What is a Guitar Killswitch?

If you’ve ever listened to rock or metal you’ve probably heard the sound of a killswitch on record. But you might not have known it at the time.

The killswitch is used to create that awesome stuttery guitar sound that you’ve heard on every Rage Against The Machine album, ever. And we love it too!

Jed Van Wyngaardt

Jed Van Wyngaardt

What is a killswitch on a guitar?

A killswitch on guitar is that it’s a switch of some description that will turn your guitar signal on and off as you use the switch. This creates a stuttery, rhythmic effect.

What will I learn?

  • What the killswitch actually does to your guitar signal
  • How to achieve the affect without modifying your instrument
  • Who uses a killswitch on their guitar

Let’s have a look at how to achieve that tone and that effect…

So what is a killswitch on a guitar anyway?

The killswitch effect can be achieved by any guitar that has 2 separate volume controls and a pickup selector. This is a crude, but functional way of getting that sound. You can also have a built in potentiometer that you can press and release to get the stuttery effect.

If you watch the video below at around the 7:40 mark you’ll see our very own Rabea explain the use of a killswitch with a demonstration of how it sounds.

In essence, what you are hearing is your signal turned on and off. But it’s not as simple as cutting the signal dead. If you were to do that, you’d get the typical hum that you hear when a jack is plugged into an amp without a connection to a guitar. You know, that ‘accidentally unplugged my guitar’ buzz.

Below you’ll see a diagram showing you what the wiring looks like internally. This will help you understand that you aren’t just ‘unplugging’ your signal but creating a short circuit instead:

Guitar Killswitch Diagram - Andertons Music Co.

Who uses a killswitch?

Eddie Van Halen is famous for paving the way with alternative guitar techniques. He wasn’t afraid of turning his guitar into a tool to create wild, out there guitar tones. And he was probably inspired by someone like Jimi Hendrix who did the same.

Tom Morello and Buckethead are just a few that have taken the mantle and used the killswitch to devastating effect. If the effect is cool enough for these guys, then it’s cool enough for anybody. It’s important to note that the killswitch effect is just that. An effect.

Whole songs can be built around the use of a killswitch (Know Your Enemy by RATM) but you probably wouldn’t play a whole set with a killswitch. So pull the technique into your arsenal and use it to create textures in your music. Even if that texture is a machine-gun scattering.

How do I use a killswitch?

If you have a guitar with 2 volume controls (like a Les Paul or a PRS 594), this is a very simple effect to achieve. All you do is turn the volume completely down on one control and completely up on the other. Make sure you have the gain turned up on your amp. By turning the gain up, you won’t need to ‘pick’ all the notes that you play.

You won’t be able to pick with your right hand because you’ll be moving the pickup selector up and down to achieve the effect.

By rapidly changing the pickup selector with your right hand and fretting the riff with your left hand, you’ll get the killswitch effect.

What if I don’t have 2 volume controls?

If you play a guitar like a Strat or Tele you won’t have 2 volume controls and will have to modify your guitar to have a killswitch on-board.

This is a relatively simple mod that can be done by any trained guitar tech. You could even do it yourself if you aren’t afraid of a little bit of DIY.

You can get a pushbutton installed onto your guitar in typical Buckethead fashion. He has arcade button style switches on his guitar for this purpose.

Buckethead Killswitch Gibson Guitar
Or you could replace your current volume control with a killswitch pot that will stop your signal when pushed. It all depends on your playing style. Some players prefer the up-down motion of a pickup selector because it’s similar to the picking motion. But the arcade button switch is more accessible and easy to do on the fly.

Let us know in the comments below if you’ve ever used the killswitch effect, or installed one on your guitar!

Interested in finding out more about music gear and expanding your knowledge? Click here to view all of our Learn articles.

Jed Van Wyngaardt
Jed Van Wyngaardt
Jed has worked on our shop floor, handled guitar content on the site and now leads the digital content team. He's equal parts rock frontman/guitarist in Pandora Fox and wannabe folk singer-songwriter. Jed's a PRS, Tele and Orange Amps lover with an unhealthy obsession with fuzz, octave and ambient effects.

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