As much fun as it can be to rip up a new, sizzling solo in the middle of a live performance to flatter the crowd, flattery could be the sole ingredient that destroys the song. As nice as it sounds to crank your 63′ Bassman to achieve your “sweet spot” tone, roll the volume back to 3 and work for your tone. If you drench your clean tones in a lush plate reverb, bring the mix down in a large hall and save your note definition.
Many musicians today forget the basic principles of how sound travels when performing live, recording in a studio setting, or even during experimentation or creation of a song. Attention to tone, signal processing, and melody selection have plagued musicians from the beginning, but without a basic understanding of how these processes work, not only your sound, but your career can suffer. No matter how great of a musician you are or aspire to be, if your tone is undesirable (say, too bright, or too flat) the untrained ear will tell you that you are not as great as you believe yourself to be.
By understanding the way frequencies work, as well as a bit of ear training, you can achieve an incredible and even new sound from your instrument or amplifier with just the turning of a few knobs.
Frequency equalization is not the only problem that faces many players technically, but also the world of noise and decibel reduction. It’s true that a 100W Marshall Super Lead may sound beautiful against the rest of your live band setting, but remember, that your amp is not actually doing the amplifying. By using lower wattage amps (my rule of thumb is 30W or less) you can achieve a sweet overdriven or clean sound, at a MUCH lower volume. Not only will this make the sound guys happy, but your sound will be much clearer through the PA system and mix better with the band, in turn making you happy.
As much as I rant and praise effects and effects pedals, you must remember that signal processing is not everything. You will find that some songs will need delay during the bridge, or a flanger during the chorus, but sometimes, your best effect is not effects at all. A way to achieve this is my mixing your altered tone with your unprocessed signal, whether with a mix knob, or running your guitar into stereo amps, inputs, ect. Many guitar players (especially acoustic) run their signal into a DI on the floor and split it, running their clean tone into the board at the front of the house, while the other runs through their pedals, and subsequently their amplifier. These are just a few ways you can drastically change the presentation of your sound to the audience, and yourself, making you sound like a better musician, and therefore making you a better musician.
Don’t forget the room that you are playing in! The volume of your amps, effects, and amounts of gain, reverb, or other basic sound effects will need to be changed accordingly.
Last but not least, control your hands on stage. Learning when not* to play is the most critical thing a musician can learn other than basic theory. For example, the less busy a song is with guitar the clearer it will sound, giving the guitarist plenty of sonic room to build up to a dramatic climax, or solo. When soloing, packing as many notes as possible does not make you look any better than any other guitarist, and if anything makes you look amateur. Learning to slow down and take your time will drastically help you aid the band in a performance, rather than taking the wind out of the other musicians’ sails. Not playing notes in a solo or melody also aids in giving the piece more momentum, edge, suspense, or emotion, so think twice when you enter a solo on stage next time.