Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Electric Guitars


Electric guitars are popular and highly versatile instruments found in a great variety of musical genres. EQ is a common process to use when mixing electric guitars (and many other instruments). When it comes to EQing electric guitars, there are no simple step-by-step instructions; every mix is unique. However, there are certain considerations we should take into account when EQing electric guitars, which is what this article is all about.

Before we go any further, I should state that there are no hard rules with EQ or any other mixing process. The tips mentioned in this article are simply suggestions and techniques worth considering when EQing electric guitar. There are no procedures that work 100% of the time, and every mix is unique in its own needs.

Here are 11 pro tips for EQing electric guitar:

  1. Consider the role of the electric guitar in the mix
  2. Consider how the electric guitar was recorded
  3. Consider the genre
  4. EQing electric guitar in the context of the mix
  5. Increase brightness with a low-pass filter
  6. Find the characteristic frequencies
  7. EQing against competition with the vocal
  8. EQing against competition with the bass guitar
  9. Always A/B test
  10. Understanding the effects chain
  11. Consider the number of guitars in the mix

Let's discuss each of these tips in more detail to give you important considerations when EQing electric guitar in your mixes.

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Consider The Role Of The Electric Guitar In The Mix

Before reaching for an EQ, it's worthwhile to determine the exact role of the electric guitar in the greater context of the mix.

Is it playing a supportive role, or is it a lead instrument?

Is it used for embellishments, or is it the primary instrument carrying the harmony/chord movement of the song?

Understanding the role of the guitar in the song and the production at large will help us make informed EQ decisions.

In sparser mixes where the guitar plays a larger role, we may opt for gentle EQ to boost character and reduce frequency masking, if we EQ it at all. Conversely, in denser mixes where the guitar plays a supporting role, it may be necessary to apply rather aggressive EQ to make it fit perfectly into the mix.

Without giving any specific EQ moves (remember that every electric guitar performance, song and mix are different), it's paramount to consider the role of the guitar in your mix.


Consider How The Electric Guitar Was Recorded

Understanding how the guitar was recorded will give us valuable insights into how we ought to EQ it (if at all).

The first question we can ask ourselves is whether the guitar was recorded direct into a board or interface and through an amp simulation plugin, direct out of an amp, or was a microphone placed in front of a cabinet?

The tone of an electric guitar is often well thought out before recording, and if we're recording direct, we may not need much EQ, if any whatsoever. Amps and amp simulation plugins tend to shape the frequency content of an electric guitar signal in a mix-friendly way. Perhaps a bit of high and low-pass filtering is all that will be necessary.

Similarly, tone and mic placement are often chosen wisely when miking up a guitar cabinet. However, in these cases, we may want to use EQ a bit more aggressively to tame the extremes of the frequency spectrum. It may also be the case that we want to shape the tone slightly or reduce any resonances that may be present in the cabinet, microphone and acoustic environment.

If the electric guitar was recorded with a microphone in front of the amp/cabinet in a live room with other instruments, we should also be conscientious of the bleed from other instruments. In cases where the bleed is noticeable bad, we may want to get more surgical than we otherwise would with EQ.

Related articles:
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It's also worthwhile to consider the signal chain of the guitar signal. What pedals, if any, did the signal run through? Was there any outboard processing (EQ or compression, most notably) before the signal was recorded?

Armed with this information, we can anticipate certain characteristic or potentially problematic frequencies in the electric guitar signal.

Note that the lowest fundamental frequency of a 6-string guitar in standard tuning (E2) is roughly 82 Hz, and we can often get away with high-passing well above this point, even in down-tuned and 7, 8 or 9-string guitars. This can help eliminate low-end bleed and help the guitar fit better in the mix.

Furthermore, electric guitar amplifiers and cabinets often only extend to recreate about 6 kHz at the top end. Although having “air” above this range is nice, it may be necessary to low-pass the guitar in situations where the recording is less than ideal.


Consider The Genre

While every mix is different, and there's no “paint by numbers” approach to mixing, there are certain trends and similarities within music genres. Since the electric guitar is such a popular and versatile instrument, it's worth considering its processing in relation to the genre of music we're tasked with mixing.

For example, an electric guitar in a death metal song will sound different from an electric guitar in a country song. Both will sound different from an electric guitar in a psychedelic rock song.

Not only will the guitar's tone be different (heavy distortion versus twangy versus tastefully modulated, for example), but the general mixing strategies will also be different.

Good guitarists pay loads of attention to their tone, which often means that EQ should be applied sparingly, tone-wise. However, it's worth studying common practices in different genres to fit the guitar(s) into the mix and balance them correctly.

Going back to our 3-genre example, the guitars will likely be upfront, with heavy distortion and a scooped mid-range in the death metal mix. When it comes to country, the electric guitar may very well take a backseat to other instruments in the arrangement. In the case of psychedelic rock, the guitar may be washed out and require special treatment with EQ to fit more appropriately with the other instruments.

