Two of the most useful, but forgotten tone shaping tools you have as a guitarist are located right at your fingertips… literally. They’re your tone and volume knobs, and if you don’t use them much, read on!
First, your guitar’s volume knob does more than evenly change your volume output… it also shapes your sound. To understand how it works, grab your guitar, turn the volume knob all the way up, and give yourself some overdrive. Now slowly turn the volume knob down and listen to what happens. What you should notice is your tone will change… specifically, your overdriven sound will clean up. Imagine the possibiliies! For instance, you could back yourself down into a cleaner tone when in a song’s verse, then crank it back up for a driving chorus. Next time you go to a concert where a great guitarist is playing, watch him or her. Chances are they’ll be using their volume knob quite a bit within their set.
Next come your tone knobs. Leaving them full up can leave you sounding thin and shrill. When setting up my tone knobs, I usually start with a clean amp sound and back them down a little… taking some of the brittleness out of my sound. I also use them to create specific tones for songs. For example, if I turn the tone knob most of the way down, add analog delay, and my guitar becomes a pad instrument. Doubled with wah, (See the “Using Wah as an Ambient Effect” article,) I can create some useful textural sounds. (Turning your tone knob down is an essential part of creating some jazz guitar tones.)
Give it a try in your own playing, and tell me how it works out!