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How to get your guitar sounding like the pros | Make Guitar Sound Better

Updated on October 12, 2012
Thinking about taking your mashall stack stack the your next gig at the local music venue? Don't bother, you wont be going higher than 0.5 volume.
Thinking about taking your mashall stack stack the your next gig at the local music venue? Don't bother, you wont be going higher than 0.5 volume.
Does your amp go to eleven?
Does your amp go to eleven?

The author works with guitarists regularly in his role as a live sound engineer for a PA hire Leeds company.

Ever paid much attention to how your guitar sounds when you're playing with the rest of the band? How about what your guitar sounds like when the other guitarist is playing on the other side of the stage? Have you ever wondered why friends in the audience have said that they couldn't hear your guitars no matter how much you turned them up? With small venues and un-signed bands in mind, what follows are some useful tips on how to get your guitars sounding sweet.

The first thing I recommend you do is sit down and listen very hard to the bands and artists that influence you & your fellow band members. Listen and try to work out what effects they use, what pick-up they use, read up on what guitar and amplifier they use and most importantly how much distortion do they really use to get that sound.

How often do you sit down to play your guitar on your own and choose the biggest sounding pick-up, the big big guitar effect or turn the distortion up to 11? Why do you do it? Because it sounds great doesn't it. Masses of distortion over those big bar chords sounds great, it fills up the entire room and makes you feel good about playing guitar. But playing with such a big sound in a band that may even just be a three piece is not what the signed bands do, they have a much more subtle solution, and Im going to tell you how they do it.

Volume - The first thing that should be taken in to consideration is the volume of your guitar amp. If your guitar amp is being mic'ed up then you want your volume to be just loud enough for you and hopefully your band mates to hear. If its not being mic'ed, as it often wont in small venues, then it needs to be just loud enough for the people at the back of the room to hear, but not so loud it is deafening the people at the front. As you can imagine this is a delicate task and you should get the sound engineer to help you decide on just the right volume. If there is no engineer then make your way halfway down the room if you can and check the volume for yourself, you may look a little stupid but at least your sound during the set will make up for that.

One thing i find guitarists don't take in to account when doing the above is that the music being played by the DJ in-between the bands is usually quite loud. What this means is that the guitarist will turn his guitar up to compete with the music being played, you do this to meet the requirements I talked about; to be just loud enough to hear yourself. The problem is that when the DJ stops and you start your set you're far too loud and you can't even hear the drummer! Does that make sense? With this in mind I suggest you get the DJ to turn down to a quieter volume while you decide on a suitable level.

One other point regarding volume is if you have two or more guitarists in the band. Whether the guitars are being mic'ed in the small venue or not its very important to get the two guitars at levels that compliment each other. For instance, if one of you plays more rhythm and one plays mainly lead it makes sense for the rhythm guitarist to be slightly quieter than the lead, am i right? Sounds obvious when you think about it but so many bands don't even think about it.

As a rhythm guitarist in a band with lots of instruments that, for instance, include lead guitar, keys, brass and backing singers you might want to consider what your role in the band actually is. Is it to dominate the entire sound of the band and be louder than everyone else? Probably not. Your role is probably to provide a bed of chords for the other instruments to sit on, this means that keeping your volume to a minimum gives the other instruments space to be heard within the mix. This might be a tough pill to swallow as a musician in a band but its worth thinking about whether it applies to you and your band or not.

Distortion - This part of the article is mainly aimed at the rock/metal/punk genre of bands. As i mentioned earlier, lots of guitarist like to turn the distortion up to 26 because it makes every sound just like the heavy bands you listen to at home, right? wrong! When you actually sit down and listen to these band, and really listen to the sound on the guitar, you will find that the amount of pre gain on them is actually quite low. Why is it quite low? Because the more pre gain you add the more the sound of the guitar fills the sound spectrum with harmonics. This leads to every other instruments in the mix being drowned out by the guitar. I won't bore you with the details of why this is so as it could take up an entire article in itself and probably will in the future. What you do need to know is that the more pre gain you use the less clear the rest of the band will become within the mix.

What I suggest you do is sit down at some point and experiment with using a small amount of pre gain and use the eq and possibly another effect such as delay, chorus or reverb to aquire a good sound that will fit with the style of the band. A small amount of distortion may not sound amazing on its own, but mix it with the bass and possibly another guitar as well as some crunchy vocals and all the instruments will compliment each other and you may find your sound has dramatically improved by just spending a little time listening to what your influences actually do with there sound.

Complimentary guitars - This section is aimed at bands that have two or more guitarists playing in the band. When a band has two guitarists in the band they should concentrate on the two sounds complimenting each other. What do I mean by this? The two guitars should be providing two different sounds. The two different sounds depend on the style of band so Im just going to give a couple of examples of common mistakes I hear.

The first is indie bands that like to use the high pitched single coil pick-up sound from something like a Fender telecaster. There is nothing wrong with this sound, its very effective but there is only room for one member of the band to be producing this sound. If both guitars are doing the same thing the sound becomes unbearable! Listen to something like the arctic monkeys - when the sun goes down for example, yes they have quite a high sound to the guitar but the second guitar isn't doing the same, they are using a lower sounding hum bucker pickup to compliment the lead guitar. Next time you see a band with two guitarist both using the single coil pick-up on a Fender Telecaster, both going through a Fender Deluxe amp notice how similar and ear bleeding the sound they make is!

