Electric Guitar Knobs and Switches Explained

If you are unboxing your first new guitar, you may be a bit confused about the functions of the different knobs and switches. Although it may seem like a learning curve, these controls are super easy to use and will help you customize your sound once you get the hang of them. 

In this article, I will break down the different functions of the guitar knobs and switches.

Electric guitar control knobs and switches explained

Every electric guitar will have a few different knobs to control the volume and tone and a switch to determine which pickups to activate. Here are the various controls on an electric guitar, how they function on different instruments, and how to use them.


The pickups are an essential part of your guitar. When you play your guitar, the pickups convert the vibration from the strings into sound by transferring the sound waves via electrical currents to the amplifier. 

Electric guitars will either have single coil or double coil pickups. Stratocaster-style guitars will have 3 single coil pickups. And most other guitars with two dual coil (or humbucker) pickups.

The knobs and switches on your guitar are all used to adjust different levels on your guitar’s pickups.

Pickup selector

All electric guitars have at least two pickups. A pickup selector is a vital tool that allows you to switch between the pickups and choose which one or combination to use. There are two main pickup selectors used on guitars: 3-way selectors and 5-way selectors.

3-way pickup selectors

These are the most simple type of pickup selectors. 3-way selectors are featured on Gibson’s or any guitar with dual humbucker pickups.

  1. When you flip the switch towards the guitar’s bridge, only the bridge pickup will turn on, and the sound will be bright and sharp.
  2. When the switch is turned towards the guitar’s head, only the neck pickup will turn on, and the sound will be round and warm.
  3. Switch the selector to the middle of these two, and both pickups will be active, which gives the guitar a neutral, balanced sound.

5-way pickup selectors

The 5-way pickup selector is a more complicated tool that appears on every Fender Strat or any guitar with Stratocaster-style pickups. Stratocasters have three single coil pickups located near the bridge, near the neck, and in between. The 5-way pickup selector has five settings that allow you to activate certain pickups on the guitar.

  1. When the selector is switched all the way towards the bridge, only the bridge pickup will be active, giving the guitar a sharp, bright tone.
  2. Flick the switch up one notch, and the bridge pickup will be activated along with the middle pickup, giving the guitar a more balanced tone while maintaining the bright lead guitar sound.
  3. Only the middle pickup will be active when you switch the pickup selector to the center. The middle pickup has the most neutral and balanced tone.
  4. If you switch one more position towards the head of the guitar, the middle pick up and the neck pickup will be activated. This pickup combination creates a warm, balanced tone perfect for background rhythm guitar.
  5. Finally, with the pickup selector switched entirely towards the head, the neck pickup alone will be active. This gives the guitar a mellow, muddy tone.

Volume knob

Another crucial feature that every electric guitar has is the volume knob. The volume knob controls the output volume of the pickups. Without these knobs, your pickups would always be at 100% volume. Most Fender guitars have a single volume knob that controls all pickups, while Gibson guitars (or guitars with dual humbucker pickups) have two volume knobs with one to control each pickup. The volume knobs have ticks on the dial with numbers ranging from 0-10, with zero being the off position and ten being the loudest.

These knobs are handy if you are playing a live gig and want your guitar to be silent without any feedback in between songs. With the pickup volume turned off, your amp will be quiet.

Tone knob

Possibly the most confusing controls on your guitar are the tone knobs. It will take some time and messing around to determine how you prefer your tone knobs to be set. Tone knobs are essentially an equalizer for your pickups. They adjust the high-end frequencies (treble) transmitting through your output. The higher you set your tone knob, the more high frequencies transfer to your amp through the pickups. As a result, your guitar will sound brighter, and the individual notes more precise. Conversely, low-frequency outputs are warmer, with less clarity in individual notes.

The way you set your tone knobs is really up to you and depends on the style of guitar you play. For example, jazz guitarists typically play with the tone turned all the way up, while alternative rock guitarists will keep the tone knob lower at around 4-6. 

Most guitars have two tone knobs, each corresponding to a particular pickup. For example, tone knobs for Stratocaster-style guitars have one tone knob to control the middle pickup and one for the bridge pickup. Dual humbucker guitars have one pickup for each humbucker pickup.

Wrapping up

Getting the hang of the knobs and switches may be a bit of a learning curve when you first open up your new guitar. But, these controls aren’t rocket science, and with some practice, you’ll be adjusting your tone like a pro in no time!

Feel free to contact me if you have questions about your guitar or need some musical advice. I am always happy to help!