How To Set Up a Guitar Amp: The Complete Guide
Setting up a guitar amp correctly is vital to ensure that you’re producing the right tone for your music. Setting your amp controls to amplify your specific sound is an art unto itself. So how do you set up a guitar amp?
To set up a guitar amp, you need to explore the amp controls on their own first. Then, turn all the controls down to neutral, plug in your guitar, and adjust the controls on the clean channel first. Make further volume adjustments, and finally, unplug your guitar and plug in your pedalboard.
In this article, I will go over all the steps to perfectly set up your guitar amp, regardless of the space. I’ll cover the equipment you need, the controls to start with, and how to fine-tune these controls, including the EQ, so you get the best tone and sound possible in the space, so read on!
1. Gather Your Equipment and Necessary Cables
The first step is, of course, to ensure you have everything you need. Get your guitar, lead cable, amp, and power and speaker cables, and ensure everything is connected correctly.
If you’re using an acoustic guitar, check that your pickups are installed properly and won’t move around while you’re using them.
If you’re playing at home, you’re responsible for all the equipment you’ll need, but if you’re playing a set somewhere else, you might be using the provided amp. Before you can set it up for your performance, ensure that it’s securely plugged in and placed and that you have all the cabling you need on hand so that you can proceed smoothly.
Your lead should be functional and of good quality, and any amp-to-speaker connections should be in place, with functional speaker cables. Replace anything worn down, especially if you expect to play for a while. Be careful not to use the lead cable for the speakers, or you’ll cause an electrical fire.
Read Also: How to Use a Guitar Amp: The Complete Guide
2. Explore the Amp Controls
Exploring the amp controls independently is always helpful when setting up an amp you’re unfamiliar with, so you know what you’re working with and how much control you actually have.
Typically amps have more or less the same controls, as detailed below.
- Channel Switch, with a clean channel comprising just volume control and a gain or overdrive channel, allows you to also work in the gain controls.
- Gain, which determines how much input the amp will take in from your guitar.
- Volume determines how loud the sound will be.
- Bass, which controls the amplification of your lowest and heaviest notes.
- Mid, middle, or contour ensures clarity and volume of the warmer middle frequencies.
- Treble, which controls the higher, sharper frequencies that determine the brightness of your sound.
- EQ, which is a one-stop control to adjust your bass and treble at the same time.
- Presence lets you further control your treble.
- Reverb adds ambiance and makes your sound bounce differently, as if the sound is played in a larger space.
Note that all amps are different. Most amps won’t have a ‘Presence’ control or a separate ‘EQ’ control in addition to the independent bass, mid, and treble controls. Each amp has its own controls, which is why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with the available controls.
If you’d like to learn more about the different guitar amps, you can read my article describing the difference between modeling and solid-state amps.
Once you know what you’re working with, you’ll know the degree of control at your disposal. Having a lot of controls isn’t necessary to get a great tone, so don’t worry if your amp is pretty straightforward.
Read Also: How Does a Guitar Amp Work?
3. Turn All Controls Down, Then Plug Your Guitar in
Now that you’re a little more familiar with the amp, you can set it up to play. Use the guitar lead and plug the guitar directly into the amp. Plug the lead into your guitar’s output and your amp’s input.
You don’t need to plug in your pedals; a good-quality pair will translate the sound exactly how you’ve set it up.
Turn your amp controls completely down to zero or neutral before you begin. Having them all on full just as you’re plugging your guitar in is a bad idea because you won’t be able to determine exactly what tone to adjust.
Starting with all your controls on neutral or the ‘12 o’clock’ position lets you adjust one parameter at a time, so there are no surprises when you’re playing. You’ll know exactly what control adds brightness, weight, or fuzz to your sound or causes issues like thinning or muddiness.
Additionally, having the volume and gain at a low ensures you don’t accidentally blow out your eardrums as soon as you test the sound.
However, you must ensure that your guitar controls are fully open so your amp captures everything you’re playing on the guitar.
4. Test on the Clean Channel and Your Commonly Used Pickup
When setting up your guitar amp, you’ll have to play a bit to check your adjustments on the controls and hear what the changes sound like.
While you might be tempted to push the gains up for that additional power and the texture achieved through the distortion, I suggest testing on the clean channel. It’s harder to finalize a tone when the sound is distorted, and what might sound good when you test will probably sound odd throughout your entire set.
You can always play with the gain control after you’ve finalized the volume, tone, and reverb to add more power as necessary.
The pickup you use will differ depending on the type of sound you play and the kind of set. Always set your controls by testing the sound on the most commonly used pickup so your tones are exactly how you want them.
You may have the time to check all the pickups and combinations you use, but it really isn’t necessary. Testing your commonly used pickups is helpful when you have a short setup window before a festival performance to set up your guitar amp.
5. Adjust the Volume Til You Hit the ‘Sweet Spot’
The first control to work with is volume because you want your audience to be able to hear you comfortably. The volume setting will always be different in every room, so resist the urge to just set it to the volume at your home or studio.
Rooms have different sizes and acoustics, and these will determine the way the sound moves through the room. Areas with outdoor sections will need more volume, as the sound will disperse more easily.
If your amps have mics, you’ll have to adjust the volume with the mic on to ensure you’re setting the volume to a comfortable level without inducing feedback.
The ‘sweet spot’ of volume is the loudest your guitar can sound in the space without sacrificing sound quality. Beyond a point, the volume will overwhelm the music, so you want to avoid this entirely. You can always add texture through the gain controls later, as you’ll likely also get to add more weight behind your sound and tone without unwanted sharpness to the sound.
Once you’ve determined the right volume level, note it. Then bring it down to a comfortable level and continue adjusting the rest of your amp controls so you don’t hurt yourself while setting up.
