Your Electric Guitar Controls: What Do They Do?

Understanding Your Electric Guitar

When I’m teaching guitar lessons in Portland, my students sometimes ask: “what do my electric guitar controls do?”

Fear not! Your electric guitar controls aren’t that complex. Once you figure out what they do, you’ll have a lot more control over your overall guitar sound.

There are quite a few different styles of guitars out there, but a majority of the electric guitars I see when teaching guitar lessons follow one of two layout schemes when it comes to controls: Gibson or Stratocaster.

Gibson-style Electric Guitar Controls

jimmy page with les paul If your guitar has four knobs, and a three-way switch, then it probably has Gibson-style controls, as pictured in this photo of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. So, what do they do?

The switch is used to switch between the guitar’s pickups. If you don’t know what pickups are, they’re those rectangular things that sit beneath the strings on the front of your electric guitar. They turn the movement of your guitar strings into electricity. The amplifier turns that electricity into sound.

If your electric guitar has a standard Gibson-style layout, it has two pickups.

The one closest to the bridge (sometimes called the “lead” pickup) has a sharper, more cutting sound. It’s designed to be heard above the band when it’s your turn to solo.

The one closest to the neck (sometimes referred to as the “rhythm” pickup) has a mellower sound. It’s just the thing when you want your chords to blend into the mix.

Of course, these aren’t unbreakable rules. I personally play just about everything using my neck pickup. Other guitarists rely on their bridge pickups for rhythm and lead. It’s up to you. Trust your ears.

Anyway, back to the pickup selector switch.

If you move it to the highest point, you’ll hear the output of the neck pickup. At the other end, you’re hearing just the bridge pickup. Placing the switch at the halfway point will blend the two pickups, which can sound really cool.

OK, so what about those knobs? Well, the two on the lefthand side in this picture control the volume and tone of the neck (or rhythm) pickup. The two on the right adjust the volume and tone of the bridge (or lead) pickup.

What’s tone, you ask? For our purposes, think of it as a brightness control. High tone settings offer a bright, crisp sound. Lower settings sound a bit more muffled; picture putting your amplifier under a heavy blanket.

Stratocaster-style Electric Guitar Controls

jimi hendrixIf your guitar has three pickups, three knobs, and a five-way selector switch, then it probably has a Stratocaster-style control layout.

First, let’s start with the switch. Like the Gibson-style switch, the Stratocaster’s is used to select between different pickups and combinations thereof. In this picture of Jimi Hendrix and his Stratocaster, the switch is just above the knobs. It’s a little hard to see because of the white pickguard, but if you have this type of guitar, you’ll have no trouble finding it on your own instrument.

Anyway, as the Strat-style guitars have three pickups, the selector switch works like this: all the way to the left (relative to the Jimi pic) would limit the guitar’s output to the sound of the neck pickup. One position to the right will blend the neck pickup with the middle pickup. Put the switch in the middle, and you’ll get just the sound of the middle pickup, as you may have guessed. The next position will blend the middle and bridge pickups, and all the way to the right, it’s all bridge pickup.

The knobs on a strat style guitar are a bit more limited than what you’ll find on a Gibson. The knob on the left controls the overall volume of the guitar. The next knob to the right controls the tone of the neck pickup, and the third knob controls the tone of the middle pickup.

As you may have noticed, there’s no tone control for the bridge pickup. Generally, you want the bridge pickup to sound pretty brassy, but some Strat players modify their guitars to gain control over the tone of the bridge pickup.

 Portland Guitar Lessons!

I hope this article helped you understand your electric guitar better. Knowing what your guitar’s knobs and switch do will definitely help you get the most out of your guitar.

Of course, if you really want to sound great, you should work on improving your guitar playing skills! There’s nothing like guitar lessons to help you do that.

If you’re looking for Portland guitar lessons, then we at Learn Guitar PDX would love to be your guitar teachers.

Get in touch to schedule a free intro guitar lesson today!