What are the knobs and switches on a guitar for? Control your instrument

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 9, 2022

Always the latest guitar gear & tricks?

Subscribe to THE newsletter for aspiring guitarists

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

Most people don’t know what the knobs and switches on their guitars are for. They’re easy to spot, but you can’t just start turning them without knowing what they do as this can distort your sound!

Do you want to learn more about the knobs and switches on your guitar?

A guitar has a lot of knobs and switches on it, and at first, they can be a little confusing. But once you know what each one does, you can use them to control the sound of your guitar in all sorts of exciting ways.

What are the knobs and switches on a guitar for? Control your instrument

The knobs and switches on a guitar can be used to control different aspects of the sound of your guitar, from the tone to the volume of the output, to the selection of which pickup to use to capture the sound coming from the strings.

Electric guitars and acoustic electrics have knobs on the front or side of the instrument to control the sound that’s coming through the output jack and into your amp, whereas acoustic guitars only have tuning pegs on the headstock, but no one refers to those as “knobs”.

So purely acoustic guitars don’t have knobs, while electro-acoustic instruments do.

I’m here to show you what each knob and switch does so that you can start getting the most out of your guitar playing!

What are the knobs and switches on a guitar for?

The knobs and switches can be used to control different aspects of the sound of your guitar, from the tone to the volume and selection of which pickup picks up the vibration of the strings.

Best strings for electric guitar x
Best strings for electric guitar

Pickup switches for switching between the neck and bridge pickups, volume knobs, and tone knobs are all included in the guitar’s control panel, which can be used to fine-tune the guitar’s tone.

The volume and tone controls are very important because they allow you to control the sound of your guitar.

The pickup selector switch is also important because it allows you to choose which set of strings will be amplified.

Here are the top 3 guitar knobs explained simply:

Now that you know some information about knobs and switches let’s look at them in more detail, and I’ll explain what each one is for and what it does.

Tone knobs

The guitar tone knobs are usually located on the guitar body near the bottom, either on the pickguard (stratocaster style guitars) or the body itself (Les Paul style guitars).

The tone knob controls the high and low frequencies that come out of your guitar.

A brighter tone is good for soloing, and a darker tone is good for rhythm playing.

I’ll let you in on a little secret though: most guitar players hardly ever touch these and use the pickup selector switch to switch from bridge to neck pickup to achieve these differences in tone.

Overall, this tone knob is used to adjust the treble or high frequencies in the sound.

Volume knobs

The volume knob is probably the most important knob on your guitar. Volume knobs control how loud your guitar is.

When you turn it down, your sound gets softer and when you turn it up, your sound gets louder.

The volume on a guitar actually doesn’t just turn down the volume, but it controls how much Db the output signal has.

This is important to know because it also affects how much gain and distortion you get from other elements in your signal chain, like your effect pedals and amp.

You can also use the volume knob to create a distorted sound by turning it up high and then playing with a lot of distortion and then turning it down to get a cleaner sound, even with the same effects setup.

A lot of more advanced players use this technique to create a different lead tone from their rhythm tone, or even add differences of soft and harder passages within their solos.

Pick-up selector switch

The most common switch is the pickup selector switch, which allows you to choose which pickups (the magnets that pick up the vibration of the strings) are active.

This can be used to change the sound of your guitar, depending on which pickups are selected.

3-way pickup selector

The pickup switch is most often a 3-way switch that allows you to select between the neck and bridge pickups.

  1. The neck pickup is the one closest to the guitar neck. It’s usually a warmer-sounding pickup that’s good for soloing.
  2. The bridge pickup is the one closest to the guitar bridge. It’s usually a brighter-sounding pickup that’s good for rhythm playing.
  3. The middle setting will select both simultaneously

Most guitars have two pickups, but some have more. For example, the Fender Stratocaster has three pickups.

5-way pickup selector

The 5-way pickup selector gives you more options to control your sound as is almost always installed in a guitar with 3 pickups.

You can get these settings with a 5-way switch:

  1. just the neck pickup
  2. neck and middle pickups
  3. just the middle pickup
  4. middle and bridge pickups
  5. just the bridge pickup

Also read: Best Strings for Electric Guitar: Brands & String Gauge

Two-knob vs. three-knob vs. four-knob setup

Different guitars have different knob designs and layouts and a different number of knobs.

