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Getting Great Guitar Sound On Stage

Guitar, check. Amp, check. Cables, check. Effects, check. You’ve got all the gear necessary to get a great sound on stage. Aside from the guitar player’s skill, why do some sound better than others?


This month we’ll look at a few aspects of getting a good live sound. While this article is mostly aimed at those of us with who have don’t have much or any stage experience, there may be something of interest here for almost anyone.

Last week I had the genuine pleasure of attending a League of Rock ‘dark stage’ rehearsal night at Toronto’s famous Chick’n Deli night club. This was an opportunity for the six bands in the current session to rehearse their three songs on a real stage – and in this case, somewhat unexpectedly, in front of a real audience.

League of Rock is the creation of Terry Moshenberg, a dynamic entrepreneur and experienced marketer and promoter – who also happens to be a guitar playing musician.

Each LOR session, of which there are three per year, some 26 to 30 amateur musicians – ‘regular’ folks, some of whom have never before been in a band let alone performed live – are formed into six ‘bands’ and, over a 12 week period, work up three songs. Each session culminates in a recording date in a pro studio and the final gala gig at a major Toronto live music venue.

So, how did I end up at a LOR gig? Well, Mack Amps is pleased to announce that it is now the official guitar amp sponsor of LOR, Toronto!

Along with meeting a bunch of great people and having a blast, witnessing 18 songs being performed by a diverse group of guitar players who, for the most part, used various Mack amps (2 guys brought their own amps!), was a tremendous live guitar sound learning experience.

Here are some thoughts about what I learned.

The Guitar’s Place In The Stage Mix

I think of live guitar ‘sound’ as being comprised of two concepts: how good is the tone and can it be heard by you and the audience?

Consider what is going on when a typical rock band performs live:

  • Drums: A drum kit produces a tremendous amount of sound energy with fundamental frequencies that range from the bass part of the audible frequency spectrum to mid range. Harmonics of fundamental tones reach all the way into the high midrange and even high frequency portions of the spectrum. You might be surprised at how much high frequency sound energy is present in a kick drum thwack not to mention toms!
  • Cymbals. Of course, cymbals produce lots of high-mid and high frequency sound energy. However, their fundamental tones are centered in the mid range.
  • Bass. True to its name, the bass produces fundamental tones in the bass to mid range frequencies.
  • Vocalist. The vocalist is producing mid range fundamentals with high-mid and high frequency harmonics.
  • Keyboards. If your band includes keyboards, they can be pumping out sound that spans the entire frequency spectrum from sub-bass to highs.

The guitar’s fundamental tones span bass to mid range frequencies and the guitar’s harmonics add energy in the high-mid range.

If you simplify each instrument’s frequency range to be generally characterized by its fundamental tones you can get a fairly realistic picture of what’s happening on stage:

  • Lots of bass and low-mid energy from drums and bass.
  • Lots of high-mid and high frequency energy from cymbals, vocals and often keys.
  • Lots of mid range energy from low frequency instrument harmonics and lower fundamental tones from vocals and keys.

There is a LOT of competition on stage fighting to be heard!

Obviously, guitars are a critical part of a band’s sound and are known for being heard, but how do you obtain that ideal combination of stellar tone that is easily heard by both you and your audience?

EQing guitars in a recording mix is a topic of many books and is well beyond the scope of this article. However, there are a few simple things that any guitarist can do to get good live sound.

Analyze Your Guitar Tone

Your tone may sound great when you are practicing at home or playing along with recordings. However, it may not translate well to the live stage.

A fairly common characteristic of what I heard the other night is guitar sounds that seemed muffled and lost in the low-mid wash of sound booming from the stage.

In these situations the guitar players usually increased the volume at the amp in an effort to hear themselves, further adding to the general pandemonium going on in the lower half of the audio spectrum.

