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Tone Tip: Use Your Volume Control!

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

This Tone Tip is about as simple as it gets, but it’s one that—once understood, and mastered―proves a surprising revelation to many players. During what I would reverentially refer to as the Golden Age of Tone, the late 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, this tip was second nature to great electric guitarists. It seems to have fallen from the knowledge bank, however, in the “high-gain era,” the late 1970s and ’80s, when everything was multi-channel, supercharged, and hotrodded. But long before the propagation of channel switching, the master volume, and massive pedalboards, legendary rock players still had a straightforward means of achieving clean, crunch, and lead tones―right from the guitar even. They set their tube amps for the best lead sound they could achieve, turned the guitar’s volume knob down a little for crunch, and turned it down a little more for clean. That was it: the volume control was used like it was meant to be, as a remote appendage of the amp’s controls. Work with this yourself, and you can get a lot out of this control right here in the 21st century.

Now, this technique works best with vintage-style tube amps, certainly. This includes not only old classics of that aforementioned Golden Age of Tone, but latter-day tube amps made in a similar style, with relatively uncluttered signal paths and a big, natural overdrive achieved by just cranking them up. Among these are amps such as Gibson’s little GA5 Les Paul Junior or medium-sized GA20RVT. After a certain point these amps don’t get any louder (I’m thinking, in most cases, of volume settings between about 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock—max—on the dial), they just break up more and compress more. Crank them up, though, and wind down your guitar’s volume control, and you get surprisingly rich, dynamic clean tones that are often far more appealing and playable than the tones achieved by turning the amp down to a comparable volume with the guitar turned up all the way. In between, you get thick crunch tones, and these real-tube crunch and lead tones are very difficult to replicate with overdrive or distortion pedals.

All of this might seem just a little “too easy to be true,” but it works for very scientific reasons that have to do with the electrical interaction between a guitar and a tube amplifier. Even though your guitar is not “plugged in” to the AC mains power, and carries no “live” current, it does produce an electrical current, which is the form your precious signal—your tone—takes in order to reach your amplifier (or DI, or recording interface). Pluck a string, and your guitar’s pickups convert that energy to a signal voltage that is carried down the wire to the grid of the first tube in your amp’s preamp stage. With your guitar’s volume controls turned up, that voltage is around one volt from a Gibson humbucking or P-90 pickup, or around half a volt from a weaker single-coil pickup. Turn your volume controls down, and a lower signal voltage is sent to the tube. Or just pick the string very lightly, even, and the signal voltage decreases, and because there’s a direct correlation between the level of the signal voltage that that first preamp tube sees and the degree to which the amp distorts, you’ve got a very real and direct means of controlling your distortion levels at the guitar’s volume control, and even with your own pick attack.

Try it out. Even on a channel-switching amp you can achieve it, in many cases, by cranking up your clean channel, or sometimes even by adjusting your lead channel to suitable levels. With non-foot-switchable amps, however, this technique opens up entire new worlds of tone. I have known dozens of players who were madly in love with the lush, raw overdrive tone of their cranked vintage-style or reissue or boutique tube amps, but needed clean tones in the course of their set too, so they kept the amp reigned in and achieved their lead tones with pedals (which are useful and occasionally very toneful in their own right, don’t get me wrong; they just rarely sound quite like a full-throttle tube amp). Play around with your amp levels, learn where you need to roll your guitar’s volume(s) to in order to achieve the desired changes, and you’ll soon discover you’ve got far more control over your tone.

Many guitars darken up a little when you turn them down because the loss of highs is emphasized more than the overall volume cut. Some players work with this, using it to mellow out their tone, then brighten it up at full volume for solos that really cut through. Other players find it a little bit of a problem with the “turn it down” technique. That’s why Gibson’s ES-339 carries its special Memphis Tone Circuit, specifically designed to retain the guitar’s full tone when turned down. But you can also achieve this on your own guitar with one of the simplest modifications you can perform. The addition of a small .001uF capacitor between the input terminal on each pickup’s volume potentiometer (the terminal to which the pickup’s own hot lead, or the hot lead from the switch, is connected) and the middle terminal on the pot allows some of the highs to pass through into the signal even when the volume control is turned down. Some guitar techs also like to add a small 150k to 300k ohm resistor in the same position so some lows pass through along with the highs, so the tone doesn’t thin out too much. If you are experienced with a soldering iron and guitar wiring (if you perform your own pickup swaps, for example) you will probably be able to do this yourself. Otherwise, take this idea and your guitar to your local Gibson Authorized Repair Center. Also, be aware that you want to avoid devaluing any vintage or collectible instrument, and check that such a modification doesn’t invalidate your guitar’s warranty. This minor modification can often be performed in a way that uses minimal solder and can be reversed in the future with little or no trace of the work ever having been done, if necessary.

Either way, play with the very real interaction between guitar and amp, and discover a magical—and magically simple—means of governing your guitar’s dynamics and your clean, crunch, and lead tones.