Despite being conceptually simplistic, getting your guitar volume “right” can be complex and problematic.
To be clear – a lot of that is no fault of the responsible guitarist.
Exterior factors like environment, indoor/outdoor acoustics, other musicians and a litany of additional variables can have an impact on how successful you are when it comes to optimizing your guitar’s volume levels.
And for the most part, we’ll avoid addressing those variables, simply because we have have little or no control over them.
I want to discuss volume optimization in the context of what we do have control over, because it’s more control than one might realize.
The “Traditional” Electric Guitar Rig and Some Assumptions
To loosely define a traditional guitar rig, Let’s begin with a few assumptions.
1. We’re dealing with one electric guitar and one amplifier.
2. There are no pedals involved.
3. Our amp has multiple channels.
So to be clear, this does not concern acoustic guitars, nor can it be fully applied to a rig where the amplifier has only one channel.
Most amplifiers will have between two and four channels.
Thus the goal of this article is to understand and learn how to manage volume in that context. So we can assume one guitar and one amp with at least two channels to work with.
The Three Dimensions of an Electric Guitar’s Volume
Most assume, perhaps fairly, that volume is a one-dimensional issue.
This is not always correct.
In most cases (and in the context we’ve outlined above), your electric guitar’s volume is going to be controlled in three different dimensions that include the following:
1. The Electric Guitar’s Built-In Volume Knob
2. Channel Volume (amplifier)
3. Master Volume (amplifier)
All three of these factors work together to produce your “final output.” Now we haven’t even considered external mixing entities like software, mixing boards and PA systems, which all add further complexities.
But for the purpose of this article, we’ll stick to our three-dimensional volume context.
We need to deal with them one at a time, learning how each one functions and impacts your signal and then, finally, how they all work together.
Let’s start with the electric guitar’s built-in volume knob.
1. The Volume Knob
Your electric guitar’s volume knob – in and of itself – is simple. Yet, it has sonic and tonal implications that go beyond a flat volume adjustment.
You’ve probably noticed that cutting the volume on your electric guitar alters the tone, in addition to shifting the volume lower. These tonal changes could be described in the following ways:
1. Bass reduction
2. Gain reduction.
3. Overdrive reduction.
4. Negative boost.
At the same time, if you’re a player that constantly keeps their volume knob at six or seven, pushing it to 10 would have the exact opposite effect.
The point is that the volume knob on your guitar acts a lot like a booster pedal.
It shapes tone because it’s changing the volume of the source of your guitar’s signal. That means it impacts your guitar’s pickups and electronics directly.
Here are a few typical results, based on a volume knob with a one to ten scale:
● Volume Always at 10: Full volume, gain and presence are going straight from your pickups into the amplifier.
● Cutting Volume to Six or Seven: This cuts gain and reduces the thickness of your tone, while cutting a smaller amount of volume.
● Cutting Volume to Less than Four: On most guitars this means a significant drop in volume and a tonal shift that will sound more “thin” or twangy.
So the signal that leaves your guitar has already been shaped tonally in a manner that’s likely similar to one of the scenarios we’ve mentioned here.
The question now becomes: What can we do with it when it reaches our amplifier?
2. The Channel Volume
As I mentioned earlier, most amplifiers have multiple channels. That means each channel has at least it’s own volume control and likely its own three-band EQ.
What we need to understand first is that your amp’s channel (whichever channel it may be) has the first say about what happens to your signal after it comes out of your guitar. That means you’ll want to deal with these configurations before handling master volume.
So how do we use channel volume to shape our guitar’s signal?
The primary reason for having multiple channels in an amplifier is to give you the ability to change volume on the fly and to allow you to work with multiple volume points without manipulating the sonic properties of your guitar’s signal.
Now, as I mentioned, most channels have their own three-band EQ and can (in some cases) even handle different effects being assigned to them.
So you can use channels to make tonal changes, if you so choose.
But if you’re just talking about volume, the channel volume changes the loudness of your signal without altering the tonal shape of your guitar’s output.
For example, you might have the following configuration on a three-channel amp:
● Channel 1 – Volume: 10 (for solos or lead sequences)
● Channel 2 – Volume: 7 (the “default” or go-to volume)
● Channel 3 – Volume: 5 (for quieter playing or background fills)
Channel volume allows you to set and prepare different levels of volume for different situations. However the compression stays the same across the board.
3. The Master Volume
This is perhaps the easiest of the three volume dimensions.
Master volume is simply the final level and the overall output of your entire rig. It’s the last-man-standing, if you will, before your signal is pushed out to a PA system, recording software or the open air.
And if you’ve understood the previous two volume aspects, this one is actually pretty easy to manage.
It’ll have more to do with your environment and situation than anything else. For example, playing at home means you’ll want master volume to come down, while playing a gig outdoors means you’ll need it to be a lot higher.
Either way, it’s an easy variable to manage, since it’s your final output.
You’ve just got to decide how loud you want it.
Post by Bobby Kittleberger who writes about all things guitar for the online guitar lesson website GuitarTricks.com. Guitar Tricks offers beginner guitar lessons for players wanting to learn both acoustic and electric guitar.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of RedTxarli