Live Lessons: 5 Tips for Better Tone Live
There are endless ways to enjoy being a musician, from jamming with your friends to recording your music, even something as simple as playing by yourself can bring an immense sense of satisfaction. But for most, no which way is more satisfying than getting up on stage and plugging in and playing to a room full of complete strangers. It’s what fuels the fire in our musical hearts, and why shouldn’t it? The rush of playing live is a feeling that can be hard to find elsewhere, and it is something I believe everyone should experience at least once in life.
Equally however, there is nothing worse than putting time and hard work in to a performance only to get to the day and leaving the show feeling like you didn’t play your best. Or even worse, completely bombing! Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Life can just be cruel and decide that that day was just not your day, but most of the time a bad gig can come down to something as simple as tone. Ever felt like your songs sound amazing in the rehearsal room but then feel slow live? Bad tone. Ever been at a gig and felt like your face melting solos aren’t cutting through? Bad tone. Ever played a show where the singer’s vocal is completely lost during choruses? Bad. Tone.
Bad tone is the pitfall of almost any band that doesn’t cut the mustard live, and it can be so easy to forget when you’re running round trying sort out other issues that come with playing live; like dealing with difficult promoters or trying to sort out guest list for your mum.
Well I wont idly stand by whilst fellow musicians are out there getting themselves into all kinds of musical peril. Today, I’m going to give you a five-step workout plan that’s going to get your flabby tone in shape. No more unheard
solos, no more dynamic-less songs, and no more washed out vocalists. Its time to get in shape!
Tip 1: Dialing the amp tone to the room
One of the most overlooked concepts in the book, dialing your amp tone based on the room you’re in is a fundamental part of playing live. We’ve all missed it as well; I remember the first proper gig I played as a session guitarist I spent weeks getting my tone in shape. I had this really lovely clean sound that was full and warm, and then when I stuck my overdrive on I had a sweet lead sound that felt like it was going to blow the heads off of every audience member in the first five rows. Unfortunately come show time my guitar sounded like it was being played in the next room and Ididn’t even hear my solos let alone any of the audience. This is because I was playing in a venue, not my bedroom. A room that had lots of different materials on the walls and corners that sound can get trapped in and change the perception of my tone and was full of sound absorbing people (trippy concept but so true).
Put simply, you don’t have a signature tone. There is no one setting on your amp that will work for every gig you play. You have to keep your wits about you when setting up at a gig and make sure you’re thinking about the way your amp
sounds on the day, not what settings you had on it last night. This can be as simple as dialing back the reverb or adding more mids so you cut through. Its not rocket science, it just requires a final bit of care right before you play, and we can all agree that you’d rather spend another five minutes sorting out your tone so that you have a great gig right?
Tip 2: Cutting Bass
This may feel like an extension of point one, and it kind of is, but I felt like it was so important to the guitar player’s live sound that it deserved its own section of discussion. Despite how many times Meghan Trainor tries to convince us, guitar players are NOT all about the bass, quite the opposite in fact. If you consider the four members of your band as frequencies rather than instruments, then it all becomes clear. You’ve got your drummer, who takes a good 60% of frequencies with their bass heavy kick and high frequency cymbals and snare. Then you’ve got your singer who (unless
they’re Johnny Cash) will sit usually in the mid to low-highs, and then you have the bass player. Bass. Player. Who will dominate all of the lows and is the one musician us guitarists want to avoid.
We tend to forget about the relationship between guitar and bass because for a lot of us, we jam in our rooms alone and want a nice full sound so we turn the bass up on our amps and get this well-rounded tone. Well add a bass player to that sound and suddenly were not as full as we once thought. However, it’s a really simple fix, just cut the bass knob on your amp! Imagine you’re trying to sound like Brian May at Wembley when dialing in your tone. Once you reach a point where playing a loud chord is almost unpleasant by yourself, you’ve got your sound. It’ll feel weird when you’re doing it, but you’ll hear the difference in your tone almost instantly once you start playing your set.
