Rock guitarists are constantly in pursuit of "tone": the particular combination of equipment and settings that enables them to infuse every note with everything they're trying to express. It's usually rooted in the particular genre of music the guitarist is playing, and will almost certainly take a great deal of trial and error to find the sound heard in the musician's head, but there are a few pointers that can move a guitarist's ideas to fruition.
Before you consider effects and processing, it's important to consider the guitar and amplifier you're using, in relation to the type of sound you're after; for example, if you want a thick, rich tone with lots of sustain, similar to the sound of Slash's Les Paul and Marshall stack. You'll struggle to get anywhere near Slash's sound with a Telecaster and a Matchless combo. Pickups are a very important part of the equation too; double-coils for heavy, chunky tone, and single-coils for "spanky" blues sounds and stinging lead.
Most equalizer settings on guitar amplifiers have just three bands; bass, midrange and treble. Try setting all three to 12 o'clock and listening to the raw, unprocessed sound of your guitar. It'll give you a good sense of the starting point you're working from. Try to picture equalization in terms of what needs to be done to reach the sound you want. Does the guitar sound muffled and muted, or thin and reedy? Does it sound nasal and harsh? Identifying the qualities you don't like can point you in the right direction toward achieving the ideal sound.
Scooping is a specific equalization technique popular with metal guitarists. According to "Guitarist" magazine (musicradar.com), James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica both use scooping as a matter of habit. It involves boosting the bass and treble controls on the equalizer, but subtracting all of the midrange. This allows the application of heavy distortion without the sound becoming overpopulated and muddy. Only the low end for fat, chunky rhythm and the high end for solos are present. The void in the middle keeps the sound direct and focused.
Adding and Subtracting
Equalizers have a "0" point at the center of the dial, usually at 12 o'clock, where they have no effect. Turning the dial down, or counterclockwise, subtracts the selected frequencies from the sound, and turning it up, clockwise, boosts them. Where possible, it's always best to subtract rather than add frequencies, as this retains headroom and prevents the sound from overloading. If your guitar sounds thin and weak, roll off some treble and boost the volume, rather than adding bass. If it sounds muffled, reduce the bass rather than pouring on the treble. This prevents the signal from becoming crowded with competing frequencies.
- Recording Review; Guitar EQ: A Misunderstood Subject; Bob Glastetter;
- Recording Institute of Detroit; The Equalization Primer; Robert Dennis
- "Guitarist"; Hetfield & Hammett: Gear Guide; June 2008
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