The Basics of Getting a Good Live Guitar Tone

One question I see being asked often on the Internet is, “How do I get a good guitar tone for playing live that will be heard in a mix.” There is a lot of good information to be found, and I’m going to add some things I’ve learned from my experience to the mix (pun intended).

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Probably the most important thing to do for increasing the presence of a guitar in a band mix is to increase the mid-range of the EQ. It’s very common for guitar players to actually lower their mids while increasing the low and high ranges of the EQ to get a “scooped” tone that has a nice crunchy sound. This is great for playing guitar by yourself at home, but it can actually cause your guitar to completely disappear when mixed with other instruments like keyboards and bass guitars. A guitar’s “voice” is actually in the mid-range, so decreasing mids for that scooped sound will quickly cause your guitar sound to disappear when other instruments are competing for the high and low frequencies. When you have your EQ set properly for live playing, the tone will sound nasally, so you may want to have different settings for practicing at home vs. playing live. This all has to do with what’s called the Fletcher-Munson Curve, which you can read a little more about here.

Another mistake that guitar players often make for live tones is adding too much distortion. Distortion can sound really powerful when there are no other instruments, but too much distortion can compress the sound too much and actually cause the guitar to sound thin and weak in the guitar mix. Plus, when you turn your volume up in a live setting, the distortion will be more apparent than it is at home at lower volumes, so you generally need a good bit less distortion for live playing than you may at first think.

The last item I’ll mention for now has to do with miking your amp. If you’re playing through a real amplifier and need to mic it, you’ll want to make sure that the amp is turned up good and loud in order to get the tone you want to come through the main speakers. If the guitar amp volume is too low, you’ll be sending a smaller, weaker sound from the amp through the microphone to the PA system. Turning your channel up on the PA system will just mean having a louder small, weak sound. Of course this particular issue won’t apply to anyone using a multi-fx pedal like the Line 6 PODs since they are generally directly connected to a mixer without an amp, but it is something to be aware of for the times you need to use a real amp.

My last suggestion is this; work on getting a good basic live tone and then forget about it and focus on playing and practicing. Tone chasing can become addictive, and I’ve sometimes found myself spending more time trying to perfect my tone than actually playing. It’s tough to just be happy with the tone sometimes, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t keep tweaking it here and there, but sometimes stepping back and just playing without worrying about tone is just what the doctor ordered.

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6 thoughts on “The Basics of Getting a Good Live Guitar Tone

  1. Pingback: Stage Volume and “Beaming” | Guitars & Gaming

    • Absolutely, very good point. I always recommend to people to stay away from creating tones for live use with headphones. It can sound really good with headphones or cheaper speakers at low volume, but the fizziness and thin-ness really shows with those kinds of patches when they’re brought up to gig volume levels.

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