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Tone Tip: Clean It Up

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

One of the things that players love most about Gibson guitars is that they yield a hot, fat, full-throated sound when compared to so many other makes and models. Whether your Gibson has PAF-style alnico humbuckers, hotter ’buckers like the ceramic 500T, or P-90 single coils, chances are it packs a bigger punch than most other instruments out there with inferior humbuckers or thinner single-coil pickups. Plug your Les PaulSG SpecialES-335, or Flying V straight into a vintage-style tube amp, crank it up, and wail. It’s the way the blues, classic rock, and even heavy metal were born.

Sometimes, however, you want a cleaner, tighter, more focused sound from your Gibson, for rhythm playing, jangly arpeggios, or just for styles of music a little further out of the grinding rock context. These guitars can provide clarity and definition when called upon to do so, fear not, but achieving this tonal shift is a less frustrating endeavor if you take a couple of tips to heart. Note that these are techniques that most players were aware of back in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, but which somehow drained out of the knowledge pool in the high-gain eras of the late ’70s and early ’80s when, more often than not, players thought they wanted more gain, rather than less. 
The solution to cleaning up that fat-sounding guitar is a simple one: show the amp’s first gain stage a slightly lower signal from the guitar in the first place. You know how all vintage amps, and many newer ones, have two inputs, a No. 1 and a No. 2 (sometimes marked High and Low respectively)? Well, plug yourself into No. 2 for a change, partner. Guitar pickups create a low voltage signal that is translated by an amplifier into the high-watt output that drives a speaker. The higher that voltage is from the guitar itself, the more likely it is to distort the first stage of the amplifier—and the hotter the pickup, the higher the voltage. Most players have long ignored input No. 2 because they assume they want the highest gain level at the front end at all times, but plugging into the lower-gain No. 2 input drops the dirt down a notch before it can distort the first gain stage of the amplifier, which is to say the first preamp tube, and lets you retain greater clarity, definition, and perceived brightness throughout the following stages of the amp. Distort that first gain stage and there’s no way of getting the clarity back; but give that first tube an easier signal to handle and you achieve greater headroom throughout the amp, and can still pump yourself up to required output levels with the Volume control, or even drive the output stage into a fatter, fuller form of distortion if you desire.

With the help of any good A/B/Y pedal, you can even use the difference in gain levels between the average No. 1 and No. 2 input to create an instant, preset boost that in many cases is just enough to take you from clean rhythm to slightly crunchy lead tones. Plug into the A/B/Y selector pedal, and connect its “A” out to input No. 2 and “B” to input No. 1. “A” yields your clean tone, and the “Y” selection (both) gives you a boost of about 6 dB for leads (when connected in this way, many amps sound about the same when merely switched between “A” and “B” because of the way the inputs are now ganged together, but selecting “Y”—both—gives you the hotter gain levels equivalent to input No. 1 alone). And if your amp only has one input? Heck, turn your guitar’s volume control down to clean it up. Either way, apply some clever gain-structure thinking through each stage of your sound chain, and you’ll find that, rather than being a crunch-and-beyond machine, your big-voiced Gibson electric will reveal a broadness and versatility of tone that you previously couldn’t have imagined. Clean it up, and you can always crank it up from there.