Tip 3: Ride your volume
There’s at least one band at every gig that suffers from this. They come on stage, count themselves in and then you’re hit
with this wall of sound that gets you saying ‘Alright, this band sounds huge cant wait for their set’ and then 16 bars into the song and here we are still feeling like the song has just started because no one has turned down or stopped playing to help develop the song. This is called dynamics, and is arguably THE most important asset any musician can have when playing live. If you all just play constantly through an entire song then there isn’t going to be anywhere to go or come back from, its just three minutes of solid sound that ends up feeling unstructured.
If a song starts out big then try dropping your volume in the first verse, give the song some space to breath. Then, once we’ve established a foundation of volume to work from, we can gradually build up until we hit the chorus where you can turn back up to eleven again. Equally, if the song starts out soft then think about where the song is going. Does it need to lift in the pre-chorus? Or do you need to wait till the chorus to start pushing the volume. These little adjustments will improve your live playing ten fold, and the audience will be more engaged for it. At the end of the day we all want to have our moment in the limelight, but if we all try and do it at once then everyone loses, so is it really worth it?
Bonus tip – If you’re a guitarist in an originals band, try considering not playing anything in the first verse or other areas of the song that need space. Space is one of the most useful arrangement tools out there; it can sometimes contribute more to a song than any guitar part could, and it’s easy! You’ll literally get credit for doing absolutely nothing, and how often can you say that?
Tip 4: Know your gear
It’s all well and good spending two grand on your board and bragging to your mates about how your new delay is rack unit quality and you can’t see yourself ever going back. But if it starts producing endless feedback on stage and you have to spend five minutes trying to work out whether it’s a loose cable or a dodgy preset then you’re going to look like more of a novice than the guy who turned up with just an amp and a guitar. This tip is super simple: KNOW YOUR GEAR. I love seeing tons of pedals and effects on stage as much as the next guy, arguably more. But if you’re not going take the time to master it then you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Complicated pedal-boards that have lots of functionality require work, and I don’t just mean getting all your pedals in a nice order to soothe your OCD, I mean understanding every part of it. You need to know how to solve a problem that comes up when you’re performing pretty much instantly otherwise you risk losing the audience. You will never look more amateur than if you turn up with all the gear, and have no idea how to use it when the time comes. So take some time to master your board. You never know, you
might find some bonus info that you can brag about at the next Namm show, neat!
Tip 5: Less is more
The main message of this article has been to understand your role in a live show, when to be prominent and when to take a step back, and adapting your sound to suit the show your playing. The final tip takes that same advice and applies it to your pedal-board. Like cutting bass to sit better in a mix, or controlling your volume to contribute to the dynamics, dialing in better sounds from your pedals is no different. In my opinion the three key pedals are delay, reverb, and distortion. They’re everyone’s favourites, I get it, who doesn’t love a washed out guitar or endless delays. The problem with those sounds is similar to adding too much bass to your tone; it sounds good in your room, it sounds messy live. I’ve personally found that adding a simple quarter note delay with a few repeats has done more for my tone in a song than any multiple delay ever has. Same goes
for distortion, too much of it and you end up dominating frequencies and losing dynamics. Remember that the core tone of your guitar plays a role in your sound too, and the marriage between your core guitar sound and your pedals is what makes a great sound. Don’t get lost in pedals, it easy to do but fight the urge. You’ll be better off for it.
By Dan Tredgold
Cheapest Possible Rig: Getting gig ready on a budget
The Rig: It’s every guitar players dream. There’s an unexplainable sensation that comes with owning your own rig, a sonic freedom, a musical independence, a place to call home? Possibly. Put simply, you can’t beat having one and owning one brings me joy literally everyday.
The only problem that comes with acquiring your very own rig is that for first time buyers, the price tag is usually a lot higher than they’re expecting it to be. The market has also become massively over saturated with endless versions of guitars, amps, and especially pedals. Meaning that it’s very easy to be stricken with option paralysis, or the fear of spending your hard earned cash on the wrong things.