These are only examples and suggestions. Remember that every mix is different. All I'm saying is that considering the genre is worthwhile when determining EQ moves on electric guitars.


EQing Electric Guitar In The Context Of The Mix

EQing in the context of a mix is key for mixing in general and certainly applies to electric guitar.

There's not much use in shaping an electric guitar track to perfection in solo. Sure, it's worthwhile to solo guitars and sort out any blatant issues (low-end rumble and hum, harsh resonances, etc.), but it's generally a waste of time to EQ electric guitars by themselves.

Beyond the fact that the guitar tone was likely a conscious decision from the artist that we ought to preserve, the mix is about all the instruments in the arrangement, not just the guitar(s). That is, of course, if the song to be mixed isn't a solo guitar performance.

The truth is that individual tracks will often be made to sound worse by themselves in order to serve the greater mix as a whole. A great mix is often the sum of imperfect parts, and it's often necessary to process electric guitar in an “unflattering” way to make it fit perfectly in the holistic mix.

The denser the mix, the more truthful this statement becomes.

So, when opting to EQ an electric guitar, do so in the context of the mix. Have the mix playing and make any EQ adjustments you believe will improve the mix.

Be sure to A/B your EQ decisions by turning the EQ on and off and listening critically to recalibrate your ears.

If the EQ on the electric guitars improves the mix, keep it. If it doesn't, don't hesitate to readjust the EQ parameters or even get rid of the EQ altogether.


Increase Brightness With A Low-pass Filter

This tip is counter-intuitive, making it more fun to share.

I mentioned previously that a guitar cabinet will typically max out around 6 kHz (often lower). While it's nice to have “air” above the frequency content of electric guitar, cutting out the high-end frequencies is often preferable.

However, it's also the case that by low-passing an electric guitar, we can actually increase its perceived brightness in the mix.

This is done by increasing the resonance boost at the low-pass filter's cutoff frequency. Most parametric EQs will allow for this. Bring the LPF down to the upper range of electric guitar's harmonics and have the EQ boost this content before rolling off the high-end frequencies.

Using this EQ tip, we can brighten the electric guitar's sound while eliminating the signal's high-end noise.

To learn more about low-pass filters, check out my article Audio EQ: What Is A Low-Pass Filter & How Do LPFs Work?


Find The Characteristic Frequencies

Between the massive variety of potential electric guitar tones and the many different roles electric guitars can play in a song's arrangement and mix, it's sometimes a guessing game when it comes to finding the “characteristic frequencies”.

By characteristic frequencies, I mean the band within the mid-range that contains a lot of the sonic interest of the guitar's sound. Depending on the density of the mix and the importance of the guitar in the arrangement, it can also refer to the band where the guitar should be unmasked as much as possible by other instruments.

The range between 1 – 4 kHz can be EQed to bring out distinctive characteristics in the guitar tone. Work this range to help fit electric guitars into the mix at large.


EQing Against Competition With The Vocal

In many genres of music, the guitar and vocal are at the forefront of the mix. Having both elements up front in the mix can cause issues of frequency masking, where neither the vocal nor the guitar is particularly defined.

Frequency masking happens when two or more sounds compete for certain frequency bands and become ill-defined within those bands. They effectively “mask” each other, and our ears have difficulty perceiving them as distinct sound sources.

Frequency masking desensitizes our hearing and causes us to lose separation and balance in the mix.

So, if you're tasked with mixing a guitar and vocal-rich song, EQ can be an invaluable tool in allowing both to be pushed up in the mix while still maintaining their separation.

In most cases, the vocal will take precedence over the guitar in terms of the mix elements' hierarchy of importance.

Vocal intelligibility is often enhanced with a boost somewhere in the 3 – 5 kHz range. If we can find a sweet spot for vocal intelligibility, we can use an EQ cut to duck the guitar frequencies that would compete with the vocal.

Conversely, if we have a sweet spot in the guitar's frequency content (often in the 1 – 4 kHz range, as previously discussed), we can consider boosting that band and cutting the same in the vocal.

Related article: Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Vocals

Subtle, broad EQ moves are often all we need in these cases, though some mixes require more aggressive processing. Again, every mix is different. This is only a tip.


EQing Against Competition With The Bass Guitar

Where there's electric guitar, there's often bass guitar. It's a common pairing across many different musical genres, and it's important to deal with their interactions in the mix properly.

Oftentimes we'll engage a high-pass filter on the electric guitar to roll off low-end rumble, and this will be enough to unmask the bass frequencies of the bass guitar.

However, sometimes we need to go a bit further and nudge the electric guitar's HPF a bit higher. It's not uncommon to have electric guitars high-pass up to 200 Hz and higher, especially if the roll-off is a gentle 6 dB/octave.

I should make a note of the psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the “missing fundamental”, which states that our brains can effectively fill in the fundamental information of a musical instrument (the note being played) when presented with only the harmonics of that instrument (and the specific notes being played). This means that we can still comprehend the low-end information of an electric guitar even if it's high-pass above its low-end frequencies.

