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Basic Guitar Setup – Getting the Most Out of Your Amp and Effects

Guest post by Alan Maloney

Your first step is, of course, obtaining a decent quality guitar amp. I would recommend a tube amp, because of the inherent warmth of their sound, but this is a personal preference. Before introducing any effects into your signal line, you must first find your desired amp sound.

Part 1 – Amp Setup

Here is a quick guide to amp set-up …


      Set the volume and drive knobs on the guitar amplifier to zero by turning the knobs all the way to the left (counter-clockwise). On some amplifiers, the drive knob may be labeled “gain.”

2. Set all EQ knobs to 12 o’clock. Unlike volume and drive, the zero setting for EQ knobs like treble and bass are at 12 o’clock. This is called a “flat” setting. Flat means that the true sound or “coloring” of the amplifier is unchanged. Always begin setting up an amplifier with flat settings before making modifications as this will allow you to learn the true sound of the amp itself.

3. Slowly turn up the volume on the amplifier and play the guitar. Set the volume to a comfortable listening level. The tone should be completely clean with no distortion.

4. For clean tone, move on to Step 5. For a distorted tone, slowly turn the drive knob to the right. The higher you turn the drive, the more distorted the guitar sound will become.

5. Turn the bass knob to the right to increase the bass. This will give a thicker sound with lower end. For a thinner sound, turn down the bass by moving the knob counter-clockwise.

6. Mid, or, mid-range, is the knob that will determine how much the guitar sound will “cut through” a mix of other instruments.
*WARNING* – Vocals usually reside in the mid-range of the sound spectrum. Adjusting your midrange too high will end up overpowering the vocals. This is not a desired situation.

7. The treble knob adjusts how “bright” your guitar tone is. More treble can add sparkle to a clean guitar tone and a more biting edge to a distorted tone. Turning down the treble knob will give a darker tone.

8. Changing the drive and EQ settings may have raised or lowered the overall volume of the guitar sound. Once all of the settings are adjusted to your liking, set the overall volume to the desired performance level.

These are very basic guidelines.

***Remember; LESS IS MORE! Always start with the amp in flat position, and make small adjustments, until you find your sound. Next, we will discuss introduction of effects into your sound.

Part 2 – Incorporating Effects

Now you have found your basic guitar amp tone. It is time to incorporate effects into your sound. There are 2 types of effects currently being popularized, Processors, or Multi-effect units, and individual or “stomp-box” type effects. You can use either or both in conjunction with your guitar amp.

First, I highly recommend reading the entire instruction manual TWICE, and pay close attention to the location of the important adjustment knobs. On stage, in the middle of a song, is the wrong place to learn about your unit! I will discuss the use of a processor first.

1. Insert the unit into the effects loop of your amp, if one is provided. Run a patch cable from EFFECTS SEND to the input of your processor, and from the output, run a cable to EFFECTS RETURN. The actual names may be slightly different, but you will get the idea. The instruction manual will help you with this connection. If you have a volume or level adjustment on your processor, set it to the 12 o’clock position, or lower. All units are different, and may not require hooking up to the effects loop. I will discuss the other options later.

2. Power up your processor PRIOR to powering up your amplifier. This will eliminate the harmful popping noise that occurs if the amp is on. Set the processor in BYPASS mode.

3. Slowly turn up the volume on the amplifier and play the guitar, while turning up the volume, or level adjustment on your guitar. Set the volume to a comfortable level. You should now be hearing the neutral tone you have chosen to start with. I advise turning the reverb setting on your amp completely off, until you have gotten used to your effect unit. There may also be a “MIX” adjustment on your effects unit. This will usually adjust the amount of effect that is mixed with the “DRY”, or original sound you have obtained. Try to use this feature sparingly, remembering “LESS IS MORE”.

4. Engage the unit by turning off the bypass mode. Your volume should not have increased or diminished. Set your level or volume knob on the processor to make this happen. Do not attempt to increase your volume with your effect unit, let the amp do the work.
5. Now comes the hard part! You will need to spend many hours perfecting your tone. You will want to set up several tones that are close to each other, and easy to access quickly on stage. I always tried to have a lead channel next to each rhythm setting on my unit. You may want to download actual artist presets, and many processors have this capability. (Line 6 is an industry leader in this area).