Well fear not first time buyers! Your old pal Dan is here once again to separate the wheat from the chaff and straight talk you into taking the biggest and best leap of your young musical lives. I’m going to delve deep in to the heart of this saturated market and return with some solid, reliable picks for you young players out there so you can hopefully get one step closer to being gig ready. It’s not going to be easy, but its something I’ve just got to do. You ready? Lets do this.
Before we go any further, I have to make something clear re: the title of this article. The examples I’m going to be providing are what I think are the best guitars/amps/pedals for the money, and are within a budget that I deem to be affordable considering you’ll be getting an entire rig out of it. AND I’ve had experience with them first hand. They are by no means the literal cheapest things you can buy; they’re close, but not the cheapest. You can do it for less, but despite the title of this article I’m trying to get you a gigable rig, not just the cheapest I can find. Which means I’ve got to consider the reliability of the gear I’m recommending as well as price, and I would worry that the cheapest gear may not hold up in a live setting. I’m just trying to look out for you; I’ve got your best interests at heart. Aren’t I sweet?
Lets start with the fundamentals. If you don’t have a reliable guitar, then you couldn’t be further away from being gig ready, but finding one of those on a budget can sometimes be difficult. A lot of guitars at entry-level price points can be shipped with cheap parts and poor build quality, which can cause problems live. Technical issues, tuning stability, or simply just not feeling that nice to play, are all things we want to avoid when buying a gig ready guitar. The secret to that is simply just trying out as many guitars as you can, and having the patience to wait until the right guitar comes along. It’s also worth trying different versions of the same model of guitar as well. Guitars are like snowflakes, no two are the same, there’s always going to be one gem in every batch so be sure to try them all and not get obsessed with one just because its your favourite colour!
Ibanez Rg421 (£245)
Narrowly coming in as the cheapest of the three, the Ibanez RG series has a long history of delivering high quality guitars for a reasonable price, and the RG241 is no different. Its
simple construction of a mahogany body, bolt on maple neck, fixed bridge, and HH pickup configuration, has all the hallmarks of a gig worthy guitar. Its obviously got a genre specific aesthetic to it, but that doesn’t have to stop you going out there and playing whatever kind of music you like on it. And if I’m being honest, the RG neck profile is one of the most comfortable I’ve ever played, which is ideal for anyone who’s new to gigging. Comfort is king, worry about looking cool when you’ve got more confidence playing live!
Dan’s pick: Epiphone Dot (£281)
Yes, I’m still going to do a Dan’s pick within a list of picks that I exclusively chose. Purely because this is supposed to be about gear that can get you started in the gigging world, but the Epiphone dot is not just a starter guitar, I still use one to this day!
We’ve all heard of Epiphone, it’s Gibson’s entry-level brand providing classic Gibson style guitars at less eye watering price points. The Epiphone dot reigns supreme when it comes to imitating a more expensive guitar for literally a tenth of the price. It’s a no frills 335 that can sound great out of the box or worst case, is a set up and some small modifications away from being a staple in your gigging
arsenal. Coming with a laminated maple body, maple neck, and two classic alnico humbuckers, there isn’t much that you wouldn’t be able to do on this bad boy. The only thing to watch out for as a newbie to the gigging world is feedback. It’s a semi hollow guitar so if you get too close to your amp then you can very quickly go from BB king to screechy noise man and lose your audience. However, if you learn to control it, then you can add a new and very cool dimension to your live playing. I mean, who doesn’t wanna bend a note and hear it last forever as the crowd cheers you on? That’s right. No one.
Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster (£299):
Another classic brand, Squier have been providing affordable Fender style guitars for decades, but the VM series has got be a contender for one of their best ranges to date. These guitars are a couple mods away from just being standard Strats. The pick-ups sound great, they feel nice, AND they come in a range of cool colours. Personal preference aside, the Squier VM series is the place to go for entry level gigging guitars. A Strat can do just about anything, they’re comfortable, and for £299 you just can’t go wrong.
