What Do Guitar Knobs Do?

The knobs on electric guitars control the volume and level of pickup used. The knobs on acoustic and electro-acoustic guitars control volume and overall tone.

The guitar is one of the best instruments to play whether you are a songwriter or someone who likes to play ‘Wonderwall’ at parties. The instrument is incredibly versatile when it comes to genres and can be used in many different ways.

As a beginner, the anatomy of your guitar is the key to understanding your instrument better. While the fretboard and the body are generally standardized on both electric and acoustic guitars, the knobs you see on the body can make or break your sound. If you have wondered what they do and why you need to be mindful of what level to set the knobs at, then read on as we break down the elements and how they affect your sound:

Electric Guitars

The knobs on an electric guitar control the volume and tone. In some cases, a pickup selector is also included to help you define your sound. Electric guitars have pickups to convert the vibrations of the strings played into an electric signal for your amplifier.

Volume Knob

Just like an acoustic guitar, electric guitars have a volume knob to adjust the output volume. However, the volume knob is also responsible for shaping your sound to a certain extent.

The volume knob can generally be found on the pickguard along with the other knobs in Fender or Squier guitars. On Gibsons, they are on the lower part of the body.

The position of the volume knob depends on the brand and type of guitar you have.

Pickup (Tone) Knobs

If your guitar has a pickup selector, this means that you can choose which pickup sound you want. A bridge pickup is generally meant for brighter sounds whereas the neck pickup is great for a more mellow sound.

On Fender or Ibanez guitars, there is generally one volume knob and two tone knobs for the pickups.

On Gibson Les Pauls, there are two volume knobs and two tone knobs.

The tone knobs are used to adjust the frequency spread of your guitar’s signal to the amplifier. They control the level of treble. Having it at a higher setting results in a brighter sound. However, one needs to be careful because it can also make the guitar sound shrill.

Pickups on electric guitars are single-coils, humbuckers, or a combination of both.

  • A single-coil pickup converts the vibrations of the strings into an electric signal electromagnetically. These can be commonly found in Stratocasters and Telecasters.
  • A humbucker uses two coils instead of one. This results in significant noise reduction since the coils cancel unwanted hums. Gibson and Epiphone guitars generally have a humbucker configuration.
  • Some modern guitars have a combination of both single-coil and humbucker pickups. You can switch between the two, depending on the kind of sound you want.

Electro-Acoustic Guitars

Electro-acoustic guitars offer the best of both worlds since they can be plugged into an external source for amplification of sound.

You will notice that, unlike electric guitars, the knobs on an electro-acoustic are generally placed on the side of the guitar’s body.

guitar

Although there are variations, most guitars have a few common knobs.

Tuner

Many pickups on electro-acoustic guitars have an in-built tuner and a display for it. This lets you tune your strings without plugging into an external tuner pedal. This can be especially handy during live performances.

But not all electro-acoustic guitars come with in-built tuners. The display should be an indication of whether your guitar has one or not.

Volume

Just like all other guitars, the volume knob determines the level of output from the guitar.

EQ Knobs

Most electro-guitars have ‘Bass’, ‘Middle’, and ‘Treble’ knobs. If you want a bright sound, you need to have higher levels of treble and middle. For a more mellow sound, the bass level should be higher than the treble. Since the guitar is a mid-range instrument, setting the ‘Middle’ to lower levels results in scooping of the sound. It is thus recommended that one keeps their ‘Middle’ knob turned at least halfway up. 

However, one is always free to experiment with their EQ setting to see what works best for their sound.

Pickup Knob/s

Depending on what pickup you have on your guitar, there will be a knob to adjust the level of the pickup. This will adjust the sound quality that is amplified. Generally, having it at a higher setting results in a brighter sound.

Acoustic guitar pickups can be of three different kinds: Magnetic, Microphone, and Piezo. 

  • A magnetic soundhole pickup is very similar to that of an electric guitar. An insulated copper wire is wrapped around a magnet. This creates a magnetic field around it. When you play the strings, which are made of steel, it causes a disturbance, which is then picked up and amplified.
  • Microphonic pickups can be added to acoustic guitars that don’t have any inbuilt ones. These are not as commonly used as the other ones since they can cause feedback and pick up unwanted noise during playing.
  • Piezo pickups are designed to detect sound from the saddle of a guitar. This results in a broad dynamic range and makes for an overall bright sound.

Summary

While the knobs on your guitar may look uninspiring, they have the power to shape and even transform your sound. Every guitar has its own, unique characteristics. The best way to figure out how each knob adds to the sound is by taking the time to explore what it sounds like to have it all the way up and then all the way down.

You will notice a remarkable difference.

One of the reasons professional guitar players sound the way they do is because they know exactly how each knob works and what level to set them to.

When you are cleaning your guitar, be mindful of the knobs as well. If you don’t take care of them, the metal under the plastic shell may rust. This will cause them to get jammed. 

But remember the most important thing: the more time you spend exploring your instrument, the better you will get at it.

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