Read Also: How to Mic a Guitar Amp: The Complete Guide
6. Play With the EQ, Starting With the Treble
As I mentioned, your equalizer controls will vary from amp to amp.
You may have to adjust your treble and bass with a singular control. In such a case, you’ll have to make broader changes that simultaneously affect the treble and the bass. This combined control may not be ideal if you like a brighter sound. However, you can consider using your bridge pickup more to compensate.
In most cases, you’ll be able to control the treble, mids, and bass independently so that you can fine-tune your tone.
Start with the treble to fix exactly how bright and sharp your sound will be before you add layers and weight with the mids and bass. Fixing your highest frequencies first gives you a boundary to work with when adjusting the rest of your controls.
The treble also thins out your tone, so starting with it lets you spread the frequency of your sound as high as it can go, so you can begin to fill it up with the mids. Remember to jam at the pickup you use the most, whether it’s your bridge, rhythm, or neck.
After identifying the right treble controls, you can continue towards the bass or the mids, depending on what you tend to play more.
Setting the bass lets you establish your lowest sound before filling up the middle. However, you may find it easier to set the mids after the treble if that is where most of your set lies. You can adjust the mids with the ‘middle’ or ‘contour’ control.
The mids add depth and volume to your tone, so they will help your sound stand out if you’re playing in a band. Increasing the mid frequencies that get amplified allows you to strengthen your tone without needing to increase the gain from your guitar, so you have a strong, clean sound.
Always jam across pickups to ascertain exactly where your tone sounds the nicest. Remember, only you can determine the right EQ settings for your music.
Amp controls have no set numbers because the settings depend on several factors. These factors include your guitar, the amp make and model, the size and acoustics of the room, and the type of music you’re playing.
7. Adjust the Bass With a Light Hand
When adjusting the bass, remember that this is your lowest and heaviest frequency, so add in a little at a time. You don’t want to go all out with the bass and have it drown out your mids, especially for a predominantly rock set.
The right bass controls will warm up your tone and add a good amount of weight to it. However, too much bass and you’ll find your notes are mixing into each other, and you’ll lose much of the sound’s clarity.
Another way to set your bass is to go to extremes – the lowest and the highest — then work your way to the setting that sounds best. Experimenting with the amp is important so you know the range of sound you can produce and how best to arrive at the tone you like best for your sound.
Bass makes your tone ‘boomier,’ which means it has more presence. But it is not the same as reverb, which adds richness by making your sound reflect artificially, making up for smaller rooms and poor acoustics.
While it is very tempting to dial up the bass, you don’t need it, and you don’t want to hide your excellent performance under unnecessary weight. Keep it light and simple, and focus on sound clarity and smoothness of tone over everything else.
8. Get Some Distance From the Amp and Add Gain
Once you’ve got your tone to where you’d like it, check if it sounds the same throughout the space. Of course, this will be difficult on big stages and outdoor performances, but you only need to get some distance from the amp.
Readjust your volume settings to what you’d noted earlier, then get to the end of your stage near the audience if you’re playing on a large stage in an outdoor space. In a small room, get to the center, facing the stage.
Jam a little, checking to see if the tone still sounds right and if you need to switch up the volume settings. As always, work on the volume first before you adjust your tone.
And finally, you can switch from the clean channel and play with the gain if you want to add some fuzz to your sound.
Just like you did with the bass, use a light hand. You’ll want to add more power to your sound without distorting it to the point that it’s unrecognizable and shorting out the speakers.
You can also choose not to add any more gain if you like the clean channel just as it is. Setting your guitar amp aims to produce a sound you like and think represents your music.
Read Also: What is Gain on a Guitar Amp?
9. Unplug the Guitar and Plug in Your Pedalboard
Once you’ve sorted out the final volume and gain levels on the amp, you can unplug your guitar and plug in your pedalboard. With most pedalboards, the sound will be exactly the same as with your guitar plugged in because that’s how they’re designed.
You may encounter some added distortion caused by excess gain when the pedals are plugged in, which can be easily adjusted on the amp. Just turn the gain down on the amp or switch over to the clean channel entirely to compensate for the increase in gain from the pedals.
High-gain distortion pedals might also add a layer of noise that’s amplified when plugged in, in which case you might need to get a noise gate. A good example of one is the Donner Noise Gate Pedal (available on Amazon.com). This noise gate includes a hard/soft mode, is easy to use, and works even without power, making it extremely convenient for all your shows.
10. Play With the Reverb To Suit the Space
Finally, when you’ve finalized all the settings, you can consider adding reverb through the amp itself. Of course, you’ll always be able to add reverb through your pedals, but the amp reverb tends to sound more realistic and natural.
Reverb adds ambiance and is useful when playing sets in small spaces where the sound waves don’t have enough room to bounce and return, resulting in a shorter, sharper sound.
Reverb lengthens the time the wave takes to bounce back, creating layers to the sound. That said, too much reverb can result in your music mixing into itself and becoming muddy.
Add only as much of the reverb as makes sense for your set. If you’re playing for a small audience in an intimate setting, you may not want any reverb to keep the illusion of a warm, comfortable, homey space.
Reverb might be helpful in spaces with open-air seating or areas so the sound is not fully lost before it reaches the entire audience. The additional layering helps protect the integrity of the tone, so your audience can hear the details in your sound instead of having it dissipate in the air.
Always use your sense of the space, set, and sound to determine what tone and effects you need and to what degree.
Setting your guitar amp is not that difficult. For the most part, all you’re doing is adjusting the controls till the tone sounds just right to you, which is easy if you know what you want to sound like. While it may take some time initially, as you become more familiar with your instrument and your sound, you’ll be able to set up a guitar amp in five minutes or less.