will be different based on the type of amplifier that you have. Solid-state amplifiers might have different controls than tube models, depending on brand and model.

But they both serve the same purpose, which is to shape the sound of your amplifier.

Presence Control

The presence control is used to add or remove high frequencies from the sound of your amplifier. This is normally done with signals of the opposite polarity, called negative feedback.

These signals are sent from the speaker output to another area in your amp that can then tailor the sound based on your presence control setting.

This control can be very helpful and is normally found in the power section of the amp circuit.

Resonance or Depth Control

The resonance or depth control works similarly to the presence. But with this control, it’s the low frequencies that are adjusted. This can be very powerful and add some serious thump to your guitar amplifier’s sound.

If at any point you feel like your tone is a bit thin, try adjusting your depth control and take advantage of what it has to offer.

Bias Setting

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 adjustments 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 Effect Settings

Sometimes guitar amplifiers will come equipped with effects built into them. These are usually things like:

  • Reverb
  • Delay
  • Chorus
  • Tremolo

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

Reverb is an effect that simulates the sound of an echo. This can be a subtle effect or one that is very pronounced. Different types of reverb come with amplifiers such as:

  • Spring
  • Plate
  • Hall
  • Room

Spring reverb is the most common with tube amps. They have a what is called a spring tank equipped that runs the guitar signal through them, creating the wobble sound they produce.

Plate reverb is a bit more unnatural sounding for a reverberation. The sound waves are very close together comparatively. This type of reverb is smoother, which is why it’s quite popular. It also makes tones a bit brighter as a result of how it’s produced.

Hall reverb is used to simulate the sound of playing in a large hall. This is a very natural-sounding reverberation and can fill up a lot of space.

Room reverb is just what it sounds like, simulating the effect of a reverberation that a smaller room would exhibit. This is a more subtle effect, but can still be effective when used properly.

It all depends on how you have it set and what sounds good to your ears. Usually, a little goes a long way with reverb, so start with small settings and adjust as needed.

Delay

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
  • Analog

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

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, as it uses the two signals of similar intensity to overlap at certain intervals.

Tremolo

Tremolo is an effect that modulates the amplitude of your signal. This gives the impression that the sound is repeating itself and is like a tremolo system being used on a guitar. Tremolo can be very effective when used sparingly.

Amp Settings For Different Sounds

Now that we have touched on the most common amplifier controls, let’s look at some different settings and arrangements that you can use to start with your style.

These guitar amplifier settings are just places to start, we encourage you to spend time adjusting and fine-tuning yours.

Clean Tone

For a clean tone that consists of using the lowest gain channel on your amp, you want to start with the following settings:

  • Gain: 1-3
  • Treble: 5
  • Mid: 6
  • Bass: 6
  • Reverb: 2-4

This will give you a nice clean tone to work with. From here, you can experiment with the different EQ settings to find what you like best.

If you want a bit more of an overdrive sound, you can increase the gain to around 4-5 and back off on the treble a bit. This will give you a nice overdrive tone that is still clean enough for most situations.

If your amplifier has other effects, you can use them in place of reverb. If it has a bright switch, you can activate it and lower the treble to 3. This will also have the benefit of potential upper mids filling out the top end of your tone.

For more suggestions, take a look at our clean settings guide here.

Crunch Tone

Before we explore highly saturated tone, several crunch variations exist 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: 3-5
  • Treble: 5
  • Mid: 5
  • Bass: 7
  • 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 that 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.

Distortion Tone

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: 5
  • Mid: 4
  • Bass: 8
  • Reverb: 2

If you have any boosts, leave them off to get started. Bright, fat, and contour switches can also be left in the off position, these can be experimented with later.

You do want to also take advantage of any depth and presence controls, these will make large changes to your tone. Begin with them set 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.

Get More From Amp Settings With These 7 Tips

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Photo of author

Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!