Volume and Tone Knobs: Your Most Underrated Effects

In an interview, Jimmy Vivino of the Basic Cable Band described Joe Walsh visiting him on the set of Conan. Walsh ran his hand across the amp’s controls, maxing out everything, and exclaimed, “This is how you play guitar!” Jimmy laughed and tapped his volume and tone knobs, retorting: “Then you work it from these knobs over here.”

Today, this simplicity has been lost to many young guitarists, myself included. I started to play guitar in the infancy of modern amp modeling, and even attended one of the first Line 6 in-store demos.

From many players of my generation, and those starting out, we generally kept the tone and volume up at max at all times. The more experienced I became at playing (especially with tube amps), and the more I watched footage of my heros, I began to see the volume and tone knobs as much more than just level and brightness controls.

What really struck me was watching Jimmy Page, my ultimate inspiration, during the Led Zeppelin O2 reunion show. He was using his volumes and tone knobs as dynamic tone-shaping tools throughout the performance.

In a world of channel-switching amps and endless pedals, we’ve forgotten the powerful tools already on our guitars. These seemingly simple knobs can do so much more than just “add mud” or lower your level.

Roll Back the Volume Knob Halfway

If you have been an “everything on 10” guitar player, try this experiment: Set your amp how you like it with your guitar at 5 or half volume, and then go from there. This allows you to turn up your amp to get a fuller sound without increasing the gain.

With this setup, you have much more nuanced control of your gain, allowing you to more easily find the amp’s sweet spot with just a touch of breakup. If you need more gain, increase your volume. If you want a cleaner tone, or want to play a hard driving rhythm part without mush, backing down the volume will act like mixing in a clean signal. This technique is especially useful with hotter pickups.

This setup also allows you to easily switch between guitars with different outputs. By calibrating your amp level based on your higher output guitar with the volume rolled back, you can usually run your lower output guitar at a higher volume without adjusting your amp.

I often do this when switching from humbuckers to single coil guitars, such as the jump from a Les Paul to a Telecaster. Also, running your volume lower on single coil guitars cuts down on the 60-cycle hum in the signal.

Use an EQ Pedal

If you find lowering your volume also darkens your overall tone when backed down, you can add a simple EQ pedal to your signal chain to compensate.

With my guitars that get darker while getting quieter, I set the amp as I like it with my volume lower, adding back with the pedal whatever frequencies I feel are missing (the MXR 10-Band EQ is great for this). This is also a great technique if you have a particularly hard to dial in amp (my Marshall Class 5 is a challenge with some guitars).

With the EQ pedal fine-tuning the amp to guitar connection, your volume can now be totally devoted to finessing your gain/drive. That volume knob is now an adjustable boost at any moment you want, no pedal needed. With an EQ pedal dialed in, your volume boost will hit the exact frequencies you want.

Use the Tone Knob to Equalize Fuzz

Your tone knob is not just there for tradition. We all know how to dial in a softer “jazz-esque” tone by rolling the knob back, but your tone control can do so much more.

I like to use mine more with distorted tones rather than clean. I find that with many high-gain amps being driven by high output pickups, the tone can become very strident very fast. Bringing the tone down to 7-ish will help tame some of those highs. Clapton’s famous “woman tone” with Cream was a function of rolling the tone knob way back with lots of gain.

Using the tone knob can be especially handy when controlling fuzz pedals. Fuzzes are often tricky to dial in from just the pedal or the amp. I find the setting the fuzz bright, then taming the highs with the tone controls a very effective method.

I have a Voodoo Lab Proctavia that can only be made workable with a bit of tone knob wrangling. This technique also works well with Dallas Rangemaster clones and other bright effects.

Create Tremolo and Wah With Your Knobs

Perhaps your simplest effects with your volume and tones knobs are tremolo and wah, respectively. If your volume knobs are placed within reach, you can effectively make a beautiful tremolo sound by rolling the volume knob back and forth rhythmically as you let a note or chord ring out. This works especially well with Strats. Getting your little finger trained for this technique takes practice, but this effect is undeniably cool when well executed.

The tone knob is a bit harder, but it essentially a more subtle wah effect when rolled back and forth. This creates a beautiful effect on Telecasters, where a traditional wah can be overwhelming. This also works well with high distortion, where a traditional wah can make the overall tone too harsh.

Use the Volume Knob to Create Swells

It takes skill, timing, and a well-placed knob, but simple swells can mimic a violin or a host of other instruments. Roy Buchanan was great at these swells, as are Holdsworth and Van Halen.

To create a swell, roll your volume back to 0 with your little finger, pick your note/chord with zero volume, and quickly roll the knob towards 10 with the same finger. With practice, you can have this emotive, vocal effect ready at a moment’s notice as part of your natural playing.

Set Each Volume Knob Differently for Instant Boost

When you have two volume controls, you can set one pickup for a solo boost. If you have a Les Paul, this is easy. Set your neck volume to a rhythm sound, and then max your bridge volume. Now you can easily hit a solo boost, or vary your tone between chorus and lead parts of your song, no pedal needed.

While these are seemingly simple tricks, many times we forget how versatile our guitars are all on their own. It just takes a little exploration to discover that palette. The more you work your guitar’s volume and tone knobs, the better you will know what it can do. Before picking up another pedal, amp or pickup, take the time to know the potential in your potentiometers. What are some volume and tone tricks you use?

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