Blues guitar players are famous for their no-frills approach to guitar tone. Yes, even in the eighties when everybody was bringing space-age technology in the shape of racks to every venue, blues masters always kept it simple.
This simplicity is possible because playing the blues is all about dialing in a great sound and pouring your heart through it. In this scenario, amp settings become more important. Furthermore, dialing in the right settings might be the golden ticket to bluesland.
In this article, I’m going to cover the best amp settings to play killer blues with the right tone. Moreover, I’m going to go deep into the tone of BB King, one of the three royal bluesmen in history.
Are you ready to play the blues? Well, let’s paint that amp blue!
Table of Contents
- Amp Settings to Play the Blues
- BB King Amp Settings
Amp Settings to Play the Blues
I’m about to address the ways you can dial your amp to get a blues-friendly tone. Bear in mind that other factors such as the guitar you’re using, the pedals, and the amp you have at your disposal affect tone.
That being said, if you apply the advice in this article and tweak them to match your equipment, you’ll be sounding like your blues heroes in no time.
Let’s do this!
It’s All in the Mids, Sonny Boy (and a Little Treble Too)
The first thing you need to know is that blues guitar playing is all in the mids. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, the low end is great, but the midrange is the guitar’s lair, it is where the instrument shines the most. Therefore, to cut through the mix of a blues band, you need to emphasize the mids.
The other thing that you need to emphasize to make those lines sing is the treble or high frequency. This is because the mids will push the sound forward and the treble will add that definition you need to make every bend an epic moment of the show.
So, summing up, your amplifier knobs should go:
- Middle: 6-9
- Treble: 5-8
- Presence: 7
Understanding the “Presence” Control
I listed the “Presence” control above. This is not a knob that’s in every amplifier, but if it’s available in yours, it can bring beautiful nuances to your tone.
What the presence control does is boost the upper mid-range and treble frequencies. Unlike the EQ controls in your amp that are subtractive (they don’t boost the signal, they control the level of frequency removed from the signal), the presence control can actively boost those frequencies.
This can help you drastically in having a guitar tone that’s closer to your blues heroes.
Just experiment with it until you find the knob’s sweet spot on your amp. I suggest you set it at 7.
Finally, for more about the presence knob, check out this great article by Fender.
Keep the Low Frequencies Tamed
Although warmth is frequently associated with the blues, the low frequencies can bring unwanted muddiness to your signal. Therefore, you need to take those frequencies away from the final mix. How do you do that? Very simple; just lower the “bass” knob down to 3.
Since it is a subtractive knob, the unwanted lows will go away and your guitar shall be singing every note you play.
Also, fretting-hand vibrato is more noticeable without the low frequencies.
Your Volume Pot is the Answer
The EQ knobs on your amp are great to shape your guitar’s tone, but other characteristics of it come from the interplay between gain stages and volume.
As you might know, amps, and especially tube amps, tend to overdrive as you crank them. Furthermore, the louder you set them, the more they will distort.
The great trick that many of the greatest blues players of all time have used on countless occasions is to put the amp’s volume above 7 and use the guitar’s volume knob to lower gain.
Why do they do this when you can simply use a guitar pedal?
Well, the reason is that a cranked amplifier sounds more compressed, bigger, and offers more sustain. Those characteristics remain untouched as you roll your guitar’s volume knob down to 5, for example.
That way, when it’s time for a solo, you can just use your volume knob to increase overall gain and volume.
So, let’s complete your amplifier’s knob settings to play the blues:
- Bass – 3
- Middle – 6 to 9
- Treble – 6 to 8
- Presence – 7
- Gain/Drive – 3 to 6
- Volume – 5 to 8
What Channel Should I Use on My 2-Channel Amp?
Those who own or play a 2-channel amp or a solid-state amp (which doesn’t overdrive like a tube amp when pushed), need to get the gain from somewhere else rather than volume.
Therefore, use the dirty channel on your amp with the controls cited above and try rolling your guitar’s volume down until they clean up. Your tone should be crunchy but not dirty.
BB King Amp Settings
What were the settings of one of the most revered bluesmen in history?
The answer to that question is the values you can see above for each of the knobs.
Yet, that’s not the only ingredient you need to sound like this legend. Join me, as I go deep into BB’s setup.
Read on and take note!
What Amps Did BB Use?
According to fans, techs, friends, and colleagues, BB King played Twin Reverbs throughout the early years of his career. Then, he moved on to playing solid-state amps. Yes, this blues legend relied on a 2×12 Lab Series L5 that was made by Gibson back in the day.
This is a very loud, punchy, and clean amplifier that BB used to get his bigger-than-life tone. The bad news is that it has long been discontinued.
The good news, though, is that Fender now makes an equally-powerful solid-state version of their famous Twin Reverbs called Tone Master that can be the perfect replacement for the L5.
There were no pedals between the guitar and the amp, BB set the Vari-Tone on his guitar to the second position and used the volume knob as well as his right hand to control dynamics.
Finally, BB King added the built-in reverb to thicken up the tone keeping the knob between 1 and 3.
Headroom is the Name of the Game
Headroom is a term used to describe how loud an amp can get before distorting. This is vital to BB’s tone since most of his phrasing is almost clean, snappy, and punchy, and has some of that trademark vibrato.
Yes, cranking up the amp with lots of drive would make those lines disappear in the mix of a loud band. Yet, if you play them clean and boost the mids, they will cut right through.
Finally, you can always bring in more gain to the mix cranking the volume control on your guitar.
Push for Overdrive
Talking about bringing more gain to the mix, once you crank the volume knob, you can always dig in harder with your picking hand to make your amplifier overdrive.
BB King was very famous for using hard, small picks and hitting really hard or really mellow.
For example, if you go full-on with bends (especially two-string bends) you’ll be taking your amp to howl mode without doing much with the controls.
So, use your hands and guitar controls to engage dynamics and keep your audience hooked to your playing.
The Bottom Line
The blues is all about feeling. The feeling doesn’t even come from your hands, it comes from within.
Then, what’s the point of chasing tone or learning how to play?
Well, consider scales, notes, and chords as the vocabulary to express your feelings and tone as the quality of your voice.
Working on those can open up a clear, ear-friendly path from your feelings to those of your audience. That is the magic of music wherever you are; you can help others heal, have fun, or fall in love.
You have a powerful tool in your hands, use it wisely, and let your music touch everybody’s heart.
Happy blues playing!