So we can often still understand the full role of the electric guitar even if we high-pass it rather aggressively.

To learn more about high-pass filters, check out my article Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?

In doing so, we free up the low-end for the bass guitar, which also has to compete with the kick drum and any other low-end elements in the mix.

Of course, high-pass filtering the electric guitar(s) is not always warranted. However, it's worth understanding the idea behind why we'd want to do so.

Beyond the low-end, we may find specific sweet spots in the low-mids and mid-range that could benefit from mirrored EQ (cutting the guitar where the bass is boosted or vice versa) to help the two get along better in the mix.


Always A/B Test

This was mentioned earlier in the tip on mixing in context, but it's important to reiterate the importance of A/B testing.

We can get carried away with EQ on electric guitars. There's often a lot we can do with guitars in the mix, and the wide variety of tonal options make it even more of a challenge to get perfect in every different mix we work on.

With so many options, it's sometimes best to use the subtlest of EQ moves or even no EQ at all.

So when we're EQing an electric guitar (in the context of the mix), it's paramount that we periodically check our work by bypassing the EQ altogether.

Turning the EQ on and off is known as A/B testing. We're comparing A (the EQ on) against B (the EQ off) and making a decision about which sounds better in the mix.

It's too easy to lose our objective perspective when mixing, and A/Bing our EQ moves gives us a reminder of what our EQing actually sounds like while recalibrating our ears.

It's important to have an objective understanding of whether the EQ we're using benefits the mix or not. Be as impartial as possible when making a decision.

When A/B testing, tune the EQ off and listen for about 10 seconds. Turn it back on and listen for another 10 seconds. Repeat the process and decide whether to keep the EQ, readjust it, or get rid of it.

Beyond bypassing, we can also choose to toggle different frequency bands on and off in many EQ plugins. In these A/B tests, we're keeping the EQ engaged but toggling different bands on and off and judging whether they improve the mix or not.


Understanding The Effects Chain

Understanding the effects chain the guitar signal runs through is beneficial when it comes to EQ.

Let's consider a few examples.

Spectral effects like wah-wah and envelope filters work by varying the frequency content of the signal and may be difficult to tame with EQ. That said, they can often produce harsh resonances in certain bands that may be subdued with tasteful EQ. Consider dynamic EQ to cut particularly transient frequencies that poke out periodically with wah guitar.

Overdrive, distortion and fuzz add significant harmonic frequency content to the signal and may warrant special treatment in the mid-range with EQ.

Modulation and time-based effects often cause phase alterations in the signal. While these effects are sonically interesting on their own, they could potentially be enhanced with EQ.

Pitch-shifting effects may cause the frequency content of an electric guitar signal to be displaced relative to the normal content. Keep this in mind when EQing.

If the guitar pedalboard/signal chain has an EQ pedal inline, it may still be necessary to apply EQ in the mix to help it fit appropriately in the mix.

It's also worth considering the signal chain within the mix, particularly with the two popular processors of EQ and compression.

EQing an electric guitar before compression lets us shape the frequency content more aggressively, knowing that the compressor will help smooth it out. It's also nice to control what the compressor “sees” and reacts to.

In general, EQ before compression will yield a smoother, warmer result.

If the electric guitar contains any particularly over-represented frequencies that will trigger the compressor, it may be best to EQ them out beforehand.

Compressing a signal before EQ gives us less control over what the compressor reacts to but more control over the tonal balance of the signal. Note that the EQ should be applied more sparingly here since the audio will already have been smoothed out.

In general, EQ after compression offers a cleaner, sharper result.

As an aside, distorted guitars are naturally compressed (their waveforms are flattened at the peaks) and may not warrant any compression, but that's a discussion for a different article.


Consider The Number Of Guitars In The Mix

Depending on the number of guitars in the mix, we may consider a different approach to EQ.

When there's a single electric guitar in a sparser mix, we'll likely want to keep it fairly natural with subtle EQ or even no EQ.

On the other hand, if we're dealing with a wall of guitars, it's worth considering any buildups of resonances and other unruly frequencies that may unbalance the mix or otherwise sound bad and out of place. If the same tone is recorded with the same microphones over several guitars, the resulting frequency buildups in the sensitive bands of the stacked guitar signals may require addressing.

In the case where we're panning guitars to the left and right, we may want to experiment with mirrored EQ to help increase the perceived width of the mix.

To increase the sense of width, it can help to boost a sonically-pleasing frequency in guitar A and cut that same frequency in guitar B. Find another sonically-pleasing frequency in guitar B and cut that frequency in guitar A. This mirrored EQ can help improve separation and give each guitar its space in the mix.

When working to increase the width of the electric guitars, be sure to reference the mix summed to mono. Many playback systems, including some public address systems, smartphones, computers and television, play audio back in mono. Our mixes must also sound as good as possible in these systems. Therefore, checking mono compatibility by periodically summing the mix to mono is an important habit to develop.


Other EQ Tips For Common Elements


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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