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  • Writer's pictureAlex

Understanding How to Use Old School Playing Dynamics by Using Your Amplifiers Volume

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

Many modern guitarists don’t seem to understand how to how to use their gear to it’s fullest potential to get great tone. Whether it’s at home, or at a rehearsal, or at a gig, most players chase the newest pedal flavor of the month instead of trying to just get a great guitar and amplifier sound. I want to make the case for getting back to our guitar roots and getting a wealth of tones with just a guitar and amplifier!

Microphone places in front of a stereo.
Deluxe Reverb getting mic'd at high volume

Hello fellow gear enthusiasts, guitars students, and guitar lovers one and all!

I wanted to write a blog post designed to help every guitarist regardless of skill level.

There is a disturbing trend I’ve been noticing in the guitar community, and I’ve also been noticing it creep onto small stages through out the DFW Metroplex. I’ve been noticing quiet, if not seemingly silent stages when you go out to see live music. As result, the guitar tones I’m hearing are rather thin, anemic, and lacking tonal body and the guitar sounds tend to jump erratically with the addition of guitar pedals. “I’m on a mission from god”-I just inserted a classic Blues Brothers reference for those of you too young to know what I’m talking about-to help guitarists get their live guitar tone back by turning it back up. I don’t mean turning it up to intolerable levels that will make everyone run for the exit, or make your neighbors hate you. Just getting everything cooking enough to where you can get a fuller useable tone, or how about thinking about being equal with the drummer?? I’m of the opinion where all bands and musicians sound better when they can hear themselves equally playing in the moment with little help from the playback monitors. If you try this out I think you can actually get so much more variation with just a guitar, a cable, and an amplifier. So, what’s most important is to remember:

Great Guitar + Great Instrument Cable + Great Guitar Amplifer = One Instrument That Sounds Good!

The core of any great guitar sound is the magical combination of guitar, great audio quality instrument cables, and an amplifier, and if you have this side of the tone equation figured out for how you play guitar you are already 90% of the way to getting what you want without ever plugging into an effects pedal. While this may sound sacrilege for those of you who know me and my propensity for playing with effect pedals, but getting the best tone you can with just a guitar and an amplifier means that when you add that one pedal to your sound you can only improve your overall starting sound of a great guitar and amplifier. What I’m talking about is your guitar tone should be sonically pleasing, strong, and inspiring to you before you ever mess with pedals!

Think about how many classic guitar riffs were created with an electric guitar and an amplifier. When viewed through a modern playing lens this might seem like rather limited approach to playing guitar, but creativity can often seem to excel when it is limited strangely enough. Many of our favorite players like Jimi Hendrix, Angus Young, Slash, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, and Joe Perry all wrote some of their best music with just the magical interaction of a guitar and an amplifier working in conjunction together. There is a reinforcement loop that happens when you turn a guitar amp up and as you play some phrases the amplifier’s speakers push some full musical air into the room. It keeps feeding your playing because you’re filling out the room and sounding great, the guitar and amp are working off of each other and you keep pushing it farther and farther to see how far you can take it musically. When you play guitar at much lower volumes, the amplifier doesn’t feed a large amount of voltage to the tubes so what ends up happen is you have a more of what you play is what you get type of guitar tone. There isn’t much variation from guitar to guitar, and everything tends to sound a little bit stale.

For those of you who haven’t experienced the magic that can happen in a room when your guitar and amplifier are just slaying it, let me try to describe it to you. Once you hit a certain volume threshold you may start to get some righteous feedback in your playing phrases, and you’ll naturally start to move your body as if you’re trying to ride the wave like a surfer and keep your guitar positioned to keep feedback in your notes. It’s exciting, and it keeps you continually playing in an addiction like mentality. This continual addiction to playing within in the volume threshold of a particular guitar and amplifier combination can literally inform and inspire your guitar playing in the moment while you’re playing music. The inclination for many players is to naturally play fewer notes and “milk” every last drop of sustain out of the instrument combination while they play the notes they choose. The music always sounds more dynamic and inspired as result! There is something special about hearing your guitar sound fill the room you are using acoustically and then playing with how much you fill out the room for parts of a song.