The three-knob setup is the most common setup on electric guitars. It includes a volume knob, two tone knobs, plus a pickup selector switch.

Here are the most popular ones:

  1. The first knob is usually the volume knob, which allows you to control how loud your guitar sounds.
  2. The second knob is typically the tone knob, which allows you to control the overall sound of your guitar.
  3. The third knob is usually a tone knob as well and controls the tone for the second pickup
  4. The fourth knob, if your guitar has one, is the volume for the second pickup

Other knobs and switches you might find

Tone switch

Another common type of switch is the guitar tone switch. This switch allows you to change the sound of your guitar by changing the way the tone knob affects the sound.

For example, you could use the tone switch to make your guitar sound brighter when you turn the tone knob up, or darker when you turn it down.

A switch for tone is something you’d find on a Fender Jazzmaster, to switch between a rhythm and a lead sound quickly. But it’s not really common on other types of guitars.

Piezo pickup selector

Some electric guitars come with a piezo pickup installed in the bridge. A separate switch could be located near the other switches to turn it on, off, or sometimes on with the magnetic pickups at the same time.

An extra volume and tone knob may be installed as well to control these for the piezo separately.

Kill switch

Finally, we have the kill switch. This switch is used to turn off your guitar’s sound completely. This can be useful if you want to quickly stop playing without having to unplug your guitar.

Not many guitars have this but I have seen it. The way most guitarist use this tactic though, is by turning down the volume of one pickup of their guitar and using the pickup selector switch to select that pickup.

This can create some really nice sound effects as well as cutting and enabling your sound very rapidly to the beat of the music can sound quite interesting.

You have to have isolated controlled volume knobs on your guitar for this though.

Master controllers vs isolated controllers

I want to discuss the types of controls you’ll find on guitars.

When you are looking for a new guitar, you might come across two different types of guitars: those with master controllers and those without.

Master controllers allow you to control all the aspects of your sound with one knob. For example, the volume knob controls the volume for all of the pickups.

The Stratocaster guitar is a good example of a master volume controlled guitar.

The stratocaster has a master controlled volume but isolated controlled tone knobs. A lot of Ibanez guitars also have the tone knob master controlled so you’ll only find two dial knobs on those.

Isolated controllers allow you to control one aspect of your sound at a time.

For example, you would have to use two different knobs to control the volume and the tone for each of the pickups separately.

The Les Paul is a good example of a fully isolated controlled guitar with both volume and tone controls for each pickup.

Some guitarists prefer master controllers because they find it easier to get the sound they want with one knob. Other guitarists prefer isolated controllers because they find it easier to control each aspect of their sound separately.

It really comes down to personal preference and your playing style and using your pickup selector as a killswitch is only possible when you have the isolated volume knobs for example.

It also allows you to switch between a lead and a rhythm sound more easily if you always use one pickup for each tone.

Push-pull guitar knobs

Some guitar have an extra feature built-in with the use of a push-pull button. This is actually one of the volume or tone knobs that you can pull up or push done a little to select an extra feature.

Find the 5 best fanned fret multiscale guitars reviewed here (with 6, 7 & 8-strings)

How do I use the knobs and switches on my guitar?

Now that you know what each knob and switch does, you can start experimenting with different sounds.

For example, if you want a louder, more distorted sound, you can turn up the volume knob. If you want a softer sound, you can turn down the volume knob, even mid-solo!

If you want higher frequencies, you can turn up the tone knob. If you want to cut that band for your accompaniment, you can turn down the tone knob.

You can also use the pick-up selector switch to choose which pickup you’re using. A lot of guitarists use the neck for rhythm and the bridge for solos because it cuts through the mix a little more.

I like to use the neck pickup for soloing higher up the neck and the neck pickup for notes closer to the nut because it softens some of the highest notes to where it doesn’t squeal as much.

It’s really a journey of discovery when you play electric guitar. You’ll have to experiment with the knobs and switches to achieve the perfect sound for your musical endeavors.

Also read: Here’s a full guide on how to tune an electric guitar

Where are the knobs and switches located on a guitar?

The knobs and switches are located on the body of the guitar.

They look like small knobs you can turn. Their exact position on the guitar body depends on the guitar model. They can be close together or located in different areas of the guitar.

For example, the Fender Stratocaster has three control knobs:

The Les Paul guitars have similar knobs and switches and they’re usually in a square pattern.

