When you find them, they usually revolve around gear. What amp should I get for the sound that I want. What speakers, what pedals, what strings, what picks? This line of thinking can take a long time with experimentation and also become very expensive.
Sometimes you don’t have to look that far. Sometimes the gear that you already have could be just what you need, you just may not be using it to its full potential.
Have you ever seen one of your favorite guitar players play someone else’s guitar? Or maybe, they are sitting in with a band and just using an extra guitar and amp that was already there.
It may be a completely different setup than what you are used to hearing them play. And what happens: they still sound like themselves. They still sound pretty much the same, even though they are playing gear that is completely opposite than their normal one.
How is that? How can they do that?
It usually is because they are so familiar with their own sound that they may know several ways to get there, even using different instruments. Setting the gear in a way that responds to how they like to play is important and one of the most important aspects of electric guitar tone is dynamics.
Dynamics is commonly thought of as how hard or soft you pick or pluck your strings. That’s true, but, there is a lot more to it than that…especially with electric guitar. In short, it deals with ranges of volume.
Dynamics, although it’s thought of mostly as a technique in your playing, can also be affected by the different volume and gain settings of your setup as well. Changes in your guitar, pedal, and amp gain and level (not to mention your recording and live sound settings) can drastically affect your tone, the way you play, and the way the listener hears you.
Today I’m going to go over dynamics for the electric guitar and some best practices for setting the gain and levels for your electric guitar setup. I’m going over:
The general term of dynamics revolves around the varying degrees of loudness in a piece of music. For acoustic string instruments, this revolves around how hard or soft the notes and chords are picked, plucked or bowed.
The decisions that a player makes about their dynamics in a certain phrase can add another dimension to the emotion of that phrase. Dynamics are very powerful in music and the proper use of them can take a song or passage to a whole other level.
Just playing one note with a heavy hand can add weight and power where playing a note lightly and gently can add beauty. Next time you have your guitar around, try playing your favorite lick in several different ways.
Try soft, or very loud, or try starting soft and building up smoothly so that the end of the lick is at top volume.
Each time you alter the volume of your playing you add something different to the phrase. The music takes on a different meaning depending on how it is played.
This is so important. This is something that the listener picks up on…right away. Instinctively.
If dynamics speak to the listener, then we need to put them front and center. Spending an enormous amount of time worrying about scale choices and phrase ideas without paying any attention to dynamics is really missing a great deal. You are only dealing with part of the whole picture.
In written music, dynamics are included by using different symbols for different intensities. They revolve around the letter p (piano) which means soft and f (forte) which means loud.
We also have:
For most popular guitarists who aren’t reading sheet music, these are things that you need to keep in mind even though you may not have a written reminder.
So that is dynamics in a nutshell, the loud and soft playing of a musical phrase. As electric guitar players, we have a little more to deal with than that.
Let’s start with the guitar and work our way down a typical electric guitar signal. An electric guitar must have some sort of pickup.
There are lots of different types of pickups and that’s a topic for another day. We’ll just say that you have some type of pickup and it is followed by a few controls.
The most common is to have a volume and a tone control. The volume can be turned full counter clockwise to off or anywhere between there and full clockwise to raise the volume.
Pretty simple, it just gives the full signal of the guitar at 10 and lowers it down to nothing at 0. The tone knob is similar in that it gives the full signal of the guitar at 10, but this time it just lowers the high end, the treble, on the way to 0.
That’s it. Pretty straight forward. If you want to hear the guitar, turn up the volume. If you want to mellow out your tone, turn down the tone.
Most, especially like me in the beginning, turn up the volume to 10 and leave it there. As we go through this today, you will see how that is really missing a huge part of setting your different tones.
Ok before we continue on our travel through the guitar signal chain, we have something that needs to be talked about. Gain.
The easy, 2 cent definition is that Gain is your distortion control.
It controls the amount of breakup to your signal, independently from the volume control. Volume is a “clean” raising and lowering of the sound but Gain, while it does also raise and lower the volume also adds increasingly more distortion to the signal.
The thinking is that you adjust the gain first for the desired amount of distortion and then you adjust the volume control to control the overall level to your stomp boxes and amplifiers.
This has its roots in amplifiers that have a separate preamp volume control than the poweramp. The guitar would plug in and you could adjust the volume of the signal before it hits the preamp tubes, if it’s volume is over a certain threshold, the tubes would start to distort.
