1. WHAT THE HECK IS “GAIN STAGING”?
More commonly used in the professional audio and recording worlds, the term “gain staging” describes the practice of properly balancing every point in a signal chain at which gain can be added or cut (attenuated), usually with the goal of achieving maximum headroom and minimum total harmonic distortion (THD). But hey, we’re guitarists—we love a little THD, right? So gain staging for guitar often includes techniques designed to drive the amp’s various gain and output stages to achieve your desired amount of breakup, as determined by your playing style and the type of music you play.
2. CLEAN AND OVERDRIVE TONES VARY
The trick isn’t simply achieving an overdrive tone per se, but crafting the character of your overdriven sound, and your clean sound too for that matter. You generally find the creaminess, fuzziness, or radical buzz-saw distortion tones in a cranked preamp tube, while chunky full-bodied crunch resides at the output stage (although many great amps can pull this trick using preamp distortion, too). Experiment with cranking the preamp (using the Gain, Drive, or just Volume controls) while reining in the output stage via the Master Volume, then pulling back preamp gain and ramping up output to experience how different the amp sounds at about the same overall volume level.
3. CONTEMPORARY HIGH-GAINERS OFFER ADDED FLEXIBILITY
Most modern high-gain, channel-switching amps go way beyond the simple volume-and-master format these days, offering Drive and Volume controls within individual channels, with a global Master to govern the final output. Try achieving the same output levels—keeping EQ the same throughout—with Drive (or gain) high, channel Volume low, and Master around halfway; then with Drive low, channel Volume high, and Master as required; then with Master high, channel Volume around half, and Drive as required. Each should produce a tone that’s different enough to sound like it’s virtually an entirely different amp. That’s gain staging at work, in its purest form.
4. WITH VINTAGE AMPS, THINK “SWEET SPOT”
Most vintage amps have minimal gain staging, and just a single Volume control (per channel) to govern preamp gain, which feeds into a wide-open output tube stage. Depending on your requirements, such amps might force you to take your gain staging out in front of the amp, as it were. Different approaches to this would involve either cranking the amp to achieve your desired crunch or lead tone, then winding down the guitar’s Volume control for a clean tone, or setting the amp for your loudest required clean tone, then using a boost or overdrive pedal to goose the tubes into easier breakup for lead tones.
5. GAIN ATTENUATION CAN BE MAGICAL
What if you need less gain in an amp with just one preamp stage? Some major players have learned tricks for reducing the amp’s gain at the first gain stage (that is, immediately after the input), which can often generate anything from thick, chiming clean tones to beefy, fat crunch at higher volumes. Many amps equipped with a 12AX7 preamp tube in the ﬁrst position can accept a lower-gain 5751 or 12AY7, which will push the front end less, letting you send a cleaner tone to the output stage to push it a little harder at the back end. Or, you can plug into input #2, if your amp has one, to hit that ﬁrst preamp tube a little more gently. Try your options and see what works.