AC/DC and the no gain, no pain secret for great guitar tone


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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.

Big amp, gain all the way up, Boost engaged, dirtiest channel selected, bass and treble up high, mids down low... and you're all ready to fail spectacularly. For a great live tone, start by turning the mids up, and everything else down! Now read on and we'll work from there.

Big amp, gain all the way up, Boost engaged, dirtiest channel selected, bass and treble up high, mids down low… and you’re all ready to fail spectacularly. For a great live tone, start by turning the mids up, and everything else down! Now read on and we’ll work from there.

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.

This mega high tech computer at Hughes & Kettner HQ is testing out tubes for us (although it also tests pretty much every facet of the amp too!). The curve and peaks on the graph show where the tubes start to reach their limits, and this is where that rich, dynamic overdrive we all love starts kicking in... Tonal heaven!

This mega high tech computer at Hughes & Kettner HQ is testing out tubes for us (although it also tests pretty much every facet of the amp too!). The curve and peaks on the graph show where the tubes start to reach their limits, and this is where that rich, dynamic overdrive we all love starts kicking in… Tonal heaven!

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.

If you've got a rig like this one, chances are gain is going to be high on your agenda. But go easy with it if you can, and you'll be surprised at how much more defined your low-end riffing could become!

If you’ve got a rig like this one, chances are gain is going to be high on your agenda. But go easy with it if you can, and you’ll be surprised at how much more defined your low-end riffing could become!

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.

Go on, give it a try. Don't be scared. Turn the gain and volume down a bit and see what it does for your attack!

Go on, give it a try. Don’t be scared. Turn the gain and volume down a bit and see what it does for your attack!

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.

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Leave a comment

Carlo on November 18, 2016 Reply

A great read! I wanted to chime in on a little tonal bit here. Turns out the AC/DC secret has been finally found by an individual who goes by the nickname Solodallas. Angus did not use effect pedals, but he did use an old wireless system on stage and in the studio. What was unique about this was that it used a compressor to send the RF signal, and the receiving unit would expand, boost, and limit. The resulting tone is what we all know to be that “unattainable” mammoth sound of theirs. Mr. Olivieri (his actual last name) managed to get permission to reproduce the audio part of the circuitry, and make it into both a replica and a pedal. One of which I am a proud owner:) This Sunday I plan to take it to my local music shop and try it with your magnificent amplifier!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 21, 2016 Reply

    Awesome info Carlo, thank you! We just read up on the SoloDallas Schaffer pedal (as it is called!) and it’s the real deal indeed. The fact that Angus Young himself apparently uses one is good enough for us! We’d be interested to know how your experiment turned out, so please let us know 🙂

Ron Cook on July 26, 2016 Reply

Great article- I have also discovered that ACDC rhythm tone also has quite a bit to do with 56-12 strings(wound .026 g string), a vintage gretsch pickup and a semi hollow guitar. The contrast with Angus using 9 or 10’s with a PAF equipped solid body seems to be a big part of their magic.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 8, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for the kind words Ron, and you’re right about those other parts of the magic! Guitars and string gauges are a significant part of the AC/DC tonal puzzle too. The final part – and the part we can’t actually get hold of for love nor money – is the playing, touch and technique of the Young brothers themselves. Now, if we could bottle that, we’d not need to make tube amps any more 😉

Ramzo on May 24, 2016 Reply

I am simply amazed when I am listening Ac/Dc live for example on their latest tour 2016 with Axl as replacement, how Angus guitar sound powerful, tremendous power, distinction and gain, so huge tone and his solos cut through with amazing power. AC/Dc guitar sound is much more powerful and huge than any metal band which uses tons of distortion and gain more, than Ac/Dc, its like some kind of fucking magic !! Is this achieved just by lowering gain, increasing mids and using guitar volume for amount of overdrive ?? Yes Ac/DC guitar tone sounds much more powerful and huge and effective and distinctive than bands like Metallica, Slayer or Megadeth who uses much more distortion. And with extreme metal acts where is so much distortion that riffs are totally inrecognisable and all sound like bunch of noise, this difference is even bigger ! More brutal metal there is more powerful Ac/Dc sound in comparison with them ! So…less is much more !!!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on June 3, 2016 Reply

    Yep, we’re also amazed at how good Angus sounds at the moment! Also Axl is not at all bad, and we were pretty impressed with him too – but that’s another story 😉 Yep, Angus has always used less gain than all those metal guitar players, and he does use a load of volume. That’s why his tone is so clear and powerful in comparison to the guys who have the gain turned up to 11 at all times… When Angus (and Malcolm) play/played queitly, the guitar signal is almost clean 🙂 They should be an inspiration to more young guitar players, we think!

Moline on December 14, 2015 Reply

Amazing blog. I’m taking a look at some entries and I’m learning A LOT.
Thanks, guys.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 14, 2015 Reply

    Thanks Moline – glad you’re enjoying the blog! And best of all, learning something from it. That’s really what we’re aiming for here: just imparting a bit of the knowledge we’ve learned over the years to you guys, so you can have more fun playing better sounding guitar! 🙂

Jimmy Crimmins on November 24, 2015 Reply

This is the secret to great tone. Actually lowering your humbuckers even with pickup rings and pushing your amp, use your volume knob on guitar.
Guitar on 3 to 4 for vocals,for soloing turn-up and your sound will
swell, big, huge. If your using a overdrive keep gain on 9 o’clock, tone off volume on 10.

Keep your bass down on your amp. 3 or 4 max. To much will kill your tone.

Rockin’ Jimmy

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 25, 2015 Reply

    These are some cool suggestions Jimmy, we’re going to give them a try! Thanks for reading and for sharing this with us 🙂

Dave Wakeham on July 31, 2015 Reply

Yes, you’re right here. Also , small amps DO usually mean BIG SOUND…When you’ve got a good engineer with a powerful rig who can mic you up and project you, plus, I have heard great recordings (Everything from demos to professional production !) with small amps.

BUT ! Answer me THIS. What if you were in a THRASH BAND in a HUGE ROOM…WITHOUT the luxuary of a competant engineer ??

WHAT IF you were in a room with a HUGE ROOF SPACE, LOUD DRUMMER, LOUD EXTREME BAND !?!?…..Surely a LITTLE AMP will BREAK if you tried to crank that up to COMPETE WITH A ‘NAPALM DEATH’ type of band !!

HOWEVER, practices like backing off the gain, increasing your mids, controlling bass and treble knobs HAVE worked wonders BUT…we need the RESERVES OF POWER AND PROJECTION OVER A LOUD BAND !!

…If you can answer my question and tell me that I can use a better rig in EXTREME METAL BAND in a WAREHOUSE with NO P.A. system that I’d be DELIGHTED (Because it would be GREAT to just cart LITTLE GEAR for a THRASH BAND…I know AC/DC are LOUD…but they’re style is DIFFERENT !)

Don Wingle on April 3, 2015 Reply

Greetings from Cleveland,Ohio. I would just like to mention that,the old Marshall’s that they were using,didn’t have any kind of gain control,or master volume. Perhaps they used an overdrive pedal of some kind,but the distortion we were hearing was a cranked Marshall. BTW, My beautiful Warp X,now belongs to some thief that I will probably never meet,I hope he enjoys it as much as I did. Good luck to you all,and have fun at musikmesse!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 9, 2015 Reply

    Hi Don, this is actually totally right, and we stand corrected! And no, as far as we know, Angus YSoung always went guitar, cable, amp, and that’s it. No pedals to overcomplicate issues 🙂 Rereading this post, the points are still good for people using modern-day amps with all those bells and whistles. Sometimes, we could all do with turning down the gain slightly.

    Really sorry to hear about the Warp X thing, and we hope you can find some kind of replacement.

    Thanks for reading the blog, and for the valuable feedback, and hope you carry on coming back!

Andreas Bauer on March 15, 2015 Reply

Thank you! Even the “gain thing” is not new to me, that’s really nice to read and it contains useful informations.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 15, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the reading Andreas, and for the kind words! Enjoy the gain…

Russell on October 20, 2014 Reply

@ Mike: While we all wait H&K to get their act together, there’s an unofficial discussion forum over at:
http://handkusers.forumotion.com/f4-grandmeister-36

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 20, 2014 Reply

    Yep, cheers For the link Russell – we’re still working on our one! But it will come…

mike on October 14, 2014 Reply

AAA+++ great writeup…….keep the tips coming. And while you’re at it, a forum or website as a gathering site for the worldwide owners of the funnest, coolest looking, most versatile and practical amp in existancee…..the Grandmeister36, would be the ultimate tool……a place to share tips, tricks, and PATCHES. Only then will worldwide dominance be achieved ;,)

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 14, 2014 Reply

    Thanks a lot Mike, and we’re working on the social gathering idea! Stay with us on the world dominance front… 😉