What to do? Here are two very basic, but critical suggestions:

  1. Turn your guitar volume to 10. Many, but not all guitars feature a ‘volume control bypass capacitor’. No, that’s not something from a Star Trek episode, it’s an electronic component wired across a guitar volume control that prevents your tone from becoming muffled (reduction in high midrange frequencies) as the volume is turned down. If your guitar does NOT have one, whenever you turn down its volume your tone will generally lose presence and recede into the mix. In this case keep your guitar’s volume at 10 to help you stand out. If your guitar does have a volume bypass cap, it’s still a good idea for you to have all of your guitar volume pots full up when you hit the stage and adjust your sound before the first song’s count-in. This will ensure that you are tweaking your sound with the most signal possible coming from your guitar and gives you the best chance of avoiding a gear adjustment that will actually fight against getting a good stage sound.
  2. Turn your guitar tone to 10. Guitar tone controls have one function: they roll of high and high mid range frequencies. Since we are trying to achieve optimum ‘sound’ – the combination of great tone that is easily heard by you and your audience – and since guitar tone ‘lives’ in the upper and high mid range frequencies, it makes sense to hit the stage with tone on 10. As with guitar volume, this gives you the best opportunity to properly adjust your gear and it ensures that you do not inadvertently roll of the highs and cause your sound to recede into the mix. Having said that, there are times when a tone control adjustment is certainly warranted: for example, removing the ‘ice pick’ quality from some Teles or getting Eric Clapton ‘woman’ tone from a humbucker guitar. But, generally tone on 10 will help you cut through the mix.

3 Ways To Get Clean Electric Guitar Tone On-Stage

The term ‘clean headroom’ is often used, but having spoken to many guitarists over the years there is generally some confusion as to what it means.

The practical definition of clean headroom is the volume level at which your guitar signal starts to become distorted. The volume at which your tone just starts to breakup or overdrive is the point of maximum clean headroom. How loud you can get a clean tone depends on many variables such as how hard you pick, pickup output level, amp design and settings, etc.

There are three ways to achieve a clean tone:

  1. Guitar volume 10, amp clean. Your basic sound is clean and, if you use overdrive and distortion it will come from pedals.
  2. Guitar volume less than 10, amp dirty. In this case you set up your amp for a distorted tone and roll off your guitar volume to get a clean tone. Your distorted tone is only a flip of the guitar volume away. Note that this contradicts my earlier recommendation to leave your guitar volume on 10. “Switching” from clean to overdrive and distortion via your guitar volume control is a great strategy if your guitar volume pot is set up properly (see above) and your amp is sensitive enough to changes in guitar volume. Some amps do a great job of changing their tone with guitar volume changes and some don’t – check our your amp to see how it responds.
  3. Guitar volume 10, amp channel switching. If your amp has multiple channels one is usually adjusted for a clean tone and one for an overdriven or distorted tone.

Any of the above methods of achieving a loud clean tone is valid. The one you choose depends on your gear, the music you play and whether switching tones within a song is a necessity.

Note that a clean tone will most likely have a better chance of cutting through the stage mix. Generally, the balance of upper and high mids will be greater than an overdriven or distorted tone and your guitar sound will be less compressed allowing your picking and playing dynamics to be heard.

Distorted Electric Guitar Tone On-Stage

Whoever came up with the phrase “Less is more” must have been referring to distorted electric guitar tone!

You will likely have heard this before, but some of the heaviest electric guitar tones feature relatively little distortion.

For example, Keith Richards, ACDC, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, etc. have recorded some of the heaviest rock guitar sounds ever – and many of these iconic ‘heavy’ tones are really not all that distorted.

I realize that LOTS of great guitar tones feature LOTS of distortion, but to achieve the best stage guitar sound for classic rock and blues music styles, dialing down the distortion is almost always beneficial.

While there are many flavors of distortion – overdrive, fuzz, etc. – I generally think about it related to two needs: rhythm and lead.

If a song requires a distorted rhythm tone, often referred to as ‘crunch’, the ‘less is more’ credo is critical. Richards and the Young brothers are the masters of getting incredibly juicy, resonant and HEAVY crunch tones that are, when you listen closely, amazingly clean relative to their impact.

