An equalizers can be a powerful tool for shaping your tone. A small nudge can do wonders but it’s easy to do more harm than good too. In this feature we’ll look at the importance of equalizers, how to use them and when.
Equalizers (EQ) are commonly used to alter or balance frequencies by either cutting or boosting. Depending on the equalizer unit, this could either be a specific frequency, like studio EQs or EQ pedals, or a frequency range, like the EQ controls on your guitar amplifier.
An EQ pedal, like the Boss GE-7 is active. This means that each filter or slider can both cut and boost the selected frequencies. In other words, each slider is a master volume for that specific frequency.
Almost all guitar amplifiers, with a very few exceptions, have a passive EQ. This can be a bit confusing because we usually think of 5 or noon as flat or neutral but 10 is actually flat. So when you turn the bass, treble and middle all the way up on your amp, you got a flat frequency response. Anything lower than 10 is cutting that frequency.
David Gilmour has been using EQ pedals in his live rig since the 1984 About Face tour. The Boss GE-7 has been his favoured EQ and during the 80s, 90s and 2000s his rig has featured several GE-7s assigned to different gain pedals for tone shaping and alteration. During the 2016-17 Rattle That Lock tour, the GE-7s was replaced by Source Audio Programmable EQs.
Obviously, all of his recorded guitars has been treated with some EQ for cutting and boosting certain frequencies to make the guitars sound just as he wants them and to make the guitar fit into the band mix. In addition to his amps, which also has the standard 3-band EQ, he’s also used different preamps, amps with active EQs and booster pedals.
Still, the Boss GE-7s has been a big part of his rig and tone since the mid 80s. If you look closely at the settings of these pedals though you can see that there is really not much going on. The sliders are cutting or boosting just a hair and, when assigned to the Tube Drivers, like on the last tour, the EQs are basically just balancing some of that slight harshness known to those pedals.
See the David Gilmour Album Gear Guide for more information on each album and tour.
The best way to learn how EQs work is to record your guitar. Doesn’t matter if its done with a fully mic’ed rig or with software. Use Garageband or whatever DAW you have available. There are tons of tutorials out there on how to do this but the important thing is that you spend some time getting the best tone possible from your guitar and record that.
Now, select a graphic EQ in your DAW (I’m using the built in Channel EQ in Apple’s Logic X). Play the recorded guitar (preferably a clean track, overdrive track and distortion track) and select one of the sliders or points and start dragging it around in the EQ. You will now easily hear how the tone is altered.
Next step is to use the available sliders to create a usable EQ for your guitar tones. There are no rules but in a band mix you don’t really want too much low end that will take up the space of the bass drum and bass guitar (0-200Hz). You probably want to cut some low rumbling around 250-350Hz and, if you have a lot of mid range in your recorded guitar, you probably want to cut around 600-700Hz as well.
Moving up, a guitar’s main frequency range or where you want to place the guitar in a mix, is around 1200-2500Hz. You might want to boost that a bit and, for a bit of high end sparkle and presence, boost around 4000-4500Hz and 7000Hz.
Mind though that apart from the low end, which you often want to cut entirely, you should only perform minor cuts and boosts preferably no more than 6dB. Anything more will seriously alter your tone and you might want to change the settings on your amp or pedal or placement of your mic instead.
The idea is that once you start recording your guitar and also mix that with other instruments, you’ll get an understanding of how to approach your amp, pedals and, if needed, your EQ pedal in a band situation. Which frequencies will make your guitar drown behind a bass or loud cymbals? What can you cut or boost to make your solo really stand out?
My approach is that I always make sure I have the best possible tone coming from the amp before I start fiddling with any pedals. Amps change depending on where you play. A small rehearsal studio can make any amp sound huge and you might even struggle with some low end but on a bigger stage, your amp can sound thin and struggle with cutting through the band mix.
Don’t be afraid to boost the mid range. It might sound a bit overwhelming if you listen to the guitar alone but that’s really where you want the guitar in the mix.
The bass and mids should be adjusted before you start tweaking the treble. We often boost treble when we feel that the guitar lack presence or sparkle but cutting the bass and boosting the mids, while keeping the treble fairly moderate, will solve the problem. Increasing the treble alone will only place it right behind the cymbals and keyboards, which is not what you want.
The EQs on your amp should be enough to make the big changes and provide the platform you need for your tones. The right amp settings will make your guitar and pedals sound more natural too. However, an EQ pedal allows you to make those small changes and adjust specific frequencies.
In most cases you want the EQ after your fuzz, distortion, overdrive and boost. Most of these pedals are often just equipped with a single tone control or maybe controls for bass and treble. Some pedals needs more bass, while others can do with a bit of high end roll off for getting rid of unwanted sizzle. This, as explained above, is also how David uses his EQs.
If space is an issue then combine a high gain overdrive, like the Fulltone OCD, with an EQ and add a bit of mid range and boost for your solos. That should eliminate a couple of pedals. Likewise, an EQ is also an excellent tool for adding a bit of boost and sparkle to your clean sounds. Or, for a bit of that red Stat EMG SPC humbuckerish tone, boost the 400Hz and 800Hz 4-5dBs.
A different approach is to have the EQ last on your pedalboard after all the modulations and delays. It will act as a master EQ that can either assist the amp with those difficult frequencies or, for sculpting the whole signal coming from your board. This goes back to the studio situation where you often roll off some lows and highs on the delays and reverbs to make space in the mix.
I rarely have EQ pedals in my rig. I feel that I can get the tones I need from my pickups, amps and pedals and whenever I do need more or less of anything, I often combine pedals, like stacking two overdrives or leaving a booster on as a basis for several tones.
EQ pedals should be used with care otherwise you can end up ruining a perfectly good tone or messing up an issue that easily could have been solved with the right amp settings. However, I do recommend having an EQ in the chain if you have several different sounding gain pedals or swap guitars frequently. That way you can have a more consistent set up and avoid having too many pedals in your chain.
Please comment below and share your thoughts and experience on the subject!