What are the knobs on an acoustic-electric guitar?

You’ll notice a difference between the acoustic-electric and full electric guitar. The acoustic-electric guitar’s knobs are located at the side of the instrument’s body.

The volume and tone knobs on an acoustic-electric guitar are pretty self-explanatory.

The volume knob controls how loud the sound coming out of the guitar is, and the tone knob adjusts the EQ or how trebly or bassy the sound is.

Sometimes an acoustic electric guitar will have a full EQ section on the side instead of just a tone knob to be able to change the color of the sound using separate switches for up to 4 bands.

But what do all those other little knobs and switches do?

Some acoustic-electric guitars have a three-way pickup selector switch. This switch allows you to choose which guitar pickups you want to use.

For example,

EQ knobs are also common on acoustic-electric guitars. These knobs allow you to boost or cut specific frequencies in the sound.

For example, you might want to cut the low frequencies to reduce feedback or boost the high frequencies to make your guitar sound brighter.

These guitars also have a tuner built into them. The tuner helps you keep your guitar in tune by displaying what note you are playing.

It is essential to keep your guitar in tune to sound good when you play it.

The last knob on an acoustic-electric guitar is the low battery indicator. This red LED light comes on when the batteries in the guitar are running low and need to be replaced.

Acoustic guitars have tuning pegs, but not knobs

Acoustic guitars don’t have knobs like electric ones. Their tuning pegs, or tuners, are used for tuning the instrument.

If you’re looking at an acoustic guitar, the pegs will be on the right side of the guitar headstock, and they’ll be used to control the tuning of your strings.

Did you know carbon fiber acoustic guitars don’t go out of tune so often? Read more here!

FAQs

What are the 4 knobs on a Les Paul?

The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most popular guitars out there. It has 4 knobs you need to know about.

The Les Paul design is a bit different from other electric guitars, so be sure you know where each knob is and what it does before you start playing.

These types of guitars are known for their humbucker pickups.

The 4 knobs on a Les Paul are the volume, tone, and 2 humbucker coil-splitting controls.

The volume and tone each control 1 of the 2 humbuckers. The 2 humbucker coil-splitting controls allow you to choose between single-coil and full-humbucker tones.

The first knob is located near the top of the guitar, by the neck. This is the volume knob. Turning it clockwise will make the guitar louder, and turning it counterclockwise will make it softer.

The second knob is located just below the volume knob. This is the tone knob. Turning it clockwise will make the guitar sound brighter, and turning it counterclockwise will make it sound darker.

The third knob is located on the lower part of the guitar, by the bridge. This is the pickup selector switch. It allows you to choose which pickups you want to use.

The neck pickup will give you a warm sound, while the bridge pickup will give you a brighter sound.

The fourth knob is located on the upper part of the guitar, near the strings. This is the tremolo arm. It can be used to create a vibrato effect by moving it up and down.

If you want to learn more about the Les Paul’s knobs and switches, check out this video:

What are the 3 way toggle switch and 2 volume knobs on a Stratocaster?

The 3-way toggle switch is used to select between the neck, middle, and bridge pickups. The 2 volume knobs are used to control the volume of the neck and bridge pickups. The Stratocaster also has a master volume knob.

If you want to learn more about the Stratocaster’s knobs and switches, check out this video:

What do the different positions on a pick-up selector switch mean?

The pick-up selector switch has five or six positions that determine which set of strings is being amplified. The most common positions are bridge, middle, and neck.

What is the purpose of a kill switch?

A kill switch is a switch that can be used to instantly stop the sound of the guitar. It’s usually located on the upper bout of the guitar body.

Why are the controls on my electric guitar important?

The controls on your electric guitar are important because they allow you to shape the sound of your instrument.

By adjusting the volume, tone, and pickup selector switch, you can get a wide range of sounds from your guitar.

Takeaway

Guitar knobs are a bit tricky to learn to use but once you do, they make all the difference.

The knobs and switches on a guitar can be used to control different aspects of the sound of your guitar, from the tone to the volume. You can also use them to add special effects to your playing.

Knowing how to use these knobs and switches will help you get the most out of your guitar playing. Be sure to experiment with the different settings to find the perfect sound for your needs.

Next, check out my Full Guide on the Best Wood for Electric Guitars (Matching Wood & Tone)

          Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of his passion, and together with his team, He's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

Microphone gain vs volume
Subscribe