The distortion required for lead playing is dependent on the song and the player. However, I believe that the ‘right’ amount of distortion for solos is just enough to produce ‘flow’. What’s flow? It’s that musical moment where your tone is distorted and compressed enough and possesses enough sustain that the player can focus on their performance without having to ‘fight’ their way through a solo.

This may sound kind of esoteric, but I am sure you have wrestled with solos where your tone wasn’t quite there – either there wasn’t enough sustain or not enough distorted breakup and compression. Dialing up the distortion to get to that point of ‘flow’ alleviates the problem, but overdoing it will cause your sound to, once again, recede into the stage mix.

I also believe that the amount of distortion needed to obtain flow varies according to the song. Heavy songs with lots of crunch backing the solo requires more distortion; a much less distorted tone is often the perfect fit for obtaining flow with ‘lighter’ songs.

Having said that, I know there are lots of examples of impossibly distorted solos in otherwise clean songs and clean solos in heavy songs – in those cases the contrast is what works. However, I believe that a good rule of thumb is to use just as much distortion as it takes to get you into flow – and no more.

What happens if you use too much distortion on stage?

Your tone won’t fit the song and will negatively impact the quality of your band’s overall sound and its performance. Part of getting a great stage sound is making sure your audience isn’t cringing even if they can hear you LOUD and clear. Since the primary objective of performing live is to provide your audience with an enjoyable experience, this problem should be avoided at all costs!

Worse yet, using too much distortion can overly compress your tone and, depending on how the distorted tone is EQ’d, there can be a dramatic perceived loss in highs and clarity and you end up not blending in with the song and not being heard properly! I suppose that if your tone is negatively affecting the overall performance, not being heard might be a good thing, but I think you get my point.

How do you easily get the right amount of distortion on stage?

So,this is how to best get a distortion sound on stage and still be heard properly:

  1. Crunch. My favorite method of getting good crunch is from an amp – preferably one that features power tube distortion. Richards and the Youngs rely on plugging a great guitar into a great amp and turning it up until they get the tone they want. Although there are lots of overdrive and boost pedals that can get crunch tones, for the most part you will find that amp crunch is more dynamic, resonant and pleasing to the ear. Dynamics are important because a good amp will respond to your picking attack by changing the amount of crunch. Organically altering your distorted tone by playing harder and softer during a song is FUN!
  2. Lead. This is where pedals can really come into play. Stomping on a box to elevate your tone for solos is a classic method. However, you can get great amp lead tone by setting your amp for lead distortion and rolling your guitar volume down for clean/crunch and up for solos. Or, if you have a multi-channel amp it is easy to set up rhythm and lead tones.

There are many more aspects of live guitar sound that we haven’t covered. If there is enough interest in this topic I’ll continue next month.

Let me know how you get great live guitar tone by emailing me at Don@MackAmps.com or simply post your reply, below!

Don Mackrill

I’m a Guitar Player, Now What?

The days, weeks, months, and years of shedding and learning your craft are behind you. You are a guitar player, capable of making a living at this noble craft, but now what? Here is what, I think, are some tasks that will take you to the next level.

Pete Townshend (The Who)

Pete Townshend (The Who)

#1. Being seen.

There are several ways to go when getting your name out there. Many musicians think it’s a good idea to move to a big city and play gigs for no money just to be “seen”. In my estimation, through years of experience, this is a total waste of time and effort. Take it from me, if you think your talent is worth not being paid for, it’s a guarantee no one will either. Being a good guitar player in a live setting is a good idea to showcase your skills, but if a guitar player plays well in the forest and nobody hears him (her)… well you get the idea.

My solution to this scenario is to fine tune your skills, find a high profile band and get the gig playing in that band. How do you do this? Take a page out of Keith Moon’s book. Walk right up to the bandleader during a break and introduce yourself. Shake hands, compliment the band and quickly present your card. At that point, you say “if you ever need a guitar player please give me a call I think I can do a good job for you.” Do your research and meet as many bandleaders as you can until you get the gig you want. I can tell you that bandleaders are always on the lookout for players, always! And if they don’t need one at that moment they soon might or might know someone else who does. There is no such thing as a wasted contact.

