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pix How to Get a Killer Guitar Sound on Stage pix
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pix pix by Dean Hailstone  

Page added in April, 2015

About The Author

Dean Hailstone has been a guitar player for over 17 years, and during his career he has performed with some of the world's top musicians. He currently works as a session guitarist for various performing artists.

Because of his inspirations as a guitar player, Hailstone has spent a lot of time developing his playing style and guitar tone.

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Send comments or questions to Dean Hailstone.

© Dean Hailstone

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  Sound on stage is important - it determines how well you're able to interact with the other band members and is ultimately the deciding factor for how well you're going to play and perform.

You may have noticed that professional acts have a dedicated stage engineer, in addition to the front-of-house audio engineer. This is to ensure that the individual band members are comfortable with their levels on stage so that they can perform at their best.

The luxury of a dedicated stage engineer is, however, unavailable and impractical to most lesser-known acts. The advice in this article will be beneficial to maximizing your on-stage guitar tone so that you can make every gig an enjoyable experience.

One thing to keep in mind is that what you're hearing on stage can often be radically different to what's coming out the front-of-house PA system. The audience will in many cases be hearing a much better sound than your reference on stage.

Equipment

It starts with using the right equipment. The sound of each individual instrument, referred to as the source, needs to sound great from the get-go. You can't "fix" a bad source later on in the signal path, so don't rely on the sound engineer for good tone.

You don't need extremely expensive and sophisticated gear, but what you want to avoid is solid-state amplification. Solid-state amps have their place, however they don't work well for gigging scenarios. At this point in time, a tube amp far outperforms amp modelling in terms of stage monitoring.

If you're playing in clubs, pubs and restaurants, you also want to avoid anything that's extremely heavy or difficult to transport. Here's some information that will help you to choose the correct amp size for the venue you're playing: "Choosing the Right Amp Size for the Gig".

If you want to send a direct signal to the FOH mixer without miking up your amp, it's possible to use a high quality speaker cabinet simulator. The Palmer PDI-09 is a popular guitar DI solution used by countless of players.

Placement

One thing that is hardly discussed is the position of your guitar amp on stage. The general consensus is that your amp is placed behind you, usually next to or slightly behind the drum kit.

If you apply the appropriate equalization (discussed next) on your amp, you will find that it will be possible to hear it from many different angles. Therefore the position of your amp on stage isn't all that important.

For 2x12 combo amps, I've had success by placing them on a beer crate or two to raise them slightly. I don't like my amps angled up, as I don't like a direct shot hitting me in face. It really comes down to personal preference and getting a good source from all the instruments in the band.

It's also possible to use an amplifier stand to raise or angle your amp appropriately. This is generally only an issue with smaller amps in bigger venues.

Settings

The settings on your amplifier should be approached with delicacy. This is an important aspect for shaping your tone as well as fitting in the context with the rest of the band. Before playing live, you should get to know how the different knobs on your amp / pedals effects your tone so that you can make the appropriate changes when necessary.

Keep in mind that the guitar along with the vocals is a midrange instrument. Therefore you don't want to occupy frequencies that belong to the kick drum and bass guitar. You also don't want to occupy high frequencies that belong to cymbals and keyboards.

It's what your guitar sounds like in the mix that's important. Here are some tips to really help your guitar to cut through:
  • Use more mids. If you turn this control down too much, your tone will become buried in the mix.
  • Use less bass. You want to avoid occupying frequencies that belong to the bass guitar. This will also help the bassist to play at a reduced volume.
  • Use less gain. Often your guitar will sound great on its own with lots of gain, but it doesn't always translate in context of a mix.
  • Don't play too loud (discussed later).

Monitoring

At best, you want to avoid adding your guitar signal into the on-stage monitors. A good tube amp will usually have more than enough power for everyone in the band to hear it without the need for added monitoring.

The reason being that a tube amp will provide the most accurate referencing in terms of stage monitoring. If you're referencing your sound from the monitor speakers, the tone and feel of your instrument will be coloured by the extra electronics it's filtering through.

If you're struggling to hear your amp, you may want to consider one of many underlying issues. We have already discussed amplifier settings and amp placement that can be huge contributors to monitoring issues.

Attenuation

One problem many people are faced with is the fact that a tube amp has to be relatively loud in order to really engage the tubes and get the best tone and response. If you're playing in a band with an extremely dynamic drummer, then you may want to consider volume attenuation.

A volume attenuator serves as a post-power master volume control, allowing you to still achieve the tone you normally would from setting your amps volume relatively high, but at a reduced volume of your choice. The device connects between the speaker output and speaker of your amplifier.

Popular attenuators are the THD Hotplate and Radial Headload. The attenuator should match the speaker impendence and power rating of your amplifier.

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