Music -> Guitar EQ

Dylan’s basic guide to guitar EQ

What is EQ?
EQ allows you to boost or cut (turn up or turn down) specific frequencies, just as the volume knob allows you to boost or cut all of the frequencies.

Why do I need to EQ my guitar sound?
Guitars like almost all instruments contain frequencies that sound great and frequencies that sound terrible to our ears. The amount of good and bad frequencies depends on the equipment being used from the guitar to the pedal, to the amp and even the cables. One of the most important things to remember is the environment that you play your guitar in. For example: if you set up your guitar rig and get a sound you like in a large hall, it will magically sound different when you go to play a gig in a tiny club or an outdoor venue! Understanding what effects these different environments will have on your guitar sound will allow you to make educated adjustments so that you can maintain the sound you want no matter where you play!

What do I need to do first to EQ my guitar sound?
First and foremost you need to - identify the guitar sound that will suit the style of music you play – secondly, identify the desired sound of the other instruments in the band and thirdly, find the sound that suits the equipment you are playing on. For example if your bass player has managed to get his bass sound to sound like flea, chances are if you tweaked your guitar EQ to sound just like Dimebags nobody would agree that your band sounds great – why? Because you are in a band!! 99.999% of the people who come to your gigs are there to hear music and watch a band, not focus only on the guitar player and block out the rest of your band! Those two styles while great in the right context would clash if played together on the same stage!! Your aim (along with your band mates) should be to come across as one well put together unit and not as individuals, remember having people say "wow you rocked, but your band kinda sucks" is not a compliment!!

What frequencies do guitars fall between?
Well the human ear can hear as low as 20 Hz and as high as 20 kHz, but the guitar only really has a range of approximately 60 Hz to 15 kHz. However this doesn’t mean that you want all of those frequencies pumping out of your guitar amp since it will take up too much space and everybody from your drummer to your vocalist and sober people in the audience will think that you are a tool! (or blame your poor engineer)

Where do I start to EQ?
Well it all starts at the guitar, most guitars will allow you to control the tone via the knobs – these are pretty handy since they are the quickest to get too while playing live without having to stop so that you can screw around with your pedal. These knobs will each control a whole range of frequencies and if you are a novice it's probably best to set them all up at '5' to begin with. Secondly would be to look at the EQ on your pedal. Now a good pedal will allow you to go in and select specific frequencies to boost or cut, which will allow you to eliminate the crappy ones and enhance the good ones. The EQ on the amplifier is usually similar to the knobs on your guitar where you get to boost or cut a whole bunch of frequencies at a time. Once again start by leaving the knobs sitting at the 12 o’clock position on your amp.

I’ve heard engineers talk about 'rolling off' and 'Q', what are they on about?
I generally 'roll off' guitars at 80Hz, this means I go and gradually start to decrease all the frequencies from 80Hz and lower – guitar frequencies below 80Hz generally just consist of shitty rumble and hum. I also 'roll off' at 12 KHz which means that I am gradually cutting all the frequencies from 12 KHz and higher to get rid of the horrible hiss.

Now the 'Q' in its most basic form can be compared to an umbrella – if you put the Q up to half way then on an EQ graph it will look like an umbrella that has been half opened. If you turn the Q all the way up it will look like an umbrella that has been closed completely and if the Q is turned all the way down it will look like its been opened as wide as it can go. But what does the Q actually do? If you select a frequency that you want to adjust then the Q allows you to either change that one frequency or it allows you to change a select amount of the neighbouring frequencies too (and this will depend on how wide you open the umbrella).

Ok, cut to the chase, what frequencies do I need to know and adjust?
Well there are no set rules as they will slightly differ between different models of guitar rigs but try this out:

Set your guitar and amplifier knobs to the 12 o'clock or mid way positions, dial in a medium distortion.

Now start off by doing what I said about rolling off 80Hz and 12 KHz – don't hear too much of a difference? Good! It's as much of a precautionary measure as it is a practical one and no matter what other adjustments you make or effects you apply you can leave the rolling off settings just like that!

Now dial up 150Hz - put that Q about half way (so that it also effects a band of frequencies around 150Hz – ideally you want to aim for the 100Hz to 200Hz range) now increase the dB by 4 – what do you hear? That's right the guitar sounds a bit fuller, now decrease the dB by 4, now it sounds a bit thinner. So far so good right? Not quite, you gotta keep in mind that bass player and drummer have a lot of power in this range, so if you over do it, you will end up squashing their sound and the audience will just hear a bunch of noise!

Now put the dB back to O and try another frequency, go to 800Hz and put the Q as high as it will go so that it will only effect the minimal amount of bandwidths, now decrease the dB by 6, all of a sudden your guitar sounds a little richer and that "cheap" sound is reduced! What a great way to get your "cash converters special" to sound half decent! – you almost never want to boost 800Hz it’s a dodgy guitar frequency.

