So simple, yet so potent: Your guitar’s volume control offers a vast palette of sonic colors.
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time
listening to Jeff Beck. He doesn’t know
this, but it’s been a one-way relationship of
pure joy. I’ve known for years what a monster
player he is and how he pretty much
transcends all other electric guitarists in
terms of the emotional range he can express
on his instrument.
I knew he plays with his fingers, rather
than a pick, and uses the volume control,
tone control, pickup selector, and whammy
bar in a uniquely interactive fashion to create
tones reminiscent of the human voice—crying, shouting, and a myriad of others.
I knew he uses a Strat, a Marshall, and a
handful of effects, which he judiciously
applies as required. But it has only been in
the last few months that I really started to
gain a deeper appreciation of the man and
his music. This realization occurred when I
decided to attempt to perform a few of his
tunes with a new trio here in New Zealand.
The idea of providing an in-depth dissection
of all the components that go into
Jeff Beck’s sound would require an essay
that extends far beyond the space available
in a State of the Stomp page. Then there’s
that pesky genius factor too—it’s tricky to
try and break that one down. (If anyone
knows how, be sure to let me know!)
For this column, I’m just going to look
at one facet of Beck’s sound: gain and how
he manipulates it with his guitar’s volume
knob. Let’s look at this with particular
attention to Beck’s tone on the Live at
Ronnie Scott’s DVD and album that came
out a few years ago.
The signal path—from your fingers
through to the speaker—is a series of gain
stages. Some of it you have control over,
including the guitar volume knob, overdrive
pedal, and amp input volume, and some you
do not, such as the number of preamp valves,
number of power tubes, etc. There’s a wealth
of information available online about the
specific pickups, strings, guitar, pedals, amp,
and speakers that Mr. Beck uses. For the
Ronnie Scott’s gig, this basically seems to be
a Fender Custom Shop Strat, a Klon Centaur
(apparently he shifted over to this from the
Pro Co Rat), some modulation effects (rotary
speaker, ring modulator, flanger), a rack
reverb (Lexicon), and a Marshall JTM45.
Beck’s right hand is a thing of wonder. So
is his left hand, but for the purposes of this
article, let’s stay focused on his right. Its fingers
pluck and snap the strings while simultaneously
operating the tremolo arm, the volume
and tone controls, and switching between
pickup settings. That’s one busy right hand!
Some guitarists operate with the guitar
volume set to maximum all the time.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but
should you wish to venture into adjusting
this control, well, the rewards are bountiful.
Beck uses the volume control to access
many different effects, from the obvious
volume swells used to create cello-like
tones, to manipulating it to access feedback
on certain notes, or simply dialing it back
(coupled with a much gentler right-hand
pluck) for cleaner, softer sounds. Beck’s volume
knob is one of the many ingredients
that blend together in a seamless mix of
technique in service of expression.
I cannot stress how rich the rewards
are for those who start to experiment with
guitar volume-knob settings. It’s the easiest
way to adjust your gain stage—so obvious,
yet so many folks seem to leave it alone.
When volume adjustments are coupled
with an effect, the sonic palette becomes
even more expansive.
For example, plug in a fuzz pedal and
adjust the gain level from your guitar. Wind
back the volume and the fuzz disappears.
Bring up the volume in increments and
you’ll find all sorts of tonal treats lurking
between the off and completely on
position. Your tone will vary too, due to
changes in resistance to ground that cause
frequencies to roll off. Some guitarists love
the warmth and wooliness that happens as
you roll down the volume control, but for
those of you who don’t, there’s an easy fix: a
treble-bleed capacitor. This allows the high-frequency
signal to pass out of the guitar as
the volume control is wound down. Some
folks swear by it, others can’t stand it—it’s
totally a matter of taste.
I have them in all my guitars—I like sparkles
in my sound (as well as rainbows and
laser beams and hermit dudes with wizard
wands standing on Scottish mountaintops).
For those interested in adding a treble-bleed
capacitor, visit the support section of
SeymourDuncan.com to find the schematics.
It’s a great mod that’s easily reversible
if you don’t like it, and it does open up a
whole lot of new possibilities. Go do it!
I realize that technically this month’s column
has not been about pedals. I’ve just been
reveling in the joy of JB’s playing and wanted
to talk with guitarists about it. I’ve never had
the pleasure of meeting the man, but I feel
indebted for all the beautiful music he has
shared with us. Those of you who have not
heard him, drop everything immediately and
check his music out. There’s a wealth of clips
on YouTube, plus he has released all his most
recent albums on glorious 180-gram vinyl.
Support the man!
designs Red Witch analog pedals, which are heard in arenas, studios, and bedrooms around the world. Andy Summers and Reeves Gabrels are pleased he ended up doing this instead of going to prison. His mum is relieved about this, too.