Marshall amps traditionally sound very good with the volume control at less then maximum
The humble volume control on your guitar is one of the most under-utilized controls in all of electric guitardom. Most people see us guitarists (deservedly so) as volume-dependent, knuckle-dragging oafs, who can’t play a single note without having 120 dB SPL at our disposal, and also having a similar understanding of musical dynamics as an aardvark has of freakonomics. Can this little knob just south of the strings help us get out of this sorry state?
The volume control
Well, it’s just a knob attached to a potentiometer (“pot” – no, not the smoking kind) that controls how much of your guitar signal that goes into your amp, and how much goes directly to ground. I’m not explaining what happens when the knob’s on ten!
When you turn it down, the first thing you’ll notice is that the sound gets, er, quieter. But hang on, there’s more to it! You’ll also probably notice that the high-end gets
duller smoother. OK, you’re probably thinking, I get less volume and less treble? Thanks, but no thanks!
A sympathetic amplifier
What you’ll need to learn the secrets of the rolled-down volume control is to a certain extent amplifier-dependent. I haven’t played all the amplifers in the world by far, but I’ve played enough of them to gather sufficient anecdotal evidence to see a pattern emerge. In short I’d say that most (not all) high gain amps are the least satisfying amps when it comes to playing at anything less than full volume. This especially applies to some Mesa/Boogie and Peavy models. By contrast, Marshall amps traditionally sound very good with the volume control at less then maximum, This also goes for the Rivera model I’ve played, and also the Suhr Badger.
To avoid the disappointing and anti-climactic effect that scares us away from turning down our volume controls, we have to present its sound and timbre in a way that lets its potential be shown. Specifically, the next time you turn on your amp, do it with your guitar’s volume at 6-7. When the amp has warmed up, play with this new sound until you get a little comfortable with it. Then, after playing for maybe five minutes, turn the volume up one step. Sounds exiting, doesn’t it? More volume, more high end… more overdrive perhaps? Continue playing at this new setting for another five minutes or so, and turn it up another step. Play some more, and when the time is right turn the volume up to ten. Am I right in guessing that your guitar never sounded so powerful to you before?
This leaves the amp with room to breathe
The point is that the order you do things in is important. If you normally start banging around on your guitar with massive volume and distortion when you first start playing, then of course turning down will sound disappointing and not feel very satisfying. If you start with the volume reduced to 7, however, you’ve left yourself somewhere to go dynamically.
The premise of this text is that you actually want to exert more control over the dynamics in your playing. If you play a genre of music that requires full thrust all of the time, the points I’ve made may not apply to you. If they do, however, I’d like to give you some advice on how you’d go about to get this control. I think it could be summed up succinctly: Get an amp that sounds good when it’s slightly overdriven. Dial in your sound with the guitar’s volume rolled down, and don’t be afraid to turn up the treble a bit higher than you’d normally do. The extra treble will heighten the effect when you turn your guitar full up. I would also recommend having a fuzz (read my post on the Fuzz Face) and/or an overdrive pedal (Tube Screamers are popular) to give you the necessary boost for high gain leads. This leaves the amp with room to breathe, and consequently a much more dynamic setting than you would have if you were to get all your overdrive directly from the amp. Alternatively, a clean boost (lots to choose from, e.g. Xotic RC Boost) could also work really well.
Most importantly, it needs to be practiced. Like all things concerning actually playing the damned thing, you need to work at it to get it to the point where it blends seamlessly into the rest of your style. Now, get cracking.