Guitar amp settings is part art, part science, and part pulling out your hair as you try to get your output sounding the way you want it to! It does get easier when you know the ins and outs, though.
This article walks you through what each setting does, how to change it on your amp, and what every knob does in relation to its neighbors. We also go over some tricks to get that perfect tone – from changing the speakers to using a guitar cable!
Guitar Amp Settings Guide: What Does Everything Do?
Too often I find out that a student of mine has upgraded his or her amp because they couldn’t get the tone they wanted, but often it’s not the amp’s fault. Before you spend money you don’t need to, it’s important to learn how your amp works and how you can change the tone to suit.
There are 8 main knobs that almost all amps will have, If you’re shopping for guitar and amp packages you’ll want to make sure the amp has most of these! These controls are the ones that affect the tone and sound of your guitar amp: While some amps will have more controls than this, most will have at least these 8. They are:
- EQ (Equalization
While Not as Common, You may also see one or more of these controls:
There is some variance depending on the brand of amp that you choose, but more or less this is industry standard.
The Volume knob is what you would expect – it controls the level of your output. Higher volume usually means you will be playing at a higher volume. Depending on what you have your other controls set on you might not want to crank this knob all the way up. Often having this too high leads to distortion.
This is where gain, or overdrive comes in. Gain controls the amount of gain or distortion that your amp adds to your overall signal, and it does so in a linear fashion (meaning, the gain amount changes as you turn up the amp).
Heavy rock and metal bands will normally play with a lot of gain. It muddies the sound a bit but really allows you to crank the notes. For styles of music like folk or jazz, where you want each note to ring clear, gain is turned way down.
This is the first knob that I turn down if I’m not happy with the quality, clarity, or tone that my amp is producing. A little gain goes a long way!
Bass is the lower range of the frequency control. This controls the lower frequencies in your amp. If you have low-bass pedals and know how to use them, this is only a minor adjustment to your sound. I wouldn’t mess with it too much.
Turning up the bass a lot will have a similar effect as too much gain, the notes will be distorted and heavy rather than crisp.
As you probably guessed, this controls the middle range of your amps frequencies. High mids settings result in a full, deep sound while a lower one almost sounds dull and washed out.
When playing in a band the guitar is responsible for a LOT of the mid-range frequencies, so when playing with others I’ll normally have this at a 6 or a 7. Even when playing by myself this is still an important part of the sound spectrum and thus I rarely turn this below a 3.
Treble affects the high-frequency output and is perfect for effects that you might want to use. This is great for crisp, clear notes that really ring true. The only problem with a lot of treble, especially mixed with volume, is things can sound harsh, or piercing and quickly become jarring.
This is everything that goes into your tone after the volume knob and before your gain knob. Many amps will have an EQ instead of the Bass, Mid, and Treble separate. If you don’t have the separate controls you are simply going to have to play with your EQ to find the perfect setting.
start with your guitar amp setting right in the middle. You can adjust this to taste depending on the kind of music you are playing. If you are playing classic rock or blues then you’ll want a high mid and treble. If you’re playing jazz or funk then your mids will usually be lower and your bass will be higher (but not as high as metal).
Contour on most amps works the same way as the mid-control knob does. On Marshall amps, you’ll often find this setting and it works opposite of how you’d think. The higher the contour the lower the mids and vice versa.
Presence works with the higher-end mid-range notes and treble. I like to remember it by thinking of a person with a great presence. They are sharp, crisp, and lively. The same goes with higher presence settings on an amp. The dull guy in the corner bringing everyone down… that’s a low presence setting!
Reverb naturally happens when sound hits different surfaces and reflects back upon itself. Many amps allow you to artificially create reverb for some great-sounding sounds.
This is a setting that can also be replicated naturally with a good acoustic room, or with several popular pedals that are on the market.
Amplifier Channel Settings
A lot of amplifiers will have a switch between two channels, clean and overdrive (or distortion). This switch basically replaces or makes a quick change as if you were moving the gain knob back and forth.
The nice part of having this switch is you don’t need to move the gain knob at all. Plus, there are switch pedals on the market that will plug into a lot of amps and make the switch as easy as tapping your foot.
Most amps will only have two channels, but I’ve seen a few that have up to six different channels. Until you’ve got some experience with guitar amp settings I would stay away from these. They just further complicate an already complicated topic!
Some amps may also have an “effects” section on them. These effects are commonly some or all of the following:
- Reverb (already mentioned)
Most guitarists prefer to use different types of guitar pedals to create these effects, myself included. The pedals are generally easier to use and set up, and definitely easier to adjust while playing.
The same advice as complicated channel setups goes for beginners here. Don’t worry about the effects settings if your amp has them until you get a grasp on the major controls and get your amp sounding how you want it using those!
The Final Note
There you have it, after reading this guide you should be well informed about your guitar amp settings and be able to adjust them as needed! If you are still struggling with your sound, ask a more experienced friend, guitar tech, or teacher to help you out.
Guitar amp settings can be very complicated and frustrating at first but stick with it and treat it just like practicing guitar, slow but steady learning and progress will pay off big in the end!