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How do guitarists and bassists use the tone knob? Are certain tone knob settings preferred according to genre or style of music? For rhythm or soloing? For clean sound or dirt?

An earlier question did a good job of covering the electronics of the tone knob, and I know that it’s helpful to roll off the tone knob when tuning, but how do you use it in actual performance?

  • I would add that there are some who believe that using the tone knobs can negatively effect your overall tone. The electronics inside guitars are inherently imperfect- they are usually just a passive EQ circuit: when you turn up the treble in fact it's just cutting out some bass, and vice-versa. Even turning the volume down below 100% cuts out some of the high-end. I always try to keep my tone and volume knobs at 10 (guitar and bass), and EQ from the amp, or with a pedal if you need to change mid-song. The only time I don't is when I want to adjust pickup blend on a bass with two volumes. – Charles Sep 6 '14 at 19:54
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For my bass guitar I like to look at the tone knob as a "hot" or "cold" type situation.

Hot: This is when you want to cut through, or you have a prominent part. In the case of the bass, if I have a finger-style solo the tone knob is up pretty high. If I have a moving part in mid-range, it's up about half way. Cranking the tone up tends to sound more gain-y, so your finger noise tends to become more pronounced, so I never crank it up all the way, If I'm slapping this is up fairly high but dialed back a bit. I want to favor the bridge pickup and I want my slaps to bite but not be overly-loud or boomy.

Cold: This is when you want to mix. Dial down the tone knob too much and you might get lost in the mix. For a bassist, this isn't so bad. As a bass player you typically provide the foundation. If I want to be felt, but not heard, I'll dial my tone down. This can also affect volume, so you have to compensate. If I'm laying down a funky fingerstyle groove I'll dial it up a bit, since the bass line will likely drive a lot of movement, but never more than half. We don't want to step on the toes of the melodic players.

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My main gigging guitar has a very high powered bridge pickup that needs me to rolloff both the volume and the tone knob about an 1/8th of a turn. This gives me a sound that is a good lead guitar sound.

Then when I get to a solo, I can bring up the volume to stand out, and for bright solos to cut through, I can bring the tone knob back up.

Generally I use the tone knob on the lead in to a solo, and when I'm finished, whereas I'm always messing with the volume control through a gig to keep levels right.

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  • I used to use one, sometimes two, graphics to boost the guitar. They could be specifically tailored for the sound in the room as well. – Tim Sep 3 '14 at 7:45
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On my bass, when I use slapping techniques, I lower the Tone knob to the 3/4 of a turn. This gives me a sound that is loud, but not noisy. Usually, if I have my tone knob on full and I slap, the outcome is way too noisy.

Also, I lower the tone knob when I want a more 'dark' sound on my bass or guitar. I'm not really sure how to express the outcome but you could say it is a bit more dull/colorless/vague, but in a good way; I want that sound in some songs.

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I use the tone knob to tweak the sustain and tone when I use an overdrive pedal with an electric guitar. Most overdrives have a "sweet spot" that has a touch of feedback and a really good cutting tone. That's what I look for.

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For jazz it is quite common to roll off heavily on the tone knob, for a more mellow sound. Danny Gatton used the tone knob on his tele for some interesting organ like sounds.

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One of my favorites, Steve Morse, individually controls both the volume AND the tone knobs with his pinky finger while soling and playing chords. He developed this style on his original custom Tele, but carried forward the knob accessibility into both of his EB Music Man models.

You can find plenty of his material on YouTube; the solo stuff features his own style the best, although you can find him supporting Deep Purple (nowadays) and Kansas (way back when) as well. I've been listening to him since the early Dregs days, and his original Tele influenced my first project guitar.

He's a very influential player; even Dream Theater covered his tune, The Odyssey.

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