Equalization, more commonly referred to as EQ, is an essential part of tone sculpting and music production.
Essentially, an EQ is a filter that allows you to boost or cut certain frequencies in your guitar signal. EQs usually have a set of sliders / knobs, each targeting a specific frequency band. Often, EQs also feature controls for other parameters that are used to fine-tune the overall sound.
By boosting or filtering out frequencies, you can sculpt the texture of your tone down to the finest detail.
For example, boosting high frequencies will increase the brightness and articulation, while filtering out low frequencies will result in a thinner, more focused sound.
Understanding how to EQ a guitar is crucial for any guitarist or music producer. It will help you craft a well balanced tone that stands out without overpowering other elements in the mix.
EQ is used in practically every genre of music. Whether you’re going for a clean smooth jazz sound or gritty high-gain for metal, EQ can make a world of a difference to your sound.
In this article, we’ll go over the basic principles of EQing an electric guitar. We'll explore how different EQ settings can enhance various tonal qualities and give practical examples that will help you sculpt your sound for any musical style.
The basics of EQ
Before diving into EQ techniques for guitars, it’s important to start with a few basic concepts.
A key aspect is understanding the role frequencies play in defining the sound of an electric guitar. In standard tuning, a guitar's strings resonate at fundamental frequencies: E2 (77 Hz), A2 (103 Hz), D3 (138 Hz), G3 (185 Hz), B3 (233 Hz), and E4 (311 Hz). These frequencies give us an initial understanding of the frequency range produced by the guitar when playing open strings.
However, that doesn’t mean that no sounds above those frequencies will be produced. Electric guitars also produce harmonics and overtones which can reach up to 15 kHz. Nonetheless, a guitar's frequency range typically spans from about 77 Hz up to around 5 kHz.
Elements like the body of the guitar, the amp and cabinet you’re using, and effects in the signal chain can add overtones and widen the range of frequencies your guitar produces.
The second principle that’s important to note is that frequencies are commonly categorized into three primary bands: low, mid, and high. With an EQ, you can manipulate these bands to achieve different tonal qualities:
Low frequencies range from 20Hz to around 250Hz. This range provides depth and warmth to your sound but can also bring noise and rumble into your guitar tone.
Mid frequencies range from 250Hz up to 4kHz. Mid frequencies are where the main character of your guitar's sound lies, carrying the key details of each note. Thus, this range is vital for defining your guitar's overall tone. However, this band can also make your guitar sound boxy.
High frequencies range from around 4kHz up to 20kHz. This range enhances clarity, brightness, and overtones produced by any distortion in your tone. Too much high frequency can make your tone sound harsh or brittle.
Practical EQ techniques for electric guitars
While each genre, guitar, rig, song, and even guitarist may require different EQ setups, certain moves serve as a good starting point for shaping your tone.
For the low frequencies, it is usually beneficial to cut anything below 70Hz. This helps reduce muddiness and unwanted low-end rumble, especially when excessive bass frequencies clash with other instruments in the mix.
However, boosting around 80Hz can enhance the depth and warmth of your tone. Be gentle with this move since boosting it too much can lead to clashes for the low end space in the mix.
As mentioned earlier, the mids contain the primary information of the notes produced by a guitar, so it’s where the leading tone will come from. Boosting around 800Hz will enhance clarity, but be careful since frequencies between 500hz and 1kHz can make your guitar sound boxy.
Boosting the high frequencies will add sparkle and brightness to your tone. A boost at around 5kHz can enhance articulation and presence without sounding too harsh.
Reducing frequencies above 10kHz can mitigate excessive harshness in your tone. This is especially helpful when working with clean tones since it helps to reduce the inherent buzziness they often have.
Guitar EQ cheat sheet
EQ settings for electric guitar
With a foundational understanding of EQing electric guitars, let's dive into EQ settings tailored for different musical styles.
Clean tones for pop or jazz
Enhance the warmth by boosting around 80Hz (+2 to +4 dB).
Apply a subtle boost at 800Hz (+1 to +3 dB) to enrich the tone.
Introduce a bit of sparkle by adding a slight boost around 6kHz (+1 to +2 dB), enhancing the upper-end clarity.
Classic rock distortion (70s and 80s style)
Add depth to your sound with a light boost at 100Hz (+2 to +4 dB).
Reduce some of the muddiness by cutting slightly at 400Hz (-2 to -3 dB).
Accentuate the edginess and bite by boosting significantly around 3kHz (+3 to +6 dB).
High-gain tones for metal
For a robust low-end, moderately boost between 80Hz and 100Hz (+3 to +5 dB).
Clear out muddiness and focus the sound by cutting in the 250Hz to 500Hz range (-3 to -5 dB).
Increase the aggressiveness in rhythm parts with a boost around 3kHz (+3 to +5 dB).
For lead sections, enhance sharpness and clarity with a substantial boost at 5kHz (+4 to +6 dB).
These settings offer a starting point for shaping your guitar tone in various genres. Remember, the best EQ settings depend on your specific guitar, amp, and the overall mix of the track.
Additional tips for EQing an electric guitar
Use subtractive EQ
Instead of constantly boosting frequencies, try cutting first. You may realize that all you needed was to remove specific frequencies to get the tone you were after.
Listen and experiment
Trust your ears and make subtle adjustments while constantly listening to the changes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with substantial boosts or cuts to different bands.
Consider the mix
EQ settings should complement the entire mix, not just the isolated guitar sound. Listen to the rest of the elements while dialing in your EQ and think about the guitar's purpose in each section of the song.
EQs in Neural DSP guitar plugins
Because of the importance of EQ in tone shaping, all Neural DSP guitar plugins feature either a 9-band graphic or 4-band semi-parametric EQ for total control over frequency response.
All of our plugins come bundled with hundreds of presets made by top artists and producers. The presets demonstrate various ways EQ can be used when crafting guitar tones. Use the presets as starting points when shaping your own tone.
The 4-band semi-parametric equalizer featured in Archetype: Petrucci.
Understanding the basics of EQ is a fundamental skill for any guitarist or producer that works with guitars. EQ is a powerful tool for shaping the tonal characteristics and ensuring the guitar’s sit perfectly within the mix.
Experimentation, practice, and a keen ear for subtle nuances will help you master EQ and help you get the tone you’re looking for in your recordings and performances. Always trust your instincts. The right settings are the ones that work for your unique sound and playing style. Like with everything related to tone, there is no “right or wrong way” to approach things.
For more information on guitar effects in general, browse through our catalog of over 70 high-quality guitar effects across our diverse range of guitar plugins. We also have articles on recording electric guitar and using guitar plugins live.
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