Another example is if your playing in a band were you require a big distorted sound to the songs but want both guitarist playing. You cant both have a big over powering sound as you will be battling for the same space in the mix. What I suggest is one of you tries a high distorted sound and the other creates a low, bassy distorted sound. They may sound rubbish on there own but put them together and you get a better sound than you could ever get with just one guitar and leave enough space in the middle for the rest of the band to sit.

Another solution to the same problem could be to have one playing with reverb and creating a hollow sound and the other guitar using a crunchy tight sound, again complimenting each other so both can be heard. As i keep saying threw this article listen to your favorite bands and listen to how they do it, try to distinguish between the two guitars and what sound they are producing.

Guitars placed on the floor pushes sound in to the floor and bounces around the room
Guitars placed on the floor pushes sound in to the floor and bounces around the room
Guitars placed on a stand take the sound direct to the artist or audience.
Guitars placed on a stand take the sound direct to the artist or audience.

Equipment - So all your favorite bands use Marshall 4x10 stacks and wireless systems, as Ive been saying, you should follow what your favorite bands are doing yes? noooooOOO00o!

The best sounding bands i hear coming threw the doors of the small venues I've worked in don't use big Marshall stacks at either side of the stage. They don't use them because usually they are far too loud for the small venues they are playing at. I suggest you stick with using a decent sized combo, there easier to transport to the gig, if set up correctly with a decent effects peddle they sound just as good as a stack and you can adjust the volume far more accurately than a stack were you have the volume at less the one!

If your playing with another guitarist try to buy a different brand of amp to them, again to help compliment the sound.

Place you amp on a chair or if you can afford one, buy a stand that points the amp towards you. this will help you and the audience hear your amp. If its placed on the ground half the sound is soaked up by the floor (see my crude drawing for more info) having it higher means you get more sound going to yours and the audiences ear! Cant you just leave it on the floor and turn it up? You could but that would create extra sound bouncing off the floor in all directions and create a muddier sound as it reaches the ear at different times depending on how far it has travelled.

They were just some of the things you can do as a guitarist playing in a small venue. Ive got plenty more to tell you about, especially if your just starting out gigging and need help or have been gigging a while and want some tips on how to improve your show.

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    • profile image

      Craig Squires 

      4 years ago

      Been reading up on advice about getting the best live sound.

      Some things I've found out on my own through experience gigging in a four piece rock band with two guitars and me doing sound from the stage.

      1)Distortion... less is more.

      2)Mids... don't scoop them out. Mids and upper mids cut low mids can get muddy. Watch out for the mids that interfere with your vocalist.

      3)Two guitars need two different sounds to co exsist.

      4)Don't turn up... turn down.

      5)Tilt back your amp if you want to hear it better.

      6)Dont compress your guitar tone too much you will loose volume.

      7)Once you have a good mix that is appropriate for your bands sound most changes from venue to venue will be in the Lows and highs.

      8)If your amp has a speaker resonance dial use this to adjust the overal bass response of your amp instead of the tone stack's bass dial. It will have less effect on your overal guitar tone and will effectively dampen boominess on stages that tend to accent the lows.

      9) Use a 2x12 speaker cab instead of a 4x12. Its' lighter to move around and still sounds full like a 4x12 plus they are not as boomey as a 4x12.

      Set treble a little on the bright side at sound check. When the room fills the treble will be attenuated. This is in general for all aspects of your sound.

      11) Use effects sparingly. Especially any reverb and delay as they can create mud quick.

      12) Stage volumes should be low aim for 90 db max as this will illiminate many live sound probblems such as feedback and standing waves.

      13) If you wear ear plugs while playing live and do band sound from the stage like I do.... don't wear your ear plugs during sound check.

    • The Public Image profile image

      Nik Farr 

      5 years ago from Middleton, MA

      Very cool article, there's a lot of practical advice in here that I wish someone had given me when I first started playing out! I think the single biggest tip here is the idea of considering not just how your guitar sounds when you play alone, but in the context of your band. This is something a lot of players really never wake up to, and pointing it out within the first couple of paragraphs will give any beginner or even intermediate guitarist a HUGE advantage over their peers, and probably help their band get noticed for sounding great! Nice work!

    • onionaudio profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Williams 

      9 years ago from London

      Just a new pic I found. Second one down at this link .

      The whole band using combos on the pyramid stage at glastonbury!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I agree a full Marshall stack is well over the top for all but the biggest venues.

      However I have been gigging regularly with a half stack for the best part of twenty years, ever since I was old enough to save up for one.

      I only turn it up just enough to get over the drummer but the sound is so much fuller than that you get from a combo.

      Even when miked up you can't always rely on a decent monitor mix, if it is loud enough the feedback you get is not the type you have spent years learning how to contol from the amp.

      Of course, most of the time I'm not miked up so the sound has to come solely from the amp and in those situations nothing comes close to "oompth" you get from a half stack.

      On the few occasions I have gigged with the full stack, it is only on stages where I can stand at least 15-20 ft in front of it otherwise the sound just blasts straight past you.

      If you use an angled 4x12 cab the top two speakers are angled up towards you so you only need to stand a few feet in front.


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