When I say high profile, I mean a cover band with a full schedule of well paying gigs. But if it is an original band you seek, this will be harder, but not impossible. Remember, you must prepare yourself for other then musical parameters to get the gig. Stuff like image fit and age specifics. Be real and reasonable. These days image is 90% of what original bands look for when filling positions. You may even have to switch over to a more “video friendly” axe. Also, a good tip for auditioning for an original band is to have songwriting ideas on your guitar. This is where a guitar education comes into play. If the songwriter has a three chord formula going, your alternative voicing on your guitar will quickly enamor you to the band and its producer.

#2. The Demo.

Oh yes, the old demo, the most underrated tool for gig attainment. I cannot tell you how many musicians I have auditioned in the past 5 years who do not have a decent/relative demo. You would think in the age of affordable digital home studios some one out there would be focused enough to have a relevant demo for a gig they are applying for. I recently ran an ad for a friend who owns a piano bar looking for an entertainer. The ad specifically said “piano player/singer.” I cannot tell you how many responses I got from solo piano players and from singers who did not play piano, and from people who sent demos without singing on them. Be focused enough to send a demo that is appropriate. Why in God’s name would I hire a guitar player for an R&B gig if his demo is a country demo. That to me means he’s trying to stretch or did not feel the R&’B enough to include it on the demo. No dice!

#3. Be professional.

I have alluded to this in other columns, but it bears repeating and in a bit more depth.

My motto is ABP, Always Be Playing. Study, study, study, take as many lessons as you can afford in as many types of music as you can. I believe that a classical guitar lesson will probably not transform you to becoming the next “maestro” but some classical ideas, or fingerings may make their way into your style. This will help you get a signature sound and feel. That is a very marketable commodity in the cookie cutter world of guitar players. Same can be said for country or jazz guitar disciplines, as they all add to the gumbo of what is to be “you.” Aside from your gear this is what you bring to every gig you do, and is a lot more valuable.

I played with a guy years ago named Lou Korosi from Glen Cove, NY who could play some mean jazz on his Telecaster as well as play rock, reggae and fusion. And Lou could move seamlessly from one to another. His rig was a Tele w/a bumbucker in front, a Twin Reverb and a MXR Phase 90. That’s it.

Once you get your gig, show up on time, with dependable, appropriate gear. Be prepared and relaxed. Remember you are a guitar player! A most noble of trades.

Now get to work!

Eastwood Guitars & Friends

Eastwood Guitars & Friends

I Play a Bit Too Loud? Thank You!

I hope you good folks have enjoyed my column so far. This column will be unlike the others as there will be not be so much technical “guitarspeak”. There will only be the truth as I know it, about being a gigging guitar player in the sometimes unfriendly world of clubs, bars and venues big and small.

Stacks & Stacks of Marshall Amps

Stacks & Stacks of Marshall Amps

Now let us address the scourge of the alleged soundman, you know that angry guy in the sweatpants behind the soundboard that keeps telling you to turn down. Well you know what my fellow guitar slingers, don’t do it. If we all refuse en masse to turn down it will cause a groundswell where soundman across the globe will know that we ain’t turning down. And when I say turn down I don’t mean a smidge I mean to where they are happy (yeah right) and we sound like we are coming out of an AM radio. This whole concept of low volume from your amp and “I will make you big out front” is a joke. You can only amplify the sound coming from the amp and if it sounds thin? Then guess what? You will too.

Now I know when there are exceptions, like the time I saw a very famous multi guitar band from the 70’s play Madison Square Garden and they were all playing blackface Deluxe Reverbs, and the bass player was using a silver face Bassman. And they sounded awesome, but there were extenuating circumstances to this scenario. First off they were using a blackface Deluxe Reverbs, one of the best sounding amps in the history of guitar amplification. Secondly, they had a state of the art sound and monitor system, manned by the best live sound engineers money could rent. And last but not least they were all matched amps played by master musicians who respected each other, and could play dynamically.