Now go to 1.5 KHz, boost the dB by 4, now it starts to sound a bit crisper, decrease the dB by 4 and you will get a more subtle sound that might suit a melancholy guitar riff.

Now go to 3 KHz, give it a medium Q, and boost by 4dB, hear the clarity come across a bit better? But once again don’t over do this frequency, your vocalist needs a lot of space in the 3Khz range and if you do push it too much, nobody in the audience will be able to make out what the vocalist is saying unless the engineer is forced to turn you way down and him way up!

Now go to 5 KHz, boost this by 4dB with a medium Q, now its even brighter, turn it down by 4dB and you may get rid of some of the sharpness if you are using a cheaper guitar. This one also comes with a warning, most types of snares carry a lot of power in the 5 KHz range and the last thing you want is a non-descript sounding snare that doesn’t help to keep the groove of the song together!

Ok here's a breakdown for the muso’s who are more into playing killer riffs than reading:

*Roll of everything below 80Hz
*Roll of everything above 12 KHz

*Boost 150Hz, medium Q, +4dB to get a bit of fullness or
Cut 150Hz, medium Q, -4dB to thin it out a little bit

*Cut 800Hz, high Q, -6dB to get rid of the 'cheap sound'

*Boost 1.5 KHz, medium Q, +4dB to get a crisper sound or
Cut 1.5 KHz, medium Q, -4dB to make the sound a little more subtle

*Boost 3 KHz, medium Q, +4dB to get a little more clarity or
Cut 3 KHz, medium Q, -4dB to take a bit of the bite out

*Boost 5 KHz, medium Q, +4dB to add a little brightness
Cut 5 KHz, medium Q, -4dB to reduce the sharpness

Remember that these are just basic guidelines! Always be aware of what your band mates are doing with their EQ and don’t be afraid to ask them what settings they are using! Because at the end of the day a crappy band that plays with good EQ and equipment across the board will generally come across a lot better to the audience than a band that has killer riffs, beats and rhymes but crappy EQ and equipment setups!

Ok now what about my amp’s EQ?
Most have the Lo, Mid and High settings – this means that they have a low Q and effect fairly large bandwidths. This is where common sense kicks in (amps are designed to be user friendly but not always “audience” friendly), if you have used my tips and are fairly happy with your guitar sound and where it sits in relation to the other instruments in the band, don’t go cranking the lows so that you look more hardcore by getting the windows to rattle when you play a riff. Or convince yourself that the audience are screaming for you when you crank the highs, in reality they are probably screaming because their ears are bleeding. Everything you do with EQ should be subtle!! If you are tempted to turn any knob 100% clockwise or anti-clockwise then either there is a major problem with your equipment or you are going to have to figure out how to get laid without being in a band because quite frankly you have hearing problems!

So here is a tip use your amps EQ to accommodate for the room you are playing in, here are some examples:

Small boxy club – take out a little bit of the highs, a lot of the sound the audience will hear will be coming from the stage and since highs are very directional, you might be giving one group of people in the front serious headaches.

Large open hall – these sorts of places are serious mofo’s for engineers and for muso’s alike. Due to the amount of reverb, everything sounds a little messy, so this is when your aim should be clarity over power, pull out a little of the lows and give a little more in the highs.

Outdoor gigs – every time I’ve worked with a band who are playing their first large outdoor gig the reaction is the same – they feel like the guy who reckons he can be a porn star but when the director shouts action it just wont give him the power he’s used to! It’s simple; there aren’t any structures around to contain the sound so the sound just dissipates off in the distance. This is one of the few times where you get to add a little lo frequencies and hope the engineer is working with some kick ass bass bins since the low end is omni-directional and has as much power at the back of the stage where the roadies are smoking weed as it does in the front of the stage, eh, where the audience is smoking weed.

Does the cabinet or speakers in my amp affect my EQ?
Most definitely, once again common sense comes into play, don’t bother buying an 18inch speaker to run off your head unless you want people to look at you and go wtf? – they have two bassists and no guitarist! Use logic and look at the venues in your area, if they have fairly small stages and accommodate 200 audience members don’t get a 20W practice amp but don’t get 2 Marshall Stacks either. 100W amps with 12 inch speakers will get the job done, take up less space in the car, practise room and stage and will represent all the necessary guitar frequencies fairly accurately.(depending on the make and model)

Last tip is to run a cd player into your practice rig, stick on the CD player and play one of your favourite bands and listen to their guitar sound. Now plug in your guitar and see how close or far off you are. Make adjustments accordingly (you probably wont get it on the first try, but keep trying!) Do this enough times and eventually you will train your ears to hear exactly when you have the right guitar sound for your band!

- Dylan Ford producer at:

Serotonin Sound Studio

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