Turn on the Power for Great Guitar Tone


With the gabillions of dollars spent on marketing guitars, it’s no wonder so much of people’s attention is focused on them. I openly admit there is good reason for it but without a respectable guitar rig made up of the right amp for you, some cool pedals and the necessary accessories, it can’t make much sound by itself.

Here I’m talking about something even more essential, the power to make it all work exceptionally well. Most people have no idea that the outlet they plug their amp into may be the cause of a number of problems like hum, buzz or their beloved amp sounding dull and cheap. A club’s stage outlet can have low, noisy, dirty AC power and all that electrical junk will literally be amplified by your amplifier!

“Poor AC power conditions are one of the
biggest problems facing all gigging musicians

So if you’ve never heard of one, I want to cordially introduce you to a very useful electrical device called a Variable Autotransformer, commonly known as a “Variac” (i.e., “Variac” is actually the brand name of the Variable Autotransformer made by the General Radio Company).

What it does is it allows you to raise or lower the Alternating Current Voltage (AC Voltage) that powers your amplifier.

The reason why this is so important is that you want to have the correct and consistent voltage to best run your amp on every night at every venue you play.

Whether they know it or not, poor AC power conditions are one of the biggest problems facing all gigging musicians. Low power can cause a number of problems and can make a normally golden sounding amp sound lifeless and weak.

“It allows you to raise or lower the
Alternating Current Voltage (AC Voltage) that powers your amplifier.”

Now if you have your trusty Variac, you can dial in the voltage your amp wants to see and it will have the power to sound amazing. An even cooler trick is that you can vary the voltage up or down a volt or two to help dial in your sound. It’s well known that guitar pioneer / virtuoso Eddie Van Halen made good use of a Variac to help him create his tone.

Years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Variac – Why You Should Have One” and I regularly have people contacting me about it.

The bottom line is, if you gig at somewhere other than your home, like clubs, churches, festivals, etc. where the AC voltage can vary wildly, I highly suggest you learn more about the Variac and do yourself a favor and get one.

“You want to have the correct and consistent
voltage to best run your amp on.”

I recommend that you get an American brand rated at between 5-10 amps with a 3-prong outlet. The brands I’ve had good success with are General Radio, Staco and Superior. They have been around for years and are still made today. A new one with a built-in voltmeter can be pricey ($300+) while a good used one runs around $100, which is a worthwhile investment in your guitar’s tone.

General Radio Variac

Staco Variac

Superior Powerstat Variac

As a brief review on how to use it:

  1. Plug the Variac into the wall or AC outlet power. Do not plug your rig into the Variac just yet.
  2. Turn on the Variac and turn the knob to an output of approximately 120VAC.
  3. Now you can plug in your rig. Switch on the guitar amp and see how it sounds. You can safely adjust the Variac knob plus/minus one or two volts to see what sounds best.

Now with your new knowledge of Variable Autotransformers (a “Variac”), you are all the more prepared to turn on the power for great guitar tone! As I like to say, “Go forth and find YOUR tone.”

As always, if you have any questions please feel free to ask.

Turn it up,

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Steve McKinley is the bass player for Joel Kosche (of Collective Soul) in his solo band and for the Led Zeppelin tribute Led Zeppelified. He’s been part of the Atlanta music scene for years playing in bands (i.e. Julius Pleaser, Sid Vicious Experience, Pretty Vacant et al) and has recorded and toured throughout the Southeast. His songs have been played on the radio, he has appeared on television and is an ASCAP member. With his electronics skills and experience, he runs Atlanta Tube Amp and Steve McKinley Electronics and is an Instructor on JamPlay.com. He roots for Atlanta United, works on cars and drinks his coffee strong, hot and black. He can be found on his sites, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin. www.atlantatubeamp www.tubescreamermods.com


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