Guitar tone is an often tricky and debatable subject as it varies from person to person. Ultimately, it comes down to personal taste, the style of music you're playing and your playing technique. Guitar amplifiers can vary in design, build and components but the one fundamental uniform that spans across all of them is their signal path. From the preamp stage to the output stage, we have a limitless range of sonic possibilities. These simple hacks will help you discover the endless options your amplifier have by experimenting with gain and drive only.
1. “GAIN STAGING?” I don’t need that do I?
“Gain Staging” is a term you would most likely hear used in pro audio and studio environments, but it is also one of the most important tools in a guitarists swiss army knife of tone.” So, what is it?” you may ask. Gain Staging describes the method of balancing every part of a signal chain where you can add or attenuate (cut) gain. The goal of which is to achieve the maximum amount of headroom whilst minimising your total harmonic distortion. But in the guitar world, total harmonic distortion is awesome isn’t it? In the context of a tube amp or pedals we aim to drive and cut at the amps various gain stages and output for the perfect amount of breakup we require for our style of playing and the flavour of music we perform.
2. CRUNCH OR CLEAN, COLD OR HOT?
The aim isn’t just to go all out with an overdrive tone. By honing the character of your drive and clean tones, you open yourself up to endless sonic possibilities. You will find that all the creamy drive, fuzziness and buzz-saw like distortion can be dialed in by cranking the preamp tube stage of your amp. Thick, full-bodied chunk can be found down the line at the output stage. However, many amps can still achieve full-bodied tone from a well dialed preamp distortion as well. Cranking either the gain, drive or volume controls whilst reining in the overall output via the master, then slowly pulling back the pre-amp stage and ramping up the output is a simple way to experience the entire sonic capabilities of your amp whilst retaining the same overall volume level. Start with something like this to find your starting point when crafting your sound, whether it be glistening cleans or a solid wall of gain you can begin to understand the points of breakup and the character it can add.
3. THE FLEXIBILITY OF THE MODERN HIGH-GAIN AMP!
These days, you will find that most modern high-gain, multi-channel amps are vastly different to the simple volume and master amps of old. Drive and volume controls are usually available for individual channels and are then fed into a global master control for the final output stage. Try keeping the output levels the same with EQ the uniform throughout. Keep the gain high, channel volume low, and master sitting around half. Next try drive low, channel volume high, and master to flavour. Master master high, channel volume halfway, and drive to taste. With each of these options you are going to craft a tone that’s different enough to sound like it’s virtually an different amp. That’s gain staging working at its most fundemental form. Experiment with different options to mould and manipulate the amp and craft endless sonic possibilities.
4. VINTAGE AMPS AND THEIR “SWEET SPOT”
Most vintage amps have minimal gain staging, and just a single volume control (per channel) to control gain at the preamp stage; this drives into an open and wide output tube stage. Depending on your needs, vintage amps may require you to bring the gain staging before you hit the input of the amp. Different methods of this would involve either cranking the amp to achieve your desired level of crunch and grit, then winding down the guitar’s volume control for a cleaner tone. Alternatively setting the amp for your loudest required clean tone, then using a boost or overdrive pedal to drive and fool the tubes into easier breakup for lead tones. Experimentation is required here but once you dial into that “sweet spot” you'll never want to change your settings again. HOT TIP: Once you find your perfect settings, take a picture with your phone so that you can always get your settings back no matter what!
5. PULLING ATTENUATION OUT OF THE MAGICIANS HAT!
Over time many of us have learned tricks for reducing the amps gain at the first stage immediately after the input, which can often generate anything from thick, chiming clean tones to crunchy thickness and beef at higher volumes. The 12AX7 preamp tube found in the preamp section of many amps can accept a lower-gain 5751 or 6072 (12AY7) tube. This will push a lot less volume into the preamp stage, letting you send a much cleaner tone to the output stage and in response drive it harder in the output stage. Alternatively, you can plug into input #2, if your amp has one, to hit that ﬁrst preamp tube a little more gently. Try your options, experiment with different set ups and see what works best for you.
Whilst it may seem overwhelming with the endless options and possibilities your amplifier may have, experimenting with these hacks will be a great starting point on your quest for the ultmate tone. With near limitless ways to craft your sound within the amplifier alone, exploring all of them can become a daunting task. If you are struggling to find the tone that fits in your sonic vision, visit us in store and speak to any one of the team and they can provide any relevant information you may require. Or contact us - we'd be glad to help out!