You only need to consider two things when looking at a gigging amp: Does it sound good? And will it be loud enough to play over a drum kit. We’re living in age where at most gigs these days amps will get mic’d up, but you never can be too careful. With the amps, I’ve tried to pick a range of amps that come in at different prices points, and are also more genre specific. Lets have a look shall we?
Boss Katana 50W (£165):
I don’t tend to get flabbergasted much these days, but if there were anyone that was going to pull it off it would be BOSS. The BOSS Katana is a bedroom practice amp, and a gig ready amp all rolled into one, and it’s the cheapest on the list by a good way. It’s a fifty-watt solid-state amp, with modeling capabilities, and foot switchable controls. So potentially you could take just a guitar and this and not have any need for anything else! My only critique is that the tone of the amp lacks character, but for £165 pounds you cant be fussy. More importantly the amp is easily loud enough to
play over a drum kit, its compact, and it sounds decent. This is the budget gig amp that we’ve all been dreaming about. You arguably don’t need to look any further.
Orange Micro Terror (£89) (£200 w/cab)
This is also a massive bargain if you’re not bothered about having your amp in two bits. A fully functioning 20 watt tube amp head for £89 pounds just doesn’t come around that often, and when you add in an affordable cab for around £150 (see Peavey 1×12 cab as reference) then all of a sudden you’re gigging a more than substantial rock rig for only £35 pounds more than the Katana. However, I will say that the micro terror doesn’t really do clean sounds. That may not matter to some, but for a lot of players, myself included, you may have a hard time playing through one of these for an entire show. But if you’re looking to go out and gig rock music then I challenge you to go find another amp set up to rival it for under £500. Go on, I’ll wait…
Roland JC 22 (£329):
The most expensive of the three by a good way, I’ve thrown in this amp for all the Alt type guitarists out there like me, who are looking for classic amps on a budget. The Roland Jazz chorus has sort of a cult following, known for its pristine cleans, weird pseudo stereo functionality, and classic chorus sound, its managed to maintain a loyal following over the years and for good reason. Its one of the best clean amps I’ve ever heard, it takes pedals like a dream, and who doesn’t love stereo chorus?! I’ll admit that it’s a big jump in price compared to the other two, however it has a much more classic and identifiable sound. And I believe that it’s an amp that someone could invest in and continue to use from the early stages of their playing through to being a pro. It’s not for everyone, but what the Jazz Chorus offers can’t be found anywhere else. And this new compact version for £329 is a steal for any guitar player seeking a gigable, pedal friendly amp with a signature edge.
I don’t wanna go on record saying that you HAVE to have pedals in your rig to play live, I gigged for years without them. But pedals can offer a lot of versatility to your live sound, and who are we kidding? Pedals are awesome! So im gonna do a section on them whether you like it or not so make your peace with it.
I will say that I could have done this in a number of ways, but I’ve decided to approach this from two angles: The all in one multi-effect, and then a standalone pedal board on budget. There are millions of options to consider but to be honest, pedals is a can of worms that you have to be careful opening otherwise you risk getting lost in it forever. So here we go!
BOSS GT-100 (£319)
You know you’re on to a winner when you find out Johnny Marr packed in using his boutique pedal board live for one of these. The BOSS GT-100 provides hundreds of pedals at the fingertips of the user in an easy to use format. Imagine just having a room full of pedals but without any of the faff of having to rebuild the board when you wanted to change
something. You can also stack the pedals in ways that would be almost impossible to do with actual pedals, meaning you could create sounds that would be almost unique to you. I will admit I’m not one for overly detailed screens on things because I find them a bit disengaging, however it’s definitely more compact and functional than tons of pedals so its personal preference at that point.
What’s important is this thing sounds epic, and you’d struggle to build yourself an analogue board that would deliver the same level of tone for the same price. If you want functionality and ease, the BOSS GT-100 is for you.
Actual Pedal board (£360-370):