This gives you control over how much distortion is heard while you still have time to control the Master Volume for overall level.
You will see different names for this on different pedals and amplifiers.
Although there may be differences in the sound and the way the guitar signal breaks up between overdrive, fuzz, and distortion, which we will not get into here, they all add some sort of breakup to the guitar signal that can be controlled by this knob.
So understanding that, especially in the beginning is so very important. Try experimenting with your amp or pedals to hear the difference between the drive and volume knob.
Something else that needs to be understood is compression. Compression is something that limits the dynamics of a signal (how loud and how soft). The outcome is that there is a limited distance between the loudest and quietest sounds. (The signal is squashed).
In recording, compression is super valuable. It is used to make the soft sounds comparable to the loud ones. That way it’s easy to hear everything that is going on. It can be used on every instrument and over the whole track as well.
In guitar we have compression too. There are compressor pedals that can limit the dynamics of the guitar for a variety of different effects. These are cool pedals but they aren’t the reason that I’m bringing up compression today.
When we add distortion to a guitar signal, we are also adding compression. When the signal goes over a certain volume it starts to get clipped. The hottest sounds don’t have anymore headroom and they get squashed.
This gives us the drive sound that we are after. But, other than that sound, we also get something else that is beneficial….sustain. Or perceived sustain.
Because the loud parts aren’t so much louder anymore, when the signal starts to decay or die down it doesn’t change the volume so much. It seems to stay the same volume longer than an uncompressed signal does.
This is a very cool artifact of over-driving the signal and will definitely affect the dynamics you use on your instrument.
You’re picking dynamics take on a whole new meaning when using compression. Even if you play very softly, you will still be heard and when you play harder, your tone easily goes into a more saturated sound.
It’s basically easier to move from one sound to another using just your picking. This is often called touch sensitivity.
The next step in the guitar signal chain for a lot of us is a pedal of some sort. There are lots of different types of effect pedals. For what I’m talking about today, I’d like to deal with overdrive and distortion pedals.
A lot of guitarists, myself included, rely on pedals for their tone switching. Overdrive and distortion pedals are used to add gain and some volume to your amplifier.
Older amplifiers did not have pre-amp volume, just one volume knob. There wasn’t a way to add distortion to your sound, so you would use one of these stompboxes to add it in. The basic controls are a drive, volume, and some kind of tone knob.
They are used today in one of two ways. In front of a clean amp to provide the only distortion, or in front of an already distorted amp to add drive to it and/or add volume to push the already distorted signal even harder. Both ways are great and give really effective results.
In front of a clean amp, they are generally set with a slight volume boost. So you would set the drive to the amount of distortion that you want, find where the sound with the pedal on is the same volume as the pure amp signal, then raise the volume of the pedal a bit so that it gives a boost.
Typically the parts of a song that you would use distortion on are louder than where you would use clean, so a volume boost when you hit the pedal helps keep your volume in line with the rest of the song.
Some use overdrive pedals as an always on type pedal. This takes advantage of what I brought up before about rolling back your volume knob for your clean and turning it up for your drive sounds.
This can be awesome but you have to have the right pedal for this. Not all overdrive pedals clean up very well, which means that even though you turn down, you tone stays dirty.
The other way to use them, in front of a already distorted amp, is a great way to add more compression and more sustain.. Truly overdriving your amp. These have given countless classic lead tones and are a great way to get “More” from your amp.
First, turn on the pedal and match the volume to the pure amp tone. Add a bit of drive and raise the volume until you have a boost in level. That level should make your lead be able to be heard as a featured part of the song, similar to the level of the vocal.
So, let’s finish off this trip through the guitar signal chain at our last stop:
Amps are my favorite.
There is nothing quite like playing in front of a great amplifier that is cranked up to it’s sweet spot. Unfortunately, the opportunities for playing a powerful amp are getting less and less for guitarists.
Fortunately, with amp modeling we have ways of getting cranked up amp tones at reasonable volumes. The ideas for gain staging here will apply to both real amps and modeling amps. The ideas work both ways.
With amps, like I said before you may have a Clean amp with one volume control. These amps typically will give a bit of breakup as you crank them wide open.
You might also have an amp with a drive and master volume. Where as I said before, you can set how much distortion separately from how loud you are playing.
You might also have a channel switching amp. These amps will typically have one set of controls for a clean side and one set of controls for a dirty side. You will usually be able to switch between these channels with some sort of a footswitch.
