Volume is a crucial part of a good tone but it’s perhaps a bit elusive and easy to overlook. In this feature we’ll discuss different types of amps, how to set them up and how to use the volume controls on your guitar and pedals to create great sounding tones.
A lot of guitar players consider the volume controls as something you use if you either want things louder or more quiet but it really is a lot more to it than that and bad tone is often a result of not knowing how to use volume as an active part of the tone.
I don’t want to go too much into detail and get all technical. There are lots of great articles out there that will provide all kinds of minutiae if you want to dig a little deeper. I also urge everyone to use the comments field below and share your experience and tips.
A typical tube amplifier consists of two stages. The pre-amp, which takes your guitar signal and distorts it, and the output section, which amplifies the signal coming from the pre-amp and makes it louder.
Most tube amps has controls for gain (channel volume/volume) and master (output/volume). The gain control controls the amount of clipping or distortion that goes into the signal. The master controls the output of the amp.
A single channel amp often has one single control for volume/gain. This controls both the pre and output stage of the amp.
A two channel amp, like the Laney Lionheart, often has one output control for the clean channel, controlling both stages, and two controls for the gain channel, one controlling the pre-amp and the other controlling the output.
A Hiwatt has four inputs, which can be a bit confusing. Each channel, normal and bright, has a dedicated gain control (labelled “volume”) and the output for both is controlled by the master control. The additional two inputs are attenuated inputs for each channel for different pickups and instruments.
So, with all this in mind it’s clear that understanding how to set the balance between the pre and output stages, or the gain and master, on your amp is crucial for getting the tones you want.
David Gilmour’s amp setup
Let’s use David Gilmour’s typical Hiwatt settings as an example to understand how this all works.
David has his Hiwatts set clean and he’s using pedals to get the amount of drive or gain he needs for the different sounds. However, much of the secret behind David’s cutting and punchy tone, lies in the balance between the pre and output stages.
My Reeves Custom 50 set up with the same settings as David Gilmour's Hiwatts used on the 2006 On an Island tour.
The pre-amp, which in his case is a link between the normal and bright channels, is set just at the very edge of breakup. It’s set to match his guitars and pickups and a different guitar with hotter pickups would make the amps distort even more. The tubes are pushed just enough to add a bit of compression, making the amp sound fatter and more balanced.
The master, or output volume, is set to match the venue/studio/rehearsal space but also high enough to push the speakers, which again will create more compression and bring out more of the speakers sound qualities.
Setting up your amp
So how does all this apply to your amp? Well, each brand and model is different but the first rule is to know how the controls on your amp works and how they interact with the rest of the circuit. Manufacturers often use different labels on the controls, which can be confusing but there’s always a gain and master – either separately or combined in one control.
A clean amp isn’t just about making an undistorted tone louder. Cranking the master control, often makes the amp sound thin and flat. A good clean tone that will cut through a band mix and create a powerful platform for your pedals, needs a bit of that pushed pre-amp and tube saturation, which in turn will make your guitar sound (and feel) much more dynamic and respond much better to your playing.
This can be hard to achieve on a typical bedroom setup but as discussed in detailed in “How to get killer tones on your bedroom setup”, choosing the right amp for each application is crucial for being able to utilise its full potential. I guarantee you that although a large Hiwatt always looks great, a small 5w will always sound better in a small room.
Guitar volume or volume pedal?
Using the guitar’s volume control to control the tone and volume seems to be a lost art among the modern guitarists. We have all kinds of pedals that can do all kinds of things but back in the early days of pedals, and even before then, guitarists would use the volume control to produce subtle changes in their tone.
Like Hendrix, David Gilmour used fuzz pedals in the early days of Floyd. Just by adjusting the guitar volume, a single pedal would produce boost for the cleans, overdrive for rhythms and screaming armageddon for the heavier stuff. Likewise, plugging the guitar into a cranked amp and using the guitar volume to control or attenuate the amount of gain, would produce a large palette of tones.
I always roll back the volume to around 8.5-9 for my clean tones. It takes care of the sometimes harsh overtones and makes everything sound smoother and more dynamic. How much you should roll back, either for gain or cleans, depends on how hot your pickups are and what sort of pots you have on your guitar.
As an exercise, plug your guitar straight into a distorted amp (or use one high gain pedal) and just by using the guitar volume, see if you can create convincing tones (doesn’t have to be perfect and never mind modulation and delays for now) for the clean intro solo on Shine On, the slightly overdriven intro on Have a Cigar and the fully distorted solo on Comfortably Numb!
A volume pedal is often used as a master volume controller on a clean amp setup. Lowering the volume doesn’t colour the tone, it only lower the overall volume. A volume pedal can also be placed in front of gain pedals or a cranked amp. Lowering the volume pedal will attenuate the amount of gain just like rolling off the guitar volume control. Personally, and since I always run a clean amp, I have my volume pedal last in the chain as a master controller.
What about the volume control on your pedals?
As we’ve discussed above, an amp with the right balance between the pre-amp and output stage will provide a powerful platform for your pedals. Be sure to always set up the amp with the guitar plugged straight into it. Only then will you be able to hear the subtle nuances created by the combination of your amp and guitar.
All gain pedals, including compressors, has a volume (level, output) control and as with your amp, knowing how to use this will make it easier to get the tones you want. Again, we tend to overlook the qualities of the volume control and focus on how much gain we need. Still, we’ve all experienced tones with too much gain, noise issues and sustain that just chokes up the minute you hit the string.
Let’s take a Big Muff (or a similar high gain pedal). Set the pedal volume to unity with your amp (the same level as when the pedal is off). Set the tone to around 11:00 and the gain/sustain to around 2:00. This is probably not perfect but that’s not the point. Now, lower the volume slightly and hear how the Muff sounds less compressed and perhaps a bit thinner but you will also hear more of those subtle harmonics much like with a fuzz pedal.
Next, increase the volume to slightly above unity. Hear how the pedal sound a bit fatter, darker and perhaps smoother as well. Increase the volume to around 75% and hear how the harmonics are almost gone and the tone is perhaps a bit too much compressed.
Now, 75% is obviously too much but it gives you an idea of what happens when you increase the volume on a pedal. Unity gain is usually a good start and often, just a hair is enough to find that sweetspot between a flat and sterile sounding pedal and one that sounds smooth and well balanced.
This exercise works best on a tube amp set as described above. Increasing the volume on the Big Muff (or whatever gain pedal you use) will drive the front end of your tube amp and create more compression and mid range. Again, using the right wattage for your location, will enable you to get the same result on both a large and a small amp, given that it’s set up with the right balance between the pre-amp and output stage.
I hope this gave you some insights to the importance of using volume as a part of your tone. Again, please use the comments field below and share your thoughts, experience and tips!