How to use volume and gain to create killer guitar tones

Volume

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.

Amplifiers

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.

Volume Laney Lionheart

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.

Volume guitar

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.

Volume pedal

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!

New solo album out May 19th – preorder now!

In a unrelated to David Gilmour post, I’m very excited to announce the release of my second solo album, Forever Comes to an End! Set for a May 19th release it is now possible to pre-order the album and get your copy personally signed by me.

Forever Comes to an End is the follow-up to my 2014 debut, Lullabies in a Car Crash. The album feature 7 songs with musical inspirations from Pink Floyd, David Gilmour, Porcupine Tree, Black Sabbath and movie scores. It’s very much a guitar oriented album, with everything from lush soundscapes and soaring lead work to heavy riffing.

Produced by me, Forever Comes to an End is engineered by long.time collaborator Vegard Sleipnes at Subsonic Society in Oslo, Norway and mastered on analog tape at Reel to Reel Mastering.

The album is available on limited edition digisleeve CD and a beautiful 180g vinyl presented in a uncoated reverse jacked.

Listen to the title track from the album here.

Head on over to my website and shop at www.bjornriis.com and place your order now!

Vick Audio 1861 fuzz review

Vick Audio 1861

I’ve been following, and a great fan of, Vick Audio for some years now and I’m always excited when new they release new pedals. The latest addition to their catalog is the 1861, a fuzz based on the early 90s Sovtek Big Muff. Here’s my review.

I’ve told the story before but my very first Big Muff was a green Sovtek bubble font that I bought new around 1995-96. There’s a never ending debate on which is better, the Civil War, the green tall font or bubble font?

I’ve played them all but none has really come close to my old green tank. Perhaps it’s nostalgia or affection but it really doesn’t matter. Tone is subjective and based on personal preference.

I’ve reviewed several pedals from Vick Audio over the years, including the ’73 Ram’s Head (which has often found its way to my stage board), the Overdriver and (one of my all time favourite overdrives) the Tree of Life. All of them done with great care and understanding of how the original pedals sounded like and what improvements needed to be done, without compromising tone.

The 1861 is based on the early 90s Sovtek Big Muff, a.k.a. the Civil War (due to its blue and grey colours). This was one of the first Big Muff made by Electro Harmonix founder Mike Mathews after he moved to Russia.

David Gilmour famously used a Civil War Big Muff during the recording of Divison Bell and on the 1994 tour, which was recorded for the PULSE live album and DVD. The pedal was once again added in late 2015 for the last leg of the Rattle That Lock tour.

While those early 70s ram’s head and triangle Muffs comes off as fairly bright and uncompressed, the early 90s Sovteks and the Vick Audio 1861 has a smooth and warm tone, with great sounding harmonics. With a moderate gain setting and the guitar volume rolled back slightly, you start to hear these subtle nuances and that fat, woody tone.

The 1861 has plenty of sustain and despite the fairly high amount of gain and low end, the pedal has very little noise so it’s easy to achieve those sustained notes without everything breaking into messy feedback and low frequency rumble.

As with all of the Big Muffs from Vick Audio, the 1861 features the 3-way toggle switch for different mid range modes. Flat is the stock mode, with a slightly scooped curve. This brings out those sweet harmonics but you might find it a tad too thin on low output pickups. Flat equals a slight mid range boost compared to stock. It’s fairly moderate but enough to add a bit more smoothness and presence.

Boost provides a noticeable mid range hump, with lots of presence and an overall smoother and fatter tone. This is excellent for bedroom setups and amps that has less mid range but be careful with this on amps like Marshall and Hiwatt and humbucker pickups, that already has a lot of mid range and compression.

Where the 1861 surprised me the most was when I set the gain to about 9 o’clock and the mid range switch to flat and used my Les Paul with P90s. I got a super fat overdrive tone, with an amazing sustain and these harmonics that responded incredibly well to my playing.