You set up your sounds ahead of time and move back and forth between them as needed. With something like this, you might not need pedals at all.
A lot of guitarists work on their tone at home and then get frustrated when they bring it to a band or sit in with others. It might sound wonderful to practice with, but in an overly amplified setting, it doesn’t feel like it’s cutting it, and a lot of times the volume is the culprit.
Your tone could get lost in a mix or sound muddy or sound harsh. There are so many ways that this could go wrong. It’s always good to have a situation where you are able to work on your sounds at band level.
Usually it’s a practice. But even at a practice, it may be hard to get things set up correctly. Most of the time you are very close to your own amp and you don’t get a true idea of how your amp sounds overall.
Getting your volumes set up correctly is best accomplished with a little help. If you have a friend that you trust or a recorder that is set up a bit of a distance from where everyone is practicing, you will be able to make a better informed decision about where you need to be.
Even a super long cable or a wireless system that would allow you to walk off while you are playing a song could give you a good idea of the adjustments you need to make.
Once you have your volumes set for the three basic sounds that I recommend you start off with: clean, dirty, and lead, Then start to make adjustments to the low end.
A quiet practice tone will most likely have too much bass when it is cranked up to gig volumes. And sometimes that extra bass that happens with a cranked amp will make you rethink your tone choices. Just realize that you will have to adjust the bass with the volume.
Usually I match my rhythm tone to the drummer first. If I can get that volume correct, then the softer clean sound and the louder lead sound will fall into place.
Have the drummer play a bit of a typical song and jam rhythm along. Turn up until you can hear both clearly from your recorder or your friend says they sound nice together.
Add a little volume for lead and keep your clean a little quieter and you will be in the ballpark. Once you know that it sounds good out front you can get used to what you are hearing from your place on stage as being correct. That way you now have a reference point to work from.
What if you have a sound-man or someone else is insisting that you are too loud. This happens a lot to players that don’t use a lot of dynamics in their playing and their gain and volume setup. Players that keep their volume on their guitar wide open all of the time.
Try rolling back the volume on your guitar for rhythm for a while before you run back to change the settings on the amp. This change in dynamics could be all that is needed to give the sound-man and the listeners a break for a while.
Most can stand a very forward lead part as long as that volume doesn’t last too long. Your loudest sound (lead) may have been just right but your rhythm sound didn’t change at all, causing fatigue in the listeners at your venue.
All of what I have discussed today assumed that you are using a single amp to get the job done. But, what about an ideal situation. What about a situation where you could really sculpt each of your tones and levels independently from each other. Players like The Edge and Eric Johnson have been doing this for years with super dramatic results.
This would be a multi amp setup.
Players like this know exactly what each of their tones are and they select the pedals and amplifiers that are perfect for the job.
Eric Johnson uses Fender amps for clean tones, Marshall and other amps for rhythm, and Marshall for lead tones. Getting the volumes correct for each of these tones is critical for him when switching back and forth in this setup.
Especially, because his lead sound doesn’t have much high end (treble) in it at all. So, it needs a louder volume than the other amps because the lack of treble could cause it to be lost in the mix.
Having each sound in a separate amp gives ultimate control over how the gain,dynamics, and volume are set for each of his tones.
There are some drawbacks for a multi amp setup though. First is switching. Dedicated AB switching pedals are needed to switch between the amps. And this goes along with the second drawback: grounding issues.
When you have one guitar plugged into multiple amps, even if you have a switching pedal plugged in, there is usually something called a ground loop that happens.
This give a bad hum that is audible through your speakers that makes it impossible to play. This could be dangerous for the guitarist as well. Special switching pedals can be purchased or made DIY that defeat this ground loop.
The last drawback is the fact that you have to carry a lot more equipment with you in a multi amp setup. This becomes more of an issue as you get older.
So there it is, all things dynamics, gain, and volume. Today I went over:
While some of this seems pretty obvious, you wouldn’t believe how many players pay little to now attention to their dynamics and gain staging. Just making a point to get your levels and dynamics together can create a friction free gig and make you look like a pro.
I hope you take some of this information and apply it to your current playing situation or use it to prepare for your future musical endeavors.
Have you had any issues with getting your dynamics, gain, and volume together with your own setup? Let us know right here in the show notes.
Here are some links that I promised in the show from Island Styles. Highly recommended. Great guitar player!