Have you ever played a gig and absolutely loved your tone at the beginning of the night….then somehow as the evening progressed, you found it increasingly more difficult to get a good sound when you took solos? Does the volume of your amp seem to creep up after every song?

This is something I have been thinking about for about for many many years. Some of you might be able to relate.

How many times have you heard the soundman say “Turn your stage volume down!!” at the beginning of the evening, even if you have your amp on the 20w setting with hardly any volume? So you turn down. After the first couple of songs, as the crowd gathers in front of the stage, every other instrument in the band is louder than the guitar, and everyone in the audience complains that they can’t hear your guitar solos?? Hmmm….Well here are some thoughts of mine on what I call the dynamic tone effect. (Hey, it sounds good to me!)

Here is the scenario that used to play out. At the beginning of the gig, after the sound-check and the first song (which is usually used in the set to get adjusted to the levels) I would feel very comfortable with my solos; in control and restrained like the ninja who sees everything in slow motion and can think with clarity about his next move. However, as the evening would progress, with each song, I would find myself constantly adjusting, trying to reclaim my former tonal composure, wondering if my previous feelings of satisfaction were all just in my head. Well…There seem to be a number of things at work here that just might be somewhat scientific. Here are some thoughts on what is happening and how I have learnt to deal with this.

Usually things start to sound different as the night progresses for a number of real reasons:

1) We get used to louder volumes over time. As a result, they way we hear is affected, which affects the way we play which affects the tone. Over time, at loud volumes, our ears attenuate all frequencies. However, high frequencies suffer the most.

2) The room/hall/theatre sounds acoustically different once the crowd comes. At sound-check, the sound leaves the stage and bounces from the back of the room back to our ears. The higher frequencies are more directional and travel more efficiently than the low frequencies. The guitar might be perceived as being louder at this point in the evening. As the crowd gathers, the bodies and clothing effectively block the higher frequencies.

3) The increasing humidity in the affects the way sound travels. As the crowd drinks, breathes and sweats the humidity in the room increases. The effect is small but scientific.

4) Your amplifier warms up. If you are using a tube amp, (even though, this should only be after a few minutes) once your power tubes are up and running hot, your amp might experience a slight change in tone. Not much but just enough to make you adjust your playing.

5) Overall band volume changes. Usually volume goes up! You turn up to compete and thus the quality of your tone will change. You may be pushing your power tubes more at this stage, depending on wattage. The tone section of your amp may be gain driven, so an increase in volume may result in a disproportionate increase in the overall setting of your bass, mid and high’s.

Now these factors in combination just might be enough to demand and active tweaking of your tone as the night progresses and songs and dynamics change. I have, through the years come up with a few solutions. I call this Dynamic Tone Tweaking. (Sounds good to me.)

Amplifier: The amplifier I choose to use for a number of reasons is the Working Dog Rottweiler, made my George Alessandro.The reasons why this is my amplifier of choice are:

  • It is a light yet powerful 40w.
  • It has great tone.
  • It has what amounts to an attenuator, a final output volume (not a master volume). The Final Output Volume allows you to get the same tube driven tones at different, especially lower, volumes.

Application: Throughout the course of an evening, I use this final output control to achieve the desired effect of clean at high volumes, crunch at lower volumes or any variation in between. At the beginning of the evening, I can get away with half power (happy sound-man) to get the rhythm clean I need, and still the crunch and dirt on power chords I need without being too grungy. As the evening progresses I need full 40w power to get clean rhythm tones. I also actively use the creamy/jangly switch, going back and forth depending on feel and dynamics of the tune being played.

Of note: I always choose to put my amp on the floor for most club gigs. In situations where there is adequate sound re-inforcement on the stage, (e.g. monitors and a mic that feeds the amp into a large house or theatre system) then this matters less. However, for gigs where I am depending on my amp for the guitar mix in the band, this is a must for me. High frequencies are very directional are readily blocked and absorbed by the folks in the club. If the amp is pointed up at you, as is the case if the amp is placed on a stand, chances are, the high frequencies are not making it to the back of the room. The sound you are hearing is not the sound that the audience hears. If the amp is on the floor, granted, there will be a few in the front of the stage who might overdose on higher frequencies, but the rest will hear your amp the way you are hearing it…the indirect and reflected sound. Hence, a more accurate representation of what is actually happening sonically between your playing and your responding to the sounds that you are hearing as you play.

Overdrive Pedal: I use a pedal called Ethos Overdrive. The reasons why I use this pedal are:

  • Very smooth very clean overdrive pedal. No fizz or buzz.
  • 2 fully tweakable channels with 3 band EQ, plus a clean boost tone bypass, effectively giving you 4 options for tone: Clean channel, Overdrive Channel, Boost, and Bypass
  • It has an overall hi-cut control.
  • Useful for situations where a back line is provided. You can take a tone that you are used to everywhere you go.

Application: Perception of high frequencies change as the evening progresses and the natural aural attenuation occurs. I can use the hi-cut/add to change my high frequencies as the night progresses without changing my tone on the individual channels. In addition, I use this pedal dynamically as the night progresses. At the beginning of the evening I use the overdrive channel to get saturated, sustained tones. As the night progresses, I only need to use the boost in the clean channel to achieve the same effect. My amplifiers power tubes are humming and are giving me great sustain and smooth overdrive with little else than the clean channel of this pedal.

Guitar Tone/Volume Controls: As I mentioned in my last post, lately I have been using a Fender Highway One Stratocaster . The Strat has a very wide range of tone controls which provide ample ammunition for cutting through just about any mix on the fly.

Application: The 5 postition tone switch gets it’s work out as the night progress. I find myself playing more in positions 4 and 5 as the night progresses to either cut through when playing a solo, or to get cleaner rhythm parts. High frequencies demand less power, so my amp can stay relatively clean on a back pickup with the amp at full blast and yet a simple flip of the 5 position switch to position one brings out the lower frequency crunch on demand. In addition I can make use of the volume and tone pots as the volume and dynamics changes.

Well there you have some of my thoughts on this tricky subject… I will agree there is not much in the way of scientific data in this post, and some might feel it necessary to substantiate some of my claims. In addition, there are any number of pedal combinations that can be added to the mix to achieve more in the way of dynamics and compression, but I thought I would start with the basics. Some of this might sound like a lot… but I think the end result is that your tone becomes as dynamic and as interesting as that of a good public speaker… I get some good compliments on my tone at shows but honestly I think it is primarily because I try to keep things moving along in a way that takes the listener on a tonal journey. I do this using the Dynamic Tone Effect along with some of those articulation devices that I talk about in my on-line course, Funk/Rock and R&B Guitar Soloing. I am very interested to hear what some of your experiences are in this respect.