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When we talk guitar volume, we’ve got to assume three different components; the guitar itself, amplifiers and effects.
Each piece can either increase or reduce our output, so if we want to learn to do volume the right way, we have to learn how it functions in all three areas.
Gear I Used in this Post
- Dunlop High Gain Volume Pedal
- Line 6 Spider IV 150-Watt Amplifier
- PRS CE 24 Electric Guitar
- Boss MD-2 Distortion Pedal
We also need to understand how guitar volume interacts between different parts of a rig.
Let’s start simple, and focus on guitar volume from the guitar itself.
Since the signal starts in your guitar, it’s important that you know the fullest your signal can be is when your guitars volume knob is all the way up.
…the fullest your signal can be is when your guitar’s volume knob is all the way up.
That’s why you can cut the volume on your guitar back, crank your amp and still not recover the same tone you had with your guitar’s volume all the way up. Dropping the volume on your guitar takes away certain tonal qualities that you can’t recover through an amp or pedal, so unless you want to intentionally change your tone, it’s smart to keep the volume on your guitar all the way up.
Depending on the guitar, certain sounds are achieved and preferred with the volume cut back.
For example, classic distortions or 1950s rockabilly sounds are more easily replicated when the volume on the guitar is cut back to five or six.
It just depends on the kind of sound you want.
Think about when you’re using an iPod in your car. You’ve got your iPod volume and your stereo’s volume.
If your guitar corresponds to the iPod then your amp corresponds to the stereo’s volume and functions the same way. They’re both amplifiers that are taking a signal and increasing its strength, therefore making it sound louder than it actually is.
That’s why an amplifier’s wattage is directly correlated with how loud it’s capable of getting. The higher the wattage, the more it’s able to amplify the signal coming from the guitar.
Effects and Pedals
Pedals can come equipped with an ability to amplify a signal that’s similar to what an amplifier does. Consider the following settings that you’ll often see on a pedal.
Most of the time, these settings will add a certain level of volume to the signal before it gets to your amp. You’ll usually have these on compressors, distortion pedals or booster effects. Once you add the volume of an individual pedal (or of several) maintaining the right volume for a given situation gets a little more complicated.
Let’s run through a step-by-step process of how to set our volume on a given day.
How to Set Guitar Volume
The infographic below gives you three options.
- Starting Point
- Lead Boost
- Distortion and a Clean Amplifier
The starting point is just so you have a reference to use. It’s basically saying that you should start with your guitar knob cranked and your amp volume matched up with the volume of whatever pedal you’re using.
Up to this point, we’re assuming that you don’t need any kind of variation in your volume.
If you do, you’ll generally be looking at either a slight lead boost, with a booster pedal or compressor, or a configuration where you’re using a distortion pedal along with a clean amp.
In my experience, those are the two most common.
Everything in the graphic is on a scale of one to ten.
If you want to add the graphic to your website or share it, use the following embed code, or simply save the image.
Getting Volume Right with a Band
Now that you have volume right when you’re playing on your own, you should learn how to set your volume once joined to a band.
It’s far less of an exact science, once you consider the number of people involved, types of instruments and where you’re playing.
For our purposes, we’ll assume the conventional situation.
- Four-Piece Group
- Drums and Bass
- Electric Guitar (you)
- Acoustic Guitar (lead vocalist)
This is a fairly common band structure, so we’ll use it talk about how your guitar’s volume should fit in with everyone else.
The first thing you need to be aware of is that vocals are always going to be the most prominent feature of a band. If they aren’t just a little bit louder than everything else, then getting guitar volume right does little good.
Acoustic Guitar and Electric Guitar
Since the guitars are instruments of decor, they should be the next most noticeable. They’ll be lower than the vocals, but higher than the drums and bass. The electric guitar should be a notch or two louder than the acoustic as well.
Drums and Bass
The foundational instruments should be just a little bit lower than the decorative instruments, but not much.
So when it’s a full band, let the vocals set the standard. If we call the vocals 10, or the loudest, I’d number everything like this on a scale of one to ten.
- Vocals: 10
- Electric Guitar: 8
- Acoustic Guitar: 7
- Bass and Drums: 6
So the most distinguishable jump should come when you go from electric guitar to vocals. For a louder and more rhythm heavy set, you can put the bass and drums into their own categories and base everything off of the volume of the drum kit.
- Drums: 10
- Vocals: 12 (louder than the drums)
- Bass: 7
- Electric Guitar: 9
- Acoustic Guitar: 8
For acoustic sets, or quieter styles like jazz or easy-listening, put the vocals back in front and give the bass a little more volume.
- Vocals: 10
- Bass: 8
- Electric Guitar: 7
- Drums: 6
- Acoustic Guitar: 5
Dealing with Variables
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of different factors can come into play when working out volume with a full band.
Weather, venue, gear and the makeup of your group all need to be taken into account.
The first step is to standardize this process in your rehearsal facility.
Figure out what works there and use that as a jumping off point for whenever you pack things up for a gig.
Best practice is to write everything down so that you know where your guitar volume needs to be set for rehearsal.
Here’s a sample I’ve used in church before.
So this is just what happened to work for us during rehearsal. We used a shield for the drums, while both my guitar amp and the bass amp were set at four. Mixer levels gave my guitar a slight boost over the bass, while I also used my compressor for extra output when I needed it.
Our band at church didn’t travel, but for those who do, this is where you would want to start during a soundcheck.
If you have to account for inconsistencies because of a different sized rooms, or different acoustics (sound quality) then you can make adjustments as needed.
As long as you have everything written down, you can always set it back.
Keep Good Notes
I can’t emphasize enough the amount of trouble you’ll save yourself if you write down what works in terms of guitar volume and settings.
Getting this stuff to sound good can be hit or miss, so when it does come together, get everything on paper so that you can replicate the success at a later date. Don’t just hope that you’ll be able to remember everything, because usually that doesn’t happen.
Now that you understand how to set everything, get it down to a science and put it in a notebook.
It’ll save you all kinds of techie-related sound headaches.
Could you use more gear help?
Producing “great tone” is a worthy pursuit, but not always an obvious one.
We all own a unique collection of gear that seems to sound different all the time. That’s normal, but still something we need to learn to deal with.
We need to learn our gear.
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Flickr Commons Image via Kmeron