For many of us, taking the plunge and shelling out thousands of dollars on a boutique amp is not exactly in the budget. There are, however, a few measures we can take to try to do the best with what we’ve got available to us. Some of these will seem incredibly obvious, but you would be surprised by how often they are overlooked. We will go over topics as simple as amp placement to more complex topics like tone shaping with equalization and pedals. Much of your tone comes from your guitar and your hands. That simply cannot be overstated, but there are a few things you can do to get the best out of your amp. With that said, let’s get started.
This seems like such an obvious thing to consider, but it is so easily overlooked. Often, when an amp is flat on the ground, there can be too much bass rumbling through the ground and your tone suffers. This can be especially noticeable on wood surfaces. One thing you can try to remedy this problem is buy an amp wedge or stand. I have seen the wedges go for about $20 and the stands go for about $40. The wedge simply gives the amp a little tilt and does a nice job curbing that excess bass while the stand gets it off the floor completely. Ideally, you would want to try both in your room and see which one you like best, but we are not always afforded such a luxury. I generally do not worry too much about room placement as long as I can get the amp elevated, but it is worth some consideration. Move it around the room and see what sounds best while still being easily accessible.
As for positioning, this will only really matter if you are trying to record, in which case you should definitely do some homework. That subject goes beyond the scope of this lesson but there is a world of information on it online.
Every amp has its own distinct tone characteristics. It is very important to get this information before making the purchase. For the purposes of this article, we will assume you know more or less what the base tone shape/frequency range is for your amp. My personal approach - and there is really no science to the way I go about this - is to put each EQ knob at about noon and play a few open position chords using all six strings. This will give me a good sense of what frequency range the amp is favoring; what needs to come up or down. Next, I might try playing some lead stuff to make sure that sounds the way I want it. Often times, lead and rhythm playing ask for different settings and many amps only give you one set of EQ knobs. This is where a pedal or two can really help you. But before moving on, I would just like to say that you should make sure to always check your EQ settings any time you are playing in a different room. Different rooms bring out different frequency ranges. The floor may be different or there may be lots of furniture.
I have never really been much of a pedal guy myself except for a few effects here and there. However, there is no denying the power of pedals for shaping your sound in a variety of situations. An EQ pedal, for one, can really help bring out the frequencies you want to increase or reduce. Sometimes, the EQ knobs on your amp simply do not do enough. This can also let you switch between a lead sound and a rhythm sound. I personally like the mids raised for my lead tone.
With regard to reverb, many amps, including many classics, have great reverb features. I, however, swear by the EHX Holy Grail. Reverb has a way of fattening up your sound regardless of what settings you use. Too much, however, can ruin your tone and make you sound like you are in a cave. A little extra boost and grit with an overdrive pedal like the Ibanez Tubescreamer can also work wonders. This is especially true for lead tones.
Another possible consideration is a speaker upgrade. This will depend on your current situation. Mostly, I would recommend this approach to anyone who really likes their amp’s tone, but perhaps feels like the speakers can’t handle the frequency range or power of the amp. The most well known brand is probably Celestion, but there a few other good ones such as Eminence and Jensen Jet.
Here is a great article for anyone that might be looking at this as an option:
Here is one you might not have heard before. Using a shorter cable helps to give you a bigger sound. Scott Henderson - probably my favorite guitar player in the world - swears by shorter cables. He has said in countless interviews how he uses cables that are something like 4 ½ feet long. There really is nothing like it in terms of getting a big, clear sound.
With regard to wireless setups, some of the guys working at the big retailers will try to fool you into buying expensive systems claiming there is no loss of tone. I know because they have tried it with me and this could not be further from the truth. While it is very convenient for a performer that moves around the stage a lot, your tone does indeed suffer. Test it out for yourself and see.
Everyone has a different criteria for this sort of thing, but these few considerations to seem to be universal. At the end of the day, the best thing to do, is take this information and give yourself the experience of trial and error. Only you really know exactly how you want your amp to sound.
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, "brains behind" and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.