How to Effectively Use Your Amplifier’s Volume Dynamically!

These days most guitarists, and seemingly most sound technicians, want little to no stage or in-home volume. Guitarists are favoring effect pedals to kick on precisely when they want a distortion tone but the volume levels tend to drastically jump making it difficult to control. While in theory I do understand why guitarists want to compartmentalize their different sounding tones for exactly when they need them, in practice they are shooting themselves in the foot for how they represent themselves with their overall sound quality. This says to me many modern guitarists do not have a clear understanding of playing dynamics. Remember the guitar is not a synthesizer. It doesn’t work best if you think of it as always on or off.

Too many players use their volume controls strictly on ten all the time. A volume potentiometer has a wide sweep range from one to ten and if you set your amplifier correctly you can actually get a wide range of different guitar sounds with the volume knob. The real secret is the amplifier itself has to be loud enough for the volume potentiometer on the guitar to have a real different sounding sweep. When you have your guitar plugged into your amplifier set very low say on two, yes going from one to ten on your guitar’s volume knob will technically increase in volume. There just won’t be very much deviation between the range of the guitar’s volume knob. But with the amplifier itself set much higher say on six, roughly two quarters of the way through it’s headroom, five on your guitar’s volume knob will sound rather clean, seven with sound much fuller with a bit of tube breakup if you “dig in”, or pick harder for certain sections of music, and what’s great is if you need more distortion/power as you play you still have three clicks up the volume knob ranging from subtle distortion to full out rocking sustain to get there as a backup if you need it. That’s like five great different sounds right there alone.

Here’s another bit to think about. If you play Stratocasters for example like yours truly, if you switch pickups while you play in conjunction with your guitar’s volume and tones knobs while your amplifier is set this way, you multiply the amounts of tones you get infinitely. A Fender Stratocaster typically has a five way pickup selector switch. So, if you multiply the five different sounding pickup positions with the at least five different sounds you can get from your volume knob, now you can achieve roughly twenty-five different sounding tones! Add in using your Stratocaster’s dual tone controls while you play this way and it becomes much easier to understand how our favorite guitarists got so far with seemingly so little to work with! Adding pedals to this concept can augment your new highly dynamic core tone with tons more variation.

An example of how I play my guitars this way would be how I like to set my vintage 1966 Deluxe Reverb for my use in my living room at home. I usually plug in one of my favorite Fender Stratocasters into the Deluxe Reverb set at about six or seven and the EQ on the amplifier both set on five, or as it’s more commonly referred to as acoustically “flat”, meaning I can hear the bass and treble sounds of my guitar sound equally. Playing on the bridge pickup of the Stratocaster on six I can get a really great clear rhythm tone that’s great for R&B styled chord progressions. If I turn the guitar’s volume all the way up to ten I get a bright, very loud, sometimes ice picky, aggressive distortion. I usually will turn my tone control down a hair here to reduce the cutting high frequencies that I find harsh and off putting to my ears for a different tone. For most of my playing rhythm playing I live around six or seven on the volume control. For leads I will switch to my neck pickup to get a fuller, bassier sounding tone that can get really full lines. Full out on ten is really incredible and sweet sounding. Then when I get back to the rhythm playing I turn down back to seven and adjust my pickups and tone for the next section of the song. I like the middle pickup on a Stratocaster for chords with more open strings because I can get more ringing out of the sound. In playing this way you can really separate yourself in your playing by making different sections of songs really shine with variation and not make the guitar itself seem so monotonous.

Feel free to experiment with your own guitar and amplifier combination to try and find the sweet spot for you and the room you are playing in! However, I really think changing your approach to playing this way will get you a far more usable amount of tones when you play, and make you sound more musical overall!



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