So, should we bring a Marshall 100 watter to a club date? Probably not. I really believe that a 2×10, a 2×12 or a low wattage 4×10 will be more then enough to move some air around and get a good sound. I believe a 30. 40 or 50 watt amp is plenty for a club or bar gig as we know that you have to crank an amp to get a good tone. That is a pretty undisputable fact sorry to say.

Bring two small amps and run them with an AB switch. You can get a great tone from a very small Champ sized amp but, you will not be able to hear it well enough unless its pumped through the monitors but you must remember monitors are not voiced for guitar and it will color your sound and could impact your decisions you make onstage concerning your sound.

I will also like to state that I think that 4×12 cabinets do not work well for low wattage applications (anything 50 watts or lower). Leave your 4×12 cab at home unless it’s a big venue because you will not be able to drive it adequately to get a good tone. I have seen many bands over the years using 4×12’s in clubs for the “effect” and aside from the visual effect the only other effect I could come up with was a thin sound. Another good idea is to install tilt back legs on any amp you intend to gig with, it will give you a real picture of what you sound like, We all tend to set our amps to what sounds good to us, but what about what the audience hears. I do a little thing occasionally in my live show where I sit on the edge of the stage (for effect) and play some blues, it usually grabs the audiences attention and also made me realize how harsh sounding my rig was.

My story goes like this, when I play a club or any venue and a soundman/ club owner tells me I am a bit too loud I smile and say thank you. They are usually confused by this statement and walk away but, when questioned further I always say “I am trying to play a bit too loud”. When and if questioned further I will say “you are paying me to play guitar and I want to make sure you are getting your money’s worth.”

I will say at this point as a professional guitar player you must always keep an eye on the patrons, if any person is holding there ears or leaving you should turn down. We all want people to enjoy our music. And usually if the audience wants you to play softer you should, and if it really bothers you to play softer then just do not play there any more. Personally I believe that pleasing people with music is our number one priority.

Now having said that here are a few general suggestions:

#1. You must always bring a back up amp.
I could not personally feel comfortable at a gig knowing that if my amp goes south I will not be able to play. The show must go on! My suggestion is that you should bring a smaller but similar sounding back up amp. This will serve you three ways, one you will have a back up just in case your main amp fails, second is that it will be easier to carry and pack as it is smaller, and last but not least just in case you will have to play softer, you will be able to and still get a nice tone.

#2. You should tailor your sound around the level of the drums.
Listen to great rock records and see where the guitar is mixed in comparison to the drums. If your drummer is a tasty feel kind of cat adjust volume accordingly, nothing is more annoying than a good drummer covered up by an inappropriate guitar or bass player. Remember it”s not all about you its all about the music! If your drummer is a banger, get right there with him. Your db’s should be directly related to his, the only difference is the eq. Your eq should be in the high to low mids (unless you play the kind of metal guitar that calls for that ultra low eq), and his should be lows (kick and toms) and highs (snare and cymbals) with the bass player rounding out the sound with some ultra lows. Here’s a little advice for those of you doing your own sound, do not clutter the eq’s. What I mean here is do not shelve more then one instrument in a certain eq range as this will make them both disappear. Try your best to run as much stuff as you can through your board flat (eq) and let the natural texture of the individual instruments come through. The same thing goes for graphic and parametric eqs. The best thing about parametrics is that they are not usually set to look cool (the famous graphic eq “V’ ooohhhh). The worst thing about parametrics are that literally nobody knows how to use one.

Thanks for all your responses to my columns. Horst the Maranello lover revealed that my recent list of perfect guitars did not have one European or Asian made guitar..sorry my fellow guitar lovers, not much experience with those formidable axes, but guess what? I think I am going to have to get one of those Hofner Presidents.

That’s it for now…..Joey says “don’t turn down”!!!

