It is common practice for most guitars to have at least: one tone knob, a volume knob, and a pickup selector switch (toggle switch). We will break down the function of each, some differing layouts, and lastly some application tips.
Pickup Selector Switch
To understand what this switch does, we need to understand what a pickup is. A pickup is a set of magnets wrapped in wire, used to transmit the sound produced from your strings to an amplifier. Here below we have examples of both a Single Coil and Humbucker Pickup:
Les Paul Model - (3) Way Toggle Switch
With this model we have Two Humbuckers, but Three switch positions. With the switch all the way up (closest to your face) this will be your neck pickup, the one closest to your guitar neck. This is your warmest pickup.
When moved all the way down (towards your shoes) the bridge pickup is active. The bridge pickup will be your twangy, sharp, and brightest guitar tone.
In the middle of the two, we have our Goldilocks position; both pickups are now active. This offers a blend between both pickups (if you want something in between)
Stratocaster Model - (5) Way Toggle Switch
Using the same logic above, however with access to Three Pickups now, we will look at the difference with the Fender Strat.
All the way up uses our Neck Pickup (position 1)
All the way down uses our Bridge Pickup (position 5)
Right in the middle uses our Middle Pickup (Position 3)
Neck + Middle (Position 2)
Middle + Bridge (Position 4)
Think of this like the dimmer switch on your dining room chandelier. This knob controls your level of output.
NOTE: If you have multiple volume knobs and are on a pickup position that is using multiple pickups, you can use one of the volume knobs to lessen the volume of one of those pickups (helps dial in a specific tone).
One of the greatest mysteries to Electric Guitar users. A tone knob is essentially a “Low Pass Filter” this means that as we lower the knob from 10 to 1, the guitar Passes over the Low Frequencies (bass) and Filters / Blocks the High Frequencies (brightness).
If you want less bite / abrasiveness from your pickup(s), roll your tone knob back just a little to reduce the brightness from your sound.
** Everything with music is followed by an “ish”, therefore, take all of this with a grain of salt **
JAZZ: Neck Pickup + Low Tone (3 - 5)
COUNTRY / CHICKEN PICKIN’: Bridge Pickup + High Tone (9-10)
FUNK: Neck Pickup + High Tone (8 - 10)
SOUL / RnB: Neck Pickup + Medium Tone (6 - 8)
ROCK: Middle Pickup + High - Medium Tone*
So much variance in the rock sphere, there is literally room for all possibilities
ROCK SOLOING: High Tone*
Playing in Low Register of Neck = Bridge Pickup (makes the notes pop)
Playing in High Register of Neck = Neck Pickup (reduces crassness)
Experiment!! You can take these as general guidelines, but always try new things and develop the tone that best matches your playing.