Over the years I’ve realized that I have substantially backed off the gain on my tone yet it’s still big with plenty of sustain.The question is how can I still be able to do what I need to with half the amount of gain? Are amps that much different these days ? Am I just getting better where my hands are better at controlling everything? Lets look into this.
Technically, gain just means an increase in the signal level. Doesn’t matter where in the signal channel (or for us guitar players maybe the “tone process” is going to make more sense). It doesn’t matter if it’s on an amp or a pedal or even via the volume controls on your guitar, when you turn it up, you’re adding gain. But for us guitar players, we kind of all understand the word to mean cranking up the signal via either a pedal or the preamp stage of a guitar amp. But the kind of gain that is the Holy Grail of tone comes from the power stage of the amp. It’s different from garden-variety distortion. If you have ever listened to an AC/DC record listen how huge those guitars are yet upon closer listening the guitars are really pretty clean. (There’s a great and really detailed look at all of the ways to distort a guitar sound by Michael Ross on the Premier Guitar site.
As that piece by Mr. Ross makes clear, getting that kind of huge, not really distorted, voice-of-God power amp distortion means playing LOUD. But knowing how to control volume is something that comes with experience. I’ve noticed when I see a beginning player, they always seem to play way too loud and have way too much front-end gain. I get to judge many guitar contests and you can always tell the new players right away because they have the gain turned all the way up and are blaring. ProTip: When you have the gain all the way up, it really thins out the tone.I call it “Tin Foil On Fire” tone….
I have a recording studio where I track all my projects and do lots of experimenting with recording guitar tracks. I noticed pretty quickly many years ago when tracking heavy rhythm guitar tracks that if I backed the gain way back, that the guitar sounded bigger and jumped out of the mix. For me when I do it and as with the case of AC/DC and many others is that you use the power stage of your tube amp more than the preamp section. Basically it means that you are turning up the volume of the amp to get your gain and backing off the distortion . When an amp is up loud it will sustain depending on the amp some are louder than others.This is just an example and there are many different ways of doing this you just have to experiment.
Back in the day my gain on my amps was pegged on 10. Now the gain is on 7 and I don’t use any drive pedals. When I record I have the gain backed off to 4 or 5 at the most for distorted rhythm tracks. For leads I put it up just enough to get the sustain I need for the song.
My theory is that once a player starts maturing in his or her abilities, their touch and hands become more adept and they get a better tone without as much “help.” I really do believe that a lot of the tone of each player is at least 50% in their touch. Good gear is important, but I’ve seen Eddie Van Halen plug into really bad gear with a cheap guitar and when he plays that crappy gear, it still sounds like him. I’ve seen this with many big players. Someone with less experience plays through a set up and it sounds horrible and then the big-name player uses the exact same gear and it sounds great.
When it comes to tone, there is no one right way to do things. There are definitely lots of variables, but that’s part of the fun of being a guitar player. Now go out and experiment. Who knows? It might take you to the next level of your tone chasing journey.