We all love a bit of gain, don’t we? Indeed we do, but it’s amazing how overused this one little control on our amps has become these days. In fact, gain has become an essential tool for every 21st century guitarist, as well something of a mask for sloppy players to hide behind. Now, we’re not saying all that power amp saturation is a bad thing – far from it – but read on to find out how turning it down just a little bit could inspire you to new levels of dynamic guitar tone…
Less is more. This simple, overused cliché might not always be true, but there’s a reason it gets used so much – because it’s often spot on.
Here’s a good and timely example. We’re always hearing from guitarists who share a similar problem: they’ve got a new guitar with hot pickups, a modern amp with plenty of power and even more gain on tap, and a full-on 4×12 stack – and they’re ready to rock out.
But their sound is limp. When they try to break out the riffs with the band, their guitar is lost in the mix, loud but sterile, overpowered by everything else. It may be loud, but it’s not distinctive, assertive, or attention-grabbing in any way.
So what’s wrong?
The answer here is compression. Guitarists normally refer to compression in positive terms – it’s the effect that gives contemporary country guitar its twang, snap and pop for example – but at high gain and volume settings, it’s a tough beast to tame, especially when you’re indulging in bass string-heavy riffing.
Surprisingly enough, it’s even more of an issue when you’ve done everything right (or at least thought you have): fat strings, big meaty humbuckers and a big, loud amp running at full throttle with maximum gain. What you’ve got to do, then, is stop pummeling your poor eardrums and consider the following facts.
Basically speaking, the lower in frequency a signal is, the more energy needs to be expended to ensure that it is perceived as being as loud as a higher frequency signal. This has got something to do with the human ear’s perception of volume – we’re much more sensitive to middle frequencies than bass signals. (It’s an evolution thing, developed over millions of years so we hear things like our hungry babies crying in the night – but we’re getting a bit Darwinian here, so let’s move swiftly on!)
It’s precisely for the reasons outlined above that bass amps are usually at least two or three times the power of guitar amps, without sounding noticeably louder onstage. Even a 50-watt guitar amp can compete with much more powerful bass stacks. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find a bass rig boasting 1000 Watts of power – imagine a guitar setup with that amount of oomph!
When you’re playing palm-muted riffs on the lower strings of your guitar, you often need to have the volume up to make the note definition ring out. However, what normally happens is, the higher the volume knob goes, the more your power amp starts to saturate, and the more compressed the signal gets.
It might sound good on its own, but it’s not going to cut it in a gig situation.
A highly compressed signal, by the way, can sound great for high gain solos – it’ll make your tone rich, smooth and even – but these are precisely the properties that we don’t want if we’re indulging in fat riffs that require a fast pick attack and tight rhythmic precision.
What you need here is a dynamic signal with a big, recognizable difference between quieter and louder parts of the song, otherwise you’ll just get lost in the mix. This is where a lot of guitarists fail: that huge, super high gain amp, active humbucker and thick strings setup is just not going to cut the mustard in this situation.
When we’re playing lead and want that huge and constant signal level, this is when our beloved tubes step into play, providing a rich harmonic distortion and limiting the signal by rounding off and smoothing out the dynamics. This is the sound we love for solos of all styles.
With downtuned guitars, this effect is more pronounced, occurring at volume levels lower than that of axes in standard EADGBE tuning. Add high gain settings into the equation, and it’ll be even stronger. Fine for the solo, then, but try kicking into a grinding riff with these settings and you’ll be fighting an undynamic, fizzling tone without any cutting power whatsoever.
This is, naturally, a perpetual talking point for guitarists. Because here, less really is more – a lot more, even. And some of us don’t like that!
But let’s look at a case in point: AC/DC, godfathers of the awesome rock riff. Malcolm and Angus Young have made their unpretentious, driving riffs the calling card for their many amazing songs over the years, and it’s little wonder that Back In Black, Highway To Hell and You Shook Me All Night Long are cornerstones for pretty much any student guitarist.
So what’s the secret of that huge AC/DC guitar tone? You guessed it: raw talent aside, the Young brothers both use way less gain on their amps than you’d think.
Put it all together and it makes perfect sense. Those cleaner signals on classic AC/DC records – and at their live shows – resulted in guitar tones with unparalleled levels of energy, dynamics and power, and marked the band out as masters of their trade. Indeed, in the 40-odd years since the first AC/DC album, High Voltage, hit the shelves, we’d argue that no one else in the guitar world has come close to matching their pure tonal vibrancy onstage or in the studio.
Listen to any AC/DC song and just the chords, hard as a rock (see what we did there?), played in a relentless driving rhythm, will really draw you in and take you along for the ride. There’s a perfect balance of gain and perceived power on display, and the moderate dirt settings really allow each and every riff the chance to soar across the mix, full of tonal dynamics and thrust.
Only when you give your guitar signal enough chance to really unfold dynamically will you get similar responsiveness and fatness in your tone. Simply turning up loud and then whacking the gain knob up will not have the same effect – yes, you’ll be loud, but your tone will be weak and uninspiring.
This is a phenomenon that applies to all amps, by the way, because we’re talking about that most rock ‘n’ roll of subjects here: physics. Like it or loathe it, its rules apply to all of us (unless you’re reading this from Mars, that is – in that case, please disregard this blog immediately and resume Martian activities as normal).
So why not give it a try, humans? Turn your amp’s gain knob down a bit, or even your guitar’s volume knob, and see what happens. We must mention the volume knob specifically here, as we know plenty of axe slingers who use theirs like an on/off switch. Seriously, they can do a lot more than that!
With good amps, particularly good tube amps, the volume knob is a great distortion controller when you do have the gain set high. It’s extremely musical, too, because while backing off a bit will also reduce the overall volume slightly, that wonderful thing that is human perception will do its best not to notice it. Again, this is dynamics coming into play.
Do this, and you’ll notice your sound becoming bigger, more characterful, and more responsive – just like it does in our video. You’ll have a much better tonal attack, and you’ll practically feel the vibe in the air! It’s no surprise that there are plenty of pros who operate seamlessly between high gain, crunch and clean settings all through a one-channel amp – their secret is use of the volume knob on their guitars.
Get into this way of thinking and playing, and the volume control quickly becomes an indispensable tool in your tonal arsenal, just like the pickup selector or a whammy bar. You’ll find yourself rolling effortlessly between rhythmic verses with half the gain, nudging it up a bit for the chorus, and then turning it up to 11 for the solo!
Oh, and if you’re worried that your setup’s going to be too loud if you use it in this way, then look no further than a lunchbox amp – we wrote all about the benefits of smaller amps here, so head over and have a read. They’ll take you from zero to full-on at much lower volumes than a 100-watt head and a 4×12 cab, that’s for sure! And if they’re good enough for the likes of Eric Clapton…
That’s all for today. We really recommend you have a go with your gain/volume knob – on your amp and on your guitar – to see what they can do for your tone, and we’d love to hear how it works out for you, so drop us a comment and let us know how you get on!
First published: October 10 2014. Most recent update: July 28 2017.