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What does it take to dial in really smooth, blues amp settings?
I mean like a solid, soulful groove that draws out every note and makes you want to scrunch up your face like Jonny Lang always seems to be doing.
For one, it takes the right type of gear.
What you’ll need (what I used)
- Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal (or similar alternative)
- Line 6 Spider IV 150-Watt Modeling Amp
- Amplitube 4 (for amp models)
Because the blues tone isn’t just a less saturated distortion pedal. It’s a delicate combination of guitar, effects and amplification.
To truly emulate it, a full compliment of quality gear will help the cause a lot.
That being said, there is only one piece of gear that we’re focusing on specifically for this article.
The Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal.
If you don’t have one, click through the Amazon link and browse the used options, as they often go for around $30 or less.
Otherwise, you can use whatever distortion pedal you have.
Just be aware that we’re developing the settings to work with the DS-1 specifically.
We’ll cover how to use this pedal to create a blues guitar sound, and also provide some optimal amp settings to accompany.
The Traits of a Blues Tone
A bluesy guitar sound is loosely characterized by the following things.
- Distortion with light saturation
- Bright, with higher treble and mids
- High presence
Blues guitar is often nearly as prominent as a lead vocalist. Since a lot of the melody in blues is handled by a lead guitarist, their tone and amp configuration should be noticeable enough to penetrate the song, but not so loud that it distracts.
Higher presence (and perhaps higher volume) to emphasize a bright or “high” tone and a moderate amount of distortion is usually the best way to accomplish this.
That’s where you’ll want to start, and it primarily concerns your amplifier.
Blues Amp Settings
But if we’re to get specific, what exactly should our amp settings look like?
I experimented with a few different configurations, finding that generally low bass, and medium to high treble and mid cuts worked the best.
Here are a few configurations I would recommend experimenting with.
MASTER VOLUME: 5 / TREBLE: 7 / BASS: 5 / MID: 6 / GAIN: 0
MASTER VOLUME: 5 / TREBLE: 4 / BASS: 2.5 / MID: 6.5 / GAIN: 3
MASTER VOLUME: 5 / TREBLE: 4 / BASS: 3 / MID: 5 / GAIN: 3 / REVERB: 3
MASTER VOLUME: 5 / TREBLE: 7 / BASS: 2.5 / MID: 6 / GAIN: 3 / REVERB: 5
You can add reverb at your own discretion. I found it to work better with lower gain settings or without any distortion at all.
Whatever variation you choose, keep in mind that you want mids and treble high enough that you get that extra “bite” and bluesy siren quality, but not so high that you’re compromising good tone. Blues guitar walks a line between having some higher tonal qualities while also sounding thick and full.
Particularly with your treble tuner, don’t push it so high that you’re losing a full sound.
Boss DS-1 Pedal Settings
Add the DS-1 after you’ve got your amp figured out and you’re happy with the clean signal.
Start with all three dials at 12 o’clock, just to give yourself a jumping off point.
12 o’clock Dials
Personally, I wasn’t happy with that on my rig. It didn’t sound bluesy as much as it sounded like a flat punk-rock overdrive. That’s not to say you’ll hear the same thing, but for my setup, the 12 o’clock strategy left a lot to be desired.
Keep in mind that your level of happiness with the tone is largely subjective. So if you just like the sound you’re hearing, that should count for something regardless of where the dials are set.
High Gain (Dist) Dials
Some blues players use more distortion than others.
Jonny Lang, Maragold and Henrik Freischlader are all on the heavier side of the blues spectrum and will typically use higher gain settings.
To get this sound with the DS-1, your first move should be to turn the DIST knob up to around 3 o’clock. Do the same with the LEVEL knob.
Moving the TONE knob past 1 o’clock just sounded too scratchy to to me.
Tweak that one at your own discretion.
Low Gain Dials
This pedal really seemed to excel and give off a warm, blues tone (think Eric Johnson) whenever I had the DIST knob turned down, emulating a smoother, slightly distorted signal.
Simply cut the TONE and LEVEL knobs back to 12 o’clock and set the DIST knob around 9 o’clock.
I found that cutting the LEVEL or TONE back too far made the sound muddy, like when you have the tone knob on your guitar turned all the way down.
A good approach with this pedal would be to find your “sweet spot” with the TONE and LEVEL knob, then use the DIST to bounce back and forth between a light and heavy distortion sound. It makes your tone a little more consistent and requires less adjusting on your part.
A good blues tone is more closely linked to the quality of your guitar, as opposed to the brand.
Most of today’s guitars are versatile enough in their sound to cover a variety of different tones and genres fairly accurately. Guitars that meld uniquely well with blues would include the Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster and the Epiphone Hollow Body models, to name a few.
Otherwise, it’s about what you’re willing to spend.
Cheap guitars sound cheap. There’s no way around that, whether you’re going for a blues tone or otherwise.
It’s not going to sound great if your guitar retailed for $100.
Those who started out on a cheap guitar and then purchased something nicer know what I mean.
The difference is tremendous and the sound quality simply doesn’t compare.
So if you’re determined to get the perfect blues tone for your guitar, I’d highly recommend investing in a quality instrument.
With amplifiers the issues is once again, quality more than brand.
Small tube amps are also fantastic for getting that smooth, bluesy warmth, and they don’t cost much.
If you aren’t getting a tone that you’re happy with, do some tweaking and some experimenting. Everybody’s rig is different, so it’s difficult to make broad assumptions about certain amplifiers and gear.
When it comes to your amp, it’s worth paying for quality and being willing to patiently work with the settings.
The settings I provided earlier are a good place to start.
Got settings, ideas or thoughts to share?
Like I said, getting a great blues tone is going to be slightly different depending on which rig you’re dealing with and what kind of player you are.
Share your experience and if you know something we don’t (highly probable) we want to hear about it.
Could you use more gear help?
Producing “great tone” is a worthy pursuit, but not always an obvious one.
We all own a unique collection of gear that seems to sound different all the time. That’s normal, but still something we need to learn to deal with.
We need to learn our gear.
If you want to access some resources that will help dealing with a specific tonal pursuit, piece of gear or other questions related to your rig, I’d recommend giving Guitar Tricks 14-day free trial a test run - there’s no obligations and you’ve got nothing to lose - except two free weeks of one of the most comprehensive and thorough guitar education websites in existence.
You’ll learn a lot and get access to a number of other resources that all guitarists can benefit from.