Making a Guitar Living

I’ve been earning a living with my guitars now for thirty odd years. I did a stint as a commercial artist for a couple of years when I finished high school — I say commercial artist, what I mean is I worked in a commercial art studio learning the ins and outs — but after a couple of guitar playing jobs I decided to focus on music as a career. I could earn more in a couple of nights playing than in a week of the day job.

My first job was playing instrumental acoustic guitar at the Sir Winston Churchill Pub in Montreal. I used to arrange popular tunes for nylon string guitar, my most ambitious effort was a finger style rendition of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, which had just been released.

Anyone who has a flair for the guitar and decides to embark on a career of playing naturally aspires to be someone who sells millions of records and tours the World. Like Mark Knopffler or Eric Clapton or Santana. We’d all like to be household names. The reality, of course, is that very few achieve that level of success. Apart from being a stand out player, many factors come into the recipe, not the least of which is luck. To be at the right place at the right time is often the bottom line.

For most of us, earning a living from our instruments is a hard row to hoe. The main factor I think is to keep all options open, don’t be precious about your music and always keep a professional attitude.

There are several ways to generate money as a guitarist. I try to keep them ticking over at all times.

The most straight forward way is performing, getting paid to play your music to an audience. It’s often the most satisfying way too, especially if you’re doing your own thing, either solo, or in your own band. When all else is falling apart around you, there is usually some place to play, even if it means busking, which down here means playing in a public place. I live near a place called Byron Bay, famous for it’s surf and blues festival, where players come and stand in the street with their guitar cases open for people to throw money in. A dear friend of mine down there is in his sixties and still does it, and does well at it.

The other form of performing involves hiring yourself out as a freelance guitarist for other bands. I am presently playing in five different line ups. Two of mine, MumboGumbo and The Train; I play in David Bentley’s Blues Revue, where keyboardist David is the front man; I play with Elizabeth Lord, a country / blues band; I play with Ted Tillbrook, who has moved away for a while. Juggling dates can be difficult, but it always seems to work out. They know that my priority is my music, and if I can’t make a show, they have a couple other players they can call.

If you’re proficient enough as a player, and you have the right attitude, you can hire yourself out as a session guitarist. Times have changed and technology has done a lot of musicians out of this kind of work, but guitars (especially acoustic) still can’t be synthesized. Thank goodness.

There are a couple sub-categories here, namely commercials (TV or radio) and album tracks. Both require a certain kind of player. You must be able to cover a few different styles to do well, especially in the jingle world. Reading helps, but is not essential. You must be very professional and follow directions. Often the producer will ask you to play something you think stinks or doesn’t fit. A polite suggestion of an alternative is OK, but don’t insist. You may not be aware of what is going to be overdubbed later on, or what the singer’s part is. Punctuality and good equipment is a must. Guitars with poor intonation or amps that buzz are not appreciated when the clock is ticking.

Finally, if you get to the point where you know more about playing than most, you can become a teacher. Not the most lucrative way of earning a guitar living, but one that will allow you to lead a more normal life, get to bed earlier. A way that’s probably more consistent and reliable. I know people here who have dozens of private students and also teach regularly at schools and colleges.

If you’re that way inclined, you can do quite well as a repairer. My old pal Seymour Duncan who I knew in London in ’73 or so, was the guy who set my Strat up at Fender Sound House, where he worked as the tech. He sure went on to bigger and better things. There is a guy here in Brisbane I have yet to meet, Chris Kinman, who makes pickups that are sought after the world over. He’s doing OK.

I’d say the most important element in all the above is to maintain a professional attitude. Musicians are often seen as vague, lazy, stoned, unreliable, probably alcoholic. You’ll often be treated like someone who doesn’t really care about money, who just wants to get out of it and play music. To counter this perception, you almost have to be overly accommodating. I don’t mean grovel, but I mean be straight, punctual, civil, reliable. Make sure the money is talked about and settled early in the piece. Get it on paper.

Or you could be a chef or a stock broker…

Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: www.KirkLorange.com and www.ThatllTeachYou.com