Part 3 – Order of Effects

“STOMP BOXES” are the slang term for individual effects units. There are hundreds of different brands, types, and sizes. Try to use the highest quality gear you can afford. I always research on the internet and read reviews by actual musicians before I buy anything. These units are usually powered by a 9 volt battery, or a power supply that is intended to replace the battery. There are many exceptions to this rule, however, and this must be considered prior to purchasing any effect unit. It might be beneficial to discuss appropriate guitar effects order and what guitar effects belong in the FX loop versus in front of the amp.

Always begin your guitar effects chain with distortion of overdrive effects. Adding these types of guitar effects after time based effects (delay, chorus, flange, etc) will only introduce unwanted noise and sound horrible. Additionally, placing an overdrive before distortion is better as the overdrive can be used to push the distortion for additional volume or gain.

*Never place an overdrive or distortion effect in the FX loop of an amp.

Time based guitar effects (delay, chorus, flange, etc) are placed after gain effects to keep noise to a minimum. This also allows the effect to be placed on the signal after gain has been added. Time based guitar effects are perfect for the FX loop on an amp or between your preamp and power amp in a rack setup.

The last guitar effect is EQ which works both in front of the amp and in the FX loop. EQ also works well before gain stage or after and optimally in both position. Place volume pedals first in the signal chain while Wahs can go before or after the gain/overdrive pedal depending on how you want to affect the sound.

Here are some sample signal chain diagrams that have been proven effective:

Volume –> Overdrive pedal –> Distortion Pedal –> Chorus/Delay/Flange –> Noise Gate

Volume –> EQ –> Overdrive pedal –> Distortion Pedal –> Chorus/Delay/Flange –> Noise Gate

Volume –> Overdrive pedal –> EQ –> Distortion Pedal –> Chorus/Delay/Flange –> Noise Gate
On the following page is an actual photo of a powered, multi-pedal effect board. These units, while large and cumbersome, allow the musician to have high quality individual effects, with settings that are protected fro alteration, allowing the player to have reliable, consistent tone. This set-up is preferred by countless professional players. I personally use a large pedal board, very similar to this one.

A powered effect board with multiple effect units includes a rather extensive learning curve. While processors may have “preset” sounds, with a pedal board you have the flexibility to alter your sounds “on the fly”. This takes experience and practice, and requires a firm knowledge of the owner’s manual for each effect. Again, read each owner’s manual completely at least twice before setting up your pedal board.
Use only top quality patch cable to connect your effects. I use only MONSTER cables or the high quality build-your-own kit from PLANET WAVES. I have had no problems with my connections for several years now.

As with the processors, adjust your amp to your desired tone with all of your effects pedals in “off” or “bypass” position. After obtaining your optimal amp tone, start turning on your effects pedals, one at a time, taking careful note of how each one affects the end resultant tone. This is a trial and error process, and will take a LOT of time to perfect your sound. Please be patient. Eventually, you will identify several appropriate sounds, and effect combinations that will provide all the flexibility needed to perform live.

Part 4 – Stage Amplifier

STAGE AMPLIFIER setup is often overlooked by the younger musicians, but is very important to a successful live performance. Here is a typical amp/stand setup, featuring the tilt-back feature.

As pictured, the amp should be directly behind the player, tilted up, so the sound will radiate “through” your body. This allows you to closely monitor your tone and volume. Adjust your volume to a comfortable level. This is the tricky part, since many guitar amps, including the one pictured, must be at a certain level of volume to obtain certain desirable tones.
For larger venues, you will need to maintain your usual volume, and run your amp through the house PA system. When using your amp in this fashion, in a smaller venue, your stage volume should be approx. 75-80% of your total volume. In other words, use your amp for the majority of your volume, and do not turn up the guitar sound extremely high in the PA system.
I personally use a 15 watt Class “A” tube amp. I run it at about 50% volume, and this is plenty for most small to medium sized venues. Any more than that, or for outside gigs, I mic the amp in the PA system.

About me: My name is Alan Maloney, and I have been a working, professional guitarist in the Fresno, CA. area for 25 years. My current band is KROSSOVER and can be found on Facebook at Krossover Fresno and on My Space.

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