Electric Guitar Controls, What Do They Do? An Overview

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If you’re new to the electric guitar, you might be wondering about the various knobs and switches on your guitar. It’s really very straightforward once you know what they do.

The controls on your electric guitar are responsible for modifying its tone. Almost every electric guitar has some combination of volume control knobs, tone control knobs, and a pickup selector switch. This will vary depending on the type of guitar and the number of pickups.

Some electric guitars such as the Kramer Baretta will have just one volume control and one pickup, while others such as the Les Paul will have two volume controls, two tone controls, and a pickup selector switch. In addition, some guitars with humbucking pickups have push/pull knobs or a toggle switch to split the pickup, and access single-coil sounds.

The electric guitar controls are essential for creating different tones with your instrument. Once you know the basics, you’ll be able to navigate your way around the controls on any guitar and modify your tone to your liking. Today, we’ll start by taking a look at two classic electric guitars and their controls.

Gibson Les Paul Controls

The Gibson Les Paul (LP) has two humbucker pickups, and one volume and one tone control for each pickup. The LP also has a three-way pickup selector switch.

LP Pickup Selector

The three-way toggle switch on an LP guitar switches between the two humbucking pickups on the guitar. On a standard LP, you’ll see it labeled “rhythm” and “treble.” The rhythm position is the neck pickup on its own, and the treble position is the bridge pickup. The in-between position of the pickup selector is both pickups combined.

LP guitar controls
LP selector switch, Volume, and Tone knobs LP image via Reverb

The neck pickup is traditionally described as warmer and perhaps more mellow. It has a nice bluesy sound and can be used for rhythm playing, blues, and jazz. The bridge pickup has a much brighter sound and is often used for lead playing. Because it is brighter and has much more treble, it can cut through the mix as a lead sound. While the neck pickup has more bass, and might blend in more with a bass guitar or keyboard.

In the in-between position, the pickup selector blends both pickups. From there, you can adjust both the volume and tone for each pickup to achieve your desired sound. 

LP Tone Controls

Adjusting the tone controls reduces the treble or brightness of the pickup. Rolling back the tone of the neck pickup will give you a mellow jazz tone. And reducing the tone on the bridge pickup cuts out some of the treble which can be overpowering with certain lead sounds. 

LP Volume Controls

The volume controls reduce the output of the pickups, and can also cut some of the gain depending on how your amplifier is set up. With a tube amp, or a solid state amp with some gain or distortion, the volume control on your guitar can dial back the gain, cleaning up your sound. This can be useful if you have a one-channel amplifier.

Fender Stratocaster Controls

The Fender Strat is a different beast than the LP. Instead of two humbucking pickups, we have three single-coil pickups, one volume knob, two tone controls, and a five-way pickup selector switch. The principles are the same as with the LP, but the tones are very different. And the Strat has a unique sound in the second and fourth pickup positions unlike any other. We’ll start by looking at the pickup selector switch.

Strat 5-Way Selector Switch

The first, third, and fifth positions of the selector switch are the bridge, middle, and neck pickups respectively. The second and fourth positions blend the two. As with the LP, the bridge pickup is bright and used for lead tones, while the neck pickup has a warmer, bluesy sound to it. You can also get a great funk sound with the neck pickup. The middle pickup is somewhere between the two in its sonic characteristics, and is a great choice for rhythm or a punchy clean tone.

Strat guitar controls
Strat 5-Way Switch, Volume, and Tone Controls

In the second and fourth positions, the Strat produces a truly unique sound that you will recognize on recordings once you’ve heard it. Sometimes described at the “Strat quack,” this chimy, bell-like sound is used by the greats such as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, and SRV. 

Strat Tone Controls

The Strat tone controls are where things can sometimes be confusing. The upper tone control adjusts the neck pickup, and the lower tone control knob adjusts the middle pickup. Traditionally, the bridge pickup does not have a tone control. 

Many players, including myself, don’t use the bridge pickup alone because it is too bright and piercing. Some end up replacing the bridge pickup, or rewire the guitar to give the bridge pickup a tone control. 

Some Strat models such as the Player Series include a tone control for the bridge pickup, allowing players to dial back the ice-pick brightness. And if you have a humbucker in the bridge position, this will be less of an issue.

As with the LP, the tone controls are used to modify the sound, and blend the sound in positions two and four. The LP tone controls help you blend the sound in the middle position.

Strat Volume Control

The Strat has one volume knob, keeping things simple. It’s a master volume control for all pickups. Even though it’s just a humble volume knob, keep reading for an easy effect you can do with just a volume knob.

Other Electric Guitar Controls and Effects

Humbucker Pickup Split or Coil Tap Control

Some guitars equipped with humbucking pickups will have a push/pull coil split or coil tap control. Usually this is combined with the volume knob, but it can also be in the form of a small toggle switch. With the switch, you can split the humbucker pickup, and the tone will be something like a single-coil.

Coil splitting splits the humbucker which is essentially two single-coil pickups, and a coil tap reduces the output of the pickup. With this control, you have the versatility of a single-coil and a humbucker from the same pickup.

Volume Swell

You can achieve some interesting effects with just the controls on your electric guitar. A volume swell is something you can do with your volume knob. You get a subtle, audio fade-in by doing the following:

  • Turn the volume down to zero.
  • Play a note or strum a chord.
  • Steadily roll the volume knob up with your finger.
  • Try rolling it with the edge of your hand and pinky finger.
  • You can control the speed of the swell by how fast you roll the volume knob.

Through this technique, you hear the guitar tone, but don’t hear the initial attack (when your pick or fingers hit the strings). It can be useful for an atmospheric and ethereal sound.

Kill Switch

You can get some cool effects with a kill switch too. As you might imagine from the name of it, this completely cuts the guitar signal. You can see this on the Tom Morello custom Strat, and it’s how he gets some of the innovative sounds in his guitar solos.

Other Guitars

We talked about the Les Paul and the Stratocaster, but there are plenty of guitar models out there. Here are a few others and their unique controls.

Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar

The Fender Jazzmaster has an odd-looking set of controls on first glance. The vertical switch controls the circuit and changes between lead and rhythm settings. In the lead or down position, you have standard volume and tone control knobs for the pickups. And in the rhythm or up position, the top thumbwheel controls adjust the volume and tone. There is a standard three-way pickup selector switch on the Jazzmaster as well.

The Fender Jaguar has a similar set of controls to the Jazzmaster, and throws in on-off controls for each pickup, and a bass-cut switch. The Jaguar has a mechanical string mute lever as well.

Gibson ES and SG

The Gibson ES and SG Series have a very similar setup to the LP with two volume and two tone knobs, and a three-way pickup selector switch. If you are a Gibson player, you’ll feel right at home switching between different models.

Non-traditional and Modern

Given that electric guitars were invented long ago and the standard controls have not changed much, modern manufacturers have started to push the envelope of what’s possible. We now have guitars with built-in modeling and other advanced controls to modify the tone. 

Line 6 Shuriken Variax

The amp modeling pioneers at Line 6 have a different take on guitar controls. Along with  standard master volume and master tone knobs, the Shuriken Variax adds two additional control knobs to the guitar — a guitar model selector knob, and an alternate tuning knob. The five-way selector switch modifies the tone in other ways since there is only one pickup on the guitar.

Gyrock Guitar

The Gyrock guitar by Wild Customs is a guitar with rotating pickups! With three pickups in each of the two pickup slots, you have a wide variety of sounds available. The definitely pushes some boundaries and goes beyond your typical set of guitar controls.

Summary

To summarize, the controls on your guitar are responsible for modifying your guitar’s tone. Traditionally, electric guitars have volume and tone controls, and a pickup selector switch. Different guitar models may add or subtract from the available controls. Modern guitars may add modeling and effects, or other unique features to achieve different tones. But the standard set of controls has stood the test of time and may be all that you need.