The 1861 is perhaps not as huge sounding as some of the clones out there or the original models. But that’s not a negative thing in my opinion. Some of the Sovek models can be a bit hard to tame and the low end especially can be a bit overwhelming. The 1861 seems more balanced and again, it’s easy to get some really nice overdrive tones on lower gain settings.

My only (minor) concern is that there isn’t a lot of volume available. You really need to crank it to reach unity or a slight boost. As most of my gain pedals are set up for a slight volume boost, I would have to pair the 1861 with a booster pedal or EQ to get the same result, which I think is a bit redundant. The pedal should be able to produce enough volume on its own.

Still, the 1861 is an excellent addition to the already huge Big Muff family. The 3-way mid range switch and moderate gain, makes it ideal for achieving those huge fuzz tones on smaller amps and bedroom setups. Pair it up with a transparent booster and a loud tube amp and you’re very close to David Gilmour’s epic 1994 tones.

Visit vickaudio.com for more details.

Top 5 David Gilmour guest appearances

David Gilmour guest appearances

David Gilmour has done some memorable guest appearances over the years. His instantly recognisable tone and soulful playing is often what makes those songs so special. At least to me. In this feature I’ll share my top 5 guest appearances by David.

Remember back in the mid 80s when MTV was playing music? Real music? I was about 10, I guess, when I first saw Paul McCartney upon the rooftop singing No More Lonely Nights. Obviously, I knew who Paul was but what caught my attention, every time, was this guitar solo.

At the time, my life was basically all about hard rock. I knew nothing about Pink Floyd nor David Gilmour, but I knew I liked this guitar solo that I heard. For all I cared, it could be McCartney himself playing guitar. Years later, having become a Floyd fan, I heard the song again and then it hit me who it was. No wonder I liked it!

David did a lot of guest appearances in the late 80s and early 90s. This was a time when few outside the business and the hardcore fan base knew his name. People knew Pink Floyd but ask a guy on the street who David Gilmour was and he would probably shake his head. David was not chosen as a guest player because of his name but his playing and tone.

As a guest musician, David often repeats himself. You’ve often heard the lick or tone before but that’s kind of the nature of the gig too. A guest musician is often asked to “do that thing that you do”. Artists choose you because they want that tone on their song or album. Still, it’s remarkable how well David’s playing always fits in and how it almost always takes centre stage.

Here are my top 5 guest appearances by David.

Paul McCartney – No More Lonely Nights (1984)

Despite the otherwise boring album, McCartney deliver a timeless ballad, beautifully arranged and of course, with David’s guitar as the definitive highpoint. It’s one of the few songs I know that doesn’t get an early fade out when played on the radio.

One of my favourite moments is that first lick after the first line in the chorus. There’s nothing subtle about it and the guitar just rips through the whole mix and grabs the listener. It’s a perfect hook.

The song has a warm feel and the lyrics makes you just want to curl up in your sofa but as a contrast, the guitar is cold and aggressive giving the impression of anger and resentment.

To me, this is a perfect pop song. I love everything about it and it’s always been one of my favourite Gilmour moments. Perhaps, partly because it hit me just when I started to discover music but it’s been a huge inspiration for me and my own music and I often have that rainy atmosphere and David’s tone in the back of my head when I’m writing.

For the session David used his 1983 fiesta red ’63 reissue Fender Stratocaster into a (possibly two) Fender Concert amp. At that point, the guitar had been modified with a Roland synthesiser pickup driving a Roland GR700 processor.

It’s hard to tell whether he used the Roland setup. It does’t sound like it and the effects rack used on the About Face tour can be spotted in the studio. If I were to guess, I would say that he used a Boss CS2 compressor into either a ram’s head Big Muff or Boss HM-2 (the latter possibly in combo with a Mesa Boogie MkI head), with a Boss CE2 chorus and MXR digital delay.




Bryan Ferry – Is Your Love Strong Enough

I’ve always been a huge Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry fan and David has done a lot of work with Ferry over the years. Is Your Love Strong Enough (featured on the Legend soundtrack), was recorded in 1985, shortly after the McCartney collaboration and you can hear the resemblance in the way David approaches his tone and playing.

While No More Lonely Nights has this intimate and down to earth feel, this song is bombastic and huge sounding. David delivers a flashy guitar solo that fits the song perfectly, with some amazing bends and whammy bar moves.

But let’s face it. David doesn’t really fit the rock star image and the way he is portrayed in the video, coming out of that wall covered in light and smoke, is so out of character. Still, we get a glimpse of the #0001 Stratocaster, which at least at the time, had rarely been seen.

It’s hard to tell what he used for the session. Although the tone is familiar, it is less typical than No More Lonely Nights and other work sounding a bit mid rangy and dark. Ferry often like to produce the guitars himself, so there might have been the case of David using whatever gear, or at least effects, he was handed although there’s a lot of processing you can do to a recorded guitar in the mixing.

Jeff Beck – Jerusalem (Live at RAH 2009)

This one pretty much speaks for it self. Two of the greatest guitarists on the same stage, clearly showing huge admiration for each other. Jeff Beck’s version Jerusalem is in itself a masterpiece and it was such a surprise to see them do this together.

This is by no means a perfect performance from David. It’s kind of typical of him concentrating on everything sounding perfect, rather than what he’s actually playing. Still, once he gets everything sorted out, he delivers beautifully with an amazing feel.

It’s also interesting to hear how much more technical Beck is and apart the fact that he’s played this song numerous times, he’s seemingly more on top of his game. But listen to David and the way he’s improvising, clearly revealing his deep blues roots. To me, this performance shows just how emotional David’s playing is and it says a lot about why he’s so much more than just the epic Floyd solos.

Setupwise, you can spot three Alessandro tube heads on top of two WEM speaker cabinets and of course, the Black Strat. He’s using the Pete Cornish MkII All Tubes pedal board, with a Tube Driver and delay (and possibly some compression).

Paul McCartney – No Other Baby

Back in 1999 I was starved for anything Gilmour related. It had already been five years since the last Floyd album and tour and apart from the occasional guest appearance, there was just a deafening silence. Then, this album appeared with David being the main guitarist on all the songs.

I’m not sure what I had expected. I knew it was Paul returning to his roots, with a few covers and some new original material but I guess I had expected David to sound like, well, David. He didn’t.

Still, I listened to the album a lot and when the Cavern gig turned up on DVD I thought it was so cool to see David up on that small stage doing something completely different. And it sounded great!

Again, this is a great example of how you can hear a song and as soon as the guitar enters, you go “Ah! I know who’s playing!” The solo is simple but there’s no doubt who’s doing those bends and the little fills in between. 



On this live clip from Live at the Cavern Club, David’s using his ’55 Fender Esquire into a Fender Bassman, with the Pete Cornish All Tubes MkI pedal board. The main effect setup for the show, including No Other Baby, was a Tube Driver with a hint of delay and probably some compression when needed.

Paul Rogers – Standing Around Crying

Standing Around Crying was originally written and recorded by blues legend Muddy Waters in the mid 50s. Paul Rogers (Free/Bad Company) and David Gilmour recorded this version for the 1993 tribute album Muddy Waters Blues, which featured an impressive list of guitar greats.

David’s performance and tone is typical of how he sounded in the early 90s and the many guest appearances he did during that period. You can hear the same approach on songs like Heaven Can Wait (Paul Young), I Put a Spell on You (Mica Paris) and Understanding Women (Elton John).

What I love about this version, apart from David’s amazing tone, is that you can hear where his blues influences are coming from. There’s lots of BB King, Albert King and Peter Green in there and you can almost pin point each lick to each legend. Still, it sounds like David and he’s added something new and unique to the classic style.

I also love that you can hear that this is clearly a single run through (or at least very little editing). It’s not perfect and there are all these little mistakes and fret noises but that’s also the beauty of the performance.

There are no records from the sessions, as far as I know, but it is likely that he used the candy apple red 1983 Fender ’57 reissue Stratocaster, with the EMG pickups into a Fender Bassman or Deluxe. It could have been a Hiwatt SA212 combo but to my ears, the tone sound less mid rangy, which hints towards a Fender.

Effectswise I would assume he used a Chandler Tube Driver, possibly with a Boss CS-2 in front, with a Boss CE-2 chorus and the MXR Digital Delay rack.

So, there you have it! My top 5 David Gilmour guest appearances. I’m sure you have a different list and maybe I forgot one or two gems? Please share!

SviSound OverZoid+ and Optical Phaser review

Svisound Overzoid Optical Phaser

Choosing the right overdrive for your amp can be tricky. The wrong pedal with the wrong amp can sound pretty shitty. However, if you do hit the spot, nothing sounds better. Bulgarian pedal makers, SviSound, recently released the OverZoid+, which promise to deliver anything from clean boost to fuzz. This review will also cover their Optical Phaser mini pedal.

I did a review of the OverZoid about a year ago. It was my first encounter with SviSound and I was very impressed. They’re pedals looks amazing! It’s a work of art – both the insides and the exterior design.

Both the OverZoid+ and the Optical Phaser are beautifully designed and, although design certainly isn’t crucial for the pedal’s tone, it sure is cool to have something like this on the board. It’s not all for show though. They’re extremely well built with high quality components.

OverZoid +

The OverZoid + is the new beefed up version of the OverZoid. While the standard edition feature three controls for gain, tone and volume, the OZ+ has a second gain stage for boost, switchable mostfet or germanium modes and a bass boost.

As the OverZoid, and most of the SviSound pedals, the OZ+ has a lot of mid range and compression. There’s plenty of headroom here, allowing a nice clean, and fairly transparent, boost but the overall tone and character is close to the 808/Klon family of pedals.

On a Marshall or Hiwatt, this might be a bit overwhelming but as we discussed in the “Knowing which Pedals to Choose for your Amp” feature, amps that doesn’t have that mid range and compression, needs pedals that can compensate for the lack of it and make the amp sound bigger and fuller, especially on lower volume levels and in a typical bedroom setup.

As mentioned, the OZ+ is capable of providing a nice clean boost. Single coils and brighter amps, sound warmer and more chunky. There’s a lot of volume on tap here so you can easily boost the front end of your tube amp as well, for a natural tube break up.

Switching between the mostfet and germanium stages reveals the versatility of the OZ+. The Mosfet is obviously more modern sounding, smoother and warmer. I prefer this for that clean boost and the milder overdrive tones. Increase the gain and you’re very close to a Tube Driver and OCD.

The germanium stage takes the OZ+ closer to the classic DOD 250 and MXR Distortion+, with a more 70s sounding character, rich dynamics and a crisp attack. For high gain tones, and the boost engaged, you can easily reach some really awesome fuzz tones, with some amazing sustain.

Like the standard OZ, the OZ+ also feature a switchable bass boost, which is handy for smaller amps and low output pickups or, if you just want more of that low end growl.

The OverZoid+ is highly recommended if you’re in for a versatile overdrive work station for your Fender amps and bedroom setups.

Optical Phaser Techno-FA

The Optical Phaser, from SviSound’s Techno range, is based on both the classic 4-stage Phase 90 and the 2-stage Phase 45.

In addition to the familiar speed control, or frequency as its called here, the pedal feature controls for range (controlling the width of the sweep), depth (amount of effect) and brightness (boosting the high end frequencies for more presence and clarity). There’s also switches for choosing either 4-stage or 2-stage phasing.

The 4-stage is very close to the classic Phase 90. You got that warm, chunky analog phasing that’s spot on David Gilmour’s Wish You Were Here tones and of course all the other greats that have used it.

I have always been a fan of the 2-stage Phase 45. It’s really one of the underrated pedals that should have gotten more praise and attention. The subtle phasing, almost Uni-Vibe-ish, adds a warm and subtle modulation to your tones, making overdrives in particular, more alive and dynamic.

The Optical Phaser does a great job replicating both phasers and with the additional controls, this is probably the most versatile phaser